Dining in the Dark

How was your Halloween? Scary, frightening or fun? Most of us are going to say fun, including myself, but it was also an adventure because I dined in the dark. No, that doesn’t mean that there was a power outage, or a forgotten electric bill, this was a very constructed experience lead by a good friend of mine, Kerry Ward, who is an adventure trainer.  This was not a “eating Big Macs with the lights out” kind of experience, but a posh, gourmet dining experience that was preceded by other “adventures.”

I love learning in two ways. The obvious one for me is by being told a story. The next way I like to learn is by doing it myself. Then it becomes my story. This is experiential learning, and whenever I can, I try to use this to teach others.  It might even be fun. But, sometimes you do things to expand your horizons and perceptions and get yourself out of your humdrumness. This is essential for writers and artists so they can tap that creative side that likes playfulness, where all rules go out the window.

The first part of our Halloween evening was a masked storytelling.  We were instructed to wear masks and dress in black. I preferred to remain anonymous and give myself a mask name, but most people gave their real name and told a personal story of something that frightened them and could be described as an adventure.

In the past, I have hosted ghost story sessions on Halloween, where we told our scary stories with nothing but Jack O’ lanterns lighting the room.  The stories were so spooky that they sometimes really freaked people out, but this night’s  storytelling was with the lights on and more about our experiences with adrenaline rushes, from near-drownings to being held up at gunpoint, from wild animals to black ice car slides. The scares of our lives. We were then asked to think about our future adventure.

So, that was all very nice and safe.  Myself and my 30 masked companions were now ready to sit down and have a gourmet meal brought to us, even if it was in the dark. That’s what we expected.  But like our real-life stories that is not exactly what we had signed up for. The plot thickens.

We were sent out on a bogus scavenger hunt to a hotel two blocks away. The package we received at the concierge was a bag of blindfolds. Oh! I thought to myself, I guess our dining is going to happen at this hotel. Wrong-o. We were taken back outside and blindfolded and put in a conga-line formation, with only our leader at the head of the line being fully sighted.

The adventure began as the blind lead the blind through our downtown waterfront spaces, across crosswalks, into car parks, up stairs and through lobbies.

“Slow down!” “Stairs!”Door” “Incline, going down.”

This was an exercise in communication, trust, teamwork and using your other senses that we would need later for the main event. But for now, we shuffled along, and by the honks we received from traffic, our human chain-gang of blindfolded diners made quite an unusual sight. But, hey, it’s Halloween. (Never mind that Kerry does this all year round). In any case, we arrived at our destination completely disoriented. Still blindfolded and now in a blacker darkness than outside. We were lead to our chairs to sit down at round banquet tables. Long before we got there, the smell of food was all around us and we had now built an appetite.

Unlike my expectations, where I thought that each course would be delivered as it was ready, as in traditional dining, here we were told that a three course meal with all utensils and accoutrements had already been laid out in front of us. We were allowed to eat it anyway we wanted to.

Once again, communication and teamwork was essential.

“Found a scallop at ten o’clock!”

“Beware the shot glass on the left.”

“Hurray, we’ve got ribs!” “Yippee, we’ve got chicken to the left!” “Oh joy, we’ve found chocolate on the right!” “Oh, oh, we’ve got liver.”

“I’ve got the butter, who’s found the bread?”

“I’ve got the bread and I’ll pass it clockwise, and you can follow it clockwise with the butter.”

Then there was the guess work, as in “what was that creamy stuff, next to the crunchy stuff?” It was both a collective detective experience and a primitive fumbling, yet sensual exploration. Some people admitted that they went to fingers pretty early, but I tried to stick to the knife and fork as much as I could, but the way I ate would have made my mother turn over in her grave. Thank God no one could see us in the dark.

For once the talk was completely about our experience in the moment, no polite dinner conversations. But, there was plenty of laughter and funny comments. It was to the point that I didn’t want to take the blindfold off when asked to at the end of the meal and they gradually brought the lights up.

