Imagine having to flee from your home, either because of genocide, political oppression or a natural disaster.
You end up at a strange place.
The weather’s cold.
The natives glare at you with eyes that read curious or suspicious.
And when these people speak, you can catch only a word or two, mere snowflakes in a blizzard of words and sentences that prove overwhelming.
What to do? You could ask: “Parlez-vous français?”
That’s because some of the latest refugees in Manchester hail from sub-Saharan countries such as Congo and Burundi, where French was taught in schools and is commonly spoken.
They now live in a city whose heritage and culture were molded to a large extent by French-speaking Canadians.
That French Connection was played out earlier this month when Conversation Cafe held its annual French night.
Mary Ngwanda Georges, a Congolese native and Manchester school board member, opened the event.
Those in attendance sat at long tables, nibbled on potluck Quebecois cuisine such as potato soup and brown bread. They sang French songs, and they spoke their common tongue.
Jean Marie Mgemonza, a Congolese man who has been in Manchester about a year, was there. Through a translator, he spoke about his reaction to French speakers.
“The minute he learns they speak French, they’re almost related,” said Sister Colette Auger, a member of the Presentation of Mary, who translated for Mgemonza. Mgemonza is fluent in French, the official language of his home country, and Lingala. An engineer in his home country, he learned some English. But it is hard to grasp any English here, given the accents, colloquialisms and speed that people speak, he said.
Ahned Elengwe has been here about a month. The Conversation Cafe night was the first time he heard French spoken in Manchester by a white person.
“It makes him remember good times in the Congo,” Auger translated.
Conversation Cafe is a monthly get-together designed to create social connections between New Hampshire people and new arrivals. It is part of Welcoming Manchester, an effort to provide newcomers with jobs, health care, social services, English lessons and citizenship lessons so they can succeed in their new home.
Once a year, Conversation Cafe turns French.
On hand were a French teacher from St. Anselm College and a few leaders from the Franco-American Centre, which works to preserve the French-Canadian culture and language in Manchester.
“French has a long heritage in Manchester, and it’s also a good reminder to us French Canadians that we all came from immigrants,” said John Tousignant, the center’s executive director. French Canadians experienced discrimination when they moved to Manchester, he said, and Franco-Americans don’t want new arrivals to experience the same discrimination as their forefathers.
He also said it’s natural for new arrivals to isolate themselves among their countrymen, which hurts integration efforts.
“These events, when they can speak French, it makes it easy for them,” he said.
Love Polynice moved to New Jersey 17 years ago from Haiti. At the time, she spoke French, Creole and English, but had to drop French in order to concentrate on English. Polynice said she was pleasantly surprised to discover French when she moved to Manchester.
“I love French, but it’s hard. There are too many verbs,” Polynice said.
The two hours involved a few speeches. But mostly there was small talk.
Sister Auger and a retired priest, the Rev. Charles DesRuisseaux, 83, spoke about growing up in Manchester, where they spoke French at home. Half the school day was in French, the other in English.
My college and high school French is good enough only to embarrass me. But I caught a few nuggets of small talk. “La neige, c’est froid.”
The event drew about 30 people, which organizers said was down from previous years.
It ended with DesRuisseaux and Georges singing “Alouette.”
Done properly, the Quebecois children’s song about plucking feathers from a bird involves gesturing the pluck from each body part — the head, the beak, the neck, the leg, the tail.
And the two leaders of different communities — an aging Franco-American priest and an up-and-coming Manchester school board member — did their part with strong voice and animated movement.
They may be different races and different generations. And they travel in circles that rarely converge.
But on a cold winter night in early December, they were one.
They were French.
“French was the language of our homes, our churches and our schools,” DesRuisseaux said.
“I believe the new French speaking residents have similar feelings.”