Escape Reality Blackout

The thing about Tel-Aviv.

If you didn’t know anything — about anything — you would walk around Israel thinking someone had thrown you into some kind of film set of a Mediterranean heaven. The streets are lined with shops and cafes, beautiful bodies filling up chairs, laughing and smoking. This is the Israeli winter, it’s warm enough to sit outside and perhaps on a really cold day, wear two layers. At this moment, with the UK as cold and grey as it is, empathising with how hot it gets in summer is a little bit like being compassionate when someone says how hard it is to put on weight or how much they’re struggling to spend their non-ringfenced budget. I care because I care, but I have felt the opposites so extremely it’s difficult to not fantasise that problems are greener on the other side.

I love how many fresh fruit juice places there are, like a set designer insisted on including colour and abundance and vibrance to the warm, busy, breathing roads. The food is bright and beautiful, the young people are too. The older faces are exquisitely worn, as if they’ve practiced the same expression all their lives. Sandy, wrinkled, tanned elderly faces who look like they’ve seen the last 1000 years.

The public transport works. I’m always surprised by this whenever and wherever I travel. I’m always surprised when systems work. I grew up so disconnected from public transport, I assumed that only London, Switzerland and China had it working. It turns out, South Africa just didn’t, although now I wonder if it did — and if it does — and I just didn’t ever have to use it. Safe. Privileged. Spoilt. Ruined. Forgiven. Repeat.

The city runs itself along a long stretch of beach, you can walk anywhere at anytime and you can sit at wifi cafes and restaurants working for hours. This suits the entrepreneurial freelancer life in me — and in so many others. No wonder it’s one of the top start-up places in the world. An easy-to-fantasise life, sun and health, beauty and busy-ness, tech and intelligence. And yet. The city, the country lives with a distant quiet knowledge that it’s not just this and sometimes it’s not so distant and not so quiet.

Then on a personal level.

I got some much that I didn’t realise I wanted.

I got to see a friend who moved here over a year ago, witnessing someone’s growth and watching their “becoming”. This always feels like a honour, to see someone arrive in themselves. I helped her pack as she starts her next journey. We got to listen and laugh and cry, with such love. It means a lot.

I got to meet my nephew. I thought it would be weirder, more momentous, but it was easy and gentle. Perhaps from all of the photos and videos and modern world things, there was a seamlessness. I loved being with him. Walking the streets with him. Feeding him until his eyes slowed down drunk. We had a moment where I was watching him and he looked straight at me and didn’t break his gaze, until his eyes dropped a bit and his face burst into the grin of a fully grown adult, and we just grinned at each other, cheeky baby adult grins. It was so cool. I know he was just drunk on formula but I’m totally cool with adding meaning.

I tried Aaron’s Virtual Reality headset and it felt like I was watching the future change. How much could be possible now. Training, games, intimacy, porn, businesses — and as soon as they develop the touch sensors, it will be like human contact. Imagine meeting the 3D and 360 version of someone famous, or watching films where you’re in the movie… imagine being in a room with someone who has died…of someone you once loved…of yourself — your current self or your past self. I could record myself now and then visit her in however many years time and be around her. Like photo’s and videos, only in 360 degrees… It’s difficult to understand the extent that this technology has and will affect all of our lives, but I had the visceral experience of it doing so and it stirred me right through.

The most striking moment was when I met other people in a virtual space. I arrived into this ‘space’ and I was looking at credits rolling on a screen, I looked around and saw mushrooms the size of buildings and a can the size of a door. I was the size of an ant under grass looking up into the night sky and tree tops high into the distance.

I looked down again and then left and saw the head of a blue bird and a cowboy watching the screen and watching me. They said hi and we chatted for a while. They were so amused by my amusement. They had been sitting watching movies together, these two people, represented by cartoon images, were watching movies in some virtual world.

Then something strange happened. I looked at the guy who was a blue bird head and we just looked at each other, his cartoon eyes looking at me. I felt him looking at me the way I feel real people looking at me, the same intensity but with nothing to hide and no reason to look away. I was looking at a cartoon character’s head and so was he, but our eyes were positioned in the same ways our eyes are. My heart raced, I felt like I was gazing into someone. When else do you get to just to look at someone like that. We just looked at each other, even though, we weren’t each other, we still were somehow. I felt what I have known as love all my life. Like I was completely naked and totally vulnerable and didn’t need to say anything or be shy about how I move. And I felt love burst out of me. And that terrified me.

What’s weirder is to think of that blue bird head now and feel a sense of missing, of absence. If I go too far down this thinking, I can imagine myself questioning everything.

