Down the Danube with Paddy

by Brett F. Braley-Palko

PITTSBURGH – For better or for worse, we humans are categorical animals. We like to know the enemy as well as the friend. When I travel, especially when planning my outfits, I often think of how the locals look. I wore a vintage Levi’s suede jacket in Paris on my 25th birthday. I wore a camouflage hat during my high school years in rural Pennsylvania.

It’s natural for us to want to assimilate, but it’s also natural to extend that preconception to the point of caricature. I mean, look at Emily in Paris. How many French girls, truthfully, are wearing berets these days?

I am often a little tense when I first read a book set in a country other than the author’s own. I ask myself, “Am I seeing the world through the characters’ eyes? Through the author’s experience?” If it’s a place I have not been, I will further ask, “Are the people really like that there?” I am credulous sometimes. Other times, I gladly accept the word as fact. I have worn my fair share of metaphorical berets in my day, too.

It hasn’t been that way with my old friend Paddy. You may know him by his Christian name, Sir Patrick Michael Leigh Fermor. Fermor was a man of wonder and once described as a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene in the New York Times. He received this reputation for being a brilliant author, a decorated soldier during WWII, and an all-around bon vivant who spent much of his latter years in the semi-isolated but idyllic Kardamyli on the Mani Peninsula. He died in 2011.

Even so, Paddy and I recently went on a tour through Mitteleuropa by foot. Well, he did. I was quite comfortable under my duvet, thank you.

Instead of leaning heavily on the stereotypes regarding Dutch, Germans, and Austrians, we are afforded an entire ensemble of characters who somehow seem more real than the sum of the preconceptions we thought we knew. Fermor has a way of not just providing an outline of a personality, but shades of the person which is often marked in contrast to the character’s family history, his national pride, or even his or her employment. I remained often surprised by Fermor’s ability to produce empathy in otherwise alien worlds I have never lived within myself.

This is most apparent in his seminal travel novel A Time of Gifts, which Fermor published in 1977. This book, and its sequels Between the Woods and the Water and The Broken Road, tell of an eighteen-year-old Fermor walking by foot from Holland to Constantinople. And I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to dive into this book during quarantine. If I could not travel…well, I’m just happy someone else could.

I have never quite read a storyteller like Fermor. He is at once an examiner and a witness. He is pedagogic but poetic. He is a participant in the experience as much as he is a narrator of his own adventure. And somewhere in all of that, he seems the comedy in the world. Which, given the backdrop of Nazi Germany, is no easy feat. From his words alone, one can tell how his charisma allowed for him to have a few restful nights’ sleeps along the way. One simply couldn’t help being drawn to Paddy.

But his style is also remarkable. Fermor in his own words was not the best student, but was an autodidact to an almost savantic degree. Somehow his lack of formal education, mixed with his vast knowledge from Shakespeare to Austrian nobility, bred a style that is so distinctly Fermor’s own. His prose reminds me of a stream – yes, it is linear, but it’s a tad bit lazy in its strength. It may pick up a bit of refuse here and there. But it’s on a journey all the same.

I enjoy that most about Fermor, I think. I enjoy the trust he assumes with his readership. Fermor knows his story is an interesting one and therefore does not try to hurry up for one to enjoy only the most tantalizing tidbits. His confidence exceeds the limits of a traditional narrative. Fermor tells us to trust that the three-page-long digression is important to us because it was important to him. That the details he remembers of Shakespeare plays and Aryan girls and impotent nobles all mean something. The meaning is in the description itself, you see. That the world he discovered at 18 wasn’t just full of wonder and adventure, but was a world of enlightenment outside of his cottagey upbringing. 

At 18, Fermor discovered the world and its people. His charm saved him, yes, but his unbiased view of the world is how he was able to thrive during his adventures. It begs the question: could we be so open as Fermor, or are the stereotypes we hold somehow more real to us? In the end, which life is more fulfilling? I think we both know the answer to that one.

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