Magic is rare and hard to come by, and adds something so wonderful and unexpected to our lives, like a dream come true, or a wish we always had. Two years ago in Paris, a close friend in Paris invited me to something called The White Dinner, and as he described it to me, it sounded a little odd. On a designated night in June (as close as possible to the same date every year), thousands of people converge on a location they are informed of two hours before, they all show up wearing white, and at the location, they are told to go to one of the monuments of Paris (oh yes, and they show up carrying a folding table, two chairs, linen, china, silverware, and their dinner). And at the monument, these thousands of people sit down and have an elegant candle lit dinner, and at the stroke of midnight, they pick up their card tables and leave. Huh? What? Yeah….sure….whatever. It sounds interesting but a little crazy to me, and hard to imagine. Apparently, they have no permit for the location, they just show up once a year. It sounded a little like “Brigadoon” to me, the movie about the village in Scotland that appears once every hundred years, they all have a great time, and then disappear for another hundred years. Or in this case, for a year. (The event began more than 25 years ago as an anniversary dinner for a group of naval officers and their wives all dressed in white, and they plopped themselves down in a public place and had an elegant dinner. It grew and grew and grew, and has now become a tradition for thousands of Parisians, and people who come from all over the world, if they’re lucky enough to be invited.)
Despite my misgivings, or even skepticism, I agreed to go to the White Dinner with my friend and a group of his friends two years ago. And it knocked my socks off. I said that it was easily one of the most beautiful and magical nights of my life, and so it was. Two years ago, in front of Notre Dame, with the church bells tolling, and a priest giving us a blessing from a balcony halfway through the evening. I knew it was an evening I would never forget, and one that would be hard to top. But fascinated and enamored by the whole event, I agreed with pleasure and anticipation to go again this year. The same friend invited me along with 30 of his friends. And this is no casual happening, it is a highly organized event run with military precision and a long list of Dos and Don’ts that are made perfectly clear. And Thou Shalt Not Break The Rules!!! The success of the event depends on everyone respecting those rules. First of all, the location is kept secret every year. Second of all, you have to wear white from head to foot!! No money changes hands, it costs you nothing except what you bring for dinner. It is by invitation only, and it is no small feat to get invited to the White Dinner, people maneuver for months to get invited. And I was impressed to notice both times that there are no crashers, no one even tries, out of respect, and the event is entirely self-regulated. And amazingly, the whole event is organized by only 6 people at the top, which is remarkable in itself, since the Dinner has become so huge that there were ten thousand in attendance two years ago, and 14,400 this year, and it is now split in two locations, both on the same night.
The day dawned with pouring rain. My optimistic host called to tell me it would stop raining by nightfall, which I strongly doubted, as the rain continued to get worse and come down in buckets throughout the day. It has been a chilly spring in Paris, and the forecast said it would be freezing (like high 40′s or maybe 50 degrees) that night. Freezing and rainy? Oh yippee!! I could hardly wait. But the friend going with me that night was as optimistic as our host and insisted the rain would stop. I was already making alternate plans to eat dinner in my kitchen. Oh ye of little faith….(that would be me). Lo and behold at 6pm the rain stopped (and luckily I had a white coat in my closet, so I was prepared if it got cold, which it did). At 7pm, my phone rang, and we were given the first location: the one where they tell you which monument you’re going to. The designated rendezvous was at the Palais Royal, a beautiful building with gardens, which was a palace originally, near the court of the Kings. The big garden was a perfect meeting place before going on to our final location. And thousands of people dressed in white showed up, carrying their folding card tables, folding chairs, pulling a grocery ‘caddy’ with their tableware and dinner in it, everyone in great spirits and amazed that it was no longer raining. Our meeting time was 8:15pm, and by then there was a blue sky overhead. Our host, and my partner for the evening had been right!!! People were wearing an assortment of white outfits, some sporty in white sweaters or white shirts and white jeans, others in elegant clothes, white linen suits and pretty white dresses and high heels. One group all wore white wigs. And half an hour after we arrived, we were told that our location was the Louvre, only a block away. And seating is not random at this event, you are given a spot number, and you fit your table into that spot, in a long row of similar card tables, almost like a seat in a theater and you are expected to be precise about the location, so you don’t cheat someone else of their spot. It’s very much run on the honor system. And within 15 minutes, 8,400 people dressed in white were standing in front of the Louvre, facing the glass pyramids built by IM Pei, and everyone went into action. Folding tables were opened up, each one for two people, with men on one side, and women designated on the other side; white linen tablecloths were put on the tables with white linen napkins, silver candlesticks came out of their grocery caddies, flatware, and several vases with flowers. (I opted for battery operated candles which looked real), and once the tables were set up, amidst laughter and chatter, as people got ready for a fun evening, and saw friends in the crowd, people began pouring wine and setting out their dinner, and half an hour later we were all seated at our tables, in neat orderly rows, as the sun set ahead of us, its light catching in the shimmering glass of the pyramids in front of the Louvre. The magic had begun.
