a cafe in hanoi during the rain / by patrick carpenter

In the café, the ceiling fans move languidly. The effect was visual rather than cooling; the air being moved is two meters above the heads of the patrons. From the piano, a waltz. Do you know who this is? This is Chopin. The piano is filled with his emotion. It is spilling out the top and across the ceilings. In Poland, where there is nothing like this humidity, Chopin’s piano never made such sounds. The same notes, different sounds: a different voice, a subtle inflection. This voice has water in it. Steam. But the music itself is no less a pleasure. Rather, the pleasure is enhanced, because now Chopin has come to mean two different countries. There is the memory of Poland and the time spent driving from Wroclaw to Warsaw with the musician-turned-banker (as so many did when the market opened up) who told him of his father, who had managed to see the world, slipping through a seam in the iron curtain by playing saxophone in a band of an ocean liner out of Gdansk. And his brother, who had played flute in the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra, which had just recorded their first symphony with him, and how he was killed in a brutal automobile accident two days before the recording came out, and how his widowed wife could not bring herself to play the CD for the children. Poland, in the countryside where thin trees, trees thigh-wide lined the two-lane road, the houses right up on this road, with their low fences an arm’s length from the trees, and the pensioners that stood and stared at the road from open windows, their great arms folded on the sill. The old, broad women with their sack-aprons and headscarves staring out at the new cars from the new system rushing by oblivious to them as individuals, their lives and houses occupying a peripheral measure of space between two destinations. And then, as if on cue, the counterpoint: a horse-drawn dairy cart turns in to clog this artery. The line of cars now forced to move at the pace of a parade behind the great big milk drums. And so the chance to look out on and take in the great golden fields, the poplars, the pensionists that define the country. And back inside, how the ex-musician told him when you hear Chopin in Poland it is nothing extraordinary. But when you hear Chopin outside of Poland, the pull of the country is enormous on your heart.