The Craft of Not Knowing

Or what to do when you don't know what to do and don't speak the language.

There was a period of time in my childhood when I found adults mysterious and almost magical. They knew everything, and for a child who was frustratingly precocious—I became a vegetarian at three of my own choice and began educating (okay, lecturing) other children on the morals of eating animals—this one quality was enough to make me look forward to growing up, to the day when I would, crowned into adulthood and handed the world’s secrets, finally know it all.

The problem was, adults did not and do not, know it all. AsI moved my way through elementary school, this became more and more clear, and I developed a penchant for challenging those adults who acted like omnipotent bearers of wisdom. While this led to some detentions and one change of school, it set me down a path of humility and well-researched statements. Nothing was more embarrassing than being certain and proved wrong. But I also never fully overcame my discomfort with not knowing.

So here I am, having just landed in Germany, my cat in her crate, paws bloody from her panic in the cargo hold, not knowing what to do. My husband and I had researched the best ways for cats to travel long distance. We wanted her in the cabin with us, but the airline’s allowed carrier dimensions seemed suitable only for a hamster, maybe even a guinea pig, but not a cat. So cargo hold it had to be. We did not sedate her having read that it could be dangerous and having been advised by the vet that our cat would be fine without it, and that, yes, it came with risks. We had researched. We did our work. But still our cat came out to us in our new country bleeding. She had ripped her claws to shreds trying to get off that plane.

My husband collects our luggage as I search for a family restroom to no avail. Frankfurt airport’s baggage claim restrooms are almost all closed for renovation, and as I look for a place to clean my cat, I begin to cry. This is unhelpful for a couple of reasons: one, it is difficult to hold a pet carrier steady when sobbing; two, it makes for confusing interactions with customs officials and security needing to check documents and make sure that this disheveled, weeping, and hyperventilating person wandering baggage claim with a bloody cat is not a threat to Germany’s security. Good news, they’re* not, as the poor customs agent who questioned me discovers. He needs to check my cat’s paperwork and microchip. Crying, I open the crate, apologizing to my cat for having to pull her out, for causing her pain and fear and trauma, apologizing to the confused agent for being a slightly unhinged person unable to handle the guilt I feel and unable to speak German to explain that “I will be okay, I’m probably just sleep deprived.” He scans her microchip and leaves, I imagine, thinking “crazy Americans.”

But I also never fully overcame my discomfort with not knowing.

My husband finds me and is somehow managing to maneuver all of our luggage. This is no small feat as we have four hardshell luggage cases (two large and two small), two enormous duffel bags, and one duffel backpack. I will forever think of my husband as a hero for managing this though at the time I told him it was payback for making me lug bags over a series of arched bridges and cobblestone streets in Venice in 30 degree heat when we could have taken a water taxi.* The two of us manage to find a baby-changing room. He guards the bags as I attempt to clean our cat but only manage to make myself more distressed. I give up and transfer her to a smaller soft carrier that I wear across my shoulder. She rests against my body in a way I hope is comforting. I manage to knock her water and food dishes, and the changing room becomes some strange crime scene of kibble, puddles of water and bloody paper towels that I only partially manage to clean up. To the woman who used the room after me—I am so sorry; I had to catch a train, and I didn’t realize I would have need for a broom so I did not pack it.

We make our way, somehow, to the queue of taxis, and climb into a minivan and head to the Bahn station and then onto our train. My husband manages everything, hero that he is, as I stroke our cat and repeat to her and to myself, “it will be all right. Everything is okay.” We tell ourselves these things in these moments when it feels like everything is definitely not okay and can see no way of it becoming all right because we have nothing else to offer. Yet somehow more often than not everything does end up being okay and all right even if you did have to go through a brief period of time where it felt like the world was a sadistic tilt-a-whirl and you were only just managing to not vomit on everyone around you.

In order to get to a place where everything would feel okay, we use the spotty WiFi on the train and try to find a veterinary clinic that will still be open when our train arrives in Munich. Not yet having German SIM cards, we email a couple of places and receive no response. My husband asks if we made a mistake bringing our cat on our move, and I panic at that thought. Working on making things right has pushed the guilt I’m feeling to the side. I cannot bear to face it head on.

I decide to pay for a day’s worth of international mobile use and call the one clinic that announces in big text on their webpage “we speak English!” They tell me they are booked for the day and recommend I go to the Haar clinic which is open 24 hours and is also a 45 minute taxi ride away from our hotel. We go back to searching for another option and I find a clinic with open hours that evening. It closes 20 minutes after we are scheduled to arrive at the train station and is a 10 minute cab ride away.

