dans le noir?

it's been five months since our visit to paris, and i've been wanting to write about this for a long time.
when we first returned from paris we couldn't imagine how we could live without it. i told everyone who would listen of my plans to take sophie and move there for a year, though it was never clear to me how i would manage to finance such an expedition. kay suggested that we go to the french countryside next summer and work as grape harvesters; i thought we could work as living mannequins in montmartre, coming to life whenever someone dropped us a euro. for paris seemed to be a place we belonged even more so after we left it; back in the safety of our familiar world, the difficulties we experienced acclimating to the foreign city of paris had taken on the magical quality of all things told in retrospect. something that was, at the time, the most nerve-wracking and upsetting interaction could make for the best story once we were home. when we were desperately seeking the restrooms at the saint-ouen flea market after only half- comprehending the directions given to us three separate times (even the woman at the office of tourism gave us confusing directions), paris was to us as a mad labyrinth. another afternoon, we were deliriously hungry and ducked into the famed le mariage freres before realizing that lunch there would cost us a small fortune, and then we couldn't remember how to say we had changed our minds in french. the parisians had a way of squinting disapprovingly at us whenever we struggled to express ourselves in their language. the waiters at le mariage freres peered at us this way from behind their starched white shirts and bowties, and even though kay said "nous sommes trés trés trés desolés," they spat an insult or two our way as we beat a shameful retreat.
especially during our first few days in paris, the city seemed a wearying series of obstacles. as much as we loved paris, paris did not seem to love us back. i had a difficult time accepting this. I'd imagined us fitting in much more seamlessly, with our plans going as planned. on day 1, we would do a. b. and c. and so on. confirm our reservation at dans le noir? (the restaurant where you dine in total darkness), walk across the seine to the bird and flower market, visit ste. chapelle, then take the metro out to the 12th arrondissement to visit the carnival museum. i thought it would be as simple as following a series of steps. what we didn't figure in, in our meticulously planned itinerary, were things like hunger, exhaustion, getting lost, parisians who didn't like americans, impossibly long lines to get into cathedrals, and museums that were closed on days our guidebooks said they were open. even our attempt to see the centre pompidou was thwarted due to an unforeseen strike, which left all three of us grumpy and unsure of what to do with the rest of our day. it was the museum we had most looked forward to seeing. i took a picture of one of the signs posted out in front, over which someone had written in large scrawl "mechants" (meanies).

and though we only spent one utterly vulnerable evening in the absolute dark at dans le noir?, our week in the city of light was beset by moments in which we felt just as vulnerable. the uncertainty and newness of our surroundings kept us simultaneously receptive and on guard. my senses were continually working overtime to interpret the overload of information, smells, sights, and unfamiliar language. when we were led into the dining room at dans le noir?, the sensual overload was similar, if only in its lack of information. what you are not sure of, you have to guess at. the concept behind dans le noir? is that when you are deprived of one sense, your others take over and try to make up for its absence. though some think this notion is nothing but a gimmick, we were wildly impressed by it and anticipated going there as much as we looked forward to seeing the eiffel tower or the picasso museum. our reservation was for the evening of our second day in paris. we walked there from our apartment, the streets all shiny from the street cleaners and light reflecting off them crazily. we had refreshed ourselves after a rigorous day in saint ouen and were too giddy to know we were still jet-lagged. the october weather was mild and felt celebratory; we would soon be enveloped in a french darkness, une obscurité, a somehow more mysterious and enticing darkness than anything we could get back in california.

when we arrived, however, the restaurant host quickly helped us out of our reverie. we were sent downstairs to wait in a dingy lounge. its only other occupants were some american students chain-smoking in one of the high-backed white leather booths. the air was thick with stale smoke. no one came down to see if we wanted a drink, and we were too nervous to go upstairs to the bar. we sat there huddled like three little rabbits and waited. finally a woman came down and explained to us how everything would work. she asked us if we wanted the surprise menu and we said yes we did. did we want the surprise wine and the surprise cocktails and we said yes indeed we did. she led us upstairs where we put our personal things in lockers. then someone handed us our cocktails, blended pink-brown daquiris of some sort. then we were introduced to our waiter/guide, a blind man who took my free hand in his and instructed kay to put her hand on my shoulder, and for sean to put his on hers. in this manner we entered the dining room, through a series of thick heavy curtains.
i clung to my daquiri and to the stranger's hand. it was much darker than i had imagined it ever could be. it was suffocatingly dark. i couldn't tell how big the room was, or how many people were in it. after some maneuvering through the restaurant, we were seated. our guide moved our hands over our utensils and glassware, showing us where everything was, then told us in english to "put our napkin on our knees." i held on to my daquiri, for fear i'd never find it again if i let go of it. i kept my knee against kay's knee; it helped me feel less like i was floating in a restaurant of nothingness. we were brought a bottle of water and a bottle of wine. at one point i accidentally mixed up my glasses and diluted my wine with water. "like the italians do it," kay said.
i've read other people's reviews of the food at dans le noir?, some of it disparaging, some of it complimentary. but when the food came for us, we couldn't really critique it. the main thing was identifying it, and getting it into our mouths. aside from that, i think we were too distracted by the intensity of the completely unfamiliar environment to be able to find fault with anything they'd given us. it would be like astronauts complaining about their space food being undercooked or not fresh enough. mostly i think we just felt grateful. it seemed like an eternity between courses. i felt alternately excited, bored, impatient, and tired during the three hour span that was our dinner. it exhausted us physically and emotionally. but once outside of the confines of that dark dining room, the story of our experience there is one of the most compelling of all our paris stories. i've told it to friends and to strangers. i have labored over its significance in the context of myself as an american who has only been out of the country once, who went to paris and saw only a fraction of what i would have hoped to see. and this only one city in the world, one site of many sights.
the day after dans le noir?, we had a picnic facing the eiffel tower: roasted chicken, fat grapes, and slices of quiche from the rue cler market, and a bottle of mourvedre rosé. the woman in the wine shop liked us, appreciated our earnest attempts at french. she went downstairs and gave us three wine glasses for our picnic. with these we toasted to kay's excellent toast:
"to the bigger than expected and the smaller than expected," and then to sean's addition: "and the darker than expected."

1 comment:

K said...

This sounds so amazingly great I can't wait to somehow go there!!! un jour... Your description is gorgeous!