"Why would anybody want to go to that?" my wife asked, when I first told her about Diner en Blanc.
"No, seriously," she said. Why?"
Her cynicism, which echoed my own, was so strong and compelling that I made her come with me to this year's event, on a wet Saturday night two weeks ago. It was being held, as always, at a secret location, which was quite exciting until we arrived and found out it was The Cloud.
Tickets to the event were sold exclusively in pairs, at $125 for two, although the general public only gets to buy tickets if there are any left after previous attendees and people referred by previous attendees have bought theirs, and the event tends to sell out. Someone sold a pair of tickets on Trade Me three days before this year's event for $200.
You could bring your own food or you could buy a standard hamper to pick up at the event via Mint Kitchen for $108. There was no BYO: booze had to be pre-purchased from organisers, for $20-$25 for a bottle of wine (white or rosé only) and $75-$120 for a bottle of Champagne. Le Diner en Blanc's famed aesthetic does not allow beer, even craft beer from Wellington.
That's an easy $250 before you've even bought your white pants, and my wife was not the only one with questions about that. Two days before this year's event, noted food writer Niki Bezzant tweeted, "I do not understand Le Diner en Blanc. What exactly are people paying for?"
Le Diner en Blanc started in Paris in 1988 and now takes place annually in more than 70 locations around the world. Organisers have described it as an "elegant and secret affair", a "secret posh picnic", an "elegant picnic", a "French-inspired chic picnic" and, locally, as "Auckland's most exclusive and glamorous dining phenomenon".
"This 'tres chic' picnic, imported from Paris, is equal parts mystery tour, pop-up feast and 'je ne sais quoi' fuelled almost entirely by social media," reads Diner en Blanc International's LinkedIn page.
It was started by Frenchman Francois Pasquier who, returning to Paris after several years living in Tahiti, wanted to celebrate with friends. Not having enough room at home, he arranged for a picnic in the Bois de Boulogne, a large Parisian park, and created an all-white dress code so that people would be able to find each other.
"The basic concept," he said in a recent interview, "has remained exactly the same: a gathering among friends."
The Auckland event, organised by public relations specialists Campbell + Co, is now in its fifth year. The previous four were at Wynyard Quarter, Britomart, Bayswater Marina and Pah Homestead.
Campbell + Co's Vinny Sherry had told me earlier in the week that a good location was key to a good event: "It's finding those really kind of different venues," he said. "Every venue's different but I think for us, what we'd like to do is keep finding those tiny little hidden gems." Finding good venues, he said, was the hardest thing about organising Le Diner en Blanc in Auckland.
In Paris, they've had events at the Eiffel Tower, Le Louvre Pyramid, Chateau de Versailles and Notre Dame Cathedral, on the Champs-Elysees. In Sydney, they've done it on the forecourt of the opera house.
On Le Diner en Blanc's website it says, "Over the course of the evening, guests experience the beauty and value of their city's public spaces."
On a wet night in Auckland, it was dry in The Cloud.
A few days before this year's event, I had read the following passage on the Diner en Blanc website: "Seeing as Le Diner en Blanc concept borrows from French court society, many courtesies continue today. For instance, it was customary for men to sit on one side of the dinner table, and women on the other. Some Diner en Blanc events still employ this practice, although it is not mandatory. Colour, style, and symmetry are important components of this aesthetic. Furthermore, there is always one perspective that is more beautiful than the other at any event; consider giving this view to your guest, as per courtesy and tradition."
I looked around and noted that while I was looking directly at a collection of boxes and supplies on the edge of the room, Zanna was looking out across the tables and the sea of white. "I have given you the beautiful perspective, as per courtesy and tradition," I told her.
"You didn't give it to me," she said, "We had name tags."
The live band began to play a smooth, laid-back cover of TLC's 1999 hit, No Scrubs. It's a sexy song and I was feeling sexy in my white tuxedo jacket and long shorts, and my wife was looking sexy in her white dress. I began playing footsie with her under the table.
