01 August 2006

but the devil's in the details.

It's been five years since I was in Paris, and in that half-decade (I feel old!), I'd forgotten how much I loved this city. It's refreshing to revisit a city - no pressure to see all the tourist sights, and more time to just wander the streets in search of something interesting. David arranged a random carpool from Saarbrucken with a French man going to Paris for the weekend. For 20 euro each, it beat the pants off the train ticket, and we got to take a leisurely drive through the beautiful French countryside and bond with a real live French baker. Our driver consumed a liter of beer enroute, and his ash blew back at me every time he lit a cigarette, but I'll just chalk it up to cultural experience. We ended up in Paris around 5, and met up at the Pompidou center with the lovely Allison, who was the next in a series of amazing friends willing to take in a couple of wandering refugees. She greeted us with a bottle of wine, a slab of brie, and a fresh baguette, and led us to the Champs de Mars to watch the sun set by the Eiffel Tower (see absurd numbers of pictures). We spent the evening exploring the area around the Latin Quarter and St. Michel before cramming all four of us into her two twin beds (well, four until Erin shoved Alli off their mattress onto the floor). I'm not sure how I'm going to adjust to having an entire bed to myself once I get back!

Sunday morning, David, Erin, and I went to the Pompidou Center. The building itself is an atrocity of modern architecture, but I think that was the intention. The pipes run on the outside of the building, color-coded depending on what they're used for. The escalators are enclosed in a tube system along one side of the building, giving the entire museum an industrial hamster cage aura. The hideous building conceals some beautiful modern art, however. David and I got lost in an enormous exhibit on video and multimedia art, some beautiful, some strange, but all fascinating. Our personal favorite was a stunning photo montage of different couples' intimacy - just thinking of the mechanics of allowing your photographer friend to stand in the corner during the most private moments of your life made the work incredible, not to mention the beautiful photography. The work made me want to give up this whole "saving the world" fixation and become a starving artist. At least I have a backup plan.

After the musuem, the brililant luck that Erin and I seem to bring with us everywhere caught up to us in the form of a torrential downpour. We all waited it out in Norte Dame, then stopped at a nearby cafe for hot chocolate. David's the only one who's never been to Paris, so we took him to the Lourve to at least see the pyramid and the massive building since we didn't have enough time to go inside. Since the rain had finally stopped, we went across the river to walk through the gardens and carnival to the former site of the guillotine. We caught the Metro (the first public transport system I ever encountered, and one that will always hold a special place in my heart!) back to Alli's apartment to change before our dinner to celebrate Alli's last night in Paris.

Another student in Alli's program discovered a restaurant called Dans le Noir? (in the dark) and recommended we eat there. The restaurant is pitch black and you're served by blind waiters to create an entirely new sensory experience. When you arrive, you order your food before ever entering the dining room. An a la carte menu is available, but most people pick the three course surprise menu - that's the entire point of the restaurant (not a food allergy friendly sort of place). You leave your bag and anything that lights up (watches, phones, etc) in lockers, then you're led into the room in a chain with a waiter holding the hand of the person in front, and everyone else following suit with hands on shoulders. The entrance is a winding hallway with three layers of curtains, so absolutely no light creeps into the dining room. The waiter takes each person one by one to their chair, and you feel your way into your seat and explore your table. With no light in the room, there's no adjustment to the darkness, so you truly can't see a thing. You can hear the voices of the neighboring tables to gauge the size of the room and the placement of other people, but other than that, we were completely lost. The waiter brought us our surprise wine, but left us to pour it ourselves. Fortunately, they don't use stemmed wine glasses, but it's still difficult to gauge what you're pouring. We stuck our fingers in the glasses to make sure we didn't flood the table with red wine. A simple thing like passing the bottle to the next person became a complicated process, as did finding a place to set the bottle so we wouldn't spill it and would be able to find it again.

