Regular as clockwork, Herr Kropatschek arrived every week-day evening precisely at 7 o’clock. At the apartment door, he doffed his bowler, muffler and formal dark overcoat, handed them to Mother, bowed to her and then made his way to the waiting room cautiously measuring out his stride with the aid of his silver-headed cane. There would be Ildiko and I, carefully combed and cleaned up, waiting with our pencils and notebooks for our daily half-hour German lesson.
Herr Kropatschek always greeted us with a courtly bow, inquiring solicitously about our day and how it had progressed so far. This he did so in German, wonderfully enunciated and precise, slowly stated so we would be able to keep up to what he was saying. He then settled himself with great ceremony, placing a small cloth bag at his side and clasping his gnarled mobile hands in front of him. Everything about this man hinted at great restraint and patience; his dress was sober and clean, if a little too-well worn at the wrists and elbows; his hair, precisely parted on the left side, very thin and grey, was slicked down with care; his mustache was perfectly trimmed and it operated as an eyebrow above his lips, punctuating the expression and never, ever, twitchy or nervous; his kindly faded brown eyes fixed on us, interested, as if we were some curiously fascinating specimens. I was completely mesmerized by this gentleman, so obviously of a disappeared old-school, by his lofty mannerisms and dignified bearing. He was the closest Ildiko and I knew of a grandfather-figure, as both our Grandfathers had died either in World War I or World War II.
Herr Kropatschek pointed one wizened finger toward Ildiko and said, “Du bist eine blume!” She looked stunned for a moment, glanced aside at me, then back to Herr K., pointed to him, saying back, “Du bist eine blume!” I just shrugged and looked confusedly from one to the other, and waited for these utterances to be made clear. Herr K. wrote on a slip of paper “Du bist eine blume” and illustrated under the word “blume” with a scratchy drawing of what could be taken for a flower. Now this meaning became clear as we copied the sentence in our workbooks. “Du bist..” you are, “eine”.. one, a, and “blume”.. flower. We spent a considerable amount of time pointing at each other and announcing our mutual floral state. Then Herr K, satisfied with our pronounciation and spelling, pulled the cloth bag in front of himself, extracted two colour-waxed paper wrapped candies and offered them to us. Ildiko always took the orange flavoured one, leaving me with the lemon – these Tutti Frutti gummies were a delicious enticement for us to pay close attention to Herr K.
The rest of the lesson involved repeating the names different kinds of flowers, and things to do with flowers, which certainly must have been a bit boring for Herr K, as he wasn’t a particularly frivolous man. But he did have an amazing quirky character!
He continued on this floral theme for this lesson. He stood straight up and with great flourish whipped his white handkerchief from his breast pocket. This he tucked down into one hand so the corners fanned out like flower petals, did an swift about face toward Ildiko, clicked his heels together and bowing toward her offered her this flower, in his best ancient suitor imitation saying “Bitte, Fraulein Ildiko.” She simpered, in what to me looked to be excessively overcome fashion, batted her eyelashes, jumped up to curtsy and taking the “flower” in both her hands, replied. “Danke schon, Herr Kropatschek. She sniffed dramatically at this bouquet, with a rather gratified air.
Next, Herr K. repeated this posy presentation with me in the same gentlemanly form. I really like the klicking of heels together, then the bow, because none of the boys I knew had this move down so well, in fact they probably did not know of it as something which pleased young girls and women! “Danke schon, Herr Kropatschek”, I repeated dutifully, whereupon I proceeded to sniff away at the “flower”. Unfortunately the handkerchief had a musty, moth-ball scent which made my nose itch, my throat clench together and I inadvertently let slip out a “pfuie”. Taken aback by this comment, Herr K grasped his gnarled hand to his breast and slumped into his chair like an unstringed marionette. He placed his elbows on the table and lowered his head onto his forearms and piteously moaned out “Herr Kropatschek ist gestorben!”
“You killed Herr K.” accused Ildiko, ” now what will we do?” I peered under his chin and noticed his nose hairs quivering, and this obviously meant that he was not quite dead and still breathing. I touched his shoulder and offered the magic words “Linzertorte, Herr K? Coffee?” “Bitte, Fraulein Gabi” he breathed out. I ran out to the kitchen and announced to Mother, “Herr Kropatschek ist gestorben! But he will have some coffee and a slice of Linzertorte, he says.”
Mother was fond of Herr K, and much amused by the unexpected fun he injected into our German lessons. She organized the coffee and cake slices and brought them in to revive Herr Kropatschek. She found us sitting, waiting at the table as he handed around the cloth bag of Tutti Frutti for us to select several pieces for ourselves. Ildiko and I loved the Tutti Frutti flavours, and Herr K really relished a good slice of Linzertorte, his favourite cake.