I’ve just spent one of the most wonderful, incredible, and magical evenings of my life, and wanted to share it with you. Tonight I went to something called “The White Dinner” in Paris, I’ve heard about it for years, but never quite understood what it was. Some people I mentioned it to just brushed it off as some kind of weird outdoor summer event, others pooh-poohed it, and a few said it was great. But I didn’t really understand how it worked or what it was. And a good friend of mine in Paris has invited me to it for the last 2 years, and this year, in a spirit of adventure, I accepted and decided to go. He explained it as an evening where two people take a folding table (like a card table), folding chairs, plates, cutlery, and food, they dress in white, go to a location that is announced at the last minute, and they all have dinner outside. What the hell, I thought, it sounded like fun, and he had organized a group to go. Each of us were to take our own supplies of course, for every pair. I then had to scrounge for a card table, folding chairs, and figure out something white to wear. The locations he mentioned in the past had been the spectacular Place de la Concorde in Paris, and in front of the Louvre museum. It all sounded very intriguing, and like it could be fun (despite the skepticism of my children who didn’t think it sounded cool, and even friends I mentioned it to earlier today, who assured me it would rain—-it didn’t, and it was very, very, very, very ‘cool’. Unforgettably so. And of course the location was to be kept secret until 8:30 pm, and the dinner was to start shortly after. It all sounded very mysterious to me, but I was committed to being a good sport.
Several days ago, a letter came by email, and it became apparent that this was not some casual event, there were implicit directions and strict rules. Your card tables had to be covered by a linen (or fabric anyway) white table cloth, you had to bring REAL plates and glasses, candles, cutlery (no plastic picnic stuff here), AND you had to be dressed head to foot in snow white—not ‘off white’ as the email said, SNOW white (no cheating), and even the food had to be white (it turned out that no one paid attention to that about the food, but they did to everything else. And you had to look nice, this was no sloppy, casual picnic dinner, this was an ‘elegant’ event, promised to be in a beautiful public place, and we were strongly advised to take all our garbage with us when we left, we were not to leave a shred of debris in our wake. I learned that places for our card tables were assigned, and 4 or 5,000 people would attend, and you couldn’t just plop your table down where you felt like it, there would be long well organized rows of our tables, and you were assigned a specific spot. In theory, that many people congregating in a public place is illegal, but The White Dinner happens every year, is impeccably organized and exquisitely neat, so the police turn a blind eye (hence the warning not to leave a shred of litter, which people take seriously). In my mind, it was still some kind of picnic, and although I packed real white plates, and some forks and knives with white handles, I snuck in plastic cups, and didn’t take anything to decorate the table, and the friend I took with me organized the food (not white food, but a nice cold dinner that would be easy to serve and eat). This event has a long history, apparently it has existed for 24 years and was started by a naval officer (in his summer whites) who wanted to celebrate his anniversary with his wife, in a beautiful public place (and Paris has plenty of them!!), and he invited a few friends to join them. They invited a few more friends each year, and over the years it grew and grew and grew, last year there were 10,000 people. This year they divided them into two groups in two different locations, and it happens on the same date in June every year. So armed with a folding table, 2 chairs, and a rolling grocery cart (which the French call a ‘caddy’), off we went, all dressed in white. We picked up our friends on the way, similarly equipped, and we were to go to a location (Place Dauphine), where the final dinner location was to be announced—-it is always close to the meeting point, so speculation was high as to which of Paris’ beautiful monuments would be the site for dinner this year. We parked our van, and walked to the Place Dauphine, and all around us were hundreds of people dressed in white, carrying card tables and folding chairs, pulling their ‘caddies’ full of dinner utensils and food. There was a festive atmosphere as people chatted excitedly with each other, and the look was one of casual (white) chic. I wore a white lace coat, white jeans and shirt, and flat white lace shoes in case we had to do a lot of walking (which we didn’t). People wore hats, and dresses, or festive pretty summer outfits, all in snow white, men wore shirts and jeans, or white linen suits. Everyone had clearly tried to look ‘nice’. And they really did.
