Tag Archives: A Time of Gifts

A funeral at Melk

The abbey at Melk

The abbey at Melk

Paddy described it as a “quinquireme amongst abbeys”. It is a benevolent sleeping giant above the little town of Melk and the Danube. To the east lies the Wachau, one of the most magnificent stretches of river scenery in Europe, and the eastern foothills of the Alps, to the west, Mauthausen and Bavaria. The huge and imposing Abbey at Melk continues to fascinate.

By Roslyn Jolly

First published in The Saturday Paper

This sure is a quiet town.” I’m almost whispering, unwilling to have my voice ring out in the silent streets. “Where is everybody?” It’s about seven in the evening, and as we climb the zigzag pathways to the great church on the hill, there is scarcely another soul around.

We’re going to a funeral. My friend saw the notice pinned unobtrusively to a post in the hotel bar: There will be a service at the abbey tonight for one of the monks, who has died suddenly, before his time. A popular man, a local favourite, highly regarded, sadly missed, the notice says. The community is invited to pay its respects.

We are not of the community, but we are curious, so through the dark streets and up the stone staircases we go. I haven’t yet connected the desertion of the town with the funeral at the abbey. As we approach the elegant arched entrance to the monastery precinct, we see fire engines crowding the forecourt. My friend interprets the scene better, and more quickly, than I do. I’m thinking, “A fire at the abbey? During a monk’s funeral? How very Umberto Eco.” But my friend has lived long enough in Austria to understand that not a Gothic but a civic explanation is required.

The people of Melk and all the parishes of the surrounding Wachau district have turned out in force, in uniform, through whatever structure of collective identity they can call upon, to mark the passing of their brother. Every club, team, order, guild, society, brotherhood, sisterhood, Bund, Verein and Gesellschaft is here. Not just represented here, but actually here, in body, en masse. Every fireman, policeman and Boy Scout wears his uniform; every teacher, nurse and union official is badged. The farmers are here, and so are the municipal councillors from nearby villages. Their gleaming trucks, cars and engines, freshly washed and highly polished, identify the various communities, trades and professions to which these people are clearly proud to belong.


This is the guard of honour outside the church. We walk through it. At the church door, uniformed officials keep watch. I would have turned away, but my friend is unabashed. His six years’ residence in Vienna probably helps. “We’re here for Brother A—’s funeral,” he says confidently, I forget whether in English or in German. The young man in his uniform scrutinises us for a second or two, then opens the door and gestures for us to proceed.

Inside there is colour, gold, incense, music, faces, voices, more gold. The Stiftskirche is a baroque jewellery box, glorious in candlelight, vibrant with song and incantation. There is only standing room. The service is already under way and, of course, being neither Austrian nor Catholic, I understand very little of what is being said or done, but experience the funeral as a dance of feeling between priests and townspeople. A modestly draped coffin is the focus for the energies of community expressed in music and liturgy, which, soaring, match the visual splendour of the scene.

Tomorrow we will come back, and we will see the abbey as the guidebooks and the travel writers promise it. We will see the palatial exterior, painted in sunny Schönbrunn yellow. We will see the beautiful rococo courtyard, with its palms and fountains, and think of it as a prettier Versailles. We will see the famous library with its ancient books, and peer into the pastel-coloured whorl of the shell-like spiral staircase. We will stand on the terrace and gaze at the lovely view of the Danube Valley. We will do all that a visitor to Melk is supposed to do, and it will be wonderful, but it will not be like this.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, in A Time of Gifts, called Melk Abbey the “high noon” of Europe, the highest point of the “high baroque style”. The prose he used to describe it is sunshiny and light-saturated. He even makes noon at Melk his hour of epiphany as well as his key metaphor: “Meridian glory surrounded us as a clock in the town struck twelve.” But I’ve fallen for Melk Abbey at night – not at midnight, the Gothic hour when romance writers find dark mysteries in conventual spaces, but at a civil hour, between seven and eight in the evening, when the river cruisers have gone back to their ships and the people of the town may come out, after work and an early dinner, to interact with the real working life of the monastic order that has existed here for more than a thousand years.

The funeral ends and we file out with the hundreds of mourners to watch the coffin carried to a vehicle that will take it to a burial ground beyond the monastery walls. My friend is troubled by the seeming severity of this custom. “But he would have served here his whole life,” he says. “Why can’t he be buried here too? It’s as if, at his death, he’s being expelled from the religious community.”

