It was the best of times, it was the worst of times when Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to walk from Rotterdam to Konstantinopel in 1933. He was a young man with very little in the way of money, but his life ahead of him whilst Europe was on the verge of war.
A time of gifts is a brilliant book I must say; I do like reading this sort of thing but it really is in a league of its own. This was written much later and is based on his memories and his diaries, as well as reflections on the bigger picture with his story being put into a perspective. These different strands of thought form a narrative that is bigger than the sum of the parts in a way.
It was a different time back then; 5 pounds was a fortune, Czechoslovakia was a new nation and communication across boarders was difficult. For better or for worse he was left to his own devices in large parts. Although Leigh Fermor coming from a good and well-connected background he has letters of introduction to good tables and his roughing it in barns is interspersed with nights at various schloss and dining like a king. Those glamorous interludes does bring more of an adventure to the trip. I’m surprised his life hasn’t been turned into a movie yet. After this he was a bit of hero in the war and then became a writer and hob-nobbed with the aristocracy. He was a looker too; I’ve seen pictures. Nice face to have across the table, if I were to have a “list of hotties from history” he would be on it (I’m not saying I have such a list. Explorer Joseph Banks cirka 1771 would also be on it. Again; not saying I have such a list).
Leigh Fermor was trying to find his way though a Europe but also find his own place in the world; the journey is also a spiritual one. In the introduction Jan Morris makes a reference to the works of Ibn Battutah (which I have yet to read) but maybe The narrow road to the deep North and other travel sketches by Bashō could also be in that category; I feel there is an affinity between them.
He must have had a knack for making friends although as someone who has on occasion travelled alone I find that one does turn on the charm and people do open up to a lone stranger in a way they wouldn’t to a group of friends. As learned as he was (the Shakespeare quotes are many and not far apart) he also acknowledges his naivety in regards to politics ,and German politics in particular, in retrospect. Nazism does throw a dark shade over the whole thing reading it now. But his trip is is about people and places; the meetings along the way, the everyday life and conversations.
With people we do not know we make the most trivial small talk or tell them our deepest secrets; the risk or chance of never having to meet someone again can be a possibility I guess. This also speaks through the ages; who hasn’t pretended to be someone they are not on vacation, or taken the chance to be who they truly are when out of the usual context and role we are given.
All in all; an engaging read that takes you away. It’s a feel-good book it really is. It was an act of generosity from his side to share his adventures I think. And so well-written.