It’s all getting a bit tense!.jpg

It’s all getting a bit tense!

By JUNE LOVER [email protected]

After 35 years in the TV and film industry, June Lover retired to the Algarve in 2006.  Having owned a holiday property here for 12 years she now lives in the hills above Almancil.

I’m not talking about the atmosphere in our household, which remains as convivial as it ever was.  We’ve survived the festive season and we’re still talking.  Who can ask for more?  No – I’m talking about the classroom.

My beloved tutor has finally bullied me into exploring the past tense, something I’ve been resisting for months. However, her saintly patience has won the day and I have to admit that it’s almost impossible to speak a language without referring to what happened in the past. Even if the past was only 10 minutes ago.

I remember saying in my very first article, “Do you speak Portuguese? If you do, may I offer you my heartiest congratulations.  I am filled with admiration and in awe of your talent.”  Nothing has changed, and as funny words like fui (I went) and foi (he/she went) enter my vocabulary, my esteem turns into envy.  I’m positively green with it, but I mustn’t give up, so when everyone else is starting the New Year by looking to the future, I’ve diving head first into the past.

As always it comes down to the dreaded verbs and their endings, and just when I’ve got my head round the present tense endings without having to think too hard, I now have to learn another group. Once again there’s a set pattern (excluding the irregular verbs of course which will forever be my bête noir no matter what the tense), and I’m beginning to get the hang of it.  With the aid of my crib sheet I can just about manage to construct short sentences that indicate what I did rather than what I do. But it’s a struggle and the old grey matter keeps letting me down.

My homework for the week was to write something about the past. “When I lived in England…..” I began, and went on to explain where I had lived, what the house was like, the town I lived in, the job I did, all of which was about as exciting as “Strictly Come Dancing”, but I was proud of my effort and my next lesson began as it always does with me reading my latest project out loud.  We do this every week in the fond hope that it will improve my pronunciation.  I’m not sure that it works but it gives us a jolly good laugh as I trip over the words and get the inflection totally wrong.  

At the end of my reading I paused and with a cheesy grin on my face waited for the applause.  There was none. Just the look from a patient teacher to a brainless pupil that told me I’d got it wrong again. I wanted to strangle her but I can’t think of anyone else who would put up with my ineptitude so I resisted.  “What’s wrong?” I yelled.  “It’s in the past, isn’t it?  What more do you want?”

It turns out that with unwitting innocence I had introduced a new gremlin into my already complicated and by now very tense relationship with the Portuguese language.  The Imperfect Tense.  

I’ll be perfectly honest with you – I hadn’t a clue what the imperfect tense was in English, let alone in Portuguese.  “We use it all the time,” said Guida cheerfully. Oh bully for you!  I felt a sulk coming on.

But I realised I was being unreasonable so did a bit of homework of my own. It would seem that the imperfect tense is another version of the past tense – something we all use all the time, it’s just that we Brits don’t realise we’re doing it.  It has to do with events that happened in the past but are not yet complete (like living!), or things that used to happen in the past. Confused?  You’re not alone.  So I gave it some more thought.

“When I was a little girl I used to play in the garden.”  But I’m not a little girl any more, even though I sometimes behave like one.  While this happened in the past, I’m still alive and kicking, so the “was” moves from the past tense to the imperfect tense. In English we don’t differentiate how we use the word “was” because it’s implied by what we say next, especially when we start our sentence with “when”, which is a sure indication that we’re talking about something that hasn’t actually come to a conclusion.  In Portuguese, however, we have to apply another set of verb endings, and for me this is not good news.

It transpires that these new verb endings also apply to what we used to do (“I used to play in the garden”), and it was at this point that Guida introduced me to what I can only describe as one of her “rescue” verbs.  I told you she was a saint!

Costumar.  Don’t bother looking it up ‘cos you’ll tie yourself in knots. Just believe me when I say it’s the equivalent of “to be used to”.  Bad grammar? Yes, but I’m past caring.  Add the ‘imperfect’ ending to this friendly little verb and you have everything you need to describe what used to happen. Costumava – I/you/he/she/it used to….  Costumávamos – we used to….  Costumavam – they used to….  All you have to do is follow this with the basic form (the infinitive) of the verb which describes the action and you’ve cracked it!

Eu costumava brincar no jardim – I used to play in the garden.  Ela costumava jogar golfe comigo – She used to play golf with me.  Costumávamos falar inglês todas as vezes – We used to speak English all the time. (Unfortunately my husband still does which is a constant source of embarrassment to me.)  Costumavam ir a Lisboa comprar roupas – They used to go to Lisbon to buy clothes.  Note the different usage of the verb “to play”.  Brincar is to do with children’s toys and pastimes, jogar is to do with sport and structured games.  Neither of them has anything to do with playing the piano though.  I haven’t got that far.

Tense?  Not any more.  My new verb has opened many doors for me.  Suddenly I am able to talk about what I used to do, where I used to go, what I used to enjoy, eat, drink.  Anything!  Except play the piano.  

So, given it’s the New Year and all that, I’m going to get my head down and work on the future.  That’s what life’s all about.  Desejo-vos um Feliz e Próspero Ano Novo!