Friday, July 21, 2006

Eating in the dark

Last night we went to the "Unsicht-bar", or 'the invisible restaurant' as I like to call it now. It is a gourmet restaurant in complete darkness. You come in and look over the very vague menu (they intentionally don't tell you exactly what you will be served) in the light and then are led by your blind or partially-blind server into the dining room, which is completely dark. I don't know where to begin describing the experience; it was like nothing I could've imagined and was hard even at the time to understand how I felt about it. The first thing we all experienced was a brief moment of panic. Our server shut off the light in the dim anteroom and told us to grab on to each others' shoulders like a conga-line. I think the four of us all have some claustrophobic tendencies, and it was rather warm in there, which only made it worse.

Once we were each led to our chairs, it was easier to relax and start to appreciate the environment. We couldn't tell how big the room was, but I heard at least three other tables of people. The music was a little too loud, but I think it helped people feel more comfortable talking and less isolated in the dark. There was a fan somewhere providing a merciful breeze, but it wasn't always blowing in our direction. We had to reach out for each other to have an idea how we were seated. I could hear our friends' voices, and I knew we were at the table together, but it was important to me to know exactly where they were sitting and to touch them.

Once settled we had to fight the tendency to try to see, despite the impossible darkness. My eyes, on their own, were squinting and opening wide, alternating trying to focus on some invisible person or gather as much of any potential light in the room. I also was seeing washes of color and random shapes and even an imaginary table and people around me, as if my mind was using aural and tactile input to create a corresponding virtual image.

As promised by the "Unsicht-bar" website, dining in darkness sharpens the other senses. We smelled the beer coming when our waiter, Andre, wheeled the drink cart up to the table. The food tasted not only gourmet, but wonderfully exotic. My favorite course was actually the salad appetizer plate, probably because it was my first food in the darkness, but also because it was the most diverse plate. I had actual salad, which is to say lettuce with tomatoes and dressing, but also little finger food: olives, nuts, carrots, mushrooms, something with a dollop of something hummus-like on top, some sort of stuffed pepper and a crunchy thing stuffed with something. The best part was when the plate was first placed before me and I could explore with my hands and nose. The first thing I did with each plate was stick my fingers in it. I ate with my hands half of the time---in the dark you don't have to worry about disgusting fellow diners with poor table manners (no slurping or smacking though). I secretly love eating with my hands. I was glad, though, that I had made a point of washing them thoroughly just before we went in.

Time had no meaning in the darkness. We ate at a leisurely pace, chatting about the experience and about unrelated things: traveling, sensory deprivation, New College. Our waiter, Andre, spoke perfect English, which was great because our friends did not speak much German. Andre struck me as a very insightful person, and I can imagine working in the darkness could give you a lot of time to reflect and see life (forgive me) from a different perspective. He was very calming and sensitive to our feelings; I can imagine some people finding the darkness upsetting or having panic-attacks.

I got rather quiet as the second course came along. The warmth and darkness made me feel too relaxed, like I needed to sleep. I wasn't actually tired, but I felt like curling up and sleeping. I felt like everything was going in slow motion, and my thoughts couldn't keep up with the conversation at times. Andre asked what I was thinking about all that time because he hadn't heard form me for awhile. It felt like a dream, I told him, but I wasn't thinking about anything. My mind was slow and blank. I could really forget that people existed at all and imagined the voices were coming directly from pure beings (pure being!) around me, and we were all floating in nothingness. I have never felt so... abstract. I forgot I even had a body, until this made me uncomfortable and gave me a little indigestion. A little ice water helped with that, and cooled me down in the still sweat-inducing room.

My main course was something like fried eggplant with an exotic curry-tomato sauce on top, served with nutty hush puppies and salty carrots. The fried eggplant was too hot to eat with my fingers, so I had to use a fork, which was funny because it is impossible to make an appropriate mouth-sized bite and you don't know it is too big until you try to put it in your mouth so I got a lot of food on my face. I had it easy compared to our friends, though, who had ordered meat and had to cut it with a knife! From what I heard that was no simple task. Dessert was ice cream with strawberry sauce---yum!

Andre told us that he loves traveling to London when he can (hence the good English) and that he would love to travel to the United States except that he is afraid of being thrown into jail and executed on the electric chair or something. I don't think he was really joking. There is a certain impression that foreigners have about our justice system, that it is baffling and irrational, and perhaps even unjust. On the other side though, he had told us when we were conversing earlier in the meal not to apologize for being Americans. We do have to apologize now when abroad, as if to make amends for our president and our war. Otherwise people say, "oh, you are an American... what the hell are you people thinking! Do you know what you have done?" Andre didn't say that, quite the contrary. He gave us a lot to think about.

It was wonderful to share the experience with good friends. Emerging from the darkness was like being born---my body re-materialized and I checked to see if I had spilled any food on my clothes (I hadn't---go me!). We said a warm goodbye to Andre, who had been our trusted guide and provider through the darkness and culinary delights. The meal lasted at least 3 hours, which Andre said was longer than the average, but I had no sense of how long it was; it felt like an eternity and no time at all.

Here is their website (German only):