Diner en Blanc: 30th Anniversary

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Ye blessèd creatures, I have heard the call 
Ye to each other make; I see 
The heavens laugh with you in your jubilee; 
My heart is at your festival, 
My head hath its coronal, 
The fulness of your bliss, I feel—I feel it all. 
– William Wordsworth “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”

We recognized them waiting for the elevator in Galeries Lafayette and carrying their folding tables down Boulevard Haussmann.

They were at the boucher, and the boulangerie, and would have been at the bougie maker if we could have found one, gathering supplies, imagining the future.

Their striking monochromatic ensembles gave them away standing on street corners and confusing taxi drivers crisscrossing the city of light.

They were one of us. We were one of them.

We came from Montreal and Abu Dhabi, Paris and Portland, Sydney and Salem.

United in a shared vision of the beauty we could create together, we committed to doing the work and giving up control.

Was it anarchy or authoritarianism?
Or, were we simply extending the line so far we broke the binary?

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In 1988, Francois Pasquier returned to Paris after a time away and wanted to meet-up with some old friends. There were a lot of them and they didn’t all know each other, so he told them to bring an elegant picnic to the Bois de Boulogne and wear white, so they could find each other.

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Over the next thirty years, thousands have continued to gather in Paris, and later in cities all over the world including Salem, bringing with them their tables, chairs, linens, silver, crystal, and china to enjoy an elegant dinner (starter, main, cheese, and dessert, s’il vous plait) in a public place, all in white.

The city of Paris has never issued a permit for Diner en Blanc.

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I first learned about Diner en Blanc in 2011 when The New York Times wrote about it. Pasquier’s son had organized one in Montreal in 2009 and was bringing the concept to New York for the first time later that year.

So inspired was I by this pop-up gathering devoted to beauty and outside the bounds of commerce, that I, along with a devoted team of ambassadors, made manifest Salem’s first unofficial dinner in white the next year. Some 70 cities around the world have since been similarly inspired.

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Image links to galleries of past Diners en Blancs de Salem

For five years, Salem’s dinner in white grew and expanded, from a friendly 50 in year one to a near mob of 300 in year five. Expectations increased in proportion (it seemed to me) to diminishing surprise and delight. Born an oneiric folly, it had grown into a resource-hungry institution, requiring excessive explanation, interpretation, and definition.

And so, I pulled the plug, promising to dream a new dream.


There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream, 
The earth, and every common sight, 
To me did seem 
Apparelled in celestial light, 
The glory and the freshness of a dream. 
It is not now as it hath been of yore;— 
Turn wheresoe’er I may, 
By night or day. 
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
 

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When the email arrived, I wasn’t exactly sure how or what it would look like, but I knew I would go. I set the intention and started giving the idea the scaffolding of language.

For the 30th anniversary of Le diner en blanc en Paris, for the first time the organizers were inviting the international community to participate.

The Paris event is a bit of an outlier in the international constellation of Diners en Blancs. You must be invited; you cannot sign-up. There is no cost to participate. If you do something gauche like wear khakis, drink to excess, or reveal location details to the media, you won’t be invited again, ever.

I received an invitation this year because I had previously signed up to receive information about Boston’s Diner en Blanc. Even though I never attended, I was given preferential access for having previously expressed desire.

Ultimately, I bought two pairs of tickets ($25 each) in the Montreal squad and a folding table and two chairs we could pick up at Galeries Lafayette the day before the event ($67).

A plus-one is mandatory for participation, and unbelievably, your plus-one historically was required to be opposite sex.

Uncharacteristically, I had an opposite-sex plus-one confirmed in advance, so the two extra spaces were an investment in surprise and delight, as well as being a thorn in the side of our well organized table captain as I couldn’t actually confirm our tablemates until hours before our ultimate rendezvous.

As we packed our white totes with candelabrum from Missouri, linens from Fabindia, and china from the personal collection of the director of the Musee des arts decoratifs, our Paris-based Salem friend confirmed she’d bring cheese and a friend-we-hadn’t-met-yet from an odd-numbered San Diego-based group said she’d pick up dessert.

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At the market that Sunday morning, we’d bought some porc roti for our main and asperges blanches that I’d blanch in butter and some breton sel gris, chill and serve with Maille mayonnaise as our starter.

The hundred or so members of the Montreal squad were supposed to meet at Monument Marechal Gallieni, just south of Les Invalides at 7.45 pm sharp. From there, we didn’t know where we’d end up. We were supposed to have a Metro ticket with us.

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Our francophone taxi driver driver became more and more confused as we passed thousands of others who looked like us gathering on street corners and in parks across the city, and yet we urged him on. We weren’t there yet.

For the next hour or so we participated in the mild chaos that inevitably accompanies moving 14,000 folk laden with earthly delights and stripped of the agency of knowledge.

Moses, I feel your pain.

Where are we going? How much farther? Can we just stop right here? Do they even know?

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And then we turned the corner, and with Le Tour Eiffel in the background we laid eyes on our promised land. Stretching from Le Grand Palais to Les Invalides, the esplanade was overcome by our co-created beauty.

Each squad had its place, and each table its number. We efficiently set-up, waved our napkins to signal completion, toasted, and sat to sup.

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There was an EDM dj and an elegant chanteuse. Extraordinary hats and creative tablescapes. At our table, even a marriage proposal.

And at midnight, when we lit 14,000 sparklers in sync with the Eiffel Tower’s hourly sparkling, I think I glimpsed a new dream.

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Another race hath been, and other palms are won. 
Thanks to the human heart by which we live, 
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears, 
To me the meanest flower that blows can give 
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

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From left to right: Karina was one of Salem’s original DeB ambassadors. Steve from Montreal was our table captain; this was his first trip to Paris. Rozena now lives in Paris; many years ago, I was her manager in Salem’s bookstore.
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