Now this is where the dead chicken meets the road. What were we actually eating?  The chef and sous chef came out to show us the absolutely elegantly plated dishes that we had demolished like a bunch of vikings. The visual was totally lost on us, obviously, but did we guess our flavours right…

At first, I knew it was a taste I hated, and I had to go way back in my memory banks for the last time I ate it, because I have been studiously avoiding it for decades. Liver. Other than that, I actually knew surprisingly little for sure. I had no idea I had downed a quail egg with my fingers, for example, and that thing we thought was chicken… sweetbreads.  What are sweetbreads? Someone told me it was calf gonads! OMG! But I Googled it later and it is the thymus gland or pancreas of a young calf or lamb. As my vegan friends retch, I am only glad it wasn’t what my dining companion originally suggested. But there were also wonderful things like muscles in gaspacho, olive brioche, a yummy ravioli, bacon and scallops, chocolate mousse, orange ganache, as well as standards like lovely mashed potatoes, green beans and rolls with butter (served clockwise).

I think the chef really enjoyed challenging us and seeing our reactions at his reveal. Partly sadistic perhaps, but more out of curiosity I think. He really thought about textures as well as taste for us. Personally, I was amazed at how my sense of taste was not what I thought it was. We marvelled at how pretty the meal was that we had destroyed so unconsciously. We applauded him and his sous chef for the wonderful job.

So we sat with our dining table and dissected the adventure of the meal all over again, and all our crazy manoeuvers. Like when I took a scallop from a woman who was not able to eat shellfish (she had been pre-warned), and then later I thought how weird it was to negotiate that in the dark having never even seen her face, and having a scallop passed to me by hand. Rules out the window. And that was the true adventure of the evening, not how we interact with food, but how we interact with people. Isn’t that most of our adventure in life, in fact?

I love my ghost stories, but I would not have missed this scary Halloween adventure for all the scallops in the world. If you get a chance, try it!

The Mexican Chistmas Burro Boogie

Do you ever wonder what your Christmas would be like if you weren’t doing any of the traditional things you usually do, perhaps in a far away land… perhaps in Mexico for example?

I did not have to wonder this year. This Christmas eve, I spent trying to speak in three different languages: English, French and Spanish.  We were surrounded by our Québécois Mexico friends, Guy, Ramona, Alice, Luc and Joanne. Each person had different levels of fluency in different languages but we muddled through, and of course alcohol tends to help.

They took us to a restaurant in the neighboring town famous for its service where they make quite a show of it.  For example, we had seven people at dinner, so, when our orders are ready, seven waiters come to the table. They synchronize it perfectly and put each order in front of each of the guests simultaneously.

We laughed, told stories, in multiple languages, and then we walked through town where all the families were having their parties; lights, fireworks and firecrackers galore.  All night long, music, fire crackers, and party, party, party.  Everyone.  All ages. This makes for a pretty quiet Christmas morning, since everyone is sleeping in, or at least until we heard something we had never heard before.

This was the moment that I really knew I wasn’t having Christmas at home. We both heard what we thought at first was a very strange horn. Jim poked his head out the window and said, “Get a look at this, you won’t believe it.”  I did, and if I hadn’t seen it myself I might not have. To the entertainment of the neighborhood a donkey, really a burro, had gotten lose and was galloping down the middle of the street braying at the top of his lungs.  I had never heard an animal, relatively small, make such a big sound.  It was like a call to Christmas morning. With all the parades and re-creations of the nativity we had witnessed in the weeks leading up to Christmas, with a donkey always carrying a Mary and a baby Jesus, it was like the donkey was yelling its freedom from all this Christmas stuff at the top of his lungs. Everyone in the neighborhood was laughing.

