I felt butterflies fluttering wildly in my stomach as I approached the door for my fateful blind date. The waiter at the reception said that he was approaching, and the flying sensation jumped to my throat. I held out my hand to the stranger who introduced himself. He firmly gripped my sweating palm, and whispered softly, “Close your eyes and follow me.” And that’s when the fun began.
No, this wasn’t your average blind date that had been arranged by Tinder or friends of a friend. Rather, this was a blind date with myself that I had diligently planned with two important intentions in mind: going deeper into my senses; and facing my childhood fear of going blind. Thus, I phoned in my reservation for a solo lunch date at Dans le noir ? two days in advance, allowing ample time for the anticipation of my experience to build.
Dans le noir ? originally opened its doors in 2004 in Paris as an innovative hotspot for blind dining. Eaters are immersed in complete darkness while they bite into their multiple-course mystery meals, all while being periodically guided by blind waiters.
In my case for my two-course Saturday lunch, I was led by a quick-talking Français noir guide named Ya-Ya, who gave me a brief rundown of the do’s and don’t’s of eating blind as he directed my hand to the wooden back of my seat. The biggest rule to remember, he instructed, « Simplement dites ‘Ya-Ya’ si vous avez besoin de quelque chose » (Just shout ‘Ya-Ya’ if you need anything.)
I shyly began fondling the cutlery on my table as I introduced myself to the two French vacationing couples who were seated on either side of me. « Cherie, tu es ravissante aujourd’hui, » (Honey, you look beautiful today), the man to my left said sarcastically to his wife.
« Vous-voulez de l’eau ? » (Would you like water?), the woman to my right asked me, and I delicately handed her my plastic cup. « Je vais juste vous donner un petit peu parce que je ne vois rien. » (I’ll just give you a bit because I can’t see a thing.) She said, and I cautiously moved the brim of the cup to my lips, nearly spilling the overflowing liquid.
« Cherie, mon verre est plein déjà, » (Honey, my glass is already full), said her husband across the table and she replaced the pitcher with a thud.
After the initial shock of being seated in our cave of darkness wore off, I began to scan the room. There was not a flicker, not even a trace of light to be seen, and I realized there was no difference in my vision whether I had my eyes open or shut. In the absence of visual scenery, my imagination began to kick in. I heard the clamor of silverware, the steady lull of surround-sound conversations, and the formality of the blind guides toward the guests. I vividly pictured a ballroom scene around me. For a moment, I was in the fanciest of Michelin star restaurants. My fantasizing was interrupted with an abrupt, « Excuzez-moi, c’est mon pied ! » (Excuse me, that’s my foot!) from the man across me to my left.
« Ah, pardon ! Je ne vois rien » (Oh, sorry! I can’t see a thing), the man across from me to the right apologized. How his foot casually reached two tables over remains a mystery to me.
Ya-Ya returned to our table, clanging our dishes in hand. He gestured my fingers gently to my mystery glass of wine, which I noticed, like the water cup, was made of plastic for practical purposes. He then placed my appetizer in front of me and directed my fork into my hands. And from there, I was on my own. I dipped my fork into the abyss of my plate, and brought something creamy to my tongue. I imagined that it was the filling of a slice of quiche chèvre (quiche with goats cheese). I took a second bite into what must have been the crust. Then a third bite into a pile of greenery. And a fourth into something sweet – mango? A fifth into leaves with peanuts. No, sunflower seeds! A sixth again into mango, yes it was mango! A seventh again into something creamy – what was it? Not cheese. Hummus? An eighth into the tart crust again. At this point, I was utterly confused at what I was eating. As there became less food on my plate, eating became more challenging as I struggled to scrape my fork across the dish, not knowing if what I would gather was food or air. « Vous avez fini ? » (Have you finished?) Ya-Ya asked the woman to my right.
« Uh… Je ne sais pas, » (Um… I’m not sure), she replied with uncertainty. My thoughts exactly.
Ya-Ya retrieved our possibly-finished plates with grace, and my hand clumsily ventured to my glass of wine. I caressed the stem and gingerly took a sip, hoping for rosé. Although my sense of smell seemed to have diminished, I could taste that it was decidedly red.
