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
when I spoke.