Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Blind Man's Bluff

I had dinner last night at The Blindekuh (Blind man's Bluff), a somewhat famous restaurant here in Zurich where you dine in total darkness. I was planning to have my post-defense celebration dinner there but one of my close friends won't be here in June, so we decided to have a "rehearsal dinner" before she leaves!

I was pretty excited about eating there, as it's actually really difficult to find complete darkness in the modern world. I've been in it before, at the south pole, although not for very long, so I wasn't totally sure how it would be. Apparently it's not unusual for people to freak out and find the darkness claustrophobic. One of the aims of the restaurant (aside from serving excellent food!) is to let people with full vision get a glimpse of life as a person with a visual impairment. I have to admit I was curious about the people who freak out in the total darkness of the restaurant--presumably if they lost their vision they would learn to deal with the darkness?

I found the meal itself really fun--I got to eat with my hands and no one looked at me strangely. There was a knife and fork, but to be honest I'm not that good at using those tools even when I can see (I eat nearly everything with a spoon, actually), so I didn't even bother with them. I also felt free to hunch up over the plate to avoid spilling food on my shirt. I spill food on my clothes all the time, partly because I'm naturally endowed with quite a "shelf" but also because I've never really figured out the trick of getting food from plate to mouth without some of it jumping off the fork/spoon. It's kind of sad that at this age I'm still really not adept at using cutlery, but I guess if I haven't learned by now I'm not likely to. So at home, I like to just hunch up over the bowl (why yes, those spoons generally come with bowls) and avoid the whole issue, but when I eat out I always feel compelled to pretend I'm a civilized adult and sit up.

We arrived at 1830 when it was totally deserted. Not too many early bird specials here! We were there for about three hours (typical length of time one spends eating out here in Switzerland) and only left because the noise level got quite high. When we got to the dimly lit "re-entry" corridor, I got really dizzy at first--it was like my brain had forgotten how to process visual input! It only lasted a minute, but it was a bizarre feeling.

I think the most difficult thing my friend and I experienced was keeping our conversation smoothly on track. The couple next to us was also speaking english, and there were several times when one of us thought they (or the waitron) was speaking to us and it kind of derailed us. And when we actually did have a little aside with them once or twice, it was hard for us and them to tell when it was quite finished and thus go back to our private conversations. It's one thing to talk on the phone to someone and miss out on visual cues, but normally there's just one conversation going on. I guess what happened in the restaurant is like when someone on the phone starts talking to someone near them in person without moving the receiver away from their mouth. I did continue to make a fair number of hand gestures and nods, although I do that on the phone too. I did enjoy the freedom from worrying about people scrutinizing my body language (or cretinous eating posture...). I hadn't realized quite how much pressure I feel about that (all surely from inside my own head) and how nice it was to hunch up weirdly against the wall and fiddle with the knife and fork to keep my hands busy.

The biggest thing I noticed was how sad I was to be back outside. In retrospect, I had found it incredibly restful being in the dark for two reasons. The obvious one is just the vast amount of visual stimulus that I didn't have to deal with for a few hours. Apparently my brain spends a lot of time filtering all that stuff out (or maybe that's the problem--that my brain isn't filtering it out very well) and it was nice to not have to do that for a while. The other is that I naturally moved much more slowly in the dark to avoid knocking my water glass over, and moving slowly and mindfully is, of course, extremely calming but is something I'm rarely able to manage to do in my daily life.

I was reminded of a section in the book They Severed the Earth from the Sky by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul Barber where they discuss the vast amount of cosmological information that has been packed into myths over the years. The idea at first strikes a modern reader as preposterous--how could normal Joes possibly collect and collate vast amounts of astronomical data? But they raise the point that before the invention of both artificial lighting and the written word, people would have had a lot of time on their hands after sunset, which would (in warm climates and seasons) naturally be spent sitting around, perhaps gazing at stars.

That isn't exactly the same thing as being in total darkness, but it does get at the same idea, which is the ability to look away from the shiny. I find that hard to do. I already live a more, shall we say, contemplative life than many people I know. I don't get out much, and I'm aware of having to consciously choose what to do with my limited amount of time every day, but I guess I'm still feeling the rub of frenetic modern life. I have my hand in the cookie jar and I can't get it out because I don't want to let go of any of my activities. I would love to find some non-eye-dependent activities so I could give my eyes more of a rest, but I haven't been able to come up with much. I have trouble focusing on audiobooks (although I keep trying) and of course I'm always tempted to knit when I have one on, reintroducing the eyes and some shiny (multi-tasking). I guess I could try having "dark hour" with the book playing and see how that goes?

I'm in the home stretch of things at work--my thesis is due to the department in 8 days, and then I have 2 weeks to get my defense presentation together. I get only 20 minutes to present three years (and about 100 pages worth) of work. Good thing I talk really fast!

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