Book Review: A Time of Gifts

A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

In late 1933, Patrick Fermor–then 18 years old–undertook to travel from the Holland to Istanbul, on foot. The story of his journey is told in three books, of which this is the first.  This is not just travel writing, it is the record of what was still to a considerable extent the Old Europe–with horsedrawn wagons, woodcutters, barons and castles, Gypsies and Jews in considerable numbers–shortly before it was to largely disappear.

Paddy, as everyone called him, was the child of a British civil servant in India and his wife who remained in Britain.  At school, Paddy was an avid student of history, literature, and languages; of math, not so much.  He was often in trouble–his housemaster wrote that “he is a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness which makes one anxious about his influence on other boys.”  Paddy’s career at the school came to an end after he was caught holding hands with the beautiful 24-year-old daughter of a local grocer.  He then knocked around London for a while with a rather Bohemian crowd…his comments on the role of Leftism in this subculture, written many years later, are interesting:

In this breezy, post Stracheyan climate, it was cheerfully and explicitly held that all English life, thought, and art were irredeemably provincial and a crashing bore…The Left Wing opinions that I occasionally heard were uttered in such a way that they seemed a part merely, and a minor part, of a more general emancipation.  This was composed of eclectic passwords and symbols–a fluent awareness of modern painting, for instance, of a familiarity with new trends in music; neither more important nor less than acquaintance with nightlife in Paris and Berlin and a smattering of the languages spoken there.

At this stage in his life, Paddy was not very interested in political matters, and his interests when he set out on his walking tour centered on art, architecture, languages/dialects, and folk customs.  He didn’t have much money for the trip, and planned on living pretty rough…in the event, his general likeability got him many free stays in homes and taverns, and in some cases introductions from one aristocrat to another.  There was still plenty of roughing it, though…in Holland, he found that “humble travelers” were welcome to spend the night in a jail cell, and were even given coffee and bread in the morning…and he spent quite a few nights out-of-doors.  (He notes that a night in a castle can be appreciated much more when the previous night has been spent in a hayloft.)

With his considerable knowledge of art, Paddy found Holland to be strangely familiar even though he had never been there before:

Ever since those first hours in Rotterdam a three-dimensional Holland had been springing up all round me and expanding into the distance in conformity with another Holland which was already in existence and in every detail complete. For, if there is a foreign landscape familiar to English eyes by proxy, it is this one…These confrontations and recognition-scenes filled the journey with excitement and delight.  The nature of the landscape itself, the colour, the light, the sky, the openness, the expanse and details of the towns and villages are leagued together in the weaving of a miraculously consoling and healing spell.

It did not take him long to cross Holland…”my heels might have been winged”…and soon he was in Germany, where the swastika flag had now been flying for ten months.  In the town of Goch was a shop specializing in Nazi paraphernalia. People were gathered around photographs of the Nazi leaders.  One woman commented that Hitler was very good-looking; her companion agreed with a sigh, adding that he had wonderful eyes.

For the most part, Paddy was treated in a very friendly way:  “There is an old tradition in Germany of benevolence to the wandering young: the very humility of my status acted as an Open Sesame to kindness and hospitality.”  In a bookstore he met Hans, a Cologne University graduate with a strong interest in literature, who invited him to stay at his apartment.  The landlady joined them for tea, and expressed quite different opinions from those Paddy had heard at the Nazi store in Goch.  “Such a mean face!” she observed about Hitler, “and that voice!”  Hans and his bookseller friend were also anti-Nazi.  Paddy observes that “it was a time when friendships and families were breaking up all over Germany” over the political question.

Hans arranged a ride for Paddy up-river with a barge tow, and he got off at Coblenz to continue on foot.  Christmas Eve was spent at an inn in Bingen, where Paddy was the only customer.  He was invited to help decorate the Christmas tree and to join them for church that evening. On the day before New Year’s, he stopped at a Heidelberg inn called the Red Ox, “an entrancing haven of oak beams and carving and alcoves and changing floor levels,” where an elderly woman greeted him with a smile and the question  “Who rides so late through night and wind?”,  which Paddy did not then recognize as the first line of Goethe’s Erlkoening.  She and her husband were the owners of the inn, and invited Paddy to stay for a while. Paddy became friendly with Fritz, the son of the owners, and pestered him with questions about student life at Heidelberg, especially the custom of dueling with sabres.  “Fritz, who was humane, thoughtful and civilized and a few years older than me, looked down on this antique custom and he answered my question with friendly pity.  He knew all too well the dark glamour of the Mensur among foreigners.”  (Many years later, Paddy wrote to discover what had become of this family, and discovered that Fritz had been killed in the fighting in Norway, where a battalion of his own regiment at the time had been engaged.)

