Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A Time of Gifts

Should any of you be forced to find a suite capable of accomodating a family of five plus four siblings and a mother-in-law for a reasonable price in Baton Rouge, there are reasons to be hesitant to recomment Chase Suites, however one of the massive points in its favor is that it offers not only a free hot breakfast, but also a free dinner with free wine and beer. And sometimes, when you're in Baton Rouge with that many family in a room but are lucky enough to have been left alone for a while because it't not your family that's in town, those drinks are a good time to sit down with a book, in this case A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor which I got not long ago on the advice of a dear friend.

A Time of Gifts is an after-the-fact account of the author's journey from Holland to Constantanople on foot in 1933. The author went on to become a rather fascinating commando in WW2, and the book itself was written in 1977 with the benefit of hindsight, but based on the lengthy diaries that the author wrote as he wandered across Europe.

It's beautifully written, and takes place at that delicate point at which the first warning signs of the second world war were making themselves known. The Great War and chewed up a generation of European manhood, but it had left most of the great cities of Europe unscathed. Yet many of the cities which the nineteen-year-old Fermor wandered through were largely levelled in the second world war. And already as he walks across Germany the red flag with its black swastika is flying. Some Germans are marching to volk events in uniform, while others despite the short man with the tasteless mustache.

The following paragraph (from which the title is derived), about Christmas, 1933, struck me, and so I include it:
The only customer, I unslung my rucksack in a little Gastof. Standing on chairs, the innkeeper's pretty daughters, who were aged from five to fifteen, were helping their father decorate a Christmas tree; hanging witch-balls, looping tinsel, fixing candles to the branches, and crowning the tip with a wonderful star. They asked me to help and when it was almost done, their father, a tall, thoughtful-looking man, uncorked a slim bottle from the Rudesheim vineyard just over the river. We drank it together and had nearly finished a second by the time the last touches to the tree were complete. Then the family assembled round it and sang. The candles were the only light and the solemn and charming ceremony was made memorable by the candle-lit faces of the girls -- and by their beautiful and clear voices. I was rather surprised that they didn't sing Stille Nacht: it had been much in the air the last few days; but it is a Lutheran hymn and I think this bank of the Rhine is mostly Catholic. Two of the carols they sang have stuck in my memory: O Du Heilige and Es ist ein Reis entsprungen: both were entracing and especially the second, which, they told me, was very old. In the end I went to church with them and stayed the night. When all the inhabitants of Bingen were exchanging greetings with each other outside the church in the small hours, a few flakes began falling. Next morning the household embraced each other, shook hands again, and wished everyone a happy Christmas. The smallest of the daughters gave me a tangerine and a packet of cigarettes wrapped beautifully in tinsel and silver paper. I wished I'd had something to hand her, neatly done up in holly-patterned ribbon -- I thought later of my aluminum pencil-case containing a new Venus or Royal Sovereign [pencil] wound in tissue paper, but too late. The time of gifts.


Anonymous said...


I am glad that you've had the chance to get started on Fermor (I have yet to get through the next volume of his journey - Between the Woods and the Water - but I think I am going to assign both books for a class on interwar Europe just to provide me with the extra incentive to do so). There are several passages like the one you quoted, so beautiful they almost make one hurt with longing. Enjoy.



PS: And my sympathies to you and Mrs. Darwin for all the kerfluffel with the funeral - running crowd control on little ones in such circumstances is only slightly less enjoyable than chewing one's leg off to get out of a trap...

PPS: And don't forget Offer - he is a harder read but very well worth it.

Steve Bodio said...

That second volume is even better, and the societies he saw in it even more lost. Pray the 90+ Fermor finishes his third, as he promises.