Sunday, 22 July 2012

Dining in the Dark

The other week, I went out on a 'blind date' with a difference - I knew my dining companion very well already; it was the restaurant which was blind. These 'Dunkelrestaurants,' as they are known in Germany, have been around for a while now - I know there is one in Berlin, Hamburg and most likely many more places too. London and Paris also have their own versions. I had never been to such a place before, but have always been intrigued by the concept, so we gave 'Mondschein' (Moonshine) in Leipzig a try. The idea was originally to raise awareness of the everyday problems faced by blind or partially-sighted people, such as, how do you eat if you can't see the plate in front of you?

Upon arrival at Mondschein, we were greeted in the lounge area (which remains lit) by a waitress, who handed us the menus and explained how things worked at the restaurant. Firstly, the menu was no ordinary menu - guests have the choice between either the Meat, Fish, Vegetarian or Surprise menu. Each menu does not specify the four courses it contains; instead, hints in the form of word puzzles are given (something like: The French farmer takes a waltz with a Spanish princess in a field of emerald hearts - OK so I made this one up, but basically they hinted at where one ingredient may have come from, without revealing anything too telling). I opted for fish, and my companion chose the meat menu.

We had a drink in the lounge, and then our waitress for the evening, Daniela, came out to fetch us. She herself was blind, but had the advantage of knowing her way around the restaurant. In a sort of congo formation, we placed our hands on each others' shoulders and Daniela led us into the pitch black of the main restaurant. We entered via a zig-zag passageway, obviously designed to avoid having just one door which, when opened, would shed light from outside into the dark restaurant. Daniela described the room to us and led us to our table, then we ordered drinks. An amusing touch - when she returned with our beers, she placed glasses and bottles on the table and told us to have fun pouring our own beers! The room was completely void of any light source, and we had already been told to turn off phones, remove watches etc., so this was a tricky manoeuvre, and despite my best efforts, I did spill some beer on the table. Luckily, no one could see it!

The waitress then returned with our starters and told us which cutlery we would need to eat it. I had soup and my partner salad; soup proved to be surprisingly easy to eat in the dark, just a case of finding my mouth with the spoon, but the salad was a different matter, and called for total abandonment of cutlery and eating with hands instead. Again, luckily, no one could witness these table 'manners'. The darkness added a very interesting element to the dinner conversation - at the beginning, I found it harder to hear what my companion was saying; do I normally rely on facial expression so much? The fact that we couldn't see our fellow diners also made me aware of what I was saying and who I was talking about - how could I be sure who was sitting at the next table? Although we couldn't see the other people in the room, everyone seemed friendly, all giggling together as someone knocked a glass onto the floor and called for the waitress only to find she had disappeared into the kitchen, and everyone called out 'goodbye' to the whole room as they left - when does this normally happen in restaurants?

The plates were cleared and our second course followed. Daniela instructed us to simply call her name if we needed anything, as there was no other way or attracting her attention. This felt slightly impolite to me, as I cringe when people call 'Waitress!' in normal restaurants - but then, you normally don't know the waitress's name in a restaurant, and usually have more subtle ways of attracting attention. It made me very aware of how different life must be if you were blind - what if you were with a friend and they went off somewhere without letting you know? Even if they were just steps away, you might not realise and the only thing you could do is call out their name and hope for an answer.

We enjoyed the whole meal - my second course was a salad, third course was the main, and dessert was a pudding consistency with an unidentifiable flavour. For the rest of the meal, I hadn't been too bad at identifying what I was eating, but here I did struggle. The hardest thing to eat without being able to see was the main course - fish with sliced potatoes and courgettes in a mustard sauce. I kept stabbing the plate with my fork and lifting it to my mouth only to find it empty! I ended up using the technique of scraping my cutlery around my plate until I made contact with something, then scooping it up quickly before I forgot where I had left it. It was also important to keep my drink in exactly the same place every time I placed it on the table, further than elbow's reach from me - to avoid any more accidents.

At the end of the meal, we were led back into the lounge, where our eyes took a while to re-adjust to the light. Here, another waitress asked us what we thought we had eaten, and then told us what exactly we had had. My mysterious pudding turned out to be Waldmeister-flavoured panacotta with almond liqueur, which I would never have guessed! Otherwise, there were no huge surprises, and we felt proud of our guessing skills.

All in all, the whole thing was most definitely an experience. I didn't enjoy the darkness that much, as it began to feel quite claustrophobic after only a short time, and a conversation in the dark certainly leads to different topics of discussion, but I feel restaurants like these really do 'shed light' (sorry) on living with impaired vision, both raising awareness and providing jobs for blind people who might not normally be able to work in a busy restaurant. It was interesting that once in the darkness, the tables were turned somewhat in that our waitress became the one who knew her surroundings, and we relied on her entirely to bring us our food and to bring us back out at the end of our experience. Certainly one dinner I won't forget in a hurry!

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Visiting Oslo on the cheap

The beautiful port city of Oslo in Norway is a cultured Scandinavian gem boasting top museums, world-class sports facilities and stunningly gorgeous scenery, yet its reputation as the world's most expensive city (as asserted by a number of studies, see here for details) may put potential visitors off. But don't let your bank manager talk you out of a long weekend in Oslo - it really is worth it, and here are some of my own tips on how to save your kroner whilst still enjoying this fantastic city.

