“Subjunctive Mood” was published in
Door Is A Jar Literary Magazine, Fall 2020
Nana Mouskouri sings “Plaisir d’amour.” I accompany her with the help of side-by-side French and English lyrics.
I began online French lessons in January. A New Year’s whim, now the impulse has taken hold. This isn’t my first attempt. I fulfilled my college language requirement with two years of French grammar and conversation courses. To supplement the classroom recitation of basic syntax and stilted sentences, I listened to Edith Piaf CDs and watched French movies. I sought to mesh spoken words with English translations and subtitles, lessen my dependence on the latter. I ignored the seedy-seductive Jean-Paul Belmundo in Breathless, my eyes and ears fixated on Jean Seberg, whose American-accented French I could almost understand. On my first trip to Paris, a graduation gift to myself, I was able to book rooms, order meals, ask directions. But in reply a stream of incomprehensible, jumbled-together words would whiz past me like the French high-speed trains.
French isn’t my only foreign language foray. Several years ago I was wooed by the lyrical sounds of Italian, my love of the food and opera, the belief that it would be easier to learn than French. I took classes at the Italian Cultural Center, but the results were discouraging for what I was paying. I tried Duolingo, a free online program that offers instruction in thirty-five languages, including Navajo, Esperanto, and Klingon, but I didn’t get very far.
I failed at Italian, French, and Spanish too, despite taking classes, living close to Mexico, and basking in a bilingual boyfriend’s pillow talk. At each venture I digested grammar, mirrored pronunciation, and memorized words, but I avoided opportunities to use what I learned. I failed because of vanity—my self-conscious fear of looking stupid. I’m enthralled by the idea of speaking a second language—the joys it would bring, the doors it would open—but I don’t seem to be motivated enough to get past this mental impasse, call it reticence, reluctance, resistance. Now I’m trying again, bearish but undeterred, in full flush of fervor for le beau français.
By mid-February I’d reacquainted myself with fundamentals and basic greetings (bonjour, bienvenue, enchanté). I’d completed lessons for more than thirty consecutive days, building vocabulary and absorbing syntax, nudged by Duolingo’s daily email reminder: “Don’t break your streak!”
Then along came COVID-19, and what better pastime to take on in semi-isolation than to study a language. I sprinted past fifty, seventy-five straight days; now I’m nearing a hundred. Milestones garner no flashing lights or clanging bells—my rewards are virtual currency and crowns, the prospect of tackling the next rung. I’m thrilled with my daily-expanding lexicon of words and phrases about home, family, work, school, people, activities, travel, weather, hotels, restaurants, cooking, and shopping. I read and understand brief stories, learn idioms (ça va, ça vent = easy come, easy go) and how to flirt in French—oh lá lá.
Pronouns and gender variations are tricky, but verbs will be my likely downfall. I’m still in the present tense, but I fear overload when I have to confront past and future, perfect, pluperfect, conditional, subjunctive, the many variations. But I vow to carry on, lesson by lesson, level by level, and so on, ad infinitum—et comme ça, sans cesse—until I finish the course or it finishes me.
I’m busy and don’t need time fillers or killers. I doubt that I’ll ever return to France, and given past failures and limitations I don’t expect to become conversant in the language. I’m tempted to quit … and then I log on for the next lesson. My pulse quickens, and a warm glow washes over me when my automated teachers (whom I’ve named Sylvie and Pierre) murmur their velvety phrases, elegance to my ears. That furry “zh” sound. A friend married to a Frenchman says that after twenty-some years she still melts when he says her name: “Zhennifer.” My husband dabbles in German, and I tease him: Which sounds more sophisticated, more sensuous, I ask, guten tag or bonjour? Ich liebe dich or je t’adore?
Next on my playlist is Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je ne Regrette Rien,” a fortifying call to arms. I proceed with purpose, through April, now into May, as an antidote to these ambiguous days. Language offers a means of stretching beyond semi-isolation and self-absorption, acclimating to a conditional—or is it a subjunctive?—mood, a hypothetical world of what-ifs and if-onlys, sequestered in situ, steeped in unreality.