Eating with Strangers

For the last 40 years, Jim Haynes has been welcoming strangers to have dinner with him at his home in Paris. We learn from “Meeting Jim”, a documentary featuring him, that the whole thing started pretty casually when a friend that crashed at his place for a short stay offered in appreciation to cook dinner for him and his friends. This unremarkable event turned into a Sunday evening tradition, where people would bring guests that didn’t necessarily know Jim personally. But as the years went by and his reputation as a wonderful host grew, people started writing him, asking if they could join him for his weekly communal supper. Initially, they were typically fellow Americans that were in town for a few days, but later, with the advent of the Internet, the requests flooded from all over the world.

Nowadays, you just need to send him an email, asking if you can drop by on a specific date, though dinners are held only on the first Sunday of the month. A typical evening brings together dozens of people who have never met Jim or the other guests, and for a few hours, they all enjoy some food, some wine, some music, but most importantly, the company of strangers. Jim does not have a big ethical or philosophical theory about the gatherings he organizes. When asked what was behind his desire to put all that effort for so many years, he just replied, “I don’t know. Inertia? I just think, well, it’s Sunday. It’s time to make dinner”. Expanding more on his answer, he reveals that he just gets great pleasure in bringing people together, serving as a central hub for them to connect with each other. In modern parlance, we would call him a “central node of the network” – an indeed some describe him as the father of “networking” – but he probably doesn’t give a damn about those silly technicalities.

Jim estimates that some 130,000 people might have shown up at his place for these dinner parties – enough to make him a celebrity of sorts, particularly among travellers. You can imagine that someone that has the spirit to have his doors wide open to everyone must be someone pretty special, and you would be right. Described by the press as a “legendary avant-garde impresario”, Jim has been involved through his long and productive life in numerous cultural projects in Europe – including the creation of the Traverse Theatre in 1963, which would set the artistic standard for the companies attending the world-famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe. After some years in Scotland and England, he relocated to Paris where he taught Media Studies and Sexual Politics for 30 years at the University of Paris.

But still, despite his impressive resume in the Arts, it would be his open-house Sunday dinners what brought him fame, and what drove me to his place one cold evening in November last year.

Bringing people together

The first time I read about Jim’s dinners was five years before, in October 2014. I have just moved out of my flat in Old Street and was settling in another one, just a couple of blocks away from the frantic Liverpool Street, on the top floor of a four-story tan-brown bricks building. With half of the moving boxes still to be emptied, I was already making plans for throwing a small housewarming to celebrate the joys of paying £1,500 per month for renting a minuscule shoebox in central London. But I was getting stuck figuring out some of the necessary logistics. How many people could I really fit in the tiny living room before it became a safety hazard? Should I worry about food allergies among my guests? And, how bad would it be to be “that guy”, the one who just after a few days of moving in was already disturbing the English quietness of the building?

All these are just silly questions that cross the mind of someone like me, who tends to overthink and who has played the role of a host only a handful of times.  And though I knew there were practical answers to most of the practical questions, there was still the issue of how to bring together to a social gathering a group of people who barely knew each other. My friends in London, for the most part, formed a sparse network of isolated individuals and couples, whose only thing in common – as far as I knew – was their friendship with me. The problem was then one of forecasting how much chemistry could there be between what I perceived very different types of personalities, backgrounds, values, and interests that were covered by this group of strangers.

I knew I was not the first person facing this conundrum: Anybody who has been in the proximity of a wedding planning knows that the who-goes-in-what-table optimization problem is a particularly tricky one to solve, with almost impossible constraints to fulfil. So, I turned to Google for some advice on how to handle the situation, and I must have searched for something like “dinner with people that don’t know each other”. Browsing through the long list of useless and predictable articles of lifestyle magazines and blogs, I hit by luck the personal webpage of Jim Haynes and learned about his dinner parties. Almost immediately, I found his idea fascinating, and while reading about it, I empathized with the thrill you get when reaching people beyond your close network. Doing this while playing the role of a host seemed particularly exciting to me, perhaps the result of witnessing countless gatherings – attended by God knows how many people – that my parents hosted for decades with grace, elegance, and warmth at their home in Bogota.

Alas, I knew I was no Jim Haynes. And though I daydreamed for a while about how cool would it be to recreate those gatherings, even in a smaller and humbler way, overcoming laziness proved to be too difficult. In the end, I didn’t even do my housewarming party, after telling myself some lame excuse. Eventually, I managed to organize for some time a series of Sunday roasts in a pub near Waterloo station, and a handful of after-work drinks at the City. These were joyous occasions with my friends, who in turn invited some of their friends, giving me the chance to connect with people I’ve never met before. I always thought that this was probably how the whole thing started and grew organically in Paris for Jim. However, I never dared to host any of these events at my own flat.

