I make an appointment with Sylvie, my Montreal French coach. She will meet me downtown, near the Metro in any neighbourhood I choose, and we will go around for an hour, navigating the plums and corn at the Jean Talon Market, or we will order hot chocolate together, or walk along Rue St. Denis where she will explain to me the history of the lovely wrought-iron staircases. Sylvie is not teaching me classroom French, she is accompanying me through the streets, and giving me confidence to speak the living language, full of holes and mistakes and gaping inconsistencies. I can always study, in solitude, the copy of "Teach Yourself French: A Complete Course for Beginners", if i want to know the rules of conjugation.
There have been several kinds of French lessons since we arrived in Quebec. The menu at the Kamouraska Diner, and the menus at a variety of cafes and resto-bars, list the French terms for all sorts of useful phrases; green beans, tuna, anchovies and chopped hard boiled egg atop my favourite Salade Nicoise; the words for all the herbs that can inhabit a tisane. At the playground this morning, the small boys playing with Juliette and her cousin lit up when I asked them to give me a French test. "The monkey bars," said Benjamin, "are un module. The teeter totter is un balancoir a deux."
Next to Benjamin's and Sylvie's street talk, my little textbook is plain and wooden. Even before I met my real life coaches, I chastised my textbook for being so pedestrian. Why can't you have even a small piece of poetry in you, I asked it. Why do you always have to be going on about the dry cleaners being two intersections past the traffic light, on your left? Who cares about that? I don't need to know where the toilet is all the time. I do not want to name four parts of France where I think it will be windy today. I do not fancy some cous-cous, and I do not care that they are eating before we arrive. Who are "they" anyway? Theoretical people in a textbook world full of stop signs and right turns that lead to the post office in Calais.
Yet I look at the little textbook for the use of tiny words peppered in everyone's talk.; words such as "Donc", "y", and "en". Sometimes all three of these words appear in a sentence, and I have no noun to grasp, no place on "le module" from which to hang at all. The textbook also has, on page 53, a circle cut into pieces of pie that signify halves of sentences one can combine in various forms, like a book of dolls whose legs and torsos a child can interchange, so the librarian is wearing spotted clown pants, and the elephant has just performed the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy at the Russian ballet. You must/take the plane, can become you must/go up the Eiffel Tower. All you have to do is swivel the circle.
I have turned down the corner of page 53. But on page 54 the book returns to a wooden litany on the verb avoir. I am hot. You are cold. I need some money. I am right. You are wrong. we are hungry. "Save me from this," I shout, and am about to fling the textbook on the floor and head out to le bar laitier, when the pages flip open to a haunting mystery; a brief introduction to the subjunctive.
"The subjunctive," says my textbook, in an uncharacteristic whisper, "is a verbal form. it is a different mood, not a different tense, and is used to express wishes, regrets or uncertainty. The subjunctive is never used to express tangible reality."
"What?" I ask.
It is a brief aside on the part of my textbook, which reverts immediately afterwards to discussion of a campsite farther away from the road.
"What was that about a different mood? Wishes? Regrets? Uncertainty?"
"Never mind about that," says my textbook. "Let's move on to the phrase, it is necessary that I should leave immediately..."
"What was that about never expressing tangible reality?"
But the next page is Chapter five, Looking for a Flat.
I will have to ask Sylvie, next time I see her, what that glimmer of intangibility was, to do with the subjunctive. "It's what I am all about," I will tell her. "Mood. Wishes. Regrets. Uncertainty. The expression of intangible, not tangible, reality. The subjunctive is me and I am it. Let's walk together among the cafe tables and talk about that."
My brother Michael once went to a masquerade dressed as a question mark. Next time I go to one, I will dress as the subjunctive. I wonder what she wears. Tears. Clouds. Bits of poem torn out of Beaudelaire. I don't know. And that's the thing. The subjunctive is uncertainty itself. She has made friends with the veil and the cloud. This is my first French lesson.