We puzzle over this and can’t really do anything with it. It feels harsh. The coffin looks very solitary as it waits to be conveyed through the gates into the darkness beyond. After the uplifted atmosphere in the church, the mood in the forecourt has become sombre, almost austere. All stand in silence, many with heads bowed. We – my friend and I – watch our unknown brother set out for the undiscovered country.

After the coffin has left, the firemen return to their trucks, the policemen to their cars. The Boy Scouts form lines and leave under the supervision of their troop leaders. We depart through the same archway by which we entered. At first we’re part of a throng, but the crowds quickly melt away. No one walks the same path as we do, the path that leads down stone stairs and through narrow alleys to the main street, where the hotels and restaurants are.

Melk will glow tomorrow in autumnal sunshine and we will see all that should be seen by a visitor to this beautiful mediaeval town. But tonight we’ve seen something different. We have interloped. We have slipped through the net that keeps tourists within the spaces designed for them. We’ve found our way to the secret life of a town. Just for an hour, we have gone to the other side.

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Twelfth Night by Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice

We all know the line “For now the time of gifts is gone” but are we familiar with the full poem? Louis MacNeice wrote Twelfth Night shortly after the end of World War 2. It is one of a group in which MacNeice records the loosening of the social bonds that bound British citizens, and the armed forces in particular, during the war.

Twelfth Night by Louis MacNeice

Snow-happy hicks of a boy’s world –
O crunch of bull’s-eyes in the mouth,
O crunch of frost beneath the foot –
If time would only remain furled
In white, and thaw were not for certain
And snow would but stay put, stay put!

When the pillar-box wore a white bonnet –
O harmony of roof and hedge,
O parity of sight and thought –
And each flake had your number on it
And lives were round for not a number
But equalled nought, but equalled nought!

But now the sphinx must change her shape –
O track that reappears through slush,
O broken riddle, burst grenade –
And lives must be pulled out like tape
To measure something not themselves,
Things not given but made, but made.

For now the time of gifts is gone –
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill –
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will … you will.

Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen

One of my favourite posts from 2011. I thought I would share this one more time at this Christmas time. A Merry Christmas to you all and I wish you a peaceful 2017. Thank you for supporting the blog during the course of another year. Please keep sending in your contributions and comments; they keep it lively …

I guess that many of us enjoy the chapter in A Time of Gifts when the eighteen year old Paddy spent two nights in Stuttgart with two very pretty nineteen year old German girls, Lise and Annie. It was Epiphany, 6th January 1934, and they went to a party where Paddy had to pretend to be Mr Brown, a family friend. He particularly enjoyed singing a song about the Neckar Valley and Swabia. Paddy could not remember all the words but his stunning memory recalled most of them (page 66).

As we approach that time of year I thought we ought to share this delightful song.

Here is a link to the music sung by a German choir (it should download the file to your computer which is harmless and does still work). The words are below so that you too can sing along! Let’s hear it now, one two three ….

  1. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
    Das schönste dort am Neckarstrand?
    Die grünen Rebenhügel schauen
    Ins Tal von hoher Felsenwand.

Refrain:
Es ist das Land, das mich gebar,
Wo meiner Väter Wiege stand,
Drum sing’ ich heut’ und immerdar:
Das schöne Schwaben ist mein Heimatland!

2. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Mit Wald und Flur so reich bekränzt,
Wo auf den weiten, reichen Auen
Im Sonnenschein die Ähre glänzt?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .

3. Kennt ihr das Land in deutschen Gauen,
Wo Tann’ und Efeu immer grün,
Wo starke Männer, edle Frauen
In deutscher Kraft und Sitte blühn?
Es ist das Land, . . . . .4. Kennt ihr das Land im deutschen Süden,
So oft bewährt in Kampf und Streit,
Dem zwischen seiner Wälder Frieden
So frisch die deutsche Kraft gedeiht? Ja, wackre Deutsche laßt uns sein!
Drauf reichet euch die deutsche Hand;
Denn Schwabenland ist’s nicht allein:
Das ganze Deutschland ist mein Heimatland!

175 years of the Red Ox Inn, Heidelberg

Red Ox

Immortalised by Paddy who stayed here in the winter of 1934, the Red Ox Inn is celebrating 175 years managed by six generations of the same family. They say they are looking forward to the 200th anniversary. It is always worth a visit if you travel to beautiful Heidelberg.