We tell ourselves these things in these moments when it feels like everything is definitely not okay and can see no way of it becoming all right because we have nothing else to offer.

As the train pulls in, my husband gathers our bags so we may quickly unload them onto the platform. As soon as the bags are off, I take the two small suitcases, my backpack, and the cat and run as fast I can (with two suitcases, a backpack, and a cat). I catch a cab and make it to the vet 5 minutes before they close.

There is, of course, a line. I take a seat by the window and the people waiting look at me with concern in their eyes and tell me that the vet will call people in in order of arrival and not to worry, my cat and I will be seen. When the waiting room is empty but for me and one woman with a severely constipated dog awaiting an enema, the vet comes out. The woman tells me to go ahead of her, and I follow the vet to the back office, take my cat out of the carrier, and place her on the examination table.

The vet is a kindly, small middle-aged man with dark hair and friendly eyes. He speaks only a few words of English. We communicate in broken English and German and what I imagine is probably a very amusing form of miming. He understands enough and has me hold my cat as he begins to clean her paws and remove the bits of claw that are dangling from her toes or jammed into her skin. Each time she hisses he laughs and says “ooh,” as though she is a naughty kid talking back to him. I ask if he can give her something for the pain—he does—and what I should look out for in terms of her not being well. He mimes licking his hands. He is so unconcerned that my heart rate finally slows down. My cat is fine. In two to three weeks her paws should be healed and starting to regrow claws. It was one of those things that looks worse than it is.

With the help of the woman with the backed-up pup, I fill out paperwork, and the vet calls me a cab. When the taxi arrives the driver questions me several times before accepting that I am indeed the person he has been sent to pick up. “Wo ist die Katze?!” he demands. I point to the bag across my chest. He raises his arms in surprise and laughs “Das ist eine Katze!” several times as he puts my bags in the trunk.

During all this, my husband has somehow taken our luggage and the large cat crate to the hotel. I do not know how this happened, but I imagine he looked like some kind of multi-legged bag creature from a Miyazaki film lumbering through the train station as fellow travelers jumped out of his way for fear they might be rolled over or sucked into the beast’s orbit. Have I mentioned my husband is a wonder? He is.

When we have both finally arrived at the hotel, we collapse onto the bed in a pile of frayed nerves and questions of regret. This is not how we imagined our first day in our new country. My husband goes out for food while I watch our cat explore the room. She is remarkably relaxed now we are safely in the hotel. This is both relieving and confusing. All this stress, all this fear, all this guilt, and she still tries to scratch the hotel chairs to get attention.

Over avocado pasta (surprisingly delicious) my husband and I talk about the day’s events and our feelings. I tell him how much it hurt to hear him say that he thought we made a mistake bringing our cat. He looks at her and says, “I don’t really feel that; I was just scared too.” We talk about our guilt around having tried and failed to create a safe journey for our pet. As we talk, the guilt lessens and starts to turn into something akin to pride as we discuss the day and what happened while apart. Our cat was fine and was most likely at all points in the day going to be fine, but when we did not know this, we found help without speaking the language and while on only a couple of hours sleep. We found second and third winds as we went from airport to taxi to train to taxi. We did not yell at each other or place blame (except on the airline for misleading us about cabin space—our cat totally could have fit). We processed the hurt we felt and celebrated all the kindness we encountered throughout the day from strangers who saw our distress. No, this was not the way we wanted our first day to go, but on reflection we found the reasons why we came, why we made this journey to this place in particular.

As adults, we hope that in these moments we will know what to do. The truth is, we often don’t. But this is not what is important. It is not the knowing that matters, but the doing—ask for help and act. The young child I was would have frozen or collapsed in incapacitating tears to be in a situation where I knew so little and the stakes were so high. Growing up means not just accumulating more knowledge and experience, but becoming capable of dealing with lack of knowledge, not sinking under the weight of not-knowing. It is in these moments where we act in spite of fear and uncertainty that we can feel the most capable.

Moving to a new country means knowing very little much of the time. It means falling flat on your face, getting up, and tripping once again.* It means getting red from embarrassment but deciding it does not matter because we all make mistakes. It means cozying up to your vulnerability and breathing in its scent. And it means sometimes you will find yourself doing interpretive dance with a veterinarian in order to take care of your cat. And, perhaps strangely, that feels so good.

* I use the pronouns they/them.

* It is a credit to my husband that upon reading this, he did not say, “yes I am amazingly helpful” but told me I had not fully captured how truly horrible it was in Venice.

* Literally, in my case. I have tripped over cobblestones and fallen twice so far.