Enhanced Eating

brandenburg gate

In a previous post, The Old Man and the Pea, I mentioned that a 95-year old gentleman named Frank has recently moved into my house. It’s quite a change in lifestyle for him, and also for me. But so far things are going well. He seems to have no regrets, and nor do I.

However, it was sobering to realise recently that he has reached a stage of life where he has no plans. For him life is in the moment and small pleasures have to suffice. He can’t see or hear well enough to go out alone but he enjoys family life, sitting in the garden, trips to the pub, and listening to tapes about British history. He never turns down a biscuit or a gin and tonic and he generally eats whatever we put in front of him, quite cheerfully. We try to remember to tell him what it is but in the flurry of getting everyone’s food on the table this sometimes gets overlooked. There have been many times when he’s got to the end of a meal and said that he has no idea what it was, but it ‘tasted nice’.

frank gin and tonic

In contrast, I’m still at the stage of life where I’m able to have a head full of plans for the places I want to go and the things I want to do. I love my list and one of my favourite treats so far has been a visit to Berlin two summers ago with Mike and my two youngest children, Henry and Molly. I expected it to be both vibrant and affecting, and so it was. I was impressed by the candour with which Berlin’s terrible history is recounted. And it was fascinating to see the remains of the Wall and to read stories of the people who were affected by it. But those are tales for another day as recently I’ve been remembering the holiday for a different reason. Our trip to a dark restaurant.

The first dark restaurant opened in Zurich in 1999 and there are now a number scattered throughout the world. The concept behind it is to take away your sense of sight so that your other senses are heightened. Some of these restaurants provide blindfolds to their customers but most create a dark environment. The one that we visited makes the enterprising claim that it is 32% darker than all other dark restaurants.berlin skyline

We went at the end of a busy day of sightseeing and were shown into a dimly lit bar where we ordered drinks. The barman gave us menus and told us to choose between five options; beef, poultry, fish, vegetarian and surprise. Mike chose vegetarian, Henry and Molly opted for fish and my choice was poultry. We could see from the printed menus that we would be having four courses but there was no clue what the food would be. Mike’s starter was described as ‘a taste of Aztecan masculinity on wavy green and voluptuous red bedding’, and I was already looking forward to my dessert which promised ‘a dark beauty, illuminated by the delicate seduction and admiration of her rosy companions’.

Our blind waiter, Ben, came and introduced himself and told us the two basic rules. We were not to move around the restaurant without a guide, and we must carry no light source of any kind including lighters, mobile phones and watches. Then he instructed us to form a conga line with him in front and he led us round a corner until the outside world was left behind and everything went black. He took us to our table and explained where the chairs were. I couldn’t tell if I was standing in front of the chair or behind and had to ask.

berlin black

I shall never forget the next two hours. Ben arrived periodically with a tray and talked to us carefully as he gave us our food. ‘Now Mike, I am passing the soup to you. Pass it on to Henry’. ‘Imagine that your place setting is a clock. Your spoons are at twelve o’clock.’ At first we were quiet as we ate. The food was delicious but perplexing and it required concentration. We sought clues in the texture and smell as well as the flavour. I could tell that my starter included satay sauce, but other ingredients were elusive. Then we started offering one another samples and debating what they might be. We could hear other people talking but they seemed to be some distance away. At one point a bottle smashed to the ground.

black square

There was a longish break between the first and second course and to pass the time, I started a game. I asked everyone to name a place that they love and to say why. Molly’s was Chatsworth which we’d recently visited together, Henry’s was New York because of the jazz and the bustle, Mike chose Johannesburg for its vibrant modern African culture and mine was Monterey in California. I have memories of sitting in an oceanside shack restaurant at Fisherman’s Wharf. As I ate clam chowder I watched pelicans bobbing on the water and sea otters and dolphins playing in the distance. When we’d all had our turn we had another couple of rounds with music and films. I learned new things about my companions and realised that I was listening wholeheartedly whereas normally my attention would be diluted by looking at people around me. Their clothes, what they were eating, how they were relating to one another…

At the end when we went back into the light I saw a big red stain down the front of my dress. The ‘rosy companions’ were clearly some kind of red fruit. We did find out what we’d been eating before we left but I won’t spoil the surprise in case you ever decide to go. I highly recommend it. You can find details by clicking here.

