A visit to “Café Noir”

Yesterday, a group of students (most, but not all of them visually impaired) held a special event at my university: “Café Noir.” The idea is simple: Have a café in a pitch-dark room (“noir” is French for “black”). This way people with normal sight can experience what it is like to be unable to see in a way that’s actually fun. I knew that two friends of mine were part of the staff (one of them told me about the event) and it sounded interesting, so I decided to go. You had to get reservations, which were sold the week before. I got the last but one ticket – just in time!

My reservation was for 5 pm, so after work I went to the room stated on the ticket instead of going home. When I arrived, a bunch of people were already waiting outside the room. After a few minutes, the organizer came out. She asked us to form groups of six and line up so that everyone would touch the shoulders of the person in front of them. The groups would go in one after the other. I didn’t know any of the other guests, so I joined a random group. When it was my groups’ turn, she led us into a small room I call a “lightlock”: It’s like an airlock, but to keep light out rather than air in. After the outer door was closed, the room was dark. The inner door was opened and we were introduced to our waitress, who I’m going to call Anna (not her real name – I forgot to ask if I could use it). She brought us into the café. More precisely: She guided the first person in the line, and the others followed. Inside, she told us to wait and took us to our seats one after another.

Having tea without vision

While moving into the dark, my movements became slower and more careful. Anna told us that we would find a napkin and a spoon in front of us (I found that quickly) and sugar, milk and an empty bowl for waste in the middle of the table. Feeling around on the table, I found the milk and empty bowl. The sugar must have been further away, but I found a can of whipped cream. We were asked about drinks, and I chose tea. I first got a cup, then the teapot.

Now you might wonder how to pour in tea without seeing anything. Anna explained it, and actually it is not too difficult: Put your finger into the cup so that the finger tip is approximately on the level until which you want to pour your drink, then pour carefully and stop as soon as the liquid touches your finger. The hot tea was a bit tricky because the inside of the cup got warm and humid pretty quickly, and I wondered if the water I felt was tea or just condensation. We had no major spills at out table, though. Once the tea was in the cup and the cup in my hand, drinking was almost as easy as with light.

At about the same time when we got our drinks, the organizer announced a piano player. This was a bit funny, because as it turns out I know him as well (although I might have guessed he’d be involved). From this point on, we had really nice music in the background. 🙂

Eating in the dark was a bit more tricky than drinking. I had ordered fruitcake. The first challenge was to find the cake on the plate. Tea will flow the right way if you raise the cup to your lips, but cake won’t get to the spoon by itself. I ended up using my fingers a lot: Find the cake, use the spoon to split off a piece, use the fingers to make sure it stays on the spoon on the way to my mouth. I was extra careful after putting cream onto my cake. 😉

What’s in this cake?

While eating, we talked a little, mainly about things we noticed about the current situation, like what was easy and what difficult to do in the dark, what kind of fruit was in the cake and so on. It’s surprising how long it took to figure out the kind of fruit in the cake. Of course I know how different kinds of fruit taste, but without sight to confirm it took a few tries to be sure (it was peach and cherry).

A funny sentence overheard from a neighboring table: “Now we can’t see if Sue [name changed] blushes!” I don’t know what the conversation was about and if the previous remark was just sweet, a huge compliment or whatever, but yes, facial expressions don’t work if you can’t see. One of the things we use daily without thinking about it.

Paying was easier than you might think: Euro coins have notches on their side that are specifically designed to tell them apart by touch. I admit that I practiced that before. 😉 A guy at my table paid with a 5€ bank note, which made the girl next to him ask how he recognized that in the dark. With a grin I could not see but hear, he replied: “Well, I know that I have just two 5€ bills in my wallet.”

My feeling for time was completely off. When it was time to leave, I wouldn’t have guessed that almost one hour had passed. I don’t think that was due to the dark itself, rather the sheer amount of unusual impressions. Anna asked us to stand up and helped us to form a line again and led us to the “lightlock”, where we said goodbye.

Outside, I had to wait a moment until my eyes got used to the sudden brightness. On the way home I had a lot to think about. I never really thought about how much I use my eyes, I just do. A very nice and interesting afternoon. A huge thanks to everyone who helped making this possible!

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