A Time of Gifts

Time of GiftsAs a young man, Patrick Leigh Fermor couldn’t quite decide what he wanted to do with his life. He’d left school, peace-time soldiering had proven unsuitable, and his attempt to take lodgings and become a writer was more difficult than he imagined. So he decided he needed to try something different:

To change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp—or, as I characteristically phrased it to myself, like a pilgrim or a palmer, an errant scholar, a broken knight or the hero of The Cloister and the Hearth! All of a sudden, this was not merely the obvious, but the only thing to do. I would travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps. If I lived on bread and cheese and apples, jogging along on fifty pounds a year like Lord Durham with a few noughts knocked off, there would even be some cash left over for paper and pencils and an occasional mug of beer. A new life! Freedom! Something to write about!

Fermor’s plan was to walk across Europe, from the Netherlands to Constantinople. The year was 1933, but Fermor did not write this account of the journey until 1977. This book, the first volume, covers his travels from the Netherlands to Hungary.

Although Fermor did not make a lot of plans for his journey before he began, the few plans he made did not exactly come to fruition. He did travel mostly on foot, with a few train rides when it seemed appropriate. And he did consort with some peasants, but he also stayed in castles when offered the chance. He “tacit principle,” he writes, is “to flinch at nothing on this journey.” Fermor is open to whatever type of experience that comes his way, and that openness, which helps him throughout the journey, also makes him an engaging writer.

As Fermor journeys across Europe, he finds again and again that people are willing to help him, whether by providing a simple meal and a bed in a barn or offering a luxurious dinner and room in a fine home and writing to friends along the way who will offer the same. The journey is very much a time of gifts, enabling Fermor to get by on little money and few firm plans. One humorous incident occurs when Fermor arrives at the home of a friend of a previous host and senses that these new hosts are uneasy at his arrival. Uneasy as they are, they do not fail to be hospitable. Only later to the letters of introduction arrive, alleviating everyone’s concern but not quite erasing the awkwardness.

Of course, not everyone Fermor encounters is kind and helpful. His bag gets stolen, and he meets a few Nazis but doesn’t spend time among them. He arrives in Vienna during a battle, an incident that reminds readers that the sort of journey he’s taking soon won’t be possible at all.

The book is not merely a travelogue in which Fermor tells what he did and when he did it. He uses his travels as a springboard to muse on art, culture, history, language, and whatever else crosses his mind. Like his unplanned journey, Fermor’s narrative winds around, taking readers on detours that are unexpected but hardly ever out of place.

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14 Responses to A Time of Gifts

  1. Jeanne says:

    I think this is what my daughter would like to do. Unfortunately, even in 1933 I don’t think it would have been a good idea for a female.

  2. Hillary Hamilton says:

    My reading group read this book last month. I enjoyed Fermor’s writing, and was fascinated by the degree to which much of the European countryside was, in the mid-1930’s, much as it had been for centuries, especially for the peasants. His vignettes of the people he meets were sharply drawn, though he wasn’t above writing about his own shortcomings, as in when his pride keeps him from accepting a ride to where he needs to go and instead he walks for miles in heavy snow. I’m look forward to continuing the journey with the second volume, Between the Woods and the Water.

  3. Lisa says:

    I think this is one of the most beautifully-written books I have ever read. I read it with an atlas close to hand, and I kept pausing to look up the places he wrote about. Always in the back of my mind was the knowledge that the world he was traveling through would vanish so quickly.

    • Teresa says:

      I wish I’d had a map! I kept wanting to look online for some maps because I don’t know that part of Europe well, but I didn’t want to get distracted from the lovely writing.

  4. That sense of a lost world – lost people, lost places, lost graces – combined with such boldness of spirit. It really is a remarkable book.

  5. Alex says:

    This book was given to me years ago now by the most brilliant man I have ever known and the fact that he loved it sealed Leigh Fermor in my heart for ever. Do read the wonderful biography of him by Artemis Cooper which came out a couple of years ago.

    • Teresa says:

      I will certainly keep that bio in mind after I read more of his books. (I’ve just gotten back from a monastic retreat, so I’m especially interested in A Time to Keep Silence.)

  6. Scott W. says:

    As though the exoticism of Fermor’s travels isn’t reason enough to read this trilogy, his versatility with the English language (and with several others!) is what really recommends these books. I cannot think of another English writer of the 20th century who is so adept with the language at a lexical level. There are passages that leave me gasping. Read the other two equally marvelous volumes; the third one, The Broken Road, just appeared last year, and it’s fascinating to see how, over the course of 70 years, Fermor could revisit his travels and, with almost heart-breaking honesty as well as shining humor, engage the distance that time and age impose.

  7. This sounds very interesting and I love the cover, but I wonder how it would have been different if he had written it without forty years of perspective.

    • Teresa says:

      That’s a good question. You actually get some idea of the answer late in the book, when he shares excerpts from the journal he wrote on the journey. Those bits seemed like they came from the same person, but there wasn’t the same sense of melancholy to them.

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