After our novel alarm clock, we decided to go to brunch at my favourite breakfast place, La Casa de Mi Abuela, The House of My Grandmother.  I rode my little vintage folding bike that makes me feel like I am twelve again while Jim walked.  Despite the recession making a noticeable drop in tourism this year, the street side Abuela cafe is packed. Good food and service always attract.  There is always a range of 7 to 10 different kinds of fruits on their fruit plate and I always have to have the pancakes.  By accident, Jim and I discovered a new taste sensation.  Since the Mexicans put lime on everything, one day I tried it on my pancakes with maple syrup.  Damn if that wasn’t the best taste combo discovery I have ever made in my life. The sour lime and the sweet maple syrup compliment each other perfectly, and with Abuela’s fluffy pancakes, it is “to die for,” as my sister would say. Well I could go on about their spiced potatoes and their excellent complimentary condiments like granola, yogurt. jams and marmalades, and cookies with your coffee, but I think you get the idea.

We were also sitting beside Bonny and her partner, also here from Vancouver. She is a Jazz singer who comes here every season and will be making appearances in some of the nicer restaurants.  We make small talk and the usual gratitudes of how lucky we are to be here.  She admires my bike.  Again, I feel as proud as a preteen.  We talk about the Vancouver music scene and I mention to her that I noticed that in the women’s washroom  in the restaurant, on the back of the stall door is a fan club bumper sticker for a local Vancouver band, Brickhouse, from The Yale.  We both think this is pretty funny that it wound up here, but given how many Canadians are here maybe not so strange.

We return home to encounter the donkey across the street eating garbage at the empty lot.  I am worried for the donkey.  They will eat anything and we hatch a rapid plan to catch it.  Fortunately, we document the whole event with video and photos, and I add some music and commentary and post it on YouTube, calling it the Christmas Burro Boogie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MszDtbqE_L4 , it has a moral to the story which I will let you discover on the video rather than repeating it here.

The big revelation is that this was definitely not a “normal” Christmas, and while I love traditions, I am very happy forging new ones and discovering Christmas Mexico style.  Feliz Navidad and Feliz Ano!

Kathrin Lake, Story Coach, helping others discover themselves through stories and to write amazing books and speeches.  See our online group coaching for a low rate and our February writing retreats in Mexico: www.survivaltothrival.com

Why Are Stories So Important to Us?

Stories are important to us because, whether they are fiction or non-fiction, we use them to make meaning of our lives.  We have often been told how powerful it is for individuals to write down their goals.  And those that do have a much higher chance of accomplishing those goals.  I would suggest that a story is more powerful than a list of goals because it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It has a step-by-step flow to it, just as life itself does. All stories have obstacles or challenges and either triumphs or defeats. If there are defeats, there are often morals or learning that can be extracted.

When we write our own stories we create our own mythologies.  These are very powerful.  If the story you have is that you never catch any breaks, indeed, you are much more likely to attract that in your life, and, everyone else will also think of you as the unlucky one.  However, if even in your defeats, you find lessons that help you go forward, or opportunities for change, you will more likely create a life that takes advantage of those opportunities or puts those lessons to good use; a life that others can admire.

As a listener or reader of a story, we are much more likely to feel what we describe as inspiration. People do not feel inspired when given a list of tasks or goals, or told what to do.  They need a story to go with the goals, something that takes them into the future.  And, they want to know about stories from the past because they need the reassurance that others have experienced the same set-backs yet have triumphed.

I have spent a lifetime studying and using stories.  Whether I use them in a speech to inspire, demonstrate, or entertain, or in a conversation one-on-one, I find it is the stories that people remember, retell and use to take the next step forward.  They are the harbingers of the Aha!  I frequently use stories in my work as a coach and trainer, as well as in my writing.  Whether I am helping others find inspiration in their own stories, or are retelling my own, they have tremendous value and power. If you want an example of one of my true teaching stories that helps writers go beyond their blocks, please click this link below and scroll down to the example of a teaching story: Click here for example of a Teaching Storyon my Coaching page, halfway down.