An unwitting father of the sharing economy, Jim Haynes stood on the stage at the Airbnb conference in Paris to tell us about his Sunday night dinner parties. He has hosted a soirée every Sunday for 30 years. He has had nearly 150,000 people to his place for dinner. Fifty to 60 (100 in summer) mostly complete strangers gather at his atelier in a charming corner of Paris to "participate in the daily life of a local."

 As he spoke about the vibrancy and randomness of these evenings, it felt as if every one of the 5,600 delegates (including me) reached for their smartphones to ask Jim if there was space for the coming Sunday. By that evening I had a quick note back saying that he could squeeze me in, that I was to arrive very hungry with no flowers and €30 in a recycled envelope. 

© Jesper Haynes

Then, suddenly, on Friday 13 November, the world stopped in Paris. Saturday morning brought a heaviness, an emptiness and a sadness that seemed overwhelming. Luggage being wheeled across cobbles as tourists checked out in droves was the only sound in the usual bustling busyness of The Marais. I saw the first waves of the world’s press hit the cafés for a caffeine injection before heading to the key sites. Someone tweeted from the dawn Eurostar that he was the only one aboard his fully booked train. And everywhere the military and the police looked tense, guarded and shocked. But then the Parisians took back their city. With #JeSuisEnTerasse (I am on the terrace), the locals returned to their beloved cafés and restaurants and took up their seats on the pavements. To support Paris, to not give in to fear and hating, was of course the only solution. With a cryptic and defiant tone, Jim wrote that there would indeed be a dinner on Sunday. 

Ubering over to Jim’s, my Muslim driver discussed his fear around the terrorists’ efforts to divide France and that our response should be to counterattack just that. And in fact Jim’s dinners embrace this very spirit: a gathering of strangers and random souls in an energy of sharing and open-mindedness. Within minutes, I had met a food writer and global nomad and a girl filled with wanderlust traveling with a boy who liked to stay at home. Maurice, the guy from next door, introduced himself and I happened upon Amelie, a gorgeous study in French quirkiness who excused me from one group to make me join hers. I met a man who rents out his riverboat on Airbnb. I found a beer-crazy Aussie who was staying in a Parisian Airbnb where he had to winch the cats up and down to the courtyard in a basket (talk about living like a local). I even bumped into Joebot (Joe the robot), the friendly head of product development at Airbnb. A friend of Jim’s had effortlessly conjured a feast in the open-plan kitchen. Rustic bean soup, pasta and tiramisu with a twist were devoured by the hungry crowd. We stood as close as asparagus spears in a tin, balancing our glasses of wine and plates of food, in a physical state that lent even demanded conviviality.

© Jesper Haynes

Jim has written a few books about the art of hospitality and his life (Throw a Great Party and Thanks for Coming.) He told us that a buffet is one of his top tips, but alongside that I would say Jim has trouble turning away a newcomer. Fill the venue to overflowing and you will have strangers walking off as friends (even lovers, I hear). With my head full of inspiration, my eyes full of wonder, my lips in a permanent smile and my pockets stuffed with contact details, I headed home almost too full of sharing to sleep. So I took another look at Jim’s website and found this written long before anything had happened in this great city:

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!

By Janet Norman

With her feet in Cape Town and her head in the clouds, Jan is a truffle pig seeking out new adventures. She loves horses, high hopes and smiling. Follow her adventures.