Last summer, before the return of uncertainty and travel warnings, I remember walking the streets, puffs of Marijuana in the air, drinking beer in the Prater and sitting by the Donaukanal hanging out with friends. But winter brought a changing of the social guard, where a “cold one” outside is swapped for a “something warm” inside.
Due to COVID regulations, bars were shut again; a 20:00 curfew was in place and, until recently, we weren’t allowed to meet socially with more than one person from outside the household. But people were still dating, with online apps seeing a boom in popularity as lockdown rules make meeting potential partners in the flesh far more difficult.
Why would he take the risk of dating during lockdown?
“For me, it’s hard because I was going through a breakup, and still am really,” he began. “This isolation… you have this need for warmth and affection. I have this need,” he confessed. “So, I use these apps for validation.” Before the pandemic he could get that validation any time with friends, making someone laugh or someone complementing him on his outfit.
Studies have confirmed this. A survey by the Danube University Krems found that during Austria’s second lockdown, singles between the ages 18-24 suffered more from symptoms of depression and anxiety – the same age group that comprised around one third of Tinder’s downloads in 2020.
“With the whole lockdown, my mental health is challenged,” Martin said. “I’m kind of questioning everything. And the longing for affection is satisfied with dating – but it’s not enough.”
His needs are more about affection and getting to know new people, he said, “not necessarily dating, but the things that come with it.
“The sense of being worn out by loneliness outweighs the fear or respect for COVID.”
Dating Is Complicated
Walking the streets again now, it was difficult not to muse on the memories of evenings spent strolling and chatting outside, those crumpled yellow cans of Ottakringer scattered beside a park bench, empty wine bottles on windowsills or along the side of the road. People on dates have been one of the main demographics on the Donaukanal in winter, along with joggers and men using the free exercise equipment.
Kirstin, a 23-year-old English and History student at the University of Vienna, had already been on three dates the week I spoke to her, spurred by a recent breakup and no real sense of time. “I remember thinking that my youth was going to waste. My parents and grandparents had the freedom to do what they wanted, go where they wanted. And here I am, stuck. It’s a total loss of freedom.” She was in the prime of her life, with the energy of being young, but couldn’t do anything.
Many of my generation idealize the post-war boom, the hippies of the 60’s and 70’s, the New Romantics of the 80’s. The bad parts of the past are forgotten – what Woody Allen called “Golden Age Thinking” in his 2011 film, Midnight In Paris, where, incidently, most of the film is spent wandering the streets. He saw through it – “it’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present” quips one of the characters. At the same time he revelled in it, as “an antidote for the emptiness of existence.”
In the world of pandemic dating, it occurred to me, a romantic imagination could be just the thing.
“At this point.” Kirstin continued, “I don’t date with the aim of sleeping with someone. I just want an excuse to leave the house! To have a new experience! We’re both consenting adults who know the risks.” The way she sees it, it’s either the risk of corona or the risk of losing it altogether.
“Dating is complicated” is too much of a cliché. But in a time where hugging an elderly relative or having a drink with friends could be fatal, human connection has become completely different.