"Are you playing footsie with me?" she asked.
I said I was.
"Off the record," she said, "I haven't had time to shave my legs."
On the night of this year's Le Diner en Blanc, a colleague was having dinner at Sidart, Auckland's finest restaurant.
Earlier in the week, I had asked Sherry why someone might choose to spend their money at Diner en Blanc instead of Sidart. He said the type of people that went to Diner en Blanc typically ate frequently at good restaurants anyway. What they were getting at Diner en Blanc was something different.
"They're buying something that they can't do all year round, that has got that exclusive nature to it. Every year, only 1200 people are going to be able to do this in Auckland."
Sitting at tables with strangers, they also get to meet new people and make new friendships, he said. "You can't do that at a restaurant."
The general idea is that you dress all in white, bring your own white table, chairs, place settings and food, arriving at some elegant and glamorous outdoor location — or The Cloud.
We sat at a long table. A thousand phones came out. Somebody asked for the event's hashtag. Zanna took a photo of the room and our table and posted it to a Whatsapp group, in direct contravention of the rule she had long ago implemented that we have no phones at the dinner table.
"This is so unlike us, isn't it?" she said as we opened our hamper and began to decimate the Kapiti cheeseboard and ficelle with smoked butter.
Normally at about this time on a Saturday night, we'd have been around the dinner table at home, up and down constantly, getting things for our three children, listening as the two who can talk tell us how much they hate all the food we've made them, watching all three throw much of it on the ground, trying to talk over the din. I can't remember the last Saturday night I went out just with my wife.
But that wasn't what she meant by "so unlike us". She meant, children aside, we're not the type to enjoy a mass gathering of people we don't know, particularly while complying with an expensive and onerous dress code and posting the results to social media using official hashtags.
"It isn't for everyone," Sherry had told me.
"Just the very nature of getting dressed all in white is going to put people off. But that's fine: rugby's not for everyone, opera's not for everyone. But it has a nice little space within the summer events in Auckland. It's unashamedly good fun."
Things I find fun: reading, watching the new Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country, the Danish concept of hygge, solitude, rugby. Things my wife finds fun: posting things in mums' groups on Facebook, listening to podcasts, hanging out with me. Neither of us is really into opera, although we've never given it a good go.
After we'd got through the cheeseboard, breads and dips, and after I'd had some smoked chicken and potato salad, finished my second or third helping of marinated beef sirloin with zucchini remoulade, pickled baby onion and onion jam, and after I'd eaten both of the cardamom coconut ice desserts along with one and a half of the two salted caramel macarons, I told my wife that I was going to go talk to some people.
She had blisters from the high heels she never wears and just wanted to sit down. Because there was not a single other person left at our table, I said "I'm worried you'll be lonely."
"Honey," she said, "I have three children. I'll never be lonely again."
Rarely, at an event like this, has anyone looked as content by themselves as my wife did sitting all alone at that table, with nobody demanding anything of her. I envied her.
People had spilled outside The Cloud into the intermittent mid-evening drizzle. I introduced myself to a young couple. The woman, Ashley Espinosa tried to high-five me, but I was late to react and our strike was imprecise. "Look at the elbow," she counselled. We tried again and it seemed to work a little better.
She was from Cincinnati, Ohio, and had first heard of Diner en Blanc after seeing a whole lot of people wearing white on their way to that city's 2014 event. She bought tickets the next year.
"That's interesting," I said. "A lot of people would see a whole lot of people wearing white on their way to an event and go, 'That's weird, I'll never go to that.'"
"Yeah," she said, "but they seemed like they were happy people."
She moved to Auckland last year and bought two tickets for this year's event, then posted on Facebook asking for someone to join her. I asked her friend Alex Daley why he'd volunteered.
"Why not?" he said. "It's a super-secret dinner."
He laughed. She laughed.
"Is that the selling point?" I asked.
"That, and it was with Ashley," he said.
He said it so sweetly that I assumed they must be a couple, but they told me they weren't so I asked if they were going to become a couple.
