In the summer of 1988, François Pasquier, who had just returned to Paris from a few years abroad, held a dinner party or picnique to reconnect with friends. They decided to convene at Bois de Boulogne, all dressed in white, so as to be easily recognisable to each other. It was a hit and the next year, they did it again, this time each inviting a friend, and so the dinner grew to one of the largest social events in the world.
In 2013, Dîner en Blanc celebrated its 25th anniversary with a mega 11000 guests at the Garden of the Trocadero, with stunning views over the Eiffel Tower. In earlier years, the event was held in forbidden spots around Paris, and you could only attend on invitation from another guest. And the most important thing was that it was an all white party. Dîner en Blanc or the White Dinner.
Over the years, the event has evolved, and has also spread to 40 countries, but still based on the base rule of an all white dinner party. The location is normally a venue that you would not normally be able to have a picnic at, and the organisers arrange transport from meeting points to the secret venue. Participants bring along table decorations, food, drinks and of course, dress fabulously in all white!
I first read about this event in the book Perfection: A memoir of Betrayal and Renewal by Julie Metz. In the book, Julie, who lost her husband as a result of a pulmonary embolism, discovers that her husband was cheating on her with one of her friends in the months following his death. Her husband was writing a book on food and had tickets to attend a secret dinner party in Paris that year, so Julie decided to fly to Europe to attend this White Dinner. It stuck in my head.
And earlier this year when I found out that that the event has been brought to my home town, Johannesburg, I rushed to put my name on the waiting list and hoped I would be able to get an invite.
Invites first go out to attendees from the previous year, then to their guests and only after that would invitations be sent to people on the waiting list. Bookings for the second Dîner en Blanc in Jozi opened on the 21st of August and on the 27th of August I received an invitation in my mailbox for the event on the 20th of September. I was out of my skin. On the 28th of August, at 18:00, I was ready at my computer to book as soon as the phase 3 ticket sales open. 10 minutes later, I had the confirmation for 2 tickets! And, as a bonus, I was able to invite another friend. Four girlfriends, good food, an all white pop-up dinner party. What more could a girl ask for??
Excitement built to a peak last week, as we were emailing and finalising arrangements around who brings what. Only crockery and proper cutlery are allowed. No plastic dining forks and plates. No-siree!
At 16:30 on Saturday afternoon, we met at our chosen meeting point, where there were buses waiting to take us to the secret location for this year’s event. Which ended up being in on the lawns in front of the Great Hall at the University of Witwatersrand. A large imposing building with its Corinthian columns and classic monumental architecture made this a fantastic setting. The whole field was set up with tables and chairs, with a band playing music on the one end of the field in front of the Great Hall and a table laid out with fantastic food and drinks on the other end.
Everybody was allocated their tables and within half an hour the setting was transformed into an elegant dining venue, with the most fabulous white dinner settings, surrounded by elegantly dressed dinner guest, just as the sun was setting over Johannesburg. The excitement was palpable. White balloons and sparkler sets were handed out. Drinks started to flow as the venue filled to capacity. More than 2000 diners in one place.
Eventually the signal was given and everybody had to waive their white napkins in the air, a signal that the party was officially opened.
We tucked into our starters and poured the champagne. The tables were laid out in long formations, encouraging diners to chat to their neighbours and as the skies turned dark, the magnificence of the venue and the evening was revealed. Coloured lights were set up to highlight the columns of the Great Hall, and at the top of the stairs a band was playing music.
Of course, what I failed to mention is that this is September. In Jozi. A city known for its afternoon thunderstorms in summer. A city with the highest concentration of thunderstorms per capita in the world. And the weatherman was predicting scattered storms over Joburg on Saturday night.
But we were prepared. My friend Alicia managed to find clear ponchos at a shop that day, and we are not afraid of a bit or rain, right?
So, when the drizzle started, we all dutifully took out our ponchos, umbrellas, topped up our champagne and carried on. Then the rain started coming down a bit harder. And the next moment, hail started pounding down on us. Initially, I turned my back to the rain and laughed as the hail was beating on my back, but very soon we realised that it was time to find shelter.
My friend Nicky and her sister Tarryn climbed under the table, but there was not enough space, so we ran to the closest building (actually, since I was wearing silver wedges through puddles, running is not an apt description). We joined the congregation of diners waiting out the storm, drinking wine and expensive champagne straight from the bottles, while singing Shosaloza and commiserating with each other as one diner looked more drenched than the next. A real festive atmosphere…
After a while, the rain abided long enough for us to make our way back to our table, where we found Nicky and Tarryn still under the table, drinking red wine from silver goblets. Our starters were swimming in our plates, but we still had our main course and desert in our basket. We were contemplating sitting down at the drenched table, but unfortunately the heavens were not quite done yet and after some spectacularly scary thunder and lightning we packed up our goodies, wrung the worst water out of the table cloth and started making our way back to the buses.
En route, we stopped at the Faculty of Architecture, where several diners were camped out, enjoying their picnics. We soaked up the atmosphere, finished the red wine and then decided that we were going to find our bus and decide where we will continue our party! The night was still young…
On the bus, it was clear that no storm was going to get this Jozi crowd down, and people were sharing leftover food, wine and champagne, whilst singing loudly on the way back to our meeting point. We went to a pub afterwards in our white dresses and ended up retelling the story of our own ice bucket challenge over and over again. Not quite the evening we planned, but definitely one of the most memorable evenings in a long time! And a story that will be told many times more.
What a magical event! I cannot wait for next year, and I will definitely be there, come rain or shine!!