When walking long distances, Paddy liked to either sing or recite poetry.  Germans were very used to people singing as they walked, and such tunes as Shuffle off the Buffalo, Bye Bye Blackbird, and Shenandoah generally resulted in “tolerant smiles” from other wayfarers.  Poetry, on the other hand, tended to cause “raised eyebrows and a look of anxious pity”…even, sometimes, “stares of alarm.”  One woman who was gathering sticks dropped them and took to her heels, evidently taking Paddy for a dangerous lunatic.

Paddy devotes several pages to the names of poems that he remembers reciting, ranging from the choruses of Henry V and long stretches of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Marlowe, Spencer, Browning; Kipling and Houseman…in French, Baudelaire, Verlaine, and large quantities of Villon.  In Latin, there was Virgil, Catallus, and Horace; also some profane medieval Latin lyrics. And also a bit of Greek, including part of the Odyssey and two poems of Sappho.  Amusingly, Paddy prefaces this section of the book with the statement “The range is fairly predictable and all too revealing of the scope, the enthusiams and limitations, examined at the eighteenth milestone, of a particular kind of growing up,”  and ends it with the rather apologetic “a give-away collection…a fair picture, in fact, of my intellectual state-of-play…”

At a cafe in Stuttgart, he fell into conversation with two cheerful girls, Annie and Lise, who had come in to buy groceries.  They invited him to a “young people’s party” in celebration of the Feast of the Three Kings, and then insisted that he stay overnight. (Annie’s parents were out of town.)  The next day was rainy; the girls insisted that he stay longer and go to another party with them, this being one they were not looking forward to but couldn’t get out of: it was being held by an unlikeable business associate of Annie’s father.

The was  “a blond, heavy man with bloodshot eyes and a scar across his forehead,” and “except for the panorama of Stuttgart through the plate glass, the house was hideous”…Paddy devotes quite a few words to critiquing its interior decoration.  Particularly appalling was a cigarette case made from a seventeenth-century vellum-bound Dante, with the pages glued together and scooped hollow.   The trio was very happy to finally escape and return to Annie’s residence.  (After Paddy left to continue his journey, he wrote the girls and discovered that the wine bottles they had “recklessly drained” had been a rare and wonderful vintage that Annie’s father had been particularly looking forward to.  “Outrage had finally simmered down to the words: “Well, your thirsty friend must know a lot about wine.” (Totally untrue.)  “I hope he enjoyed it.” (Yes)  It was years before the real enormity of our inroads dawned on me.”)


Conversations at inns sometimes turned to politics, and “reflected opinions which ran from the total conviction of party-members to the total opposition of their opponents and victims; with the difference that the first were loud and voluble while the second remained either silent or non-committal until they were alone with a single interlocutor.”  Paddy felt himself at a disadvantage in these conversations both because of his limited German language skills and his previous inattention to political matters. “When they asked, and they always did, what the English thought of National Socialism, I would stick repetitively to three main objections: the burning of the books…the concentration camps…and the persecution of the Jews.”

The summer before, the Oxford Union had voted that “under no circumstances would they vote for King and Country,” and the sensation this vote made in Germany was considerable. “I didn’t know much about it. In my explanation–for I was always pressed for one–I depicted the whole thing as merely another act of defiance against the older generation.”  In the eyes of regime supporters, Paddy could detect “a kindling glint of scornful and pity,” carrying a certainty that England was too far gone in degeneracy to present a problem to the Nazis. “But the distress I could detect on the face of a silent opponent of the regime was still harder to bear: it hinted that the will or the capacity to save civilization was lacking were it might have been hoped for.”  Veterans of the War showed  “a sort of unpartisan sorrow at this falling-off,” recalling the fighting qualities of ‘die Tommies’ and comparing them to the pacifist voters in the Union.  “There was a sorrowing, Horatian note in this.”