In German, and I should warn you there are scenes of hearty German food and large glasses of beer, but fortunately no flash photography.

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The 80th anniversary of the Great Trudge – Paddy’s Romania tour?

Something like the opening line to Sergeant Pepper, it was eighty years ago today, that Paddy Leigh Fermor was on his way, setting out on the journey that more than anything else was to define his life.

I have written about this once or twice before – Nice weather for young ducks – but this time it is different. This is the start of a number of major anniversaries, including the 70th, next year, of the abduction of General Kreipe.

For some time I have had an idea to arrange a tour, In The Steps if you like, of Paddy’s Romania. Much of Between the Woods and the Water, and the recent Broken Road are taken up with a country that Paddy once said was second only to Greece in his heart.

The idea is to get together a party of around twenty people for an 8-10 day tour of Romania next September, 2014. I am planning this with an experienced tour company. The general idea is to meet in Bucharest, then follow Paddy’s Transylvanian route, including stops in Cluj, Sighisoara, Sibiu, and Hunedoara. If possible I would like to include a visit to Baia Herculene and the Danube at the Iron Gates. It would also be great to include a visit to Baleni where he lived with Balasha. It is a little out of the way but may be possible once we look in detail at the itinerary.

Romania is a beautiful country, and Transylvania is very special. We will include visits to the Saxon villages with their fortified churches. Accommodation and food will be good, as will the company.

In order to proceed all I need at the moment are expressions of interest. There is no commitment beyond that. Costs are likely to be around £,1500 per person excluding flights to and from Romania. But this may change. If you are interested all you have to do is drop me a line at tsawford[at]btinternet.com .

The following slideshow gives you an idea of some of the things we night see. These are my own personal pictures and some are of an area to the north of Romania called the Maramures which will probably not be included (the wooden churches in the main).

“Now That the Time of Gifts Is Gone”: Poetry In Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Books

The following article was written by Clarissa Aykroyd on her blog, The Stone and the Star. There is something for everyone in Paddy’s books, and here Clarissa discusses his references to poetry.

By Clarissa Aykroyd

First published on The Stone and the Star, 12 August 1013.

In December 1933, a young man named Patrick Leigh Fermor left England to travel on foot across Europe. Alternately sleeping in barns and in stately homes, he travelled from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (he always calls it Constantinople, although it was Istanbul by then.) He wandered in a leisurely manner through what now seem to be the dreamscapes of Mitteleuropa before World War II. Decades later he wrote about his travels in A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. Leigh Fermor died at an advanced age in 2011, but the final book, The Broken Road, is being edited posthumously and will appear later this year.

A great deal has been written and said about Leigh Fermor. He had an incredibly adventurous life which included the capture of a leading German commander in Crete during World War II. With a remarkable personal charm and magnetism, Leigh Fermor seems to have been a sort of cross between Casanova and James Bond.

I have just been re-reading A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. It is not so surprising that Leigh Fermor spent decades crafting these books – there really isn’t a word out of place. The prose is like crystalline mosaics or frescos, hovering on the edge of the unbelievable and fairytale-like, but still believable. It’s entirely possible that Leigh Fermor embroidered after the fact, but his tales of mountainscapes, of dream cities and kind eccentrics are so beautiful that I don’t really mind either way. The books certainly conjure up a world that disappeared – Leigh Fermor repeatedly comments on how, particularly with the rich and titled families who gave him hospitality, the people he met disappeared into darkness during the war and only sometimes emerged. It is true that this is also a world which is rather class-ridden and occasionally interspersed with casual racism, not to speak of the terrible looming shadow of Nazism in Germany. But so much of the books’ poignancy comes from the awareness of the awful storm that was to sweep over Europe, leaving so many scars and in many cases total destruction.

I wanted to write a little about the presence of poetry in these books. In some ways this, too, evokes a world that has disappeared or at least altered beyond recognition. A Time of Gifts is named after a line from a poem by Louis MacNeice, ‘Twelfth Night’:

For now that the time of gifts is gone –
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill –
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated […]

In A Time of Gifts, Leigh Fermor writes at some length (several pages) about his “private anthology” of poetry that he had memorized and would recite to himself while alone and walking. “The range is fairly predictable,” he says, “and all too revealing of the scope, the enthusiasms and the limitations, examined at the eighteenth milestone, of a particular kind of growing up.” The “private anthology” included Shakespeare as well as bits and pieces of Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Hopkins, Kipling, Wyatt, Marvell, Carroll and Lear, among others. “No Yeats later than the Ronsard paraphrase and Innisfree and Down by the Salley Gardens; but this belonged more to singing than reciting.” He then mentions that he wasn’t interested in Pound or Eliot but enjoyed Edith Sitwell. From other languages and cultures, he mentions a little Baudelaire and Verlaine, and Romans such as Virgil, Catullus and Horace.

