Sunday, 22 July 2012

Dining in the Dark

The other week, I went out on a 'blind date' with a difference - I knew my dining companion very well already; it was the restaurant which was blind. These 'Dunkelrestaurants,' as they are known in Germany, have been around for a while now - I know there is one in Berlin, Hamburg and most likely many more places too. London and Paris also have their own versions. I had never been to such a place before, but have always been intrigued by the concept, so we gave 'Mondschein' (Moonshine) in Leipzig a try. The idea was originally to raise awareness of the everyday problems faced by blind or partially-sighted people, such as, how do you eat if you can't see the plate in front of you?

Upon arrival at Mondschein, we were greeted in the lounge area (which remains lit) by a waitress, who handed us the menus and explained how things worked at the restaurant. Firstly, the menu was no ordinary menu - guests have the choice between either the Meat, Fish, Vegetarian or Surprise menu. Each menu does not specify the four courses it contains; instead, hints in the form of word puzzles are given (something like: The French farmer takes a waltz with a Spanish princess in a field of emerald hearts - OK so I made this one up, but basically they hinted at where one ingredient may have come from, without revealing anything too telling). I opted for fish, and my companion chose the meat menu.

We had a drink in the lounge, and then our waitress for the evening, Daniela, came out to fetch us. She herself was blind, but had the advantage of knowing her way around the restaurant. In a sort of congo formation, we placed our hands on each others' shoulders and Daniela led us into the pitch black of the main restaurant. We entered via a zig-zag passageway, obviously designed to avoid having just one door which, when opened, would shed light from outside into the dark restaurant. Daniela described the room to us and led us to our table, then we ordered drinks. An amusing touch - when she returned with our beers, she placed glasses and bottles on the table and told us to have fun pouring our own beers! The room was completely void of any light source, and we had already been told to turn off phones, remove watches etc., so this was a tricky manoeuvre, and despite my best efforts, I did spill some beer on the table. Luckily, no one could see it!

The waitress then returned with our starters and told us which cutlery we would need to eat it. I had soup and my partner salad; soup proved to be surprisingly easy to eat in the dark, just a case of finding my mouth with the spoon, but the salad was a different matter, and called for total abandonment of cutlery and eating with hands instead. Again, luckily, no one could witness these table 'manners'. The darkness added a very interesting element to the dinner conversation - at the beginning, I found it harder to hear what my companion was saying; do I normally rely on facial expression so much? The fact that we couldn't see our fellow diners also made me aware of what I was saying and who I was talking about - how could I be sure who was sitting at the next table? Although we couldn't see the other people in the room, everyone seemed friendly, all giggling together as someone knocked a glass onto the floor and called for the waitress only to find she had disappeared into the kitchen, and everyone called out 'goodbye' to the whole room as they left - when does this normally happen in restaurants?

The plates were cleared and our second course followed. Daniela instructed us to simply call her name if we needed anything, as there was no other way or attracting her attention. This felt slightly impolite to me, as I cringe when people call 'Waitress!' in normal restaurants - but then, you normally don't know the waitress's name in a restaurant, and usually have more subtle ways of attracting attention. It made me very aware of how different life must be if you were blind - what if you were with a friend and they went off somewhere without letting you know? Even if they were just steps away, you might not realise and the only thing you could do is call out their name and hope for an answer.

We enjoyed the whole meal - my second course was a salad, third course was the main, and dessert was a pudding consistency with an unidentifiable flavour. For the rest of the meal, I hadn't been too bad at identifying what I was eating, but here I did struggle. The hardest thing to eat without being able to see was the main course - fish with sliced potatoes and courgettes in a mustard sauce. I kept stabbing the plate with my fork and lifting it to my mouth only to find it empty! I ended up using the technique of scraping my cutlery around my plate until I made contact with something, then scooping it up quickly before I forgot where I had left it. It was also important to keep my drink in exactly the same place every time I placed it on the table, further than elbow's reach from me - to avoid any more accidents.

At the end of the meal, we were led back into the lounge, where our eyes took a while to re-adjust to the light. Here, another waitress asked us what we thought we had eaten, and then told us what exactly we had had. My mysterious pudding turned out to be Waldmeister-flavoured panacotta with almond liqueur, which I would never have guessed! Otherwise, there were no huge surprises, and we felt proud of our guessing skills.

All in all, the whole thing was most definitely an experience. I didn't enjoy the darkness that much, as it began to feel quite claustrophobic after only a short time, and a conversation in the dark certainly leads to different topics of discussion, but I feel restaurants like these really do 'shed light' (sorry) on living with impaired vision, both raising awareness and providing jobs for blind people who might not normally be able to work in a busy restaurant. It was interesting that once in the darkness, the tables were turned somewhat in that our waitress became the one who knew her surroundings, and we relied on her entirely to bring us our food and to bring us back out at the end of our experience. Certainly one dinner I won't forget in a hurry!

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