Back in the heady days of teenagehood, we favoured deep and meaningful conversations with a pseudo-intellectual bent. That was back in the days when a good conversation was rated on par with a great movie. Lacking the wisdom that comes with age, we didn’t do silence. Lapses in conversation were unwelcome, awkward even. We had to be either talking or listening.
A favourite filler question was: If you had to lose one of your five senses – hearing, sight, touch, smell, and taste – which would you do without? There were all sorts of arguments that came from diverse opinions and values and for a while I’d have chosen sight. My landlady’s best mate was blind and she seemed to get around just fine. Mary Ingalls, in the TV programme The Little House on the Prairie had just lost her sight and she was adjusting. So with all the naiveté that comes with youth, I figured it would just take practice.
For years, I’ve been curious about what it would be like to be sightless. I’d seen advertisements for the Invisible Exhibition (Láthatatlan Kiállítás) over in Millenáris but never quite got around to going. So last week, a group of us got together and booked a tour and dinner.
We were split into three groups of seven. Each group was then assigned a blind, English-speaking guide who showed us the different devices they use on a daily basis. We learned how to type in Braille and to play games with special pieces. We were then taken on a guided tour in complete darkness.
I’ve stumbled around my apartment in the dark but I know where everything is and where to find it. Walking into an unknown space, a dark apartment and finding my way through the living room into the kitchen and to the bathroom was strange. It was too easy to become completely disoriented. But as I got used to it, I figured yeah – I could do this – if I absolutely had to.
But then we hit the street. Or a replica of a street, complete with the full score of street sounds. We had traffic lights, cobblestones, markets, cars, bicycles, park benches, and a bridge. I had to fight back the panic. My respect for those who live without sight grew immeasurably. The skills they have are nothing short of amazing. Last on the tour was the art gallery where we tried to identify various statues and sculptures – think Michelangelo’s David – all by touch.
Then it was on to dinner. Feeling our way around the surprise starter-plate was an experience. We’d pre-ordered our meals and knew what we were having but even so, not being able to see what was on the plate was a tad disconcerting. I gave silent thanks that we’d gone for the two-course meal. Eating soup would have been a challenge. The plates were cleverly lipped, the wine glasses stemless. Adaptation is one way of coping.
My hearing was heightened. Not knowing who was actively listening to my conversation would have been unsettling had I not been among friends. It took me a while to stop my fruitless pointing and gesturing. I became conscious of the number of times I refer to sight in everyday speech. We used our names instead of looks to catch each other’s attention. Verbal explanations of how we were facing and what we were doing quickly became the norm. All the while our guides chatted away, telling us about how they live their lives. It was a heady antidote to self-pity.
The exhibition is open every day. The staff are exceptionally helpful so don’t hesitate to call and ask for more information. Advance bookings are required for foreign-language guides.
First published in the Budapest Times 10 June 2016