It’s the last Friday in May, it must be time for a neighbourhood party! So what’s it all about, this “fête des voisins”? Read on to find out why neighbours all over France gather in streets, courtyards and other communal spaces for a neighbourhood party.
First let me tell you a story. It was around 9 o’clock on a lovely sunny evening at the end of May when four young Singaporeans appeared at the end of the lane, dragging heavy suitcases and dodging the potholes in the gravel. It was an unusual sight as 40 or so of us were enjoying an outdoor aperitif. Our lane is not made for suitcase dragging – it’s barely made for 4 wheel-drive cars – and nobody ever attempts to navigate it on foot with large luggage.
That was from our point of view. As from these strangers’ point of view, I imagine they didn’t expect quite such a public arrival at Lou Messugo nor so much going on in a quiet village street. Yes, these were the latest guests at our gîte turning up several hours late and without their car right in the middle of the annual neighbourhood street party!
So how did the Fête des Voisins begin?
In 1999, a man named Atanase Périfan created the first neighbourhood party “La Fête des Voisins” in his local district in Paris. His plan was to bring neighbours together in a “spirit of conviviality and solidarity“. It was an immediate success and attracted the support of Mairies (town halls) across the country.
The idea is for neighbourhoods to hold street parties, anything from a simple aperitif to a sit-down meal to get to know one another and reduce isolation. Everyone brings a contribution, streets are closed off, long tables are put together, tablecloths spread out and the party begins.
Last year 7 million French in 1200 towns participated and having spread internationally (World Neighbours Day) it now takes place in 33 countries. This year (2012) the newest to join the party is the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It has become an integral part of the calendar in France and some would say a little too commercial (it is now heavily sponsored by such giants as Nutella and even the name “La Fête des Voisins” has become a trademark!) The date is always set for the last Friday in May.
I’m not here to be political or critical. I enjoy it taken on face value and have organised our local party ever since we moved into Lou Messugo; this will be the 3rd year. There are 10 houses in the domaine, 50-60 people and the bit I like the best, 7 nationalities. We’re a melting pot of different cultures and traditions which are reflected in the dishes and drinks we prepare.
La Fête is very popular in our village with 18 registered gatherings this year at which our Mayor puts in an appearance and has a drink at each and every one (French village Mayors have a tough life!)
But let’s get back to the Singaporeans. I’d been expecting them to arrive by car mid-afternoon and had sent them driving directions. The domain is new and doesn’t feature on GPS systems so it’s pretty hard to find without detailed instructions.
Due to a mix-up at the rental company Wanda and her friends didn’t get a hire car and amazingly found their way by public transport from Nice Central train station without a word of French between them nor a phone call for help from me all the way to the house – and the party!
So they spent their first night in France eating paella and drinking rosé with a bunch of French, Belgians, Colombians, Peruvians, Australians, Austrians and English. I bet they didn’t expect that and who knows, perhaps they’ll be inspired to make Singapore the 34th country to join in the neighbourhood party. (Excuse the quality of the photo, it’s the only one I took!)
Do you have a neighbourhood party, a sort of “fête des voisins” where you live? Have you ever been to one?