Yesterday I reached two new milestones in my Portuguese evolution: I embarked on the conjunctive verb tense, and I bought meat from the butcher. Those might not seem like massive or even remotely related accomplishments, but as I’ve said before, even the most trivial things take on earthshaking importance when learning to negotiate a new culture. So milestones they were.

First, the conjunctive. If you asked me to give you an example of the conjunctive verb tense in English, I would give you my now well-honed, patent pending blank look of incomprehension. In elementary school, I was too busy learning about multiplication tables and boys to recognize the grammatical constructions I was picking up on a daily basis. Speaks highly for the public school system, don’t it?

It wasn’t until I reached high school French that I even learned there was such a thing as the conjunctive. After that initial introduction, there followed six years of French, four in high school and two in college. At the end of that time, I spent three months living with a family in the south of France, taking four or five hours of French a day.

Even after all that, I was still unable to use either the conjunctive or the subjunctive in casual conversation. In my mind, those advanced constructions remained strictly reserved for native speakers. My French-speaking career stopped one quarter shy of the final level in college, and I have always imagined that if I’d just taken that one last class, I would’ve been a master of both the conjunctive and subjunctive voices. Quel dommage!

So when my Portuguese tutor announced a month or so ago that we’d soon be turning to the conjunctive, I was shocked. Already? I thought. But I’ve only been taking lessons for four months! I wasn’t terribly dismayed when that lesson got indefinitely postponed, but then yesterday my Norwegian companion suggested we do some work on the dreaded C-word. OK, here we go!

Again, my tutor reassured us not to worry, it’s quite simple. It’s just the same as the imperative. Oh, great, that’s all settled then. Remember how much trouble I had with the imperative, and all the diagrams and hand-waving that were involved? Yeah, no problem. At all. Little surprise then that I struggled my way through yesterday’s lesson, often forgetting the proper root and having to be prompted by my tutor and fellow student. It wasn’t pretty, but in the end, I came away with the basic concept behind the conjunctive, if not all the details.

Even so, I don’t think I’ll be saying something is imprescendivel (absolutely essential) any time soon, nor will I be expressing any kind of doubt or uncertainty. I will remain strictly concrete and suggestive, not commanding.

Just for the hell of it though, I might try sprinkling in one of my favorite expressions that we learned yesterday: oxala, or God willing. The “x” is pronounced “sh,” so the word becomes “Oshala,” which sounds remarkably like insha’allah. The history geek in me, trying desperately to salvage any kind of knowledge out of this largely incomprehensible lesson, seized on this phrase as a potential remnant of the Portuguese Moorish past. Aha, I thought, something I understand!

I left yesterday’s lesson feeling highly accomplished for having gotten to a point in my Portuguese lessons that it took me six years to reach in French. True, I still can’t carry on a coherent conversation, and my conjugation of the present tense is still pretty shaky at best, let alone more difficult constructs like the past tense or imperfect. But I can now say that I have gotten a good overview of the Portuguese language, a crash course if you will, and I am perfectly content to have reached this point before stopping my lessons this week.

My head well and truly exploded, I gladly headed for home. I knew that my way there would take me by the butcher, but part of me was fervently hoping he’d be closed, as he had been when I’d gone by the day before.

Now, a quick word of explanation about the butcher, who has taken on a much larger significance for me than just a place to buy meat. First of all, I don’t like raw meat. I will eat cooked meat, but only if it bears few reminders as to its bestial origins. I can’t say that this comes from any high moral standpoint, but rather simple squeamishness and germaphobia. It plain grosses me out.

For that reason, but also because of his superior language skills, Gabe has always negotiated the meat buying here. I do the rest of the grocery shopping, but I’ve never trusted my limited Portuguese not to result in offal or brains or something similarly far removed from chicken breasts. However, this doesn’t always prove convenient, because the butchers often close before Gabe comes home from uni. So he’s asked me time and time again to pick up meat or fish for dinner, and always I refuse, saying I’m not comfortable with it.

So there I stood outside of the dismayingly open butcher, knowing full well that it made more sense for me to stop there than Gabe, yet dreading to do so. This particular butcher makes me especially squeamish, as I’d been in there with Gabe before and seen him handle first the meat, then the money, then the change, all without wearing gloves or washing his hands. The germaphobe in me was aghast at the thought, although I’ve never been able to decide what was worse: handling other people’s money and then our meat, or our meat and then our money. Either way, it grossed me out, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

Still, I knew the time had come for me to confront my squeamishness. I’d already confronted the specter of the conjunctive that day, and found it a less formidable foe than anticipated, so why not this? I took a deep breath and dove in.

In the end, I successfully procured for us two gigantic chicken breasts, and even negotiated the butcher’s question of how I wanted them cut. I also managed to take my bacteria-infested change and put it carefully in my pocket without throwing up, although it was a close call. I then picked up my plastic bag of chicken with the same contaminated hand, resisting the urge to hold it as far away from my body as possible, and immediately threw it in the fridge and scrubbed my hands when I got home.

BUT — I bought the chicken. I did not make a fool of myself and die from embarrassment, nor from salmonella. And dinner was delicious. Success all around.

Maybe next time, oxala, I will be able to actually cook the stuff.

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