While wandering the streets of a foreign city one is likely to encounter foreigners, or, as they call themselves, “locals”.
I say this not as an experienced traveler but as one aware that in 2019 the word “foreigner” carries with it something of a negative connotation, as do certain words associated with it, like “tourist”. There are “good” tourists, of course, namely tourists from one’s own country, who speak one’s own language, but I was neither from the country I was in nor did I speak the language of the locals.
Save, that is, for one phrase.
Yes, there was just one phrase I could speak and, here’s the key thing, speak well, which is to say, correctly.
So it was that as I rounded the corner of the cute, medieval French town I happened to find myself in and spotted a group of foreigners, ahem, “locals”, I deployed my lonely French phrase.
“Je ne sais pas.”
“Je ne sais pas” means “I don’t know”, but of course it’s French so it’s the kind of not knowing you might spread a nice pâté on, some local salted butter, perhaps a bit of foie gras.
“Je ne sais pas.”
Did they hear me you think? I’ll say it a bit louder, this time emphasizing the final word.
“Je ne sais PAS”.
Every once in a while a member of that group of cheese munching, wine swilling natives would glance at me, admiring, I am sure, the magnificent way in which I had said that phrase, their phrase, surely in response to a philosophical theory or view of the world my companion had uttered to which I vehemently disagreed.
As for my companion, stunned by the rejection of her worldview, she has wandered off to one side, peering through a shop window and otherwise making like she, herself, is the local and I the foreigner.
“Would you stop that? You’re embarrassing me!”
Embarrassing? Me? Ha! I knew better.
“Je ne sais pas, je ne sais pas, je ne sais pas.”
Every time I said it I could feel the not knowing of it, could grasp the meaning of it, could embrace it, could finally begin to accept it.
Yes, accept it.
Why struggle to try and pronounce the other, perhaps more useful phrases?
Was “au revoir” pronounced together, like “are-voi”, or separate, like “ah, river!” I had tried both, with and without the exclamation points added, and received only looks of bewilderment and, finally, suspicion, as my un-localness was revealed.
“Ah, river!” to that!
I could “je ne sais pas” my way out of trouble with no problem, and perhaps even be invited round to a local’s home for a cognac or two. At which point, when it inevitably did happen, I would politely decline by saying “je ne sais pas” in an apologetic, yet firm, way.
No, “je ne sais pas” was perfect. It was perfect because I really didn’t know. Not French, not anything. I was and am a permanent member of the “je ne sais pas” generation, which is to say, a millennial, though I am a member afflicted with a particularly serious case of the doubts.
My being in this lovely town in this lovely corner of France was entirely a product of this not knowing, because if I had known I would be somewhere else, somewhere where non-locals who know are.
Dining at one of the restaurants running along the river, perhaps. The people chatting amiably on the terrace seem to know what they’re doing. But if I were to dine there now, in my current state of not knowing, I would feel like an imposter, like I didn’t belong, and there is no worse feeling.
This not knowing spans every subject, every decision, both big and small and big or small, because what separates a big decision from a small one?
What entrée to order feels like a big decision when pressure, in the form of the server, is standing impatiently alongside you.
“Je ne sais pas!”
Where is home? What is happiness? “Till death do us part”? To buy or to rent? One jar of salted caramel or four? To invest or to travel to lovely corners of France?
“Je ne sais pas! Je ne sais pas! Je ne sais pas!”
Like most things said — with much difficulty, in my case — in French, “je ne sais pas” sounds refined.
The “I don’t know” of the class delinquent, slouched in his chair, busily gorging on the skin underlining his fingernails when the professor calls on him, suddenly elevates to the “je ne sais pas” of the sophisticate, accompanied by a carefree, yet admirably elegant shrug that fails to send so much as a ripple through the brandy in the glass he holds.
“I don’t know” is lazy, ugly, self-absorbed. “Je ne sais pas” is laissez-faire, contemplative, resigned like the leader who exits with grace and aplomb, confident he’s passing the torch to someone similarly fit.
“Je ne sais pas.”
Yes! If only I could embrace the not knowing, if only I could franglicize (Francize? Gallicize?) my uncertainty.
“Je ne sais pas!”
Turn it French, embrace it, maybe get a mistress with it.
I couldn’t even remember a time when I did know, when I “je sais’d”.
Certainly not in Ukraine. If anything, living there just allowed me to put all those questions on hold, allowed me to forget about the world and the questions awaiting my arrival back.
In hindsight, this made my getting fired after I’d already quit such a superb thing. If I’d just been allowed to quit, to work the remainder of the days contractually obligated after giving my notice, I’d have left Loved! Respected! Welcomed back anytime!
And after spending a long enough time in lovely corners of France and elsewhere, after my account balance had perhaps reached that critical stage, I might just have picked up the phone again, or rather sent an email, offering to once again trade my healthier years and my happiness for a temporary cash influx.
Oh, what a mistake that would have been. But now, instead, I was free! I had left not loved but loathed, not welcomed back but driven out.
Free to wander lovely corners of the world without a clock, without a calendar, without a care.
Free to not know, but free to find out.