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A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

March 6, 2010

A Time of Gifts is a travel journal and coming of age story written by Patrick Leigh Fermor as a 62 year old looking back on his journey on foot from Holland to Constantinople in 1933-1934 when he was 18. After being thrown out of school for a fleeting love affair with a local, Leigh Fermor decides to embark on the journey which becomes (like the Pequod) his Yale College and his Harvard since he soaks up more than enough history along the way, satisfying his particular penchant for origins of royal families (not as boring as it may sound) and obscure traditions like academic fencing. Not only is this book the most rigorous exercise in vocabulary you will have had in a while, it contains some of the loveliest descriptions of travel for travel’s sake. While Europe is in the throes of early political upheaval, Fermor focuses on the lovely scenery of isolated country roads and the characters he meets along the way: Bavarian farmers who live in thatched houses with their ten children, cheerful ferrymen who play harmonicas while floating up and down the Danube, and Hungarian counts who drive Bugattis with elegant swords hanging by their sides. Little does he know at the time but the way of life he was witnessing was soon to be subject to drastic change and his curious nature thankfully drives him to record everything he sees and everyone he meets. The entire journey was made on foot since he refuses on principle to take lifts except in bad weather, and even when it’s snowing or raining he more than once finds himself spending a cold night in a cowshed. The real icing on the cake for me was his comparisons of the Dutch countryside to a Brueghels – one of the many evocative references to paintings he makes throughout the book.

A Time of Gifts ends in Hungary and is picked up again in Between the Woods and the Water – though even that book does not finish in Constantinople so we must wait until Leigh Fermor publishes the final book in the series… If you are interested, there is a charming interview with Leigh Fermor as a 93 year old published in the Telegraph, here.

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