Last fall, Aboriginal Ministries Circle and Indigenous Justice staff dined together in the dark at a Toronto restaurant called O Noir. O Noir draws its inspiration from Blindekuh, a restaurant opened in Zurich by a blind pastor named Jorge Spielmann. The idea is to give sighted diners an experience of what it is like for visually impaired individuals to dine out. And as at Blindekuh, all of O Noir’s wait staff are visually impaired.
This would be a new experience for us. A blind diner, of course, would have many more strategies for independence than we did. But I was excited about the idea of dining in total darkness, though I had no relevant experience on which to base that excitement. Others were more hesitant, with perhaps equally little basis for their trepidation.
In the foyer, outside the main dining room, we read through the menu for the evening in reduced light. Our first lesson was one of agency and choice. We were asked to select from “Surprise Vegetarian,” “Surprise Meat,” or “Surprise Seafood” as an appetizer. For our main course and dessert we were given specific, familiar options, as well as the option again to be surprised by the chef.
Selections made, our server led us to our table. We had to work together to navigate in total darkness. We were asked to line up and put a hand on each other’s left shoulder. Unfamiliar with relying on a guide, I felt more like a child holding on to a rope so no one would get lost. Some of us put two hands on each shoulder in front of us, for extra security. In we went into a pitch black room, where our server assisted us to reach for our chairs and sit down.
When the meal came in the dark room, I was glad a colleague, speaking from the other end of the table, helped me identify that I was eating calamari. I don’t normally like calamari, but I knew that was a risk when I ordered the Surprise Seafood appetizer. It was surprisingly okay. The experience emphasized how accustomed I am to relying on visual cues to assess the pleasure of a meal. It was unnerving not to know what to expect before putting food into my mouth.
Since we couldn’t make eye contact, we worked together through speech, and with the comfort of laughter, to grow more at ease in our unfamiliar surroundings. We appreciated the accuracy of our servers, who, unlike our group, were experts in navigating the dark.
Many of us tried the Surprise Meat main course, which turned out to be a large portion of roast beef, mashed potatoes, and green beans. I had been looking forward to trying to cut up my food in the dark, but I was only allowed to try out a butter knife with our dinner roll. (And I’m still not sure how some of my butter ended up on my cheek.) Our meat was served in bite-sized pieces, and the food was warm but not hot. Our hosts knew that for us first-timers, the journey in the dark was potentially hazardous and that we would likely overestimate our skills. My colleague Stephanie, seated next to me, might have been at some risk had I been offered a hot bowl of soup or given a sharp steak knife to manipulate.
As we no longer could use our sight, we began to use other senses and skills to navigate our surroundings. For example, we used touch to orient ourselves to our places at the table. We used hearing to gain a sense of how big the space was. We joined in singing Happy Birthday to someone elsewhere in the restaurant and located them when it got to the line “Happy Birthday, dear __________,” when our half of the restaurant went quiet, not knowing the individual’s name.
Reflecting on the subject of darkness afterwards, I thought about how we spend roughly half of our lives in some degree of darkness. We are accustomed to navigating in partial darkness a lot of the time, particularly the further north we live in this hemisphere. We get up and go to work in the dark, and return home in the dark, attending to errands along the way. We go out for the evening and attend outdoor events in the dark. We drive in darkness. We exercise in darkness. And we do have meals in at least partial darkness. Candlelit dinners are romantic. Dinner in front of the television in an otherwise darkened room is normal. So why was the idea of eating in total darkness so strange?
Given the context in which my colleagues and I work, I couldn’t help but think about parallels between our experience of dining in the dark and the experience of settlers and newcomers to Canada who are learning to work with Indigenous peoples and build right relationships. I also encounter a wide range of reactions to the idea of working on reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people. Some are excited about the idea, while others are unsure or uncomfortable. And, regardless of one’s frame of mind, there are potential hazards along the way; mistakes can be made.
Relationship building is not easy, even though, by the time we’ve been adults for a while, most of us have had experience building a wide variety of relationships. So why can it feel, as someone recently put it, like we have to push a rock up a hill to build respectful relationships in post-colonial Canada? It is different, new skills are involved, we’re not sure of the way forward, but building on the growing expertise of those who have had the courage to begin forging new bonds of relationship, we surely can find our way forward and be pleasantly surprised in the process.
Like a sighted person learning to navigate in the dark, we need to remember that there will be times when we need to let go of the ways in which we would normally approach a situation and instead rely on others to make choices for us. We need to remember they may be good choices, even great choices—choices that keep us from hurting ourselves or hurting others. Most of all, we need to learn to accept that there will be times when we will feel discomfort and insecurity as we try to create something new.
—Lori Ransom is Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice Animator for The United Church of Canada.