Thursday, August 20, 2015

Diner en Blanc: the Polarizing Fantasy

It's that time of year again. 4,500 Philadelphians are decked out in white, with picnic baskets full of white place settings and table linens, white tables and chairs in tow. 25,000 runner-ups are sitting at home plotting their way into next year's event. And more than a million more of us are looking for a catapult and 10,000 rotten tomatoes. 

Diner en Blanc, the muti-continent traveling flash mob that charges almost $40 a head to BYO-Everything, has a guest list and dress-code more tediously contrived than a fetish party at the White House. And it's insanely popular. 

So what is it about this simple dinner that has managed to attract so much criticism? Monica Weymouth gives the question a go in a charmingly diplomatic rant on, resigning herself to the notion that there are two types of people: those who like Diner en Blanc, and those who - politely put - don't.

But it's certainly more than that. In a article, Samantha Melamed interviewed the event's two planners, Natanya DiBona and Kayli Moran. Both are quick to point out that, like parades and other street festivals, Diner en Blanc isn't really that structurally unique. Private organizations routinely use public spaces for events, and once the space is reserved, they're relatively free to operate it however they see fit within reason.

And there is certainly nothing unreasonable about Diner en Blanc, at least if we look at it as a dryly bureaucratic use of public space. 

For those who still have a bad taste lingering in your mouth - myself included - it doesn't just boil down to envy or jealousy. That's too easy. And really, what is there to be envious of? This isn't an invite-only event catering to the region's Who's Who. It's simply a dull circuit party. If you have a tech-savvy teenager who knows how to land Taylor Swift tickets, you can probably get a pass into next year's Diner en Blanc if you move quickly enough.

The divide between the enamored and the disdained comes down to the two simple things Weymouth was talking about: those who love it and those who hate it. Some people coast through life enjoying simplistic beauty, cohesion, and have a knack for matching their clothing to the wallpaper. They host designer birthday parties for toddlers too young to remember how well baby-blue and brown go together. They're educated, healthy, shop at Whole Foods, and move to the Gayborhood when it's safe enough for a Target. They use "brunch" as a verb, vote a solid Hillary, and probably have a stick-figure family on the back of their hybrid. 

They're good people. And while they may run to Home Goods the second their bichon spills merlot on their white sofa, they don't ruffle any feathers. 

But the rest of us are plagued with a nagging question: Why? We might not like discourse, but we appreciate and understand it as a way of life. And those who embrace Diner en Blanc are our nemeses. When we see something as simplistic as Diner en Blanc, we see couple's therapy and a whole lot of Xanax. To us, nothing can be that perfect. Adults don't have tea parties with stuffed animals unless they're struggling with something

We need to understand why things happen, purpose, progress. Does Diner en Blanc raise money for a charity? No. Are guests being served a fine dinner from a renowned local chef? No. Is there any historical significance to the event? No. Not unless you consider a French picnic historic. Did I mention that the first picnic took place in 1988, the same year Critters 2 came out? So, not exactly Toulouse Lautrec.

It serves no purpose. But maybe it can?

Despite its hefty cover charge, lack of any dinner but the one in your picnic basket, and Diner en Blanc's convoluted mission, perhaps it does have a purpose. If you look past its most basic guests and planners, Diner en Blanc does offer an opportunity for a very unique experience, at least for those who embrace it as something unique. 

Many Philadelphians continues to struggle in a lot of ways. While Diner en Blanc may have an exclusively short guest list, the list isn't exclusionary. There are undoubtedly a few guests who got a golden ticket and then saved up for the fantasy. For those few guests, Diner en Blanc offers a Cinderella story: one night to escape Philadelphia's cynical reality and pretend to be someone, somewhere else. 

Maybe there's nothing wrong with a grown-up tea party.

With all the negativity in the world, why look at Diner en Blanc as one more reason to bitch about traffic? Perhaps we should all be putting on our Sunday best, packing an Igloo cooler with a few Wawa sandwiches, and enjoying lunch with our friends and family in Fairmount Park this weekend, having our own fantasy, our own Diner en Blanc. 

Instead of cynically bemoaning a harmless event, maybe we should be taking a page from something that happens once a year and asking what it could mean to us every day. Did you have lunch in your corporate cafeteria today, or did you pack some prosciutto and a baguette to take in the breathtaking views of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and City Hall from Logan Square or Dilworth Park? Did you spend your break at Taco Bell, Facebook-complaining about the easily-ignorable Candy Crush invites from an aunt who doesn't know any better, or did you soak up the tiny streets of Society Hill?

Despite Diner en Blanc's tedious laundry list of rules, it's a simplistic event that asks us to look at our surroundings and enjoy our lives for no other reason than the fact that we have one. If we cynics have a problem with the way 4,500 Philadelphians choose to enjoy their Thursday nights, we should probably ask ourselves, how are we choosing to enjoy ours? Because I'm betting it has something to do with frozen pizza and Netflix. 

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