Particularly in Between the Woods and the Water, in Hungary and Romania, poetry and poets dog his footsteps. In Hungary he mentions “the southern parts of the Cuman region celebrated by [Sandor] Petőfi – it is strange how the names of Hungarian poets cropped up the whole time in conversation and books!” He later mentions Ferenc Békássy, who studied at Cambridge and was “a friend of Rupert Brooke and James Strachey and especially Maynard Keynes” – this young poet died in battle in Bukovina in 1915. Later, in Romania, he comes across the oldest poem in Romanian, the traditional epic Mioritza. At the Baths of Hercules, an “ornate and incongruous watering-place” in a wild Romanian valley, he meets a young woman who quotes Kipling’s ‘If’.

All of this struck me, not just because my ears are pricked for poetry, but because it all seemed so much of another time. What young man (or woman) would now set out to travel across Europe with a memorised library of poetry to call upon, let alone all the multitude of cultural references that Leigh Fermor seemed to have at his fingertips even as a teenager? It just wouldn’t happen – even a poetry lover probably wouldn’t have more with them than a poetry app on their smartphone. Then, too, there were so many young poets who were also soldiers and who were destroyed in the wars. It seems to me that what started to be broken in World War I was irretrievably broken (in so many ways) in World War II, and this might include the idea of poetry as a sort of force for salvation.

On a more personal note, re-reading these books made me want to go back to Vienna, no small feat because it’s not one of my favourite cities. They also set up in me a longing to go back to Germany, to Prague, and to travel more extensively in Hungary and Romania particularly. I also had a strange experience while reading A Time of Gifts. Leigh Fermor praises the beauty of the German city of Regensburg, and writes about one of its sons, Albrecht Altdorfer. When he wrote about Altdorfer’s famous painting The Battle of Alexander at Issus, something swept over me – I had almost forgotten that I owned a small copy of it, from the gallery in Munich where it hangs. It is a remarkable painting and I think the feeling I had (and still have) for it ties into my fascination with certain types of fantasy landscapes – the first edition I owned of The Lord of the Rings featured cover art which now looks very Altdorfer-esque to me. Writing about the landscape depicted, Leigh Fermor said:

It was the valley of the Danube in the throes of one of its hundreds of battles. It must have been. But, on this first visit, how could I have realized it? The battle in the painted canyon is fought out under a lurid October sunset and the rival armies, like windswept cornfields bristling with lances and poppied with banners, collide in an autumnal light. Whereas the battlefield on my first encounter was dulled with snow, with all contours muffled and fanfares hushed. (from A Time of Gifts)

Here is Yeats’s The Lake Isle of Innisfree, cited as part of the “personal anthology”, and perhaps also appropriate for its final lines.

THE LAKE ISLE OF INNISFREE (William Butler Yeats)

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo: Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor

Ryan Eyre lives in Seattle, and took a journey to Kardamyli to meet Paddy in 2009. He has written this article for the Journal of the Book Club of Washington, and has asked to publish it here as well. Ryan tells us, as many others have done, about Paddy’s remarkable memory, which he utilised to the full to write A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. I have seen evidence of this myself. On a recent visit to Cluj I was able to enter the public rooms of the fabled Hotel New York (Continental) clutching a copy of BTWW and marvelled at the accuracy of Paddy’s description of its decor … but the cocktail bar was closed!

Update: I met Ryan last month (5 June 2013) in London and was able to show him the site of the original John Murray publishing house at 50 Albemarle Street. Ryan was on a holiday from his post in the Republic of Georgia where he is teaching English. He reminded me of this article which was posted in the week following Paddy’s death. It may have got lost in all the high frequency posting at that time, so I promised him that I would give you all another chance to read his account.

