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Francis and the violin

Francis was a disagreeable character who lived in the room next to mine at the top of the winery and drink technology apprentice school in Trier, Germany. We shared a small bathroom and shower stall at the end of the hallway of four rooms.

Our rooms were only about 8’ by 10’, big enough for a bed, writing table and chair, and standing wardrobe. Each had a window that opened onto the steep shale roof. The rooms stood five stories above the street in a quiet residential neighborhood with neat yards and gardens. A sink with a mirror and small water heater hung on the wall in the corner of the rooms.

He was a Japanese student doing an internship in the administrative offices of a winery in Trier. He was a flagrant Euro-Germanophile, who seemed to be at some pains to erase his Japanese upbringing, including changing his name legally for his passport. When we went out for a drink, he only sat in the middle of the room and never at a booth. He smoked Dunhill, the priciest cigarette available in the German market. He held the smoke at the very end of his fingers, which he held very straight. He had the habit of smoking while eating ice cream. He loved it, he said. Nicotine and ice cream go together, he said.

After a couple of months in Trier, I had made some friends and got out sporadically. But Francis, who spoke flawless German, did not make friends well. Even though I had pals, I couldn’t be with them all the time and spent most weekends reading, writing, and walking around town and through the forest and vineyards above.

Now and then on Saturday afternoons, Francis, who must have been very lonely, knocked on my door and invited me over for coffee. He always motioned me to his room with some flourish. I knew he must have been desperate for human company, because most of the time I was beneath his attentions. Where I was making coffee with a pour-over filter with hot water from the tiny boiler, he owned a proper coffee maker. He made the coffee exercise a real ritual.

After I sat down at his chair, he offered me a Dunhill. To be nice, I always took it. But being used to cheap, black Gitanes and German Lucky Strikes—and Drum self-rollies—his expensive cigarettes tasted metallic and irritated my throat. I didn’t understand the ephemera of gourmet coffee making but, obviously, he did. As I puffed and choked away, he ground beans. He placed the filter in the coffeemaker. He slowly shook the grounds into the filter and wetted them by sprinkling water from his long and slender fingers.

We made small talk, which always put me in some discomfort. He went on about things that separated us. He talked about the best restaurants in town, the best wine in the region, and the best clothing stores. He waxed poetically on the latest fashion, designers, and finest fabrics.

Francis came out of the Japanese business class and was the scion of a family of industrialists. He had already graduated with a baccalaureate from one of the prestigious British universities. From what I could divine, his family sent him to Germany to complete his education. His goal, I think, was to become an importer of German wines. Only the best, priciest, and highest in reputation, he told me once.

We were opposites. He had wealth and breeding. I could afford nothing and was mostly uncultured. Francis prided himself on his outfits. I had only the clothes I came to Germany with in a backpack. People at my winery and vineyard gave me hand-me-downs. My donated boots were too big. Francis had a service do his laundry. I washed my clothes in the shower stall or borrowed, when I could, the washing machine that belonged to some people I’d met and was becoming close friends with. His stipend, as far as I could see, was generous. I was working for 500DM ($250) a month, which paid rent, bought food and a Friday night out, and one English-language paperback a week. If I had money leftover, which was seldom, I added to my account at the German equivalent of a credit union.

Evenings, he drank expensive and fine wines from the region and had an affinity for Egon Mueller’s Scharzhofberg and some of the pricey vintages of the Middle Mosel. I drank plonk, the cheap, everyday table wines the the winery made for its employees. He had a row of Suntory whiskeys on his shelf. I drank “korn.” He believed beer was for pedestrians. I was a pedestrian.

Francis reminded me of all the things I was not. He had confidence and flair. He oozed poise and, in company, engaged in sparkling repartee. He gathered other winery apprentices around him and was the center of the party, even if he didn’t have friends and had to spend weekends alone. I wanted his elan, but flair had always escaped me. It just wasn’t a part of my character. When I shook his hand, I could feel my calluses grate against his smooth skin.

As different as Francis and I were, and as superior as he was to me, I felt sorry for him. I mean, for him to have to invite someone below his station for coffee on lonely weekends must have put him out. In year we spent living in adjoining rooms, I don’t think I ever, not once, cracked the essential Francis—he was not a person I could ever get to know.

But there was one thing about Francis. He played the violin. He never played when I was around. I heard him by accident when I came home from being out with my friends one Friday night. I walked my friend Monika to her bus stop and then sauntered home. I rounded the corner of the apprentice school and entered the courtyard, where the door led to the steps that took me up five stories to my room.

I opened the door quietly and stepped in. Strains of Mozart (I knew that much) echoed down the stairs. His was an expert and experienced hand. The music conveyed such deep emotion. I spent hours sitting on the bottom step, listening, my eyes closed. The notes transported me from my everyday worries and cares. The physical effort of my job settled into my bones as I sat there. But the music soothed all the pain.

I mentioned Francis’ practice to him only once. He acted like I was hearing things. I play, he said, but only poorly. There’s nothing in it. I won’t bother you with it again.

I pressed the issue a little but I could tell he didn’t want to talk about it. The next few times I came home late, he would stop playing when he heard me come in. From then on, I snuck into the where the staircase started as quietly as I could and sat on that bottom step. When he was finished practicing or I’d had enough, I knocked around the front door so he could hear that I had come home.

One rainy night, I walked Monika to her bus stop from the brewery, where we had eaten and had a beer with friends. I had a thing for Monika. We stood under the lindens at the stop and waited. The rain started in sheets but there was no wind. It was a cool but tolerable evening.

There came a moment. I spread my hand over her cheek, the rain running down through her hair and down my arm. My heart swelled. We stood under the trees, rain coming down, and kissing until the bus eased up the stop.

After I saw Monika off, I tripped home, inebriated on strong beer and kisses. I snuck through the door of the school. Francis played a simple and mournful tune. The emotion of the evening weighed on me. I remembered home and friends. My mind ran through a number of scenarios of what might happen to me in the coming months. I set any difficult thinking aside and listened.

It was one of the sweetest nights of my life.

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