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Sunday Dinners with Jim Haynes

by Keyvan Golestaneh, MA
Octobre 30, 2015
Paris, France

Also published in a shorter version under the title THE MAN WHO OPENED HIS HOME TO STRANGERS EVERY SUNDAY FOR THE PAST 37 YEARS, JIM HAYNES"
in the EXPATRIATES MAGAZINE, January 2016


I recently had the opportunity to sit down with cultural icon and Sunday night dinner host Jim Haynes to talk about his fascinating life, his Salons, and his love of people. Our thought-provoking conversation follows…

Jim Haynes, photo by Erin Bowser
Jim Haynes, photo by Erin Bowser

Keyvan: Hello, Jim. We first met about eighteen years ago at one of your now-famous Sunday night dinners. How long have you lived in Paris?
Jim: I've lived here since 1969, but I came to Paris for the first time in 1957. I am originally from Louisiana, in the United States.

What was it about Paris that made you decide to move here?
I was living in London, and I had to leave London, and it was either going to be Amsterdam, Paris, or Barcelona. I was offered a professorship at a university here, so I decided on Paris.

Which university was that?
The University of Vincennes in Saint-Denis.

What were you teaching?
I was teaching Sexual Politics and Media Studies.

That's an interesting combination of subjects. What was your background prior to that?
Theater, but I didn't study it formally. I created a theater network, which became maybe the best theater in Scotland. It's now called the Traverse Theatre, in Edinburgh.

That's how you got your real-life experience and education, in the theater?
I did some favors for some French professors and asked for no recompense, and did them two or three years in a row. One day they called me and said they were starting a new university in Paris and they wanted me to be a visiting professor.

That was a great opportunity. So what was it exactly you were involved in teaching?
"Media Studies" is really an analysis using some of Marshall McLuhan's ideas-famous for "the medium is the message" – describing how various media affects us, creates our consciousness, etcetera. And Sexual Politics, in a way, has become in America what's called "gender studies."

You were a pioneer, in a way. It's particularly relevant in today's world because of the impact of the Internet and accelerating trends toward inclusivity and diversity. Were these subjects or disciplines known in France at the time?

With the help of people you knew, you came to Paris and got a job. At the time, was it easy for people to come and live in France?
Yes, especially for me, because the Ministry of Education handled all the paperwork for me. I didn't have to do anything. I got a carte de séjour.

How long did you teach there?
Thirty years.

That's quite a long time. Was it hard for you to adapt to living in France?
Not at all. I landed on my feet, and I've been on my feet ever since. I've had wonderful places to live. The first place was a millionaire American friend's apartment-he asked me to watch it for three months. The second place was a lovely apartment in the fifteenth arrondissement, which I paid 600 francs a month for and which was absolutely delightful and afterward I moved to the 14th and stayed there ever since.

When you came here, you already had contacts, so it wasn't difficult for you to find a community as an expat.
I also knew people separately, outside of the university.

When you first immigrated, did you feel welcome as a foreigner?
Yeah, I did. Since I got on very well with the students and my colleagues in my department at the university, I felt totally welcomed and needed. I think I contributed a lot to a number of people over the years.

Did you go back to the United States?
No, I never go back anywhere, I only go forward in life. No one can go back.

Do you miss the United States?
I don't miss anything, and I also miss everything. I mean, I try to live as much as possible in the present tense. I have warm memories of the past and warm expectations for the future, but I live as much as possible in the present tense.

That sounds like a positive and healthy philosophy-a way of living! Do you consider yourself an American expat, or French, or both?
No, I consider myself a world citizen. The whole of Planet Earth is mine, all human history is mine, and I'm at home everywhere. I feel that, as a world citizen, I am someone who was born on the Planet Earth, and I'm philosophically and politically at home everywhere.

What you've described seems to be a growing phenomenon with some people. I know that you've traveled quite a bit; tell us a little bit about that.
I edited five guidebooks for ten Eastern European countries. They contain nothing but fellow human beings you can meet. No information about hotels, restaurants, monuments – any of that stuff. It's just a list of thousand people, in each book, who you can meet. The books are called People to People. I feel that the local people know more about their city than any guidebook could possibly know. So if you go to Moscow or Belgrade, any of these cities, you can look up people there and meet them.