Meeting Patrick Leigh Fermor

by Ryan Eyre

On a February evening in 2009 I alighted from a bus in the village of Kardamyli, in the Mani region of southern Greece. I had arrived at this remote corner of the Peloponnese with one purpose: to meet the celebrated English author Patrick Leigh Fermor, one of the great prose stylists of the 20th century and arguably far less well known than he should be. Now in his nineties, Paddy (as he is known by his friends) still divides his time between England and his adopted home of Greece, where he lives in a house he designed himself in the 1960’s on a headland just south of Kardamyli. Patrick Leigh Fermor (PLF) has had an extraordinarily full and remarkable life.  For the sake of some background for those unfamiliar with him I provide a brief biographical sketch:

Born in 1915 and educated at the King’s School in Canterbury until he was expelled at the age of sixteen, he was preparing for the entrance examinations for Sandhurst when a sudden inspiration came over him. He decided to walk across Europe, with the final destination point as Constantinople, living, in his words, “like a tramp or a wandering scholar.” It was December 1933 and he was eighteen years old. He set out almost at once, catching a tramp steamer from London to Rotterdam and beginning his walk from there, passing through the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and European Turkey before arriving in Constantinople on New Year’s Day, 1935. His experiences on his thirteen-month peregrination later provided the material for his two most celebrated books A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, which were first published in 1977 and 1986, respectively.  These two volumes recount the first two-thirds of his amazing journey by foot from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn. Richly descriptive and full of historical and literary allusions they provide a portrait of a pre war Europe long since vanished.  Apart from the extremely high standard of prose and the author’s obvious enthusiasm for history, literature and art, perhaps the most appealing aspect of his account of this remarkable journey is that it was completed on foot. It has been said that the human mind can only properly absorb its surroundings at a walking pace.   The gradual transitions of landscape, language and culture were carefully observed by PLF because of the patient, unhurried approach that he took; a faster form of travel would have failed to capture nearly as much of the richness and complexity of the lands he passed through.

After completing this walking journey, he spent the next couple of years in Greece and Romania. He was romantically involved with the Romanian princess Balasha Cantacuzene, living with her on her estate in Moldavia until the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, at which point he returned to Britain to enlist in the army. During the war he served with distinction in Greece, both during the German invasion of 1941 and afterwards during the occupation.  As a SOE (Special Operations Executive) agent he helped coordinate the resistance movement on Crete. The highpoint of his war was the celebrated kidnapping of the commanding German general Heinrich Kreipe on Crete in 1944, which he and a fellow British officer devised and accomplished with a band of Cretan partisans, abducting the luckless general from his car outside of Iraklion and spiriting him away into the mountains and eventually Egypt. After the war and in the company of his wife, the late Joan Eyres-Monsell, he travelled all over Greece, exploring the most remote rural areas on foot or mule, and developing a deep appreciation of the folk customs, dialects and traditions that have in the last half century largely vanished (see his books Mani and Roumeli).  His travels and books have never been limited to Greece, though:  his first book The Traveller’s Tree (first published in 1950) was written after an extensive journey around the West Indies in the late 1940’s.  Possibly his best book (according to New Yorker columnist Anthony Lane), A Time to Keep Silence, explores the nature and meaning of silence as he experienced it living in various French monasteries.  Whatever topic PLF has written about, his natural enthusiasm, curiosity and exquisite writing make it compelling reading.

Several years before I had been travelling in Romania and by chance a fellow American in the hostel had shown me a copy of Between the Woods and the Water, in which PLF recounted travelling through the same area in the 1934. Intrigued when I returned to Seattle several months later, I had checked A Time of Gifts out from the library and was instantly enthralled by it. The subject matter, the style and the sensibilites were immediately appealing. I can state unequivocally that PLF’s writing had a powerful influence on me. He seems almost the embodiment of an ideal-the literary man of action. Highly erudite but also a man of the world, unapologetically articulate and learned but with enough graciousness and charm to avoid being a pedant, equally comfortable with the humble as well as the high born. I’m not the only one who views him this way – Bruce Chatwin, Colin Thubron and William Dalrymple have all cited PLF as a major influence on their writing and lives. From PLF I developed a deeper appreciation of art and literature, and renewed an interest in history-particularly European. Because of him I also became a better traveller– by slowing down, more closely observing my surroundings and immersing myself in the history of a place before I visited.

I became determined I had to meet this man. I knew he was old and in declining health so time was of the essence. In January of 2009 I was in England visiting relatives and went to his literary agent’s offices in London hoping to get a formal letter of introduction. I only spoke to a secretary, who passed on an email address to which I wrote but predictably from which I heard no reply. My cousin said “The only way to meet the blighter is to show up where he lives-I’m sure you’ll be able to meet him.” I decided to take his advice and hope for the best.

