parlez-vous fran├žais?

A knock at the door of my furnished room

in a downtown Winnipeg rooming house

where I study in the afternoons.

I open to the woman from the next room,

and three weary-looking men.

 

They don’t speak English. She knows

I speak French, though she does not know

with what gaps and hesitations.

 

I turn to the men: Parlez-vous français?

 

For seconds, they stand blank.Then one face

lights up, one spine straightens. He has been

butting against incomprehension all day for

how many days. He no longer expects

anything else and so is slow to realize

that he knows what I’m saying.

 

Oui! Such relief! I have never seen

such relief. He tells me they are looking

for rooms to rent. I translate for my neighbour,

he for his companions. I struggle against

the limitations of my French. I tell them

about the small apartment that takes up

the third floor, about a single room

downstairs. I go with them to look in case

they have questions.

 

It is the winter of 1968-69. They are Czech

refugees. I am a student. French is my

mother tongue, but I am not easy with it.

It is the first time my knowledge of it has done

anybody else any good:

how his face shed its look

of blank discouragement, how his body shed

its weariness

 

when I spoke.