Night fell quickly, and the entire square in front of the museum was alight with candle lit tables, and laughing, happy people in white. The sight of 8,400 people in row after row of beautifully set tables was as magical as it had been two years before at Notre Dame. The majesty of the palace that is now the Louvre, imagining what the court must have been like, sensing the history of Paris and its incredible architecture all around us was an unforgettable setting for our unusual and extraordinary night among good friends. (The other location, with 6,000 people was at the Trocadéro, at the feet of the Eiffel Tower).
The night rolled out like a white carpet, with good food and good wine, good friends and good laughs, camaraderie is the order of the night as food is passed around among friends. The friend who came with me this year and two years ago is a fabulous cook, and had made enough baked pasta, and brought enough cheese for our entire group. (I traded some of the cheese for a vanilla éclair a little while later). And it all sped by too quickly, as our host handed out sparklers to everyone. Each group was given a box of them, and at 11:00 precisely, all 8,400 people held their sparklers aloft, cheered each other and the evening, and celebrated the fact that we had done it again and were having a great time. Just being there is like a gift, or being a member of a secret club. No permits are taken out for the event, and in theory it’s illegal to congregate en masse in a public place, let alone sit down to dinner as a group of 8,400, but the police turn a blind eye and look benevolently on the event. How could they not? If nothing else, it is so incredibly beautiful, and so wonderful just being there. I noticed that one of the groups had hired a chef, who set up a cooking table next to their row of tables, and he seemed to be preparing a real meal for them. Proper dinner is encouraged and that’s what people bring. This is not a sandwich or catch as catch can event. People plan their menus and their outfits for weeks or even months. (I had a range of outfits depending on the weather, and finally wore a white silk blouse, white sweater, white coat, white jeans and flat white shoes). My dinner partner wore white jeans and a white Lacoste shirt, with a white alligator on it, which I thought was very cool. I have never seen a white alligator on those shirts!!! I have no idea how he found it, a major coup!!
By the time we lit our sparklers, a band had begun playing at one end of the event, and lots of people went to dance, while others stayed seated at their tables or standing nearby to talk to friends or meet new people. The atmosphere is one of convivial excitement and delight. And my dinner partner stunned us all at midnight. I had noticed him carrying a white cardboard box like a backpack, which I assumed was some of our food. The rest all fit in our caddy. (I’m in charge of the caddy, and he of carrying the table and chairs. I do the table decor and he does the food. Our talents and abilities are complementary). When he opened the box, we saw flat white paper circles which he proceeded to hand out to all 30 in our group, and a few more to neighbouring tables, and he showed us what they were. They were Chinese paper lanterns (white of course!!), with a small square at the bottom which you light with a flame. It burns for a few minutes and then the lantern fills with hot air from the flame, and grows to about three feet in height, and when it is fully inflated, you release it and it sails into the air, brightly at first, and eventually it becomes a little light rising high into the night sky. He told us to make a wish as we released them, and we were all like children on Christmas morning, as the lanterns filled, and then rose above our heads, carrying our wishes, and looking so beautiful as they flew into the sky. Magic!!! I got the last one, watched it fill with light and air, and then disappear into the sky with my wish. I watched it for as long as I could see it. It was the perfect touch and finale to a perfect evening, and added real magic not just for our group, but for all eight thousand four hundred who saw our lanterns go up. It was an exquisite sight, a wonderful gift for all of us and everyone was talking about it for the rest of the event.
And then, reluctantly, at 12:30, 8,400 Cinderellas knew they had to leave the ball, and like obedient children, but hating to do it, we folded our tables, put our plates and linens away. We threw our garbage away in white plastic bags (they had to be white! and not a scrap of garbage, paper, or even a cigarette butt can be left behind, and we are to take our garbage with us. Nothing is to be left at the dinner location, as evidence that we were there. It is an evening of joy and fun, but also of respect for the beauty of Paris, and the privilege of having dinner in such a remarkable location). Within minutes, we were all packed, as we could still see our lanterns in the sky far above us, and regretfully we bid each other Au Revoir until next year, and rolled towards the street, back to real life. We loaded our things into a van and disappeared, much like Brigadoon. And for the whole next day, I was wishing I could roll back the film and do it all again. Like all wonderful events, the hours passed too quickly, but the memories will last forever, especially of the lanterns floating into the sky toward the stars, carrying our wishes to the heavens. I can’t wait until next year and I wonder where it will be….but wherever it is, my friend and I will be there, all dressed in white….ready for another White Dinner among our friends at another fabulous location in Paris…..it is truly Magic!
See more snapshots at www.pinterest.com/steelofficial/destinations.