Thus a month later I arrived in Kardamyli with a mixture of excitement and trepidation, after having travelled over land and water from Portugal all the way to Greece. I had done my homework: I knew his former housekeeper (a woman named Lela) ran a taverna with some rooms in the town-that seemed the obvious place to stay.  Before my arrival I had telephoned and had spoken to her son Giorgios (Lela spoke no English).  In the winter the taverna was closed, Giorgios explained, but they would make an exception for me and at a reduced rate. Giorgios, a moustachioed and world- weary but courteous man in his fifties met me when I got off the bus, and after introductions were made, he walked me to Lela’s a few blocks away. It was a simple two story building by the sea, with a restaurant on the ground floor and a few rooms upstairs looking directly out on the sea. Lela appeared from the kitchen, in her seventies but still sprightly, with a craggy and quintessentially Greek face. After showing me to my room she and Giorgios disappeared quickly, leaving me as the only guest. Strolling out from Lela’s along the water onto a jetty and looking up towards one of the clearest starlit skies I had ever seen, with the only sound coming from the waves crashing against the rocks, I understood immediately why Patrick Leigh Fermor had decided to settle here years before.

The next morning I awoke early and walked along the road going south from Kardamyli. A Greek man out in his garden saw me and gestured for me to come inside. Without asking any questions he sat me down in his kitchen and served me coffee; this was exactly the type of hospitality towards strangers that PLF had described in his books on Greece.  Somewhat timorously I broached the subject of Patrick Leigh Fermor (known as Michalis by the locals) and asked where he might be found. He gesticulated southwards, saying in broken English that PLF lived a short way down the road, in the next cove known as Kalamitsi. I thanked him for the coffee and continued walking. I had with me an anthology of PLF’s work titled The Words of Mercury, which included an article he had written on how he had designed his house in Greece.  He described it as resembling a faded Byzantine monastery, with a view framed by cypress trees overlooking a cove with a small island offshore. Down a path and through an olive grove there was a house that closely resembled this description; in fact, it had to be his residence as it looked far older than any other house in the vicinity.

Emboldened by this discovery I walked back into town, just as the villagers were exiting the church service on a Sunday morning. Approaching Lela, I tentatively mentioned PLF’s name and pointed to The Words of Mercury, with a photograph of PLF in the 1940’s on the cover.  She gave Giorgios soon appeared and I explained that I had come to Kardamyli to hopefully meet PLF, and handed him a note of appreciation that I entreated to pass along. Giorgios told me that PLF was in England at the moment, but would be back by Tuesday and would gladly give him the note once he saw him.  So my timing had been providential!  Now I simply had to wait.  I spent the next couple of days either reading (finishing War and Peace to be exact) or going on long walks exploring the myriad of small coves and hills. The Mani is very quiet in winter and felt refreshingly unexplored. Each evening I would go to the kafeneon to sit with the local men as they chatted and watched football on the television. Giorgios would be there every evening and he was quite friendly and talkative to me.  Every evening I would tactfully bring up the subject of whether or not he had seen PLF. Each time he responded he hadn’t yet.  One evening as I was returning to Lela’s she insisted on cooking me a meal in the kitchen, sitting me down in a table in the restaurant and plying me generous portions of pork, potatoes and vegetables. On a table in the corner was a pile of black and white photographs; examining them more closely I saw they were informal snapshots of Lela and her family from the 1960’s with a younger looking Patrick Leigh Fermor in a number of the them. Seeing these candid photographs gave my purpose a lot more immediacy.

Taking the bus one day into Kalamata (the nearest city-some 20 miles away) I fell into conversation with a local woman about my age. I explained that I had come all the way here to hopefully meet PLF.  She raised her head backwards and clicked her tongue, the universal Hellenic gesture for disapproval. “The Patrick Leigh Fermor is very old man, many people, journalists come here to meet him, they have to book appointment…it’s not so easy to see him.”  Discouraging words and with each passing day I realized that Giorgios was probably protecting PLF’s privacy…it was perfectly understandable but I made up my mind to take a more direct approach. I wrote another, longer letter of appreciation (I wrote about eight drafts before I was satisfied) and screwed enough courage up to go to what I was almost sure was PLF’s house to give it to whomever answered the door.  Just as I was about to knock an Englishman in his forties opened the door and walked out to the driveway. He introduced himself as Hamish Robinson and confirmed that PLF did indeed live there. Hamish added PLF wasn’t very well at the moment but he would gladly pass on the note of appreciation and went back inside. I decided to walk south several miles to the next village called Stoupa. I had done everything realistically possible to meet PLF and if I wasn’t able to at this point I accepted that it just wasn’t to be. Walking along the coastal road with its stupendous views of the Messenian Gulf to the west and the snow-capped Taygetus Mountains to the east, I felt fortunate and privileged to be there at all.

