My very first Thanksgiving. In Paris. In the company of an 85-year-old man.
On Sunday, I hopped on a plane to Paris to join a Sunday gathering at Jim Haynes’ atelier where I would also stay for two nights. It’s not that I knew James. As a matter of fact, I had not heard about him until I googled “Conversation Salons” and stumbled upon a video posted on the Guardian just a few weeks prior to my visit. I knew he was the sort of person I really needed to interview for the book I’m currently working on. Yet, I must admit, this was the first time I flew somewhere for an in-person interview.
When I arrived at the atelier on a dreamy Parisian street, I entered the door code, pushed the heavy gate open, and found myself in a leafy backyard with beautiful brick buildings with large windows. I quickly found the door I was looking for and when I knocked, I pushed it open and fell straight into the kitchen. A woman who immediately introduced herself as Mary and a man called Michael welcomed me warmly, even though they didn’t quite know who I was. Jim, the man I came to visit, was tucked under a blanket in the corner enjoying the slightly ridiculous scene I caused. Both Mary and Jim were cooking in what must have been 20l pots.
Jim, who just turned 85, has been hosting Sunday dinners for the past 40 years. Every Sunday, and even if he wasn’t in town, he’d arrange for the dinner to happen. Over the years, it’s become a regular gathering of expats, tourists, and locals who’d mingle and enjoy home cooked meals and as many glasses of wine as they wished to drink.
The hospitality of this man, and also his assistant, Christian, knows no boundaries. Upon my initial email request, more or less the same one I have sent to everyone who I ever emailed wanting to feature them in one of my books, this has been the first time someone asked me to come in person. “Given the subject matter, we believe you should come to Paris.” And given Jim’s age, I knew I should and also would love to. For a small contribution, they also offered for me to stay at the atelier.
Knowing about the dinners, I thought the space would be large and would have tables of some sort. Yet I quickly learned that the two-story building was the actual space on which these dinners would happen. Downstairs and within the maybe 35-square-meter kitchen (without a dishwasher!), the gatherings took place. Often, up to 90 people would gather there in the winters and during summers, thanks to the backyard, it can be up to 120 guests.
The dinners start every Sunday at 8pm. Forty years ago, these gatherings started as (flea) markets initiated to help support the creative community. There, one of Jim’s friends, a dancer, offered to cook. The event grew in popularity. It was Jim’s ask to always bring someone he didn’t know that made the community grow organically. From a retired dominatrix to a conductor or a young poet, you’d never know who you would get to meet on Sundays. The crowd is indeed quite eclectic.
Jim’s always had a thing for gathering people; he’s one of the founding figures of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the cofounder of the International Drama Conference, and the creator of the Wet Dream Film Festival, which pretty much is what you think it is. :)
Once the crowds started pouring through the door and a queue would build to snatch some of the incredible Thanksgiving dinner, I felt incredibly grateful for the possibility to move freely between the countries in Europe and stuff my face with a few slices of turkey, a proper American filling, brussels sprouts, carrots, pecan pie, and of course, a piece of pumpkin pie with cream served by Paul, who’s been in charge of cutting the festive turkey for the past eight years. I felt grateful for the opportunity to connect with people outside my age group and my social bubble in a city far away from home.
Often, they start cooking on Thursdays. Jim has always had someone cook. When Cathy, the first chef of Jim’s dinners, couldn’t make it as she had to go to a rehearsal, she organized someone to cook instead of her and that’s when Jim knew this was a thing to stay. Somehow, he’s always had people who offered to take on the task, gather friends to help, and cook up a meal for the people who’ve requested to join the meal via email or telephone.
For Jim, it’s always been about connecting people. During the communist time, he’d publish books filled with names, addresses, and telephone numbers of people living in countries, such as Romania, Czechoslovakia, or Poland, you could call up in case you were visiting and wanted to meet someone local.
Even though the format’s different, the spirit in all his work is sort of the same; people who join on Sundays are a curious crowd with a lust for exploration. One of the guests, David, recited parts of Shakespeare to me. Leslie, a woman in her 60s who’s left the USA for the first time, laughed so wholeheartedly I forgot to ask her how she felt about her first international trip to a country where she didn’t speak the language. You really never know who you get to talk to here on a Sunday, yet when you ask Jim, he’ll say many marriages, friendships, and babies have been a result, and one baby who is now in her 40s was even conceived upstairs in one of the rooms.
I admire Jim for his dedication to show up each week. For his hospitality to welcome a complete stranger in his house and have me stay for two nights to conduct an interview. I admire Jim for the community he’s created. And I really do wish for more spaces where I’d get to talk to such an eclectic crowd more regularly.
The past few weeks working on this new book has been a journey; I got to think about dinners as theatre performances, dinners as platforms for political activism, dinners to inspire meaningful conversations, and also dinners to give you the platform to peak outside your bubble and speak to a poet from Nepal who somehow also happens to be here, on a Sunday, at Jim’s party.
Many have asked me what the angle or format of this new book is going to be, and even though I’ve already conducted 14 interviews, I still don’t quite know what I want to make out of it. A how to guide? A coffee table book on gatherings? A collection of short stories about how I got to experience these events and what I admire and love about the people who host them?
What would you say you’d be interested in? Or is this not a topic you care about at all?