Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dinner in the Dark

One of the more striking and memorable experiences I've had lately was eating dinner in the pitch dark at a restaurant called "Dans Le Noir."  It is a restaurant chain (there is one in London as well as Paris) where the waiters are blind, and the restaurant is completely dark so that the patrons' sense of sight is suppressed.  A non-blind person can have the reverse experience of being uncertain of his surroundings while the blind staff who have learned to function in the dark are quite comfortable.

Before I met my girl friends at the restaurant, I wrote a little bit about my expectations. Firstly, I was afraid that I would get sleepy and maybe even fall asleep- that my awake & sleep patterns are matched to patterns of light and dark.  I also thought we'd giggle a lot during awkward pauses.  I was curious what our small talk would be about since there was nothing to see and comment on.

Once at the restaurant, we started off our experience in a lit bar and reception area where our host explained to us how the evening would go, and then introduced us to our blind waitress, Pilar.

To enter the restaurant, we had to walk through a series of thick curtains by holding on to the shoulders of the person in front of us.  Then Pilar guided each of us to our chairs and helped us to sit down.  

The first surprise for me was that I felt really motion sick as soon as we sat down.  Because my eyes had nothing to focus on, my inner ear must've been freaking out.  My nausea came and went the whole meal.

Whenever Pilar handed food or drinks to us, she would say "Hola" and our name, and after we would respond, she would ask for our hands.  We would find each other's hands in the dark then she would place a glass or plate in them and feel our hands to make sure we had it before letting go.

At first my friends and I talked about our sensations. We each narrated each of our own movements. We reached out to feel each other's hands once in awhile to "see" where everyone was. And we all leaned in really close the whole meal. If someone were to take our picture, I think we would all have been in kissing distance.  Perhaps this was for fear of not being heard, or perhaps to be as close as possible since we couldn't have the comfort of seeing each other's presence.

The food was chosen, I think, for its different textures and tastes. Nothing was a typical dish that you'd easily be able to recognize, like pork chops or lasagna.  For instance, one of the appetizers was tapioca in mint and lemon on a plantain chip. Not something I cook every day for myself.  None of us used our forks.  At one point, we narrated to each other that while holding the fork properly in our right hand, we were eating with our left hand. We needed to feel around on the plate and touch everything before putting it in our mouths, perhaps to help us anticipate the taste.  

One of the dishes was meat in the shape and size of a snowball which we thought to be duck due do its thin fibrous texture. I kept commenting on how weird it was that the meat was shaped in a ball. Well, we learned afterwards that it was "the cheek of a pig" (a typical Catalan dish). Had I known this during the meal, I may not have been able to stomach it.

Another interesting fact was that they had to shush the crowd often.  They had explained before dinner that just like when a person talks loudly on a cell phone because he cannot see the listener, people tend to talk louder than usual when eating in the pitch dark.

I never fell asleep, though I did find that my eyelids were heavy and it was more relaxing to keep them almost shut.  I stared down at the table the whole meal with my eyes half-open (like our waitress Pilar's eyes were when she came to greet us in the lit lounge).  My friends reported that their eyes were wide open and staring at the spaces where they imagined each other's faces to be.  By the end of the meal, all of us reported having shut eyes.

I was also surprised at one point when we stopped talking about the experience we were having and starting chatting about life, about our summers, travel plans, etc..  We were able to forget about our situation for a good half hour in the middle of the meal.  But by the end of the meal, we all felt done and wanted to leave all of a sudden. I felt myself really craving the light.  My nausea returned, and my friends reported feeling uncomfortable and off-balance.

At this point, Pilar had us all stand up and hold the shoulders of the person in front of us again to exit the dining room.  We all reconvened in the lit lounge. The light hurt, and I noticed we all had the need to touch each other's hands and shoulders again perhaps to verify that we were seeing each other, to match our sense of sight with our sense of touch once again.

We learned that we had been in the dark for 2 1/2 hours.  I was surprised so much time had passed so quickly.

The hosts then went through each food and had us guess what we had eaten, and then shared pictures of the meal.  I would say we correctly identified about 75% of the foods.  One thing they told us during the pre-dinner talk was that 90% of people cannot tell the difference between red, white, and rose wine in the dark. Although we were determined to fall among the other 10%, sadly we misidentified our two glasses of different wine as well.

I really am glad I experienced this.  I didn't like how the hosts played up the guessing-game part of the experience; I felt this to be a bit of exploitation of a blind person's experience. But perhaps in case people hated the experience, the guessing could make some light fun out of it.  But I enjoyed learning how my other senses, such as taste, were affected by lack of sight, and how an experience socializing and connecting with other human beings becomes so different when I couldn't see them.  And of course, I came away from this experience cherishing my own sense of sight, for whether a blind person sees pitch dark black or a fuzzy grayness, I thought what an opaqueness!  What an impenetrable wall, a dark space to spend your existence.  The presence of light literally and figuratively add lightness to our experience in this world.  What a different journey it would be without our sense of sight.

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