Returning to Kardamyli later that afternoon in a state of calm resignation, my interlocutrix from the bus the previous day came running down the road. “Ryan, where you been? We been looking for you all day. Patrick Leigh Fermor wanted to have a drink with you but we couldn’t find you.”  Patrick Leigh Fermor wanted to have a drink with me? Suddenly a car pulled up. It was Hamish. “We were looking for you earlier today –come round for lunch at 1:00 tomorrow,” and then drove off. I couldn’t believe my luck…all the persistence had paid off…I was actually going to have an audience with Patrick Leigh Fermor after all — it was more than I could have asked.

Paddy on his 94th birthday (February 11, 2009)

The appointed hour couldn’t come fast enough and it was in state of mild disbelief that I found myself being admitted into PLF’s house by his housekeeper and into the sitting room (which doubled as a dining room), with prodigious book shelves on three sides.  I found myself standing in front of a distinguished, slightly frail looking man wearing a blazer and a tie. It was Patrick Leigh Fermor.  Shaking my hand, he briefly mistook me for somebody else before apologizing with, “I’ve got this blasted tunnel vision and I can’t see that well…so you’re the young man…so glad to meet you.”  His hearing and his eyesight were poor and I had to speak loudly to be heard. Hamish Robinson was there as well (his presence helped facilitate conversation) and for the next two and a half hours the words flowed, abetted no doubt by the several vodka and tonics that were consumed as well as the generous glasses of retsina that accompanied lunch. Conversation ranged from Lord Byron (PLF: “I didn’t care for him much when I was younger but now I adore him”), the Greek Orthodox Easter service, and the fate of King Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066-to name a few of the topics discussed. When I told him I had visited Romania several years before he asked me, “Did you go by foot?”  Unfortunately, of course I had to answer no.  He also asked me questions about Seattle (“Where does the name come from?”). He had only visited the United States once -when he was invited by a Cretan-American association in New York as an honoured guest to commemorate the anniversary of The Battle of Crete.

PLF’s short-term memory was a bit faulty at times, he would forget the course of the conversation a bit but if I asked him about something from decades past or a literary reference he could recall it with instant clarity. For example, I showed him my copy of   The Words of Mercury and asked him the significance of the title.  “It’s from Love’s Labour’s Lost. You know that in the last act there’s a play within the play that’s performed for the amusement of the King of Navarre and the Princess of France. At the end of it they receive news that the King of France has died and the Princess and her entourage must leave. The last line of the play is ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo’. It’s rather a strange play.”

Surprisingly he seemed a little fussier and more self-deprecating than I would have thought. When I quoted from his writings a couple of times he responded, “That’s a bit fruity” or, “What absolute drivel.” I mentioned that I had tried to contact his literary agent in London but without success. His reply: “Oh do you know, I’ve never met him either.”  Time passed quickly and after the meal was finished we walked onto the terrace of his house, overlooking the sea. I thanked him for the invitation.  He replied, “If you’re ever in these parts again, do come round.”   And then he retired for his customary afternoon nap, “Egyptian PT,” in his words.  Hamish showed me the adjacent building where Paddy does his writing, giving me a recent photograph of him taken on his 94th birthday as a memento, and then with good-byes and sincere thanks, I gracefully made my exit. I felt a mixture of elation –having the extraordinary privilege of actually being a guest of the celebrated author in his home — and a bit of melancholy in seeing him in his twilight years.  It was surely the only occasion I would meet him, and there was so much more I wanted to ask that would never be said. I also suppose, perhaps there was the realization that for all this accomplishments and marvelous writing he was  still human after all.

The next day I left Kardamyli. Spending even a week in the Mani gives Patrick Leigh Fermor’s life and work so much more immediacy. When I read a passage in Mani describing the view looking out towards the Messenian Gulf with “dragon headed capes in the distance,” I know exactly what this looks like because I have seen this view myself. That means almost as much as having met the man, and both memories will last for the rest of my life.

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