One interesting perspective on the political situation came in a Rhineland town, where Paddy made friends with several factory workers at a bar.  One of them, “an amusing, clownish character,” invited Paddy to stay over at in spare bed at his place. It turned out that there was Nazi regalia everywhere, and an SA uniform hanging neatly ironed.  “When Paddy I said that it must be rather claustrophobic with all that stuff on the walls, he laughed and sat down on his bed and said:  “Mensch! You should have seen it last year! You would have laughed!  Then it was all red flags, stars, hammers and sickles, pictures or Lenin and Stalin and Workers of the World, Unite!”  He went on to say that he and his friends “We used to beat hell out of the Nazis, and they beat the hell out of us…Then suddenly, when Hitler came into power, I understood it was all nonsense and lies.  I realized Adolf was the man for me!”  His old friends had all changed sides as well; the only problem he saw was that there were hardly and socialists or communists left to beat up.  His parents did not share his enthusiasm, he said;  they were “old-fashioned,” with his father still talking about the greatness of Bismarck and the Kaiser and Hindenburg and his mother focused only on the church.  (The story about Communist-to-Nazi conversions is entirely consistent with the observations of Sebasian Heffner in his memoir, which I reviewed here.)

On January 24, Paddy crossed the border into Austria, which was then still an independent country.  While there, he observed at close range the political violence between the regime and the Social Democrats,  stayed with the owner of a “beautiful and accomplished” parrot that “whistled and answered questions pertly in Viennese dialect, and sang fragments of popular songs in a quavering and beery voice,” listened to the owner’s endless but fascinating monologues, and earned a little extra money working in Vienna as a door-to-door sketch artist.

One amusing incident occurred when he called at a castle where a letter of introduction had been sent to the owners.  Count Joseph and his “gentle and thoughtful” wife were friendly and courteous, but were puzzled by Paddy’s arrival…it seems no letter had actually reached them from Munich, and “my telephone call had conveyed an impression, I think, of some Englishman motoring to Vienna proposing himself for tea or a drink.  Instead of this urbane imaginary absentee, they were confronted by an affable tramp with a knapsack and hobnailed boots.”  Nevertheless, they insisted that he stay overnight, and  the letter arrived the next morning.

Paddy’s fourth country was Czechoslovakia, where he spent hours in a Jewish coffee house–“as big as a station and enclosed like an aquarium with glass walls.  Moisture dripped across the panes and logs roared  up a stove-chimney of black tin pipes that zigzagged with accordion-pleated angles through the smoky air overhead.  Conversing and arguing and contracting business round an archipelago of tables, the dark-clad customers thronged the place to the bursting point.  Occasionally there were rabbis accompanied by Talmudic students about Paddy’s own age, students who devoted their days to the analysis of “texts that had been commented on, recensed, annotated, and bickered over in Babylon, Cordova, Kairouan, Vilna, Troyes and Mainz and Narbonne by fourteen centuries of scholiasts.”

(Yes, “recensed” is a real word, and so is “scholiasts,” along with many other unusual words to be found in this book–indeed, I don’t remember ever reading anything else where I encountered so many words with which I was unfamiliar.)

A Time of Gifts ends with Paddy on the bridge where he paused a long time before crossing into Hungary.  The story continues with Between the Woods and the Water, and then The Broken Road.  I thought this book was excellent, as was the whole series–most Amazon reviewers agreed, although a few were critical of what they felt to be the overly-ornate writing style.  There has also been some suspicion that a few of the incidents (in the later books, not this one, IIRC) have been embroidered a bit.

Overall, very well worth reading. During WWII, Paddy gained a certain fame as a commando on Crete, in which role his linguistic skills and extensive travel experience no doubt served him well.

11 thoughts on “Book Review: A Time of Gifts”

  1. Thanks for the review and summary. I have recommended Fermor’s books to anyone who will listen. Yes, the book was written many years after the fact, and he was a creative enough author to not leave anything simple gray and drab. Apparently many years after his trip, he was reunited with his diary, and found some things did not match his memory. Perhaps it can be said that this book is an exploration into memory, as well as Europe.

    The scene of the Munich beer hall has become a classic, re-quoted in many venues.

    For me, this book provided a view into an era that has been lost forever, and he really paints a fascinating picture.

    [Good news: his books seem to now be available on Kindle, something which was missing for many years.]

  2. “a view into an era that has been lost forever”: my feeling exactly – the old civilisation of the Rhine and Danube was destroyed.

    “in Holland, he found that “humble travelers” were welcome to spend the night in a jail cell, and were even given coffee and bread in the morning” Much the same happened to a young me in the Lake District – I was given the choice between sleeping in a cell in the police station, or in the magistrate’s court. I opted for the latter “because that opportunity might not arise again”. The sergeant had the decency to laugh. And, of course, the morning brought tea and toast.