So you're really very much a people person?
Totally. I've been involved in introducing people to people ever since my first venture, which was a bookshop in Edinburgh called The Paperback. It was the first paperback book shop in Britain, opened in 1959. Then I started a theater, and started two parts of the Edinburgh Festival. Later in Paris, I started the Sunday Salon meetings, which involved people inviting themselves here to dinner each Sunday night.

How many books do you have published?
If you count edited as well as written, about a dozen.

Are they still available?
Yeah. Everything I've written was self-published, and then later other publishers took them. For my autobiography, I published few copies of it in 1982, and then Faber in London picked it up. They were all written in English, but they've been translated into French, German, Italian, and Russian.

You mentioned the Sunday Salon. Tell us what that is.
That's probably the thing I'm most famous for in Paris because they've been going for thirty-seven years. I started in July 1978. Basically, it's a buffet dinner held in my home, to which I invite no one; everyone invites themselves. I invite the chef, and it's always a different chef. Sometimes it's Mexican, or Chinese, or French-it's always different cuisine. It's always about sixty, seventy people who come. It takes place on Sunday night, for three hours. About 150,000 people have been to dinner so far.

That is how I heard of you, eighteen or so years ago – somebody mentioned you, and I called you, and voila. So it's basically word of mouth. Do you find anything different about the people coming now versus in the past?
In the beginning, there were probably more Paris-based people coming, but then a woman from Australia or New Zealand wrote an article for a British paper, and afterward a lot of people from Ireland and Britain started coming, and over the years other articles were written, including a famous article in the Chicago Tribune. Then I started getting calls from people – this was before e-mails; this was back in the days of letters and telephones. I started getting invitations from people inquiring about the dinner, from the Chicago area. Then several airline magazines wrote articles about me, and the Eurostar wrote a piece. I was also in a British and Irish advertisement for chocolate mints. Now I get people from all over the world.

Sunday Dinner at Jim's, photo by Erin Bowser
Sunday Dinner at Jim's, photo by Erin Bowser

It's become international now. Do you get a lot of expats coming?
Yeah, I'd say that every week there's a small percentage of people who live in Paris coming, and maybe 20 percent, 30 percent of the crowd is people coming from Budapest, New York, and Toronto, and Istanbul, everywhere in the world.

When you started it, there was no Internet, so contact was slower and required more effort. People used to have to call or send a letter.
Now the bookings are about 95 percent Internet-based.

Over time, have you noticed a difference in the spirit of the people attending?
No. Human beings are human beings. I act as a kind of-the introducer. I try to make sure that everybody is meeting everyone, and that no one is sitting in a corner by themself.

Like a social matchmaker or facilitator of sorts.
Yes, like a matchmaker. I'm quite good at remembering names, so I'll say, "Jean-Pierre, do you know Isabelle? And Isabelle, do you know Henry? Henry, do you know Paul?" Etcetera, etcetera. Out of that have come numberless friendships, love affairs, marriages, and projects realized.

I've met some very interesting people here, whom I've continued to have a relationship with, so it's kind of a "mixing pot," introducing and networking, social facilitating.

If somebody wants to come, what should they do?
They should e-mail me. I prefer e-mails.

Do you ever take vacations or time off from it?
I take a vacation every August and go to the Edinburgh Festival every year. That's the only time I stop.

How far into the future do you anticipate doing this?
Well, I've done them for thirty-seven years. I'll do them for another thirty-seven years, and that's enough.

You said earlier that you feel at home in Paris. You now have the Internet, which increases social contact, so you feel at home anywhere.
I especially like big cities! I'm not very comfortable in the countryside.

If somebody from another country was thinking of moving to France, is there any advice that you would give them?
Well-no, it's difficult to deal with a question like that because France, like every country in the world, is tightening its borders. It's more and more difficult. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was easy to come and live in Paris. Now, it's more and more difficult.

Thank you, Jim.

Keyvan Golestaneh, MA
This article has been published in a shorter version in the January 2016 issue of
, Jan 2016
The publication for English speaking expats in Paris
article reproduced with the kind permission of Keyvan Golestaneh
photos by Erin Bowser
©Keyvan Golestaneh



2016, Keyvan Golestaneh, January 2016

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