The announcement was then made, we would be having dinner in front of Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most beautiful landmarks in Paris, only a few blocks away, and we got there easily within minutes as the crowd grew, all of them in a good mood. At any other event, four thousand people gathering could have had an undercurrent of tension or hostility, party crashers could have tried to join the event but didn’t. It is by invitation only, and it is free, there is no charge for being part of it, and clearly people respected the ‘invitation only’, at no time in the evening did I see someone who didn’t belong there, although there was no one supervising it. The two words that come to mind to describe the atmosphere at the beginning of the evening were fun and respect. Everyone was ready to have a good time, and respectful of each other.
Once in the square in front of Notre Dame, people looked for their assigned spaces, set up their card tables, opened their folding chairs, and got down to business. Every table had a table cloth, white plates were set down and cutlery, and suddenly white flowers appeared on every table, candles were lit, food was set out, linen napkins were used, and people sat down to an elegant dinner right in front of Notre Dame, which is a spectacularly beautiful church. And at 9 pm, it was still daylight, and we watched the sunset reflected on the church, as people chatted, talked, laughed, met up with friends, talked to strangers. It was a sea of people in white in a breathtakingly beautiful location, eating an elegant dinner. Everything was orderly, no one argued about their spot, everyone was in a good mood and thrilled with the location. And as night fell, the candles on every table lit the square with a warm glow. Wines were poured, delicious food was eaten (ours was good too, mozzarella, cold chicken, salad, a fresh baguette, and a delicious meringue dessert. some of the others had even fancier fare, but ours was very good. The atmosphere only grew warmer and friendlier as the evening wore on, and shortly before 11 pm, the church bells began to toll, and enthused by the crowd gathered outside so respectfully, a priest appeared on a balcony and blessed the crowd as the bells of Notre Dame continued to toll, and then sparklers came out and the entire square was lit with dazzling lights held aloft by people in white, people in nearby buildings stood on their balconies and watched, and by then Notre Dame itself was beautifully illuminated, and there was a fall moon overhead. As the sparklers began to fizzle out, white balloons drifted into the sky, and Chinese lanterns with lights in them flew upward toward the Heavens, just as a band began to play, and those who wanted to danced, and others sat at their tables, finished their meals, and talked to those around them. It was magical. If you planned a wedding for four thousand, in front of Notre Dame yet, I don’t think it could be as beautiful as that. I chatted with people I knew, and some I didn’t. People shared chocolates and cookies and little desserts, and offered wine to new friends. And the evening just rolled on. It was the most magical evening I have ever spent, the warmth and happiness of the people there just filled the square with good feelings, and for me, the blessing from the priest on the balcony was an added touch that warmed my heart and made it special for me. How lucky we all were to be there tonight, how fantastic to be able to share that with strangers and friends. People talked long into the night, and around one thirty and two am, people did as they had promised, picked up every scrap of garbage, empty bottles, left over food, and put it in their caddies with their flowers, candles and linens, and rolled it all away. It reminded me a little bit of the old movie Brigadoon, of a town in Scotland that appeared once every hundred years. In this case, the White Dinner happens once a year, and it has a magic all its own.
We were among the last to leave the square at 2 am, Notre Dame stood proudly watching us, still all lit up, with the full moon overhead, and a beautiful Paris night sky (pooh to the people who said it would rain!!!). And as promised, not a shred of anything was left on the ground, we all took our garbage to our cars, or even into cabs. And if I live to be l00 years old, any time I drive by Notre Dame, I will always remember the magic of tonight, the sparklers held by four thousand hands, the smiles and the laughter, the music and the full moon, as the bells of Notre Dame chimed, and the priest gave us his blessing. It was one of those incredible, memorable moments that I know I will never forget, shared with good friends, good food, in an atmosphere of elegance and friendship like no other I have experienced. It was a truly unforgettable night. And probably will stand out forever as one of the most beautiful, fun, warm, thrilling nights of my life. It was truly magic (I hope I get invited back next year!!!).