For the better part of five decades I’ve had a steady diet of French culture, learning the language in the process, much as a child would, through a form of osmosis. I am invariably amused when a new word crosses my radar. I was recently intrigued by the term “guinguette“, which led me to research its derivation and definition. Glimpses into late 19th-century France gleaned from impressionist paintings, old movies and novels demonstrate a predilection for communing with family, friends and nature. Images of strolling, boating, swimming, dancing, drinking and eating in some sun-dappled, sylvan setting come to mind. After the revolution at the end of the 18th century swept away the institutions of monarchy and nobility, there was the industrial revolution and the whole class structure changed. This allowed the newly-formed bourgeoisie and the proletariats to dress in their sunday best and socialize on sunny weekends and holidays. Guingettes sprung up to accommodate this urge for recreation in nature, almost always in proximity to a body of water, be it lake, river, or man-made waterfall.
There remain vestiges of this invention today. The first time I stumbled across one I was deeply charmed: a French friend took me for a meal to “The Chalet Des Îles”, on the Île des Cygnes in the lac inferieur of the Bois de Boulogne, accessible only by a small boat. Then my niece recently alerted me to the existence of an updated guinguette in the Buttes-Chaumont Park called “Rosa Bonheur“, (which stays open until midnight, after the park has closed, and there is a long line of hipsters at the gate elbowing for the limited after-hours spaces.) By day, a glorious place to eat, drink and fraternize in the shade within ear-shot of the cascades, faux rocks and foot-bridges.
Things started falling into place in my mind and I decided to do further investigation of the concept and the etymology of the term: a variation of the word, “guinget”, means “that which produces a sensation of piquant taste”, the name of the establishments deriving from the inexpensive or “green” wine which was typically served there. Further references popped up from movies, “La Belle Equipe” from 1936 where Jean Gabin sings “Quand On S’Promene Au Bord de l’Eau”, and paintings such as “La Guinguette” by Van Gogh and “Déjeuner des Canotiers” by Renoir. The “Guinguette de Neuilly” was the nearest one mentioned. So things came full circle when lunch there turned out to be on an island in the Seine called Île de La Jatte, the setting for George Seurat’s iconic pointillist painting “Un dimanche après-midi à l’île de la Grande Jatte“, the inspiration for the play “Sunday in the Park with George”