"Probably not," Alex said. "I don't know." She laughed. He laughed. It was exceedingly awkward, but I sensed they were probably right for each other. They appeared to be having such a good time.
Another person having a good time was Kerry Cattrall. After I introduced myself, she told me and the heavily bearded photographer that she liked men with beards. That made me feel good about myself and my decision to have a beard.
She said her friends had bullied her into coming, but she didn't regret it.
"I think it's so fun," she said. "It's just like unexpected fun and people are feeling free because of the environment and structure of the whole event. It's just like how we can just be ourselves because it's that sort of environment where you bring everything yourself and do it yourself. I actually think it's a brilliant concept. I love it actually. Love it."
She agreed to have her photo taken but only if it was with me, which again made me feel quite nice. We were standing just outside The Cloud. Light rain was falling and the sound of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams was booming from the DJ booth inside, "Thunder only happens when it's raining. Players only love you when they're playing. Say women they will come and they will go…"
Kerry came; she went away. I would characterise my time with her as brief but intense.
Mark Roberts was at Diner en Blanc for the first time. Around his bottom half, he was wearing what looked like a white sheet. "Mate," he said, "You can't find shorts for anyone with an arse. Size 38 shorts just don't exist in Auckland apparently, so that was about it. We had a lot of sheets at home. It's a single sheet, folded up, tied it around and chucked a belt on."
He'd come with a group of about 40 others, for a mate's 40th birthday. He said he thought the event had been brilliant.
"I wasn't completely sold," he said. "The whole picking all your shit up and having to carry around, I was a bit …" He trailed off.
He said: "Most stuff you get roped into by mates."
Gaewyn Goodwin, another attendee, said: "Everyone's among complete strangers but we trust them and feel safe and we're having a good time."
Diner en Blanc taps into two deep and apparently contradictory human needs: the need to fit in and the need to stand out.
Once you buy a ticket, you are told whether you're going to travel to the mystery location by ferry, bus or train. You meet a group leader at your transport point and you travel together to the event. Immediately, you are part of a group, a gang, wearing a shared uniform, following shared rules.
But you are also in public and people outside your group are looking at you. You are interesting and attractive.
Arriving at the mystery location, your small tribe is absorbed into the whole. You have gone from individual to small group member to large group member. If this is not a carefully thought-through transition, it is a psychologically brilliant accident.
You bring your own table, tablecloth, glasses. Group leaders guide you through the process of combining your individual tables into long tables — a physical manifestation of the psychological melding of individual with group.
Unless the event is at The Cloud, the barrier between those inside and outside is porous. The public is able to walk by, see the spectacle, gape, wonder what's going on, take photos, maybe even talk to you about why you're doing this special thing. You feel both unique and exactly the same as 1200 others.
During the meal, at some point, everyone raises their napkins and waves them above their heads. After the meal, thousands of sparklers are distributed and, because there are no lighters, you find a stranger and borrow their fire. This is obvious metaphorical gold for an article like this.
On Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, Diner en Blanc takes care of both belonging and esteem, and those are two of the hierarchy's top three needs. Assuming your bodily needs and safety are already taken care of, the only need the event doesn't fulfill is self-actualisation, and no one really knows how to achieve that anyway.
Towards the end of the night I returned to our table and found Zanna was no longer sitting alone, but was talking with somebody she had met earlier in the night. She was trying to deal with the other person's relationship issues, which is one of her favourite things to do.
I joined them, because I quite enjoy that kind of thing too. We were part of the crowd but separate from it, and that's how we spent the rest of the night.
As the lights came up and we dissolved from the others in The Cloud, I had to acknowledge that, in spite of my plans, I'd had a good night.
It was a weird feeling, standing with my wife on Quay St at 11pm dressed in white shorts and tuxedo jacket, waiting for an Uber, aware of my general sense of satisfaction, aware that there are forces in this world stronger than my desire to make fun of something as ridiculous as Diner en Blanc.