11) IN THE BLACK?:
The Centre Georges Pompidou is the defining feature of the central quartier of Paris known as Beaubourg. This remarkable 'inside-out' building, designed by a group of architects headed by Renzo Piano, was extremely controversial when it opened in 1977: Does it fit into the Parisian landscape? Is it ugly? Is it culturally important? Like it or not, the impressiveness of it’s size, and the boldness of its futuristic design, is undeniable. Pompidou also has a mysterious magnetism that draws crowds to sit on its sloping stone forecourt and gaze at it for hours at a time.
The streets of Beaubourg surrounding Pompidou are narrow cobblestoned pedestrian streets making this area popular for bars, cafes, restaurants, and tourists. Beaubourg is my ‘hood’ for the next three months.
Rue Quincampoix (pronounced 'ka-kam-pwa’) is a narrow meandering street that runs north-south through Beaubourg, and for much of it’s long history—it was first noted in historical records dating from the 13th century—has been associated with artists and artisans. Strolling along rue Quincampoix today I notice a window display of the most exquisite BDSM costumes and paraphernalia; I go inside.
Yellow, pink and blue feathered corsets; rubber, latex and leather fetish outfits; lingerie referencing the era of Louis XIV that is ‘sexy Versailles on acid’. Everything is exuberantly decorated, ornate and lux. The owner, Helmut, is the designer of everything in the shop; I am in awe of his creativity.
A few doors down is the most refined Japanese teahouse imaginable. Subtle understated elegance; minimalism in the extreme. A perfectly placed teapot, alone on a long shelf, the only decoration on one wall. A white silk screen with the most delicate of calligraphy flourishes interrupting the purity, positioned discretely to ensure privacy for patrons. The hostess, elegant in a tight-fitting black pencil skirt, black suit jacket, white lace blouse, and thick-rimmed glasses, stands with perfect poise behind the counter.
Sitting between this eclectic duo of Parisian ateliers is a bland, dark, restaurant front with blackened windows, and a small inconspicuous sign: Dans le Noir? The translation is simple: In the Black? The more figurative translation: In the Dark? Below the sign is a selection of food and drinks menus; I am intrigued.
“Hey Andy, did you see this?” I ask. “It looks interesting.”
“Don’t you remember me pointing it out to you the last time we were in Paris?”
Our last trip to Paris had been five years before. Obviously I wasn’t ready for this unique dining experience in 2009; today, I am excited.
“Let’s go,” I say enthusiastically, without knowing what I'm getting us into . . .
Research later that day reveals that Dans le Noir? has been running for 10 years. Beginning initially in Paris, it spread quickly to London, Barcelona, and St Petersburg. The successful chain of restaurants has also set up temporary restaurants in New York, Moscow, Warsaw, Geneva, Bangkok, and Riyadh at various times.
The concept originated from a blind Swiss man, Jorge Spielmann, who blindfolded his dinner guests to give them an experience of what is was like to eat a meal without the sense of vision. Ethik Connection, a French group championing people with disabilities, later developed it.
The concept of dining in the dark has been adopted so positively around the world, there are now a number of similar dining experiences available through spin-off operators including: Opaque in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco; Dark Table in Vancouver; and O.Noir in Montréal and Toronto.
Arriving at our allocated reservation time we see a group of diners, already stripped of their coats, scarves, gloves, mobile phones, watches, and cigarette lighters, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them, about to be led into the darkened dining room by their serveuse, Martha.
Martha is short and heavy-set. She is wearing comfortable black clothing, and I guess she's in her mid-30’s. Martha has wild, unkempt, hair, and deep-set, unseeing, ever-roaming, eyes; she is blind. There's no question of that. Martha's posture and body movements indicate that she is ’seeing' her environment with her sense of hearing; the 21years I spent working as an Ophthalmologist makes this a not unfamiliar sight.
‘Pendular nystagmus’ is the rather frumpy term given to the random eye roaming that occurs in people who have been profoundly visually impaired since birth. I try to recall patients I saw during my working life who had no vision at all: I can only think of three. Two blind from birth, like Martha, and one who became completely blind in her forties. All are remarkable humans with their own fascinating stories to tell. I am more intrigued . . .
Our turn comes to be led into the darkness by Martha. She rockets forward and I battle to keep my hand on her shoulder. Andy's hand on my shoulder clutches more tightly so as not to be stripped away and abandoned in the blackness. We go through a series of acute 180-degree turns, and then enter a bigger space that is a-buzz with energy and chatter.
With no visual input, the first thing I notice in the room—after the noise—is the smell. Food is being served and eaten all around us. The mixture of aromas makes me giddy; I want to stop and examine the smells in more detail, but I am jerked forward again, and we resume our blind conga-line across the blackened room.
After being sat at our table I employ my sense of touch to explore my environment: concrete wall to my left, plastic chair, wooden table top, plastic knife and fork, plastic water glass, another plastic chair to my right. I start to map out the objects in front of me, and my brain shifts into an unfamiliar gear as it starts to ‘paint’ a picture of my surroundings without any visual input.
Next I give my full attention to my sense of hearing. A chaotic clamouring of sound vies for my attention. What to focus on is the problem. What is important and needs attention, and what is useless, distracting, and can be ignored? I turn my head from side to side and notice, perhaps for the first time, that turning my head like this—as Martha does—it is possible to start ‘echo locating’ things in the room better. Another phylogenetically abandoned brain pathway starts to come online, and I layer the auditory input of my dark world on top of the olfactory and sensory maps I have started putting together, progressively building up the vision-free ‘picture’ of my dining habitat. As there is absolutely no difference in perception between having my eyes open or closed, I give up on the possibility of using visual cues for the next couple of hours, and surrender to the roller coaster ride that is the experience of eating a meal as a 'blind' person . . .
Fast forward two hours: the initial excitement that was in the room has leveled off to a nice buzzy hum of friendly dinner conversation. Martha has clapped her hands and gained the attention of the room on no less than four occasions asking us to speak softer as when the level of background noise in the room is too high, it interferes with the ability of the visually impaired servers to know where each other is, and increases the risk of mishaps. I hear a piece of plastic cutlery or two clatter to the floor throughout the evening, but that’s it.
We have been fed four courses of delicious food. The playfulness with which I attended to each mouthful was an unexpected delight, each new gustatory discovery greeted with the simple wonder of childhood; everything new. Accompanying wines have been served to similar reception. I am replete and buzzing excitedly as we are led back into the light to review a photograph of our menu, and to determine how well our non-visual senses have performed.
The most astounding element of the whole experience, however, was not the food, but Martha. She was competent, efficient, humorous, and playful. Seamlessly switching between perfect French and excellent English to make sure that the monolingual amongst us understood what she was doing as she picked up and put down dishes of food, ensuring we didn’t end up wearing our meals.
Martha cleared empty plates and replaced them with full ones in seconds. She refilled or removed empty glasses without a moment's hesitation. She joked, and patted us on the head or shoulder from time to time. Martha performed all the functions of a sighted waiter with the same dexterity, and with significantly more bonhomie, than a clutch of French bistro waiters.
I left the restaurant with my heart overflowing with gratitude for the beautiful soul that is Martha, and the wonderful way she shares herself with us sighted folk in the dark: Dans le Noir . . .
November 15th, 2014.