In between courses, I became self-conscious as I stared blankly into the distance, not registering half the time if my eyes were open or closed. I must have been glaring awkwardly at the couples to either side of me, shamelessly listening to their conversations with the absence of my smartphone to play with or a book to read. Nevertheless, I was comforted by the continuous thuds and clangs of forks inadvertently hitting the floors. I was at home amidst my blind tribe.
The main dish came with the same delicate placement of dishes into our hands. I brought my nose close to the plate, but its scent was diluted by the smells of other meals around me. I ditched the fork this time, and instead shamelessly brought my fingers to feel the bare texture of my food. We were all blind anyways, right?
Touch told it all. I sensed something round and soft, and placed the bite-sized morsel into my lips. Potato? Pasta? Gnocchi! This was verified by the other eaters around me. Mine, a vegetarian request, seemed to be a gnocchi without sauce, whereas theirs was gnocchi with almonds, mint, and duck. Or beef. Or chicken. No one could truly tell. Then, I moved my fingers to something greasy, triangular, and fried. I took a tiny bite into its corner, and thought immediately, grilled cheese! I took a second bite, getting into the filling, and something meaty bit me back. Croque monsieur? Is this ham in the middle?
Suddenly, my mind became panicked. Touch, smell, and taste were not sufficient for me to decipher what I was attempting to ingest. My mind flashed back three years prior to a natural foods diner in Wyoming, when my waiter served me a very realistic fake chicken sandwich, which after becoming suspicious a fourth of the way in, our waiter declared, “My bad, I thought you wanted the real chicken.” Upon which I promptly vomited in the parking lot.
“Ya-Ya?” I cried out, nausea creeping up on me. “Ya-Ya?” I said a bit louder, but felt as though my blindness had also made me mute. The other couples carried on with their meal, saying no, they hadn’t seen him. I waited patiently, becoming ever-more helpless as 5 minutes turned into an eternity. The odor of my plate teased me with simultaneous temptation for the gnocchi bits and disgust for the croque monsieur. I was utterly helpless, glued in fear to my seat. Anger bubbled to the surface for Ya-Ya, my trusted caretaker, breaking his promise to be there for me when I truly needed him. Yet underneath the anger, my frustration with my current state of incapability sizzled viciously. Suddenly, I wanted my sight back.
“Ya-Ya?” I began squealing again. This time, my blind tribe of table mates joined in. “Ya-Ya?!”
I was overwhelmed with gratitude as my guide surfaced with a casual, « Oui, madame ? »
« Je voudrais vérifier simplement, est-ce que c’est végétarien ? Parce que… je ne vois rein » (I’d just like to verify, is this vegetarian? Because… I can’t see anything.)
« Oui, madame, » he stated, nonchalantly. Feeling both relieved and embarrassed, I took a third bite into my now-cool croque monsieur. Which now obviously was a samosa, filled with seasoned tofu or tempeh.
I finished the dish obediently and sipped the last of my wine. Somehow, it had lost its spark, and now tasted of grape juice from the plastic glass. Ya-Ya walked down the aisles of tables, announcing loudly into the cacophony of noise, « Mesdames et messieurs, avez-vous des verres vides ? » Plastic cups crashed into his dish bin, and I imagined him a janitor walking down the aisles of our cafeteria. Our fine dining experience had morphed seamlessly into my school lunch hall from second grade. A knot formed in my stomach as I was reminded of the janitor who gave me a red card for powerwalking through the cafeteria to meet my friends on the playground. In my head, I saw the hot tears that flooded down my cheeks to drench my favorite red dress with shame.
A hand on my shoulder brought me out of my trance, and I nearly leaped out of my skin in surprise. « Madame, avez-vous fini ? Vous-voulez partir ? » (Madame, have you finished? Are you ready to go?), Ya-Ya said with compassion.
« Oui, monsieur. Merci, » (Yes sir, thank you), I replied cautiously. He gave me his hand one final time and ushered me past through the unrelenting uproar of sensational dining, and into the newly-radiant light of day.