When you remove the sense of sight something strange takes place. Your brain has to make a major adjustment. Suddenly, in the velvet-blackness, even the simplest of tasks becomes surreal... This was my experience when I ate the ‘The Blackout Restaurant’ in Tel Aviv. The Nalaga’at Centre is one of the most innovative theatres in the world and home to the Blackout restaurant. The word means ‘please touch’ in Hebrew - it is a space where there is equal dialogue and a meeting place for deaf, blind, deaf-blind and the general public. The theatre aims to integrate deaf-blind people as a professional company, providing a space for self-expression and their work has an international reputation. This spring, the centre hosted a meeting of British Council arts teams from Wider Europe and I had the privilege to take part and to meet colleagues from around the region in person for the first time.
Eating in the restaurant was a unique experience. I tried to pour water from a jug and missed my glass completely. I could not find my knife and fork and when I did, I felt like a five year old. I became a little feral, and ate my beautifully cooked fish and sweet potato with my fingers. Our waiter for the evening was eloquent, comfortable and perfectly at home. He was deaf/blind and therefore completely at ease in the blackout environment. As we ate, our conversation deepened. Myself and my colleagues discussed smells we could remember from being children – orange blossom, privet, our mothers’ cooking. We talked about music, and how as a teenager, it becomes your amplifier to the outside world. It was fascinating and a little disconcerting to have such an intimate conversation with people I had just met. I wondered if the same was true of our grandparents’ generation and those who have experienced the blackout of the Second World War? I thought about the connections between smell and memory in the limbic system in the brain. I thought about Proust and the madeleine cake in his masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past.
It seemed to be no coincidence that the restaurant is built in the shape of a ship and we were imaginatively sailing into the unknown. My dessert was a blend of cream and pistachio. It tasted comforting, like stroking silk with your tongue. As I commission and talk to writers in my future programming work for the British Council I will remember this evening. I suggest it is good for all of us to remind ourselves we are sensory beings and how the experience of the world can be sharpened if one of these is removed.