visit “Dialogo nel Buio,” an exhibit at Milan’s Istituto dei Ciechi, the Institute of the Blind. The receptionist hands me a white cane and leads me through a sliding door into total darkness. My blind guide, Gabriella, is waiting for me. She says, “Use your hands, ears nose to figure out where we are.”
I’ve always been afraid of the dark. Even now, some nights, I can’t fall asleep unless I turn on a light. In this blackness, all sense of orientation disappears. I’m vulnerable as a child, helpless without my guide.
Gabriella takes my arm. “Put out your right hand. Feel the plants? Use your stick. What are you walking on? What do you hear?” We’re in a simulated park, walking on a stone path, along a hedgerow. Water is flowing. Birds are singing.
I smell rosemary and bay leaf, feel oak and maple. Most plants, however, are unrecognizable. I realize I’ve never looked carefully at plants.
“Now, we’re crossing a bridge,” Gabriella says. “Use your cane. Hold the rope with your right hand. This way.” Her voice is loud. She pulls me faster than I care to go. I imagine her 40ish, big and muscley, black hair pulled into a bun on her thick neck. She says, “Here’s a model of an animal. Which one?” I find an ear, a tail, horns. It’s a cow.
“What about this?” I feel metal and wood. A bench.
Gabriella says, “Here’s another sliding door. We’re going to leave the park.”
In an hour of darkness, we move through five rooms, each time piecing together the new environment by a sequence of perceptions: cement under feet, an incline, a metal clang, bricks, wind. With eyes, you’d understand it, in a glance. Without eyes, it’s a tiring process. Forms and patterns emerge through memory, the way they do in music. In the dark, you cling to each sound as it passes, as though your life depends upon it.
I keep bumping into her. There is no I sensed her presence. I did not, in the absence of shuffling feet or clearing throat, sense anything.
I must read a sentence, written on a wall in raised letters, deciphering them one by one and remembering them, in order, when I reach the end of the word. My fingers are insensitive, clumsy. After the first few words, however, it gets easier. I can guess an entire word from a few letters. This feels like one of the proudest achievements of my life. I still have short term memory. I’m less stupid than Gabriella’s probably been thinking.
The most frightening room is the noisy city, where we must cross a busy street with nothing to hold onto but our canes and where I slip off the curb. How I wish I had a guide dog — a reassuring, friendly man’s-best-friend! Gabriella says she had dogs when she lived in the country but they’re not very useful in a big city. “After all, it’s you who must guide the dog. The dog doesn’t know which way to turn.” This hadn’t occurred to me.
The last exhibit room is a bar. From the blind bartender, Gabriella orders cake and coffee. To avoid fumbling in the dark with spoons, napkins and sugar packets, I choose a bottle of mineral water. Using my cane, I follow Gabriella’s voice across the room and find the booth with my outstretched hand. I tell her my mother is blind and I wanted to understand what that’s like. Now I know it’s not the dark that’s frightening, it’s something else.
“It’s the unknown,” she says, “something in your own mind.”
We leave the bar. The lights go on.
A sweet-faced little grandmother, with soft white hair, waits while I look for Gabriella.
Then it hits me. “You’re Gabriella?” The grandmother grins. I’m overcome with joy. I say, “You’re beautiful,” and take her hand. She smiles shyly. Our roles have already changed.
Outside it’s wonderful to see an entire landscape in an instant. Most of it — buildings, trees, clouds, distant pedestrians — would remain unnoticed by someone blind. I shut my eyes to know what a blind person would perceive: Without the filter of sight, sounds are amplified. I hear traffic coming, going, music, footsteps — mine and others’, clicks, scrapes, tinkles — a dog chain?, a bike bell, another one, voices, loud, louder. In the terrible cacophony, I stand swaying, reaching into the unknown for a hold, hoping no one pushes me.
Then I open my eyes and it goes away.
When I arrive home I call my mother, who’s been waiting in the dark to hear my voice.
— Further information (in Italian) about Dialogo nel Buio.