Dans le Noir

Ever wondered what it would be like to be blind? Well I have. I often wonder what it would be like to be blind, deaf, dumb, disabled, or in a wheelchair. All of these things scare me. It’s the fear of being incapable, of needing help and the recognition of how different my life would be. Thankfully, the closest I’ve come to being deaf is tinnitus, the nearest I’ve come to paraplegia is a crutch and the closest I’ve come to blind is keeping my eyes shut, so when I went to Dans le Noir this week I was in for a shock.

For those of you who don’t know, Dans le Noir is a restaurant where you dine in absolute darkness ( and I mean pitch black) and are served by waiters who are fully/partially blind. Sounds odd? The concept is aimed at encouraging the sighted to fully understand what it is like to be blind, to become the guided instead of the guide, to feel empathy and to test your true sense of taste. (Apparently much of what we taste is actually down to what we see and smell; taking sight out of the equation puts our taste buds in overdrive, kind of like a taste test.) To make things harder, their menu only offers a small choice of ‘surprise’ dishes; a meat surprise, a fish surprise a vegetarian surprise or a mixed surprise.

My friend and I arrived at the restaurant and were told to place all our belongings in a locker provided, in particular any items which would give off a source of light. We were then asked to choose our preferred ‘surprise’ dish. Looking at the menu, it was a bit of an eenie-meanie-minie-mo moment; I got cocky and ended up picking the mixed surprise. Oh dear…  Afterwards we were ushered from the lobby into a dimly lit corridor, where we lined up behind other guests, and waited to be guided to our table. I felt like I was queuing for a ride at Alton Towers; a mixture of butterflies, heart palpitations and excitement.

Gao (our waiter) appeared from behind the curtains dressed in all black complete with black shades, looking like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. We were told to grab hold of the person in front and follow him in a line as if doing the locomotive, simple enough I thought. But as we shuffled from dim to dark, I completely freaked out and I didn’t want to let on. Everyone else seemed to find the whole process entertaining. I was thinking this was a big mistake. It felt like I was walking into a black hole, into an unfamiliar environment amongst people I couldn’t see and didn’t know. Having complete lack awareness for everything around me made me feel alienated, out of control and helpless.

We were seated and given a jug of water and a bottle of wine which we were told we had to pour ourselves. Test one. Simple enough. I felt around for the wine glass and placed my index finger inside it as an overflow marker. That was the easy part. The hard part was avoiding knocking the drink over, which I managed to do almost immediately. With one flimsy napkin and a flooded table, my friend shouted out for help. Miraculously, Gao was at our table within seconds, darting through the dark like batman. He went to get some more napkins. “Don’t worry” he said. “Happens all the time.”
“How did you get over here so quick? Aren’t you blind?!” I blurted, regretting the insensitivity of my words. I felt really ashamed, but couldn’t exactly retract the question. Surprisingly he didn’t take offence and simply replied “Yes, but I’m used to it. You’re food will be here shortly.” I could sense my friends chastising glare through the dark.

Once I became accustomed to the darkness and odd feeling came over me. It was as if I’d developed Spiderman senses. Every sound seemed amplified to the point where I would’ve heard a pin drop, even amongst the nattering throughout the room. My friend was busy eavesdropping on a couple who were sitting near us. “Wow. What a dry conversation. He must be in it for the looks” he said laughing. But he was right. Given that 80% of communication is through body language it made it hard to have a flowing conversation without seeing the other person. “So how’s my personality then?” I joked. “You still like me without the visual?” To be honest I don’t think either of us had anything to worry about conversation wise. The only laughter in the room seemed to be coming from our table.

Our food came and we were told to reach out our hands so that our waiter could pass us our plates. After fumbling around for our cutlery we were both reluctant to actually start eating. “You go first.” I said
“No, you go” he chuckled
“No, YOU go!” I insisted.
We sat there smelling our food trying to figure out what we’d been given. The trouble was our sense of smell was so heightened due to our temporary lack of sight that simple smells we’d usually be able to distinguish were amalgamated into one. Initially, I was reluctant to try anything but I had legitimate reasons; my brother had told me he’d been served alligator balls when he ate here and it put fear in my heart.

Bravery kicked in and I started stabbing furiously at my plate in a case of trial and error. My food flew in all directions; I was getting nowhere. If I carried on at this rate I’d be on my hands and knees eating my food off the floor. Ten minutes in and my friend was half way through his course chomping away at what he thought was chicken…I on the other hand hadn’t had one bite of food and I was getting desperate. “Yes!” I cried after successfully forking a piece of food. “Ouch” I sighed as I jabbed my cheek smearing food down my face. My friend was cackling from over the table. My hand-eye coordination evidently wasn’t up to scratch. Scrap the cutlery I thought, I’ll dig in with my hands. It wasn’t exactly finger food but I didn’t care, I was just happy to be eating something at last and no-one would see me scoffing.

“What’ve you got?” my friend said. “What do you think it is?”
“Hmmm…tastes like salmon to me, I don’t know.” I murmured in between mouthfuls. “Here have some” and I reached over to grab his hand and guide him to my plate.
“Tastes like beef to me.” He said laughing.
Neither of us had any idea what we were eating, it was so difficult to guess without seeing the food. You may doubt me on this but honestly my mouth didn’t know beef from chicken, or salmon from sole. We were clueless, but carried on eating…that is until I heard my friend wail from across the table.
“What? What?!” I screeched.
“Eurgh! Ewww! Yuk!” he splattered as I heard him spit it out. At least I couldn’t see the mess.
“What is it?” I said.
“Some stodgy juice came oozing out of it. I think it’s horse.” he said worriedly. I laughed at his disconcertedness. In my amusement I realised that I’d sunk my elbow into a pile of goo on my plate. 
“F*ck! Ewww!” I yelled.
“Look who’s laughing now” he said. Karma’s a bitch.

I didn’t touch the rest; I was full within minutes. Turns out I have a small stomach. Who knew? I sure as hell didn’t. Usually I’d eat triple what I ate that night, sticking to my favourite rule of “a few more mouthfuls wont hurt.” I have eyes bigger than my belly but the fact that I couldn’t see my food enabled me to listen to what my stomach was telling me. I patted my belly as I congratulated myself on saving a few calories, but anxious about what I had actually eaten.

With our meal finished, Gao came over and asked us politely if we were ready to leave. He led us once more in a locomotive across the restaurant and into the lobby and we were then told to guess what we’d eaten. Out of the eight dishes we had, we managed to guess two correctly; our sense of taste is evidently under par. Even after minutes, the dim light pierced my eyes which were still adjusting. As I stood there squinting and complaining about the brightness, I looked over at Gao who was still seeing black. To be able to walk right out and have my sight back was something that I valued more than ever before. Being ‘blind’ had opened my eyes and the whole unique experience had left me feeling utterly grateful but overwhelmed.