Inviting the World to Dinner

Jim Haynes - Paris, France
As heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, January 12, 2009
Jim Haynes

Every week for thirty years, Jim Haynes has welcomed complete strangers into his Paris home for dinner. By introducing people to each other and encouraging them to make personal connections, Haynes believes he can foster greater tolerance in the world.

Age Group: 50 - 65
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Every week for the past thirty years, I have hosted a Sunday dinner in my home in Paris. People, including total strangers, call or e-mail to book a spot. I hold the salon in my atelier, which used to be a sculpture studio. The first fifty or sixty people who call may come—twice that many when the weather is nice and we can overflow into the garden.

Every Sunday a different friend prepares a feast. Last week it was a philosophy student from Lisbon, and next week a dear friend from London will cook.

People from all corners of the world come to break bread together, to meet, to talk, to connect, and often to become friends. All ages, nationalities, races, and professions gather here, and since there is no organized seating, the opportunity for mingling couldn’t be better. I love the randomness.

I believe in introducing people to people.

I have a good memory, so each week I make a point to remember everyone’s name on the guest list and where they’re from and what they do so I can introduce them to one another, effortlessly. If I had my way, I would introduce everyone in the whole world to one another.

People are the most important thing in my life. Many travelers go to see things like the Tower of London, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, and so on. I travel to see friends, even—or especially—those I’ve never met.

In the late 1980s, I edited a series of guidebooks to nine Eastern European countries and Russia. There were no sights to see, no shops or museum to visit; instead, each book contained about a thousand short biographies of people who would be willing to welcome travelers in their cities. Hundreds of friendships evolved from these encounters, including marriages and babies, too.

The same can be said for my Sunday salon. At a recent dinner a six-year-old girl from Bosnia spent the entire evening glued to an eight-year-old boy from Estonia. Their parents were surprised, and pleased, by this immediate friendship.

There is always a collection of people from all over the globe. Most of them speak English, at least as a second language. Recently a dinner featured a typical mix: a Dutch political cartoonist, a beautiful painter from Norway, a truck driver from Arizona, a bookseller from Atlanta, a newspaper editor from Sydney, students from all over, and traveling retirees.

I have long believed that it is unnecessary to understand others, individuals, or nationalities; one must, at the very least, simply tolerate others. Tolerance can lead to respect and, finally, to love. No one can ever really understand anyone else, but you can love them or at least accept them.

Like Tom Paine, I am a world citizen. All human history is mine. My roots cover the earth.

I believe we should know each other. After all, our lives are all connected.

Okay, now come and dine.

Jim Haynes was born in Louisiana, spent his teens in Venezuela, attended boarding school in Atlanta and university in Louisiana, then served in the military in Scotland. He created a bookshop and the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and the Arts Laboratory Mixed Media Centre in London. He also co-founded a newspaper in London and another in Amsterdam. After teaching Sexual Politics and Media Studies at the University of Paris 8 for thirty years, Mr. Haynes retired in 1999. Since co-launching the Sunday dinners in the mid-1970s, some 140,000 people from all corners of the world have dined with Mr. Haynes. Contact Haynes about his Sunday salons.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick. Photo copyright Antonia Hoogewerf.