The spell was broken when I realised I didn’t know how to leave the room, but I somehow worked out how to move my character into different seats and we all got the giggles as I bounced about, trying to work out where I was and how to get out of there. Eventually my brother ripped the headphones to exit, I got such a fright and missed my new cartoon friends almost immediately, feeling strange I’d never see them again.


Then there was the Blackout. I’ve been wanting to do this since the moment I heard about it and watched it over and again on About Time. I gave a voucher to Aaron for his birthday and he saved it up for us to do together. I’m so glad he did.

We arrived at the building just past the seaside. We got a brief in Hebrew about the business. It’s a charity that works as a restaurant and theatre. In the restaurant, all of the waiters are either blind or deaf or both and the actors are the same. The restaurant is set in pitch black darkness, to give you a full experience without the sense of sight.

Before we went in, we got to choose what we wanted for Starters, Main and Dessert. Aaron chose well: mushrooms, ravioli and chocolate mousse. I, of course, chose the “Surprise me” option for each of the three.

We put our hands on the waitresses shoulder and formed a congo line to walk inside and to find out table. I had the giggles, obviously. She took us to our chairs and showed us how to find our cutlery and glasses and encouraged us to put things back where we found them so as to make it easier for ourselves. This is a skill I could do with, even with sight…

Our first task was to pour water. And dip bread in yoghurt. I kept waiting for our eyes to adjust, they didn’t. What was amazing though was that there was a buzz in the darkness, a buzz I haven’t heard for a while — the sound of people really talking to each other, really listening to each other, really laughing. It was nice.

The food was delicious. I loved sticking my fingers into the dish working out what it was and if I needed a fork or spoon. I got delicious pasta dishes, one of them definitely had artichoke and tomato — they both had a lot of cheese, that’s the bit I’m sure of and they felt soft and squidgy. We had some wine and it was fun sipping in the darkness. Dessert was creamy and sweet, but I’ve still no idea what it could have looked like.

I was tempted to get up and move while Aaron was talking, it was so tempting to play jokes, but our waitress got a bit frustrated at our playfulness, so we tried to do better. Aaron whispered about it and she responded from the other side of the room, both of us realising how exceptional her hearing must be.

I thought it would be a full taste sensation, but it was so many other things. Passing to each other, having to touch arms and hands to find the thing which is being transferred. Realising my body language and facial expressions are so normalised, that I could close my eyes or slouch but that affected my engagement, so I sat normally — as effusive and enthusiastic as ever. I was surprised at how quickly it became normal, how my mind had mapped the table — and how I can imagine the panic at ‘things in their place’ moving with literally no visibility on how or where.

On one level, I thought about the exceptional business model — enabling work opportunities — and saving a lot on decoration. We could have been a cemented building with black drapes on the wall — there would have been no need for anything else.

Coming out was like having our eyes scorched, squinting and blinking to let our pupils adapt and handle the onslaught of light. We walked along the water to get back to the car, both realising that we had no idea how much we’d eaten until how heavy we felt when we were walking.

Then there is walking a baby strapped to my belly, alone. Watching some people not notice me, watching others only notice the baby. I noticed how invisible I was. How having a baby on my belly turns me into ‘another mom’. It was good. And important.

I watched him delight and frustrate my brother and his wife. I watched them love and frustrate each other. I saw how important that the level of love and respect is there, without that, it would be a nightmare of blame and exhaustion and blame for exhaustion.

Then there was the surprise trip for Lior where I went to the airport with her. It cost a day, but was worth every moment to know she had water, head ache pills, orange juice and company.

Then there was Escape Room and my delayed reaction. We had 60 minutes to get clues to find money to escape a room. We were told that the “room” was the door on the left… so I thought it would start officially once we got inside, so I was a bit disengaged for the first 10 minutes until I realised that part of the experience was “breaking in” to the house. I got a crazy shot of adrenalin and we raced through the rest of it, escaping at 59.55 with 5 seconds to spare.

I loved every clue. Every maths clue, hidden clue, temperature clue, everything. I don’t remember a feeling of satisfaction like that in any other part of my work or life. I wanted to do it again, but better. I wanted to know who else could do it as a pair. I wanted to do it with everyone I work with.

Hairdryers that heat mugs to give codes. Songs hidden on secret frequencies in the radio. Dates highlighted on a wall of a newspapers. It was like a feast for the part of my brain that was hungrier than it knew, starved eve.

Another adventure, another collection of memories. And a quiet question about what reality is after all.

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