  3. I first read “A Time of Gifts” on the recommendation of my English next-door neighbor, when I was first stationed in Athens, in 1984. I loved it at once – so lyrical and literate in a way that is as far away as the experience of those of the gentility who made the Grand Tour of Europe in the 18th century. He was a fabulous writer, and when “Between The Woods and The Water” came out, I went to the point of purchasing it at once (from the Hatchards catalog, I think) in hardback at full price. The world of ‘woods and water’ that he wrote about is gone, as if it were wisps of fog, evaporating in the morning sun, dissolved utterly by the rise of the Nazis, WWII and the Soviet occupation afterwards.

  4. A fellow I used to know, a medical student two years ahead of me, spent the summer after his freshman year in a somewhat similar wandering although in 1961, 25 years later. He arrived in Ireland, walked out of the Dublin Airport and stuck out his thumb. The first car passing by picked him up and the driver took him home. He hitchhiked all over Europe that summer with little money. When the Soviets put up the Berlin Wall in August, he wired his father for more money to stay a bit longer and was told to come home. Instead, he rode a German freight train across East Germany to Berlin to see the Wall.

    He was fearless but foolish. He was in Leningrad and, to take a better photo of the city, he went into a tall building to add height to his photo. It turned out to be the Soviet Admiralty Building. He was arrested in an upper floor with a camera. He was interrogated for hours but they let him go, probably on the grounds that no spy would be so foolish.

    He led a rather undistinguished medical school career and is an ER doc in San Francisco. I haven’t seen him for years.

  5. Re Paddy’s expulsion from school for cougar-tempting: I guess if the same happened today, the woman would have been arrested as a perv and Paddy would have been sent for counseling…

  6. Reading Paddy Leigh Fermor’s books frequently inspires deeply uncreditable feelings of envy in me. At first I thought I wanted to have been a young Englishman tramping through Europe between the wars; then after reading Mani and Roumeli I wanted to write like him; then after reading about his wartime adventures in Crete I gave up and admitted that I just wanted to be Fermor.

    A biography of him came out recently – at least, it came into my hands recently – and I felt almost too envious to read it until the early chapters revealed that he wasn’t very good at math. There is a certain kind of low, unworthy relief in discovering that one’s heroes have, at least, a couple of toes of clay.

    Steve just leaned over and reminded me that he has another book on English operations in Crete containing a line about how “that idiot Fermor messed up everything by kidnapping the General.” Unfortunately he’s fallen asleep again, so I can’t supply context.

    What a marvelous writer.

  7. Yes, I’ve wondered why Fermor & Co kidnapped General Kreipe rather than just killing him. Checking Wikipedia (for what that’s worth), it seems that Friedrich-Wilhelm Mueller, military governor of Crete, had a reputation for extreme brutality toward the population. The original plan was to kidnap Mueller, rather than killing him, in hopes of avoiding reprisals on the civilians. Mueller was recalled and replaced by Kreitke, so the Brits decided to kidnap him instead.

    At one point, as the Brits and their prisoner neared the top of Mount Ida at the break of dawn, Kreipe quoted the first line of Horace’s ode Ad Thaliarchum – “Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte” (See how Soracte stands white with snow on high), and Paddy finished the poem to its end. “At least,” the general remarked, “I am in the hands of gentlemen.” In the days that followed, before they were evacuated to Cairo, the two discussed Greek tragedy and Latin poetry.

    There is a book about the Kidnap, “Ill Met by Moonlight,” and also a movie, which I haven’t read/seen.

  8. Something I’d like to do someday: charter a boat and take it down the Danube. Not sure how feasible it would be, though, in terms of the regulatory requirements of the various countries and the availability of dockage…couldn’t find much in a cursory Internet search.

  9. I knew a co-worker at the phone company in Bellevue, WA, in the eighties who had done something similar. He was an Air Force electronic intercept aircraft crewman in the late 60’s, took his discharge in Europe. He knocked around for a while, ended up with an expired visa in Afghanistan, got a job driving a truck over the Salang Pass. I heard the story after the Russians lost a convoy in the Salang tunnel during their time in Afghanistan. Interesting guy, he died of a heart attack while practicing for a bicycle race. The only ID the police found on him was a business card, so they called me at work to confirm their identification.

Comments are closed.