the hospitality game


Why set rules, or even limits, on hospitality when one has undertaken the mission of offering it to the most destitute people? Maybe because hospitality remains under the threat of a double-edged Sword of Damocles. Beforehand, if overly strict preliminary conditions for welcoming others are set, the principle dissolves. Afterwards, if every kind of behaviour is tolerated from those welcomed, it dilutes the whole practice. So how might an internalisation of the rules be achieved, instead of promulgating the internal rules? On the premises of the Autremonde Association, the use of social games might make it possible to trump the constraints of hospitality.

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.” Plato

In Paris, on the heights of Belleville at 30 rue de la Mare, the Autremonde Association has reopened its day centre, previously located on the premises of Tenon Hospital. Newly named “Le Café dans la Mare [1]”, it was officially inaugurated on 20 October 2006. Since then, on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons from three until six o’clock [2], around ten volunteers welcome “beneficiaries”. Above all, it is a place that offers a moment of conviviality. This is but one of the association’s activities; notably it gives courses in literacy, and has also organised an educational program in Mali [3]. Founded in 1994 as part of a humanitarian operation in Rwanda, Autremonde as such belongs to the multifarious and protean world of non-governmental organisations. One watchword presides over all of its actions: solidarity. Today, this seems to have become one of the declared aims of every policy designed to aid the destitute, whether it be a specifically territorial solidarity or a more largely socio-economic one [4]. Hospitality, strictly speaking, has little or nothing to do with it directly, explicitly. This observation holds true at least as far back as the seventeenth century, and it highlights a political deficiency in the notion, one that is partly structural. So it was really no surprise to learn that the term did not figure in the vocabulary of the Autremonde Association. In fact the word tended to meet with astonishment. Yet to some extent, does this not come into play in the experience of Le Café dans la Mare? In the struggle against poverty, should one not be hospitable to the same degree that one is solidary?

There are many ways to spend a few hours at Le Café dans la Mare. It often starts with a hot drink, standing at the counter. This is a good way initiate contact with others. Afterward, it’s your choice: take up a book in the library and plunge into reading, either alone or with others, rest in an easy chair or on a sofa, leave right away equipped with a hygiene kit, or you might choose to stay and have your feet massaged. Nevertheless, no comprehensive set of services as such is really delivered; Le Café dans la Mare is not a ‘regular’ social aid structure. No meals are offered, there is no possibility of taking a shower, and no accommodation is available. This is not what it’s all about. It might appear meagre, no doubt a bit diffuse, but it is remarkably efficient: in 2005 more than 46,000 visits were recorded and almost 2,000 individuals entered at least once. What did the majority of them do? They talked, played (cards, scrabble, jenga...), with one another, or alone. Either way, an essential condition of hospitality is stimulated: dialogue. This triggers the passage from I to we. It sometimes settles in very discreetly, particularly through explaining the rules of a game. At each table, a small scene of this kind plays out in the middle of an open space with white and yellow walls, in a warm atmosphere. Games follow one after another. Until closing time and the polite “goodbyes”. But we really should go back to the very beginning.

It all starts with crossing a threshold. This is not so easily done, keeping in mind that hospitality is not necessarily spontaneous. First you have to queue, or at least ring the bell. Someone says “welcome” and you must say who you are. Your name is then noted in a register. No particular formality is required at the entrance; everything is free of charge. If it’s your first visit, you are given a coupon, valid for one month. It states your identity, and the first of its five printed circles gets a checkmark. Right away a first rule, a first limit is affirmed: you may not come more than five half-days per month. Considered as a way of enabling the greatest number of people to be received, the rule is also a reminder that you cannot be there all the time. Neither can you be there after forty people have already arrived. This maximum number was set to guarantee the quality of service. Receiving implies doing so correctly, doing it well and with dignity. This sets the standard of treatment. The moment soon comes when the basic rules to be respected on the premises are laid out, comprising eight prohibitions and one obligation. They can be found posted on the walls of the café. Any infraction is subject to a penalty, from temporary expulsion to a permanent ban. Therefore it is forbidden to: consume alcohol or drugs, damage property, exhibit violent behaviour (or incite it), make racist remarks, play games for money, bring an animal, place or receive phone calls on a mobile telephone, eat food alone without sharing it. Guests are also required to keep the premises clean, using the ashtrays and sponges at their disposal. These rules establish practices that help ensure peaceful relations during this shared time. One could almost detect the legacy of a treatise on good manners meant to guarantee the civilising of mores. But it is better understood as an attempt to preserve the protective refuge atmosphere sought by those who come in from outside. It also helps throw a veil over the outside world, giving the guests an environment that favours the various rites of interaction that shape the experience. Even though the association took care to stick photographs and posters up on the large bay window that looks onto the street, they still received a request to put up curtains. Hospitality necessitates intimacy, if not confidentiality. On the other hand, the entry “ticket” mentions that “the address opposite [that of the café] may not be used as your official place of residence.” It is a stipulation that simply stems from the association’s concern that it could be accused of supplying proofs of address. There is undoubtedly a significant resistance to seeing an experience of hospitality in Le Café dans la Mare: one is welcomed, but one does not live there. However, that incompleteness does not take away from the hospitable spirit that is the driving force here; it is time that is limited. All of these constraint are applied with a fair degree of flexibly and do not compromise the sense of welcome. Hence in practice, guests are never seen being reprimanded for using mobile phones. At all times, everything is working toward realising one of the fundamental objectives of hospitality: an attempt to establish equality between the guests, as paradoxical as it might be, and a brief suspension of the fundamental asymmetry in the relationship between those offering hospitality and those receiving it [5].

Social games would appear to be a means of giving shape to this principle. Autremonde extends the experience by organising an evening of games on the third Monday of each month, in partnership with an association called Á Quoi tu Joues [6]. A gratuitous activity by all appearances, each game works according to its own specific rules. For a short time, these substitute for social rules. In their own way, they manage to illustrate the tacit laws of hospitality. Each round establishes a subtle sharing of the table. There is no meal, but a community is established, sometimes extremely large. Roles are assigned, you listen, you watch how it’s done. Once you’ve understood, you play alternatively until someone triumphs. Victory arrives to put an end to this fiction of equality; there are inevitably winners and losers. It makes no difference. By virtue of its rules the game becomes a gesture of compensation, potentially offering superiority to the welcomed one if he wins. But above all it allows a fleeting social bond to emerge. Maintaining the highest degree of respect, the indirect talk becomes more relaxed until it arrives at “con-diction”, an inviolable condition of hospitality. The guests finally come together and coexist. It doesn’t last, but it will start all over again like this: “Welcome”.


[1The Café in the Pond - trans.

[2Since the beginning of December, the café is also open Sunday mornings from 10:30am to 1:30pm; it should also eventually open Wednesday mornings.

[3see for a detailed presentation on the association.

[4On this concept, read Pierre Zaoui, « Politique et sensation 1. Solidarité », Vacarme, n° 27, spring 2004, p. 64-65.

[5For a few definitions, see Marie-Claire Grassi, « Hospitalité. Passer le seuil », in Alain Montandon (dir.), Le Livre de l’hospitalité. Accueil de l’étranger dans l’histoire et les cultures, Paris, Bayard, 2004, p. 21-34.

[6What Are You Playing At - trans. See