On being ... seen differently
I realized recently that I’m a bit of a butter snob. Well, judgmental about it at restaurants is more accurate. I’ll get back to that in a minute….
A couple weeks ago I went with two friends (Trish and Stu -- not their real names) and my sister to O.Noir Toronto – a restaurant where you eat in complete darkness. (For those whose French is rusty, noir means black in French. Clever, non?)
Yes, O.Noir is a concept restaurant, but it’s not a gimmick. The concept came from Zurich’s Blind Cow Restaurant, which was started by a blind minister in 1999. The idea is to give people a sense of what it’s like for a blind person to eat a meal out.
Other friends had eaten there so I knew a bit about what to expect. For example, I knew that, to ensure total darkness in the dining room, you’re asked to take off watches and devices that might emit light. I also knew you order before entering the dining room and that you could order items from the menu or a surprise multi-course meal. (To ensure a trip to the Emergency Room isn’t part of the surprise, you’re asked if you have food allergies.)
Though I knew these details, the implications of them didn’t register with me until I was there. For example, though I planned on ordering the surprise (my friends who’d dined there dared me to), when I saw steak on the menu it dawned on me that I’d have a hell of a time cutting a steak in the dark and so ordering shrimp suddenly seemed like a good idea. Remembering the dare, however, I went stuck with the surprise.
When Trish decided to order off the menu, Stu, in his usual enthusiastic manner, said, “Great -- I’ll get the surprise and we can share!” As soon as Stu said this, all of us had the same thought: how do you share when you can’t see? It never occurred to me that if I were visually impaired I’d have a hard time sharing appetizers and desserts, which is one of my biggest pleasures when eating out.
After we placed our order we were introduced to our server -- Jenny -- who, like all the servers there, was visually impaired. Jenny asked us to form a line, with each of us holding the shoulder of the person in front of us; she then guided us to our table. Thankfully the walk wasn’t too far.
Once we were seated, Jenny explained the orientation of our place settings and encouraged us to feel for our plate, cutlery, water glass, etc. Then she offered us rolls and told us we’d find our bread plate and butter if we reach out far in front of us.
Ah yes, the butter. In reaching for it I noticed it was one of those single-serve, plastic packets you peel the foil off to unwrap. When I felt it I thought, “hmmm … rather cafeteria-like.” But when I was ready to start buttering my bread, I was damned thankful I could feel the little container -- thanks to it, I had at least a chance of getting butter on the knife and then on the bread.
Before leaving to get our drinks, Jenny asked our names. This seemed really odd to me. But, when she started serving the appetizers I realized that by learning our names she was able to ensure she gave each of us what we’d ordered. And, I must say, I’ve never appreciated knowing the server’s name as much as I did that night. More than once I could hear someone nearby but I had no idea who it is -- it was nice to be able to discretely ask: “Jenny?”
When the entrees arrived, though Stu and I quickly agreed that our main course was chicken (thankfully de-boned), figuring out what accompanied it was trickier. There were a few vegetables I never did conclusively identify. Mind you, because I was intent on figuring out what I was eating, I seemed to notice the taste of the food more than usual.
I was unprepared for how challenging it was to find the food on the plate. The best I could do was kind of stab with my fork and hope I got something. And, though finding your mouth seems straightforward, there’s room for surprise there too. One time, as I brought the fork to my mouth, I felt something gently slap my cheek. I quickly realized it was an asparagus spear jutting off the fork. Though I laughed about it, I did think how embarrassed I’d have been if others had seen me do that, which certainly could be the case when a blind person eats with others who are sighted.
The evening featured revelations for each of us. My sister, for example, became aware of a habit she never realized she had: she likes to eat in a particular order -- a bite of meat, then some potato, then some vegetable. Not an easy habit to indulge when you can’t see your food. And at one point Stu asked: “Do you guys find yourself nodding when someone says something? I just realized how much I do that! I guess if I want you to know I’m agreeing with something, I’ve actually got to say it. It’s so funny…”
With no pun intended, I must say the experience made me see many things differently. I gained a tremendous respect for how hard it must be to make your way through a world you can’t see. Simple tasks like salting your food become challenging, and you must be very trusting of others for things that sighted people take for granted, like the ease of walking to and from the table and passing things to others. I also learned some embarrassing things about myself, like my making butter-based assessments of restaurants. Shame on me… From now on, whenever there are plastic packets of butter, cream, or whatever, instead of passing judgment, I’ll think: “How considerate of the visually impaired”.
© 2010 Ingrid Sapona