A night in Paris

Still, for a long time I kept Jim’s story in my mind, and finally last year I saw in my calendar a window of opportunity to go to Paris precisely for the first Sunday of November. My friend Sabeen was planning a trip to Paris for the same dates, and when she heard that I was going to this random dinner party, she happily joined. On the afternoon before the dinner, we went to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, near the Louvre, where we were dazzled by an exhibition of the Golden Age of Cuban poster design in the 1960s. When we checked the time, we realized we were running quite late, and we had to rush back to our hotel in the corner of Boulevard du Montparnasse with the Rue de Rennes, to change our clothes for something more appropriate. From there, a grumpy taxi driver picked us up and took us to Jim’s house, on the other side of the 14th arrondissement.

The 83th Rue de la Tombe Issoire is one of those quintessential Parisian buildings of classical Haussmann style, with a beautiful cream-coloured stone façade and small balconies looking to the street. A dark green metallic door opens to a long and narrow courtyard full of plants, and walking up the alleyway, on the right, a small set of steps leads to the apartment. The place looked exactly as you would expect the home of an American academic living in Paris to be: High ceilings, with big windows looking to the garden, and checkered floors of white and olive-green tiles. The open kitchen is just next to the small, cosy living room, where a couple of white sofas are covered with blankets and cushions of different colours and patterns, while on the walls hang long shelves holding dozens of pictures and books. I want to think there was music playing on the background, something like the saxophone of Paul Desmond, but to be honest, that is just probably how my memory likes to recall the atmosphere of that evening.

The door was open when we arrived, and the 30 or so guests were already engaged in lively chatting. The place was packed, and people were looking for a place where they could sit or even stand without getting in the way of others. Less than five minutes after arriving, Sabeen and I had already taken different directions, approaching different people to talk. There were men and women of all ages, perhaps with a slight bias towards the older generations, half of them tourists and the other half ex-pats, coming from Sweden, France, the US, the UK, and Australia. I introduced myself to Jim, who was sitting comfortably on a couch, and I thanked him for welcoming us to his house. He was kind and friendly, and we exchanged a few words before each of us was already talking to other people.

Striking up a conversation with any of those strangers could not be easier: you just had to approach any group and introduce yourself. The default icebreaker was to ask how they heard about Jim on the first place, from which the chat would get going. I noticed with relief that my fellow companions didn’t fall into the trap of just reciting their CVs or monopolizing the conversation. I found in this group of strangers interesting backgrounds, funny anecdotes, a couple of intriguing points of view, and curiosity to know who was the person in front of them. As you would expect from any social event of this nature, there were also a couple of oddballs that could kill you of boredom, but you could quickly turn on your heels from them by literally just turning yourself 180 degrees. Overall, I felt there was a self-selection effect at play in that house, in the sense that people that find Jim’s dinners exciting might also be the kind of people that are eager to connect with strangers.

I don’t remember too much of the actual food, other than it was simple, honest, and abundant: a salad with a puff pastry pie, chili on rice, and ice cream for dessert. Two friends of Jim were in charge of distributing it, and they were doing a great job at keeping everybody fed while cracking some jokes. Beverages were flowing freely and included boxed wine, fruit juices, and soft drinks.

Time flew by, and after three hours, the whole thing came to an end. Sabeen and I were among the last ones to leave. We exchanged numbers with some of our new friends and said goodbye to them around the corner of the Rue d’Alesia. We thought it would be a great idea to have one last drink before calling the night off, so we started looking for a bar as we headed back to the hotel. The Avenue René Coty and the Boulevard Raspball were utterly empty, but luckily, just when we were about to abandon our search, we found a restaurant that was still open. We chatted for an hour at that place while having the last glass of wine of the evening, reminiscing about the colourful characters we had just met at Jim’s, and promising that we would do something similar when we get back to London. It would be something of a much smaller scale, each of us inviting three or four friends that didn’t know each other. Ideally, they would not all be bankers or consultants, and we would host the dinner at my flat. Both of us would prepare the meal, but since she is a fantastic cook, it was very likely that I could assist her only as the dishwasher boy. And we would host one of these dinners regularly, perhaps once every couple of months.

Just a month later, I was in Euston Station in London, saying goodbye to Sabeen and her boyfriend, Matt. A new opportunity had just opened for them in the US, and they were relocating to New York. We never had the time to organize the dinners we planned that night, not even the first one. Back at my place, lying on the couch, and bummed by the departure of yet another couple of good friends, I brought to memory that trip to Paris, and how fun it was. And I started thinking of the lessons I learned from Jim Haynes’ wonderful dinner party.

Coming up next: Eight Lessons from Jim Haynes’ Wonderful Dinner Parties


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