I cannot possibly thank you readers enough for putting me on to Patrick Leigh Fermor, the British travel writer. A number of you recommended A Time Of Gifts, the first of his travelogues recalling a youthful 1930s walk across Europe, as a good selection to give my niece Hannah to read on her current youthful journey there. I ordered it for her, and I ordered a paperback copy for myself. Mine arrived today, and I dove right in.
This is like eating the most impossibly complex and rich Black Forest cake. Verily, Fermor writes as if he’s seeing the world for the first time, and his prose makes you see his world vividly and with breathtaking clarity. For example:
It was dark when I was close enough to see that the tower, and the town of Dordrecht which gathered at its foot, lay on the other bank of a wide river. I had missed the bridge; but a ferry set me down on the other shore soon after dark. Under the jackdaws of the belfry, a busy amphibian town expanded; it was built of weathered brick and topped by joined gables and crowsteps and snow-laden tiles and fragmented by canals and re-knit by bridges. A multitude of anchored barges loaded with timber formed a flimsy extension of the quays and rocked from end to end when bow-waves from passing vessels stirred them. After supper in a waterfront far, I fell asleep among the beer mugs and when I woke, I couldn’t think where I was. Who were these bargees in peaked caps and jerseys and sea-boots? They were playing a sort of whist in a haze of cheroot-smoke and the dog-eared cards they smacked down were adorned with goblets and swords and staves; the queens wore spiked crowns and the kings and the knaves were slashed and ostrich-plumed like François I and the Emperor Maximilian. My eyes must have closed again, for in the end someone woke me and led me upstairs like a sleep-walker and showed me into a bedroom with a low and slanting ceiling and an eiderdown like a giant meringue. I was soon under it. I noticed an oleograph of Queen Wilhelmina at the bed’s head and a print of the Synod of Dort at the foot before I blew the candle out.
The clip-clop of clogs on the cobblestones — a puzzling sound until I looked out of the window — woke me in the morning. The kind old landlady of the place accepted payment for my dinner but none for the room: they had seen I was tired and taken me under their wing. This was the first marvellous instance of a kindness and hospitality that was to occur again and again on these travels.
I can tell already that this is going to become one of my all-time favorite books. Thank you, thank you, thank you for telling me about it. This man writes like an angel. A big-hearted angel.
By the way, Hannah sent this photo from her table at a cafe on the Grand Place in Brussels. That’s her traveling companion Catherine in the shot. They are drinking kriek, and having the time of their lives: