Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Subjunctive Tie


Paris, 1991. I was twenty-one years old that spring, living in the City of Lights, working a "stage" (internship) at a software-publishing association, and learning what is arguably the most romantic language in the world. I had left a serious boyfriend back in New York State, in the Hudson Valley, and I was at least technically faithful to him (flirtations don't count for anything in Paris). I don't remember when it was exactly, but for nearly a full week he took a vacation from his job (he was nine years older than I and owned his own business) and came to visit. I had found us a modest, clean hotel: the Hôtel du Danube in Saint Germain. It is now a refined three-star accommodation that I wouldn't recognize except for the warm, wood paneled part of the facade where the hotel's name is spelled out in raised gold letters. At the time, though, we could've stayed almost anywhere minimally decent, and I would have been happy. Because it was a romantic visit from my sweetheart, but also because, the rest of the time, I lived with a host family who was less than friendly (I wrote about them in this post), so I was happy to absent myself from them for several days. There are not many things I remember about what we did that week, only some highlights. Among them, my only "haute gastronomie" dining experience in Paris and the first anywhere that I ever booked and paid for on my own. We went to L'Orangerie, a discreet, stylish, incredibly romantic restaurant on the Ile-St-Louis—itself pretty romantic, with its old gas lamps along the banks of the Seine. (I think I heard that the restaurant closed some years ago,and it's a shame. I know for a while the kitchen was run by Michel Del Burgo, a three-star Michelin chef; he wasn't there in 1991, though. At that time he was at La Barbacane at Hôtel de la Cité in Carcassonne, where, eleven years later, I would stay the night before my wedding. How's that for a loop?) The food was probably the best I'd ever eaten at the time, though sadly I don't remember any of it now. I do recall being thrilled that I managed to do all the ordering in French that was good enough to elicit a smile from our table's captain. I also remember the most sumptuous arrangement of flowers, a stunning centerpiece to the dining room that made you feel you were in a royal garden. We drank wine, fed each other, the whole four-hour diner one long preamble to passion. The other thing I remember from the week is a bit less romantic, but still has charm to it—and I remember it as one of my best linguistic coups while in France that year. I remember it just as well as, if not better than, L'Orangerie, which might be telling in a way that marks me as truly odd, or just language obsessed. I don't remember where we were exactly, but toward the end of my boyfriend's trip, I decided we had to go shopping. I will say here and now: I am not a willing shopper under most circumstances. I don't like salespeople at home; put a language barrier in there as well and it's anathema to me. But we were wandering around, ducking in and out of some boutiques (no names or labels you'd recognize), and we hit upon a nice men's clothing store. We looked around, unsure. My boyfriend was contemplating a tie he liked but then decided not to buy. I don't remember if he was buying something else and just didn't want to add the tie, or if he was ready to leave the store minus any purchases. Somehow, while he was in a different part of the store, I managed to wave over a salesman. And somehow, I managed to find all the words I needed to tell him what I wanted: the tie, as a surprise that I would give to my boyfriend later. The salesman was happy to get in on the conspiracy, but my triumph was a sudden comprehension of how to use the French subjunctive. I told the salesman that I wanted to buy the tie "sans qu'il le sache," gesturing behind my boyfriend's back. I wanted the transaction done "without his knowing." Until then, I had had trouble mastering the subjunctive, which is a tense I went to great lengths to avoid.  Sometimes it was easy to sidestep it. For example, instead of "Il faut que . . . ," which requires the subjunctive, you could substitute "Il faut" plus the infinitive, a much easier construction (the infinitive is a beginning language learner's best friend!). But other times I ended up with overly long and strange sentences as a result of trying to flee the subjunctive. So, when I was there in the store, coveted tie in hand, I found it miraculous that the proper use of the subjunctive flew effortlessly out. I wanted to kiss the salesman on the spot. (Of course, I did not; how would that look to my boyfriend?) Paid for in secret, won with linguistic prowess, I cherished the tie, thought of it as mine and was almost sorry to give it away. But give it I did. It was in tones of yellow and gold, slightly shimmery, but in a subtle way so that it did not look flashy or cheap. My boyfriend loved it, loved that I'd arranged the surprise. When he left Paris, I remember being sorry to see him go, sorry to head back to my host family's cramped apartment in the 17th arrondissement—but I kept with me for the rest of the time I lived in Paris the flying-high memories of an exquisite dinner and a fine, subjunctive tie.

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