  • Stay with a friend (new or old)

The ideal way to explore a new city is accompanied by friendly locals who can show you the ropes. If you don't happen to have friends who live in Oslo with a generous disposition and a comfy couch as I did, why not try Couch Surfing to stay for free (or at least very cheaply - many Surfers consider it rude not to bring a small gift or at least buy your hosts a drink)? If you've not heard of Couch Surfing, it is a website where registered users offer up their couches to weary travellers. Surf safely though - only stay with Surfers who have already been recommended by friends and people who've stayed with them before, let someone know the address you'll be staying at, and, if possible, surf with a friend. It's not for everyone, and if you don't feel comfortable, just get a hostel bed instead. Be warned though - they aren't so cheap. The cheapest bed in a mixed dorm goes for about 30€ so if you've just come from backpacking in Eastern Europe, it could come as a shock - but the Anker Hostel comes recommended by insiders and is also very central.

  • Save money on public transport by taking to Shanks' Pony instead

Oslo is a wonderfully-sized city which can easily be explored on foot if your accommodation is located fairly centrally, so make the most of this and walk around instead of taking the tram.

  • Don't book an expensive tourist cruise around the Oslofjørd - explore using the island-hopper ferries instead.
Despite what I just said, it IS worth "splurging" on a 24 hour public transport ticket for 75 NOK (10 €) if you want to explore the beautiful, tranquil islands just around the port of Oslo in the Oslofjord. Oslo inhabitants love escaping the city to chill out on these natural havens. Some of them, such as Lindøya, are packed with Norwegian summer huts or 'hytte', all painted either green, yellow or red, but others, such as Gressholmen, are more secluded and perfect for a short hike with great views over the fjord and harbour. The largest island, Hovedøya, also houses a ruined monastery from the 14th century (founded by monks from Lincolnshire in England!). Just check the freey times - they mostly leave every hour so don't miss the last ferry of the day or you might have to swim back to the city!

  • Pick up a copy of "Oslo - A Poor Man's Connoisseur Guide to Happy Living in One of the Most Expensive Cities in the World" 

This guide was published by by:Larm to help with promoting a music festival, but is actually filled with tons of great tips. I randomly found my copy lying on a wall in the embassy district of Oslo on our last day there, so it was a bit too late to be of use, but I read it on the plane back and it seemed full of good advice, including a couple of places I had already been to and enjoyed during my stay!

  • Go hiking in the forests nearby
Norway is well known for its beautiful scenery, and the area around Oslo is no exception. If you take the T-bane (metro) line 1 direction Frognerseteren and get off at the last stop, Frognerseteren, you'll find a park with hiking trails leading around a large lake, popular with Norwegians for running, walking, barbecuing and maybe swimming in the lake on a hot day. Head higher up into the mountains for a hike leading to stunning views across Oslo and the surrounding area. We walked from the lake  Øvresetertjem up into the mountains and then to the Holmenkollen Ski Jump, one of the most famous in the world - very impressive viewed from below!

  • Save on museums by visiting on a Sunday
The National Museums of Oslo are free on a Sunday, and in winter (October-March) they are free all week! Otherwise you'll pay 50 NOK for a ticket which covers all of the national museums (The National Gallery, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the National Architecture Museum and the Museum of Decorative Arts and Design. Most worth a visit is the National Gallery, which has an impressive array of pieces, from Van Gogh to Reubens, with a room dedicated to Norwegian national treasure and painter of the world's most expensive painting, Edvard Munch. You'll get to see his famous and invaluable painting, The Scream, which was stolen from this very spot a few years ago, but was returned afterwards. It goes without saying that security in this room is pretty high!

  • Go to Vigeland
The Vigeland Sculpture Park is an absolute must-visit in Oslo. This huge green space in Frogner Park, full of marble and granite sculptures, depicts the strength and vulnerability of humanity, and its construction lasted from 1906 to 1947. My tip: avoid all the tourists and visit the park in the evening; the gates stay open and it's much more impressive to view all of the sculptures in a more solitary fashion. They also look beautiful as the sun sets. Most impressive all is perhaps the Monolith, a tall tower made up of human figures, reminiscent of the Tower of Babel.

  • Check out the harbour
At the harbour, there are often free events such as "fish festivals", music events, boat regattas and other such events. Plus you can watch the gigantic cruise ships leaving or arriving in Oslo on a Nordic cruise - watch out, the horns are deafening! To see the harbour from above, walk up to the Akershus Fortress and have a picnic on the grass overlooking the harbour; a wonderful vantage point from which to see all the comings-and-goings.

  • Visit Oslo City Hall
From the outside, this redbrick giant looks more 70s housing block than city hall, but inside the modernist frescoes are truly impressive. When you enter the main hall, look to your left to see a wall freize recounting the history of Norway during World War II, from Nazi occupation to Norwegian resistance and the final victory. Heading upstairs, you can visit the state rooms for free. There are some very interesting portraits of the King and Queen of Norway in one of the rooms, and the rest are filled with colourful wall paintings and murals. This building is where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year, so take in the history and make what you will of the slightly unconventional artwork.

  • Don't blow all your money in bars
Going out to eat or drink in Oslo is notoriously expensive; a beer will set you back at least 70 NOK for a pint (around 10 €) and restaurants are mostly pricey. You can save here by buying food in supermarkets and having picnics rather than eating out all the time. If staying with a friend, bring them some duty-free booze from your departure airport (much, much cheaper than you'll find anywhere in Norway) and make your own party. Throughout the summer there are tons of free festivals going on in parks around Oslo, so bring a few beers and you'll have a cheaper and probably more fun night out than you would in one of the overpriced bars in the centre. Another tip is Blå, a bar in Grünnerløkka which has a jazz night on Sundays - the house band, made up of various interesting types, play three sets, mainly covers, and set a great atmosphere - and entry is free! (it is a small place and gets busy though, so turn up early - people arriving after around 9.30 won't stand a chance of getting in)