By Liat Faver
One doesn’t need a passport or time machine when one has Patrick Leigh Fermor. With very little effort, we may travel to Eastern Europe in the 1930s, backpack along great rivers, accept the hospitality of families of ancient nobility, and live Between the Woods and the Water. Fermor’s continuation of A Time of Gifts, an earlier journey across Europe, is the kind of book that has us wishing for more pages to turn, more friendly faces, more days and nights of dining, drinking, singing, and dancing.
Fermor devotes much time to watching the rituals of the many creatures he encounters. Flirtatious storks “improvise an odd courting-song by leaning back and opening and shutting their scarlet bills . . . like flat sticks banging together . . . like massed castanets . . . sliding precariously on the thatch” (15). A herd of back-lit fallow deer at sunset “cast their shadows across the slope to enormous lengths: a footfall across the still acres of air lifted all their heads at the same moment and held them at gaze until I was out of sight” (17).
Fermor travels alone through primeval forests and glens, inhaling the history of his settings, where “I was in the ruins of a huge castle over-grown with trees. The forest dropped steeply for over a thousand feet, and down below, between its leaf-covered mountains, the Danube valley coiled upstream from the east” (20).
Fermor takes us to all-night parties that end in sunrise melodies, when “the end of the Great Plain glimmered into being underneath us and everything except the Gypsies began to grow pale . . . the sound of startled nests and birds waking up and the flapping of a stork from the pediment showed it was too late to go to bed (103).
We join Fermor and his companions for a skinny-dipping romp on “a boiling hot day . . . on the way back from a cheerful feast” when, “overcome by the sight of the cool and limpid flood . . . we took off all our clothes, climbed down through the reeds and watercress and dived in” (136). At bedtime we find ourselves in a nest of hay, “unwrapping the buttered rolls and smoked pork and pears,” and “finishing off the wine I had broached at noon” (83). Does it get any better than this?
I am impressed with the grace and dignity of the “ancient and inbred stock” (244-245) of Middle Europeans who meet strangers by touching “heart, lips and brow with the right hand, then laid it on their breast with an inclination of the head and a murmured formula of welcome . . . An atmosphere of prehistoric survival hung in the air as though the island were the refuge of an otherwise extinct species long ago swept away.” These customs are endearing, and add to the wonder Fermor paints into his landscapes, of a time long ago, and a culture fondly remembered.
Fermor, Patrick Leigh. Between the Woods and the Water. New York: The New York Review of Books.1986. Print.