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Between the Woods and the Water – Patrick Leigh Fermor

…history seemed to drop from the air and spring out of the ground.

I start with a confession: on some level, I still idolize Patrick Leigh Fermor, a British adventurer and travel writer. “Adventurer” is somewhat of an odd descriptor for a citizen of the twentieth century most famous for his travels in Europe, and yet it is the most accurate. Between the Woods and the Water is the second (of three) part of Fermor’s most famous adventure–his cross-continental jaunt in the 1930s that began when he was asked to leave school for having been seen holding hands with a woman in town. And so, at nineteen, he crossed the English Channel and set out walking toward Istanbul, picking up languages and making friends along the way. This is one of my dream trips.

It might have been wise to read the first volume about this trip, A the Time of Gifts before Between the Woods and the Water, if only to see the journey from the start, but the reader does not lose much by starting with this one, as I did. The book picks up on a bridge over the Danube between Slovakia and Hungary and takes the reader across the Hungarian plain and through Transylvania to the Serbian border. Fermor has a lively style, and shows indefatigable enthusiasm for this trip. In one moment he is daydreaming about the Mongols or eating wild strawberries, the next bathing in a river with a friend and being teased by young women watching them, the next sitting still in the mountains watching a giant eagle. He comes to wild leaps about the etymologies of the people and places he encounters, speculates about the religious connections, and fumbles through learning the languages. All the while he alternates between truly living rough and tumble, seeking shelter from the rain in pines or caves and leading what he terms a “parasitic” existence, being taken in by strangers, friends, and friends of friends. The description of the parasitic existence, including parties in Budapest that see him waken to a hangover in the late morning and dim memories of the night before, and, particularly, an excursion with his host and an unhappily married woman are tinged with happy nostalgia.

Overwhelmingly, Between the Woods and the Water is a travelogue infused with history coming from two directions. The book was composed from memories, letters, and journals and appeared in 1986, but the journey itself was in 1934 and it presents the political developments of its time as an ominous shadow, dimly recognized in the background. Thus, springing from the ground, as it were, is a first-person history observed of Eastern Europe before the rise of Nazi Germany, before World War 2, and before the Cold War. The author is aware of developments later, but the trip itself is infused with the remnants of the Austo-Hungarian empire and defies modernity. Falling from the sky is a history even older–the daydreams of Magyars, Romans, Huns, Mongols, Turks, and schismatic Christians criss-crossing the plain, sowing destruction and leaving behind their names.

Fermor has a flair for description and erudition. I would love to make a comparable trip (even on foot!), but for a brief time I was in fact swept away.