We really enjoyed the food even though we didn’t know what it was. Nor did we know what our surroundings looked like. They could have been anywhere on a scale from opulent to minimalist. We had to be accepting of what was provided to us. And without distractions we focused on the moment with nothing to anchor us other than the people around us. I’ve thought a lot about this experience recently. I wonder if it gives a bit of insight into how mealtimes feel for my 95-year old future father-in-law.

plate

For Molly

birthday

Molly is the youngest of my four children, and Thursday was her eighteenth birthday. It was a landmark for both of us. For over twenty-seven years I’ve been responsible for the care of one or more children. That is no longer the case.

Although I’ve loved having a family, it does seem to have been going on for a very long time, and has not been without its challenges. A notably low point came during one of Will’s birthday parties. Emma was two, Henry was just a few weeks old, and I was only thirty-four but felt ninety-four as I’d been up most of the night. I hid in the downstairs loo hyperventilating, crying and soggy as a horde of five-year olds marauded through the house.

There were many years, too, when the biggest trial was the children’s endless squabbling. Each jostling for prime position. Then I was given one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever had. Just say ‘sort it out yourselves.’ Realising I could tell them this and walk away was a great discovery. And when there was no parental audience to annoy, they always did sort it out.

chicks

I want to reassure my children that I’m fully committed to being their mother for the rest of my useful life. But hopefully there will now be fewer occasions when I’m called on to transfer money between bank accounts at short notice, and to provide lifts in the middle of the night. I did a rough calculation the other day and realised that I’ve been a parent at nineteen schools and playgroups, bought about fifty-two pairs of school shoes and organised seventy-two birthday breakfasts.

I can truthfully say I love my children equally, which seems a miracle as they’re such different characters. I heard recently that ‘very few parents love one child more than the other, but at different times in raising children, favouritism is unavoidable.’ Mine have certainly all tried my patience at times, and have each had the honour of being the most and least favoured child an equal number of times. Or so it seems to me. I hope they remember it the same way.

My two sons and two daughters have given me many positive things. My life has been enriched immeasurably by their interests and quirks. From blues music and tennis to theatre, travel and politics, and most recently, Molly’s experiments with photography. And they’ve unintentionally pushed me to find out what I can do, and also what I can’t. I’ve had to learn patience. That’s been a struggle and there have been times when I’ve scraped up a last little bit from somewhere. There have been many occasions when I haven’t managed it.

It’s easy too, to talk about the selflessness of parenthood. The times when you have to do things you really would prefer not to. But there has to be a bit of selfishness too. You have to make some time for yourself and to keep sight of who you are. Otherwise you disappear down the plughole. That’s why the treats have helped me so much.

plughole

Another of the great things about the children is that they’ve made me laugh and Molly as the youngest has taken a highly individual approach to life. She preferred to get inside the duvet cover and regularly experimented with sleeping upside down. At the theatre she sat with her back to the stage. And when she was six, she packed her older brother’s ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ CD in her satchel for ‘show and tell’ at school. With two older brothers and a sister she’s been desperate to keep up and has been ready for university since she was ten.

blue mima

Her approach to cooking also bends the rules. Recently we had a family meal in the garden and she made a banana cake for pudding. As she carried it out she whispered to me. ‘If it’s not nice, could you say you made it.’ The first indications were promising. It looked good – a perfect loaf shape, sitting on the plate all ready to be cut into tempting slices. Luckily it tasted delicious, too so we asked how she made it. ‘I followed the recipe for chocolate chip cookies’ she said inscrutably.

biscuitsbanana loaf

And on this occasion, the final words are for Molly. In the week in which you finally join your brothers and sister as adults, I send you a great deal of love and want to pass on just a few tips:

  • Remember that life is an adventure. You never know what each day will bring.
  • Make your own happiness. Anything that other people provide is a bonus.
  • Eat salad.
  • Enjoy the sunshine but when it rains dress warmly, and try to enjoy that too.
  • Keep your sense of humour, your curiosity about life and your open, loving heart.

And lastly, be adaptable and don’t worry too much about following a recipe for life. Sometimes the chocolate chip cookies come out as cookies and sometimes they come out as banana cake.

It’s just the way things are.

mimsy