For a visual artist, the idea of losing your sight holds a special flavour of terror. Which is why I found the idea of “Tu vois ce que je veux dire” so intriguing: going for a blindfolded walk in the city, with a guide assigned to you to function as your ‘eyes’. This event is part of the Festival Trans Amerique (FTA), and already at the press conference I though this is a challenge I should sign up for. So I scored myself a ticket for Saturday afternoon.
I wanted to find out what it’s like to experience an environment without being slaved to your eyes. How would I understand the place I’m walking through? Would I compensate with my ears, my sense of smell? What about trust issues – after all, my guide could easily lead me into traffic, or I could fall down a flight of stairs. I was looking forward to make a new discovery about myself.
The starting point was the Corrid’art – The Long Haul (I was just there a few days ago for a vernissage – more about that in a later post). A padded, heavy black blindfold was strapped over my eyes, and only then was I introduced to my guide. Her name was Marie-Christie, and for some reason, based on her name and her charming soprano voice, I imagined her to be a brunette with curly hair. I was instructed to wrap my hand around her elbow as though I was holding a walking stick, and Marie showed me how to step behind her in case we had to navigate a narrow area. And off we went.
At first my steps were small and hesitant. I was walking in complete darkness, and my brain kept screaming STOP, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! Once on the street our pace quickened. It felt odd to be enveloped in complete darkness; I had the sensation as though I was floating, but at the same time I felt the hard asphalt under my feet. Soon I got the hang of Marie’s subtle instructions. When she shifted, I shifted, when she slowed down, so did I. I was surprised at how quickly I relaxed at her side. I trusted her completely. Which was just as well, because Marie isn’t a girl who dawdles. We marched at a stiff pace down busy streets, navigating across intersections, past shops and private homes.
When we came to an intersection she would slow down, then tell me “In two steps there is a small ramp down into the street”, and then warn me again as we stepped back onto the sidewalk. My experience of the city changed. I felt the city with my feet, the constant rhythm of up the sidewalk, down into the street, up the sidewalk – Montreal turned into an ocean of asphalt, and I was riding the waves. I heard snippets of conversations, in many different languages. I smelled a barbecue, heard an aircon unit kick in. I discovered the sound old trees make in the wind, and the twirly clicks of different kinds of bicycles.
We were lucky, it was a gorgeous, gorgeous day. Sunny, about 27°C, with a light breeze. In my spaghetti-strapped short summer dress I could feel the city with my skin: the heat emanating from the pavement and the buildings on the wide, busy shopping street, the cool shade of the smaller residential avenues. To walk without seeing forced me to be much more present. I needed to concentrate on Marie’s instructions, feel the ground under me, hear the city around me. I thought I could sense my surroundings with my bare arms and legs, as though my mind was expanding around me, trying to touch buildings, trees and cars.
There were a couple of stops on the way, activities which were part of the circuit, but I don’t want to talk about them yet, in case you’re reading this and you’re now thinking of signing up. I don’t want to spoil the surprise. After all, I had no warning, either. The idea of “Tu vois ce que je veux dire” is that it is journey of discovery.
Overall Marie and I walked for over two and a half hours. Only at the very end, after we had completed the entire circuit and all activities, was I allowed to slowly remove my blindfold, and I got my first look at the woman whom I had trusted with my life. Turns out Marie Christie is a tall, pretty blonde with straight hair. We ended up chatting for a bit afterwards, as I adjusted my mental picture of her. And then I headed off to the bus stop, to get back to the Long Haul where I had parked my car. It felt strange walking on my own, without my guide, and I missed her.
It’s amazing how efficient our sense of sight is. It takes a fraction of a second to completely comprehend your environment by just looking at it, so much so that you can go on auto-pilot and think of other things while you walk. Not so when you’re walking blind – you have to be very much in the moment. My blindfold walk taught me to be more present, to take it all in, and to use all of my senses, more than any other experience could have done.
If there are still tickets to be had I recommend that you abandon yourself to this event and get to know Montreal – and yourself – like you’ll never be able to otherwise.