I’m about to become blind, so this is the only photo you’ll find in this post. And it’s appropriately blurry.
I’m at the enigmatically named Dialog im Dunkeln – Dialogue in the Dark – about to have one of the more eye-opening (no pun intended) experiences I’ve had in a long time.
I’m with six other people – three German couples, all strangers to me. We’re about to wander through a world of complete darkness. All mobile phones are switched off; even watches are removed to avoid giving off even the slightest bit of light. Whether my eyes are open or shut will make no difference for the next hour and a half. A blind man hands me a white cane that reaches up to the centre of my chest. It’s the right size.
Entering the first room, I jolt at the uneven floor. It feels like I’m walking up an incline. But am I? Or is it merely my imagination? Either way, it’s distressing. Remember to breathe, Sophie. In, out. Slowly. Deliberately.
Our guide through this somewhat surreal experience is blind, yet we are the ones who fumble. Roles are reversed. She talks us through the room, using our first names frequently. Strong and safe, she encourages us to talk. Talking is important. Sound is important.
I find a wall to follow (and hold on to), and begin to feel my way around. Along the wall are boxes, crates. A delicious aroma wafts through the air. Sticking my hands in a box, I grasp a few coffee beans and bring them up to my nose. Just to be sure. Nothing scary so far. I pick up vegetables and fruits, using my remaining senses to identify each. To my dismay, I discover my other senses are sadly out of practice.
Moving into another room (so this is how a doorway feels…) we go for a walk in the park. What’s that tree? That flower? Can you smell what kind it is? I use my cane liberally, swinging it this way and that, hitting walls, hitting the others.
At first we’re all quiet, too busy exploring – and being slightly nervous. There’s the occasional ‘I’m sorry’, ‘oops’, and ‘is that you?’, as we bump into each other. After a while the involuntary touching becomes commonplace. Almost.
Next, we’re in the city, wandering along the pavement. Here’s a car. Can we guess which make? I feel the cold metal. The convertible roof cover. The familiar shape… it’s an old Citroën! I had an old Citroën; even have one now, though newer. For a minute, I feel at home. Almost.
Now, on to the scary bit. We’re about to cross the road: horns are blasting, cars whizz past, people mill about. I hear the guiding noise of a traffic light (chirp-chirp). A car comes to an abrupt halt, tyres screeching – or was I imaging that? Just me and the white cane now. No walls or railings. Nothing to hold on to as I step into the imaginary, but no less terrifying, traffic. Watch out! Mind the bus!
Safely on the other side, we walk towards the water, then climb aboard a boat. I’m used to boats, and normally jump onboard quite easily. Now I feel awkward and helpless as I’m guided down steps and onto the deck. Then we set sail. I lean back and feel the boat move across the surface, yielding to the movement of the waves. For a little while, the world is a relaxing place again.
Next, we lie down on the floor, also easier said than done: the mechanics of it, and also the uncertainty of what’s around you. For 10 minutes we concentrate our under-used other senses on everything around us. I smell dust, and I can hear the rain outside. Or is it a fan? Or something else entirely? It’s an exercise in trust, this whole experience. Trusting the guide, but above all, trusting your senses, your instincts.
At the very end, we feel our way to the bar, buy drinks (still in the dark) and sit down to chat about our experience and ask questions. Our guide tells us she had some sight until she was 35 – enough to bike from Hamburg to Amsterdam – and then, gradually over a three-year period, her sight disappeared completely.
I’ve been blind for an hour and a half. Sort of. A very important psychological element is missing: I know my blindness is only temporary. In a few minutes, I’ll be returning to light. To sight. And hopefully not take it for granted.