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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.