Dans le Noir
The concept behind this restaurant seemed strange to me at first, and almost gimmicky: you eat a meal in total darkness, and all the waiters are blind. But I was intrigued enough to give it a try.
Here's how it worked. I made reservations about a week in advance, and was told to show up at 7:45 exactly. When we arrived, we were greeted by a sighted person who asked us whether we were familiar with the concept, whether we had any questions, and whether we would take the "surprise" menu. I went for the surprise, after being assured that I could have a vegetarian version. Sharon went for the meaty surprise.
I asked whether we were supposed to be able to use silverware in the darkness - and Sharon and I joked about my fear of having a meat-eater sitting across from me in the dark weilding a knife. We were told that silverware was provided, but that most people ended up eating with their fingers. Just so long as nobody ate MY fingers, I was fine with it.
The greeter then asked us to put all our belongings into lockers in the lobby, including purses and coats, so the waiters wouldn't fall over them, and including cell phones and cigarette lighters so there could be no light at all in the room. Then we were introduced to our charming waitress, Suzanne. Suzanne took my hand and placed it on Sharon's shoulder, then placed Sharon's hand on her own shoudler, and we did a mini-conga line through a series of heavy curtains and into a pitch-dark room. Suzanne maneuvered us expertly into our seats and took our drinks orders. When she left Sharon and I started exploring with our hands, telling each other what we found, and slowly coming to grips with where we found ourselves. We had a corner table set for four people with glasses, tablecloth, silverware, and napkins. There were people all around us speaking in French, Spanish, and English. The place was really quite loud.
Suzanne came back with wine in a square bottle and water in a round bottle. She taught us how to pour by sticking our fingers into the top of the glasses and feeling for the liquid to reach them. We started drinking and talking and, quite soon, eating. I didn't even try to use the silverware - it would have been impossible. Sharon said she tried and quickly gave up.
The food was good, not spectacular. It was a lot of fun feeling and smelling the food, trying to guess what it was before tasting it. I was suprised at what I could and couldn't smell - cucumbers have quite a strong scent, as does yoghurt. Who knew? I had trouble detecting parmesan and mushrooms by smell, though. Cumin, couscous and carrots were easy.
I asked Sharon what kind of meat she had been served. "It's duck," she said. "Or maybe lamb. Yes, definitely lamb. Although it could be duck." I laughed, thinking how ridiculous it was. Then we asked Suzanne, who reported "It's kangeroo!" We thought she was joking, until after the meal when we asked to see a printed menu. It really was kangeroo, though. Sharon was really sad, as she had just gotten back from Australia and had fallen in love with the kangeroos there. I had no idea people actually ate them.
So, those are the facts. Here's what I noticed by eating dinner in the dark.
First, the conversation I had with Sharon. About 80 percent of face-to-face communciation is non-verbal. A friend of mine who was studying intercultural communication told me this a few years ago, and I've remembered it and wondered about it every since. I'm still not sure the figure is correct, but it's definitely true that when you take away all the non-verbal cues we send each other, the interactions you can have with the people around you are quite different.
Sometimes Sharon can be a bit of a difficult person to interact with. People sometimes tend to think of her as a bit overbearing and standoffish. She has a really good heart, and she's the kind of friend I could call at 2am if I locked myself out of my apartment, but she sometimes makes me nervous, as she can seem very intense.
During our dinner together, all of these barriers fell away. We were able to discuss subjects we'd never gotten into before - our most secret hopes for the future, our biggest fears, everything. It was like the conversations I had as a kid at slumber parties. You send your voice out into the darkness and it seems amazing that someone understands you completely and answers you directly. I feel closer to Sharon than I did before the dinner, and I appreciate her friendship even more.
Another observation - I was so much less distracted than I usually am when I go out to dinner. There was nothing to tear my attention away from the food and the conversation - no fast movements out of the corner of my eye, no tasty food on the opposite table, no over the top gesticulating from a woman across the room. I didn't lose my train of thought once throughout the meal, and just felt really focused the entire time.
Final observation - damn, it was loud in there. I mentioned that already but it's worth saying twice. When we came out to pay the bill, we mentioned this to the cashier. He said it's just because our sense of hearing was more attuned, but I'm not buying that. I think people were extra loud for a couple of reasons. First, we all tended to speak louder because there was no non-verbal feedback that our converation partner was listening and could hear us. Secondly, there was no body language coming from the fellow diners signaling that we should tone it down, so everyone just kept on shouting. Every few minutes some people would say "Ssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh", but that only worked the first couple of times.
After a few hours, we were fine in the darkness but needed to escape from the noise. We called out for Suzanne, who came and rescued us and led us into the light again. It was dazzling.
The waiters all did an amazing job taking care of everyone, keeping us all relaxed and happy, and generally keeping the situation totally under control. It just made me wonder - what kind of work were they doing before the restaurant opened? I've never worked with a blind person, or even observed one working. I'm ashamed to say that I hadn't given this much thought before, but now, I really wonder. I guess that's the point of the restaurant, really - to walk a "meal" (sorry, couldn't resist) in someone elses' shoes, and try to gain some tiny bit of understanding.