The waiter first brought our salad course, and we all proceeded to feel and taste the food to determine what it was (cauliflower, sprouts, and some other sort of grassy vegetable with melon). Using a fork in the dark is nearly impossible, so I ended up just eating with my hands. Others shoveled food onto the fork with their fingers. We also had bread, so we had to navigate our hands across the table to reach the basket without disturbing the wine or other people's food. Take a sip of your drink, and you need your other hand to make sure you're putting it back onto the table and not someone's lap. It's interesting to realize the things that don't change even without sight - we all still found ourselves looking towards each other when talking and making the same facial expression we would if we could see. After the salad came the entree, which proved even harder to identify and eat with silverware. Alli and I had the seafood menu while David and Erin had the meat, so when I gave David a bite of mine, we had to feel each other's faces and hands to make sure no one got stabbed in the face with a fork. I never realized how dependent I was on my eyes, especially considering the horrible state of my vision. Chocolate mousse came last, which proved the easiest to eat in the dark (or we just had more practice by then). Everything tasted so much more intense without the ability to see it. We had to depend on the flavor to identify our food, so we paid much closer attention to the sensation. Nothing we ate was particularly spiced or seasoned, but still was the most flavorful meal we'd ever had. We felt entirely helpless sitting there, knowing we probably couldn't even find the door on our own. The waiter spoke only French, so we had to discern what he was saying while Alli attempted to translate what bits she understood, which added an additional sensation of helplessness to the entire process. Overall, it was one of the most sensual experiences of my life.

The restaurant holds monthly blind date events, which we all agreed would be a fascinating experience. When meeting someone for the first time, like our hosts in Turkey, we identify ourselves visually - send a picture, wear a certain shirt, describe our height, hair, eyes, etc. I can't imagine what it would be like to meet someone and not be able to recognize them in a crowd afterwards. It'd be a true blind date though - the ability to meet someone and bond with them without the pretenses of physcial attraction. Especially as Americans - we're not a touching kind of people outside of romantic relationships. But in that restaurant, we had to hold each other's hands and touch each other in a way we never had before. It was mentally overwhelming - we walked back into the lighted lobby, blinded by the dim lighting, and left the restaurant in a sort of daze. The restaurant keeps a guestbook, and quite a few guests have left messages in Braille - I suppose the restaurant is a way for a blind person to show their friends their life firsthand. Again, one of the most sensual things I've ever done, and everyone should try it. There's also a branch in London and Brussels, and an unrelated but similar restaurant in Berlin. Go now. After dinner, we wandered around the city, celebrating our vision by experimenting with photographing the stunning lights in Paris.

The next morning, David went back to work in Saarbrucken and Alli left for the airport while Erin and I cleaned her apartment and mailed the keys back to the landlord after we moved into our hotel for our last night in Paris. We bought a baguette, cheese, and a bottle of wine from a Tunisian shop owner and sat in the plaza outside the Pompidou Center to people watch over lunch. We met a guy working in an internet cafe, and as we explained how we came to visit Paris, he told us he had been in Lebanon at the same time, visiting a friend in Beirut. It felt strange to meet someone with an empathetic reaction, not just one based on headlines, and since his experience was far scarier than ours (I'd take rockets over airstrikes anyday), it put into perspective how much worse things could have been. Beirut was my first choice for this summer - I wonder where I'd be right now if UF allowed credits to transfer from there.

We then wandered towards Montmartre, the artsy neighborhood I remembered from my last trip to Paris, shopping along the way. We never found the square with artists displaying their wares that I remembered (perhaps it's only on certain days?), but we stumbled onto the Sacre Couer and stopped for coffee and pigeon-feeding with leftover baguette on the grassy hill leading up to the basilica. We took the long way back home past the Moulin Rouge and another windmill, the Montmartre cemetery, and other random Parisian streets before our last edible meal of native foods, since we're flying to Ireland tomorrow and Joey already warned us that the Irish drink far better than they cook. Our last country of the trip (unless we make it to North Ireland) - it's hard to believe we'll be back in the states in a few days.


mbn said...

I am so jealous of you. I need to be where you are.

I would love to have been at that restaurant. Sounds incredible.

On a somewhat similar note...

Two weeks ago, I almost decided to take a vow of silence for a month. No speaking, not a word, for an entire month.

I VERY SERIOUSLY considered it. I did a little research into sign language and everything.

I'm sure it would change my life, somehow.

I don't know if it's courage that I lack to do it, it just seems so impractical. I have so many things to do. But that would have made the experience all the more intense.

I think it would be an incredible experiment.

If I do it, will you?

Hmmmm, I wonder.....

Miss you, ofcourse.

Jelly Doughnut said...

We have that dark restaurant here in Berlin as well, I hear. I just returned from Paris on Monday myself, and was at a hotel just behind the carnival and Tuileries. Small world. It sounds like you managed to make the most out of a distressing situation, and are having a different sort of cultural experience regardless. Glad to hear you made it out safely. -Jessica

PS - I also took an absurd amount of Eiffel tower shots and posted on my site as well. Ciao!