First Greek Dance Encounter, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 240-242:

Before long Dimitri and Costa were on their feet again, involved in an intricate dance very unlike the cheerful and bawdy stampings they had just improvised. The dancers were side by side, linked at a stiff arm’s length by a hand on each other’s shoulder, their unsmiling faces hanging forward chin on breast like those of hanged men. Nothing could be less carefree or orgiastic than the perverse mood of the steps, the premeditated hornpipe, then an abrupt halt. This was broken by movements as slight as the bending and straightening of the knee; the feet, flat on the ground with heels together, opened at an angle then closed and opened again. The right feet were then lifted and slowly swung backwards and forwards. A left-foot jump brought their torsos seesawing in a right angle to balance a simultaneous kick on the ground behind them with their right. Then the dancers swept forward for an accelerated pace or two, braked and halted with their right legs lifted, knees to heels sweeping parallel to the ground in slow scything movements, and falling again. Their hands smote beneath them in a double clap, then they were almost on their knees, hands on shoulders again, gliding off sideways, then rolling forward once more at their smooth and unnaturally timed pace. The softness, the hypnotic-seeming control and union, the abrupt surging, the recoveries and the arms falling loose for an identical pirouette before joining again, the fastidious shelving of stereotype – what on earth had all this sophistication to do with Balkan or peasant simplicity? Then there was the planned anticlimax, compensated by a drilled outburst when, in any other dance, all would have been decrescendo and subsidence. The sudden asperity and vigour and speed were muzzled and hushed in mid-swoop, like the flash of steel unsheathed halfway up the blade, then allowed to slide back with a soft subsiding click of hilt on scabbard. The subtle and complex beauty of this peculiar dancing in relation to all the dancing I had seen in recent months, and coming hotfoot on the straightforward bumpkin fun of the first performance, was as much of a surprise as would be finding unheralded in a collection of folk verse a long metaphysical poem in a highly elaborate metre and stuffed with conceits, tropes, assonances, internal rhymes and abstruse allusions. I think it was just as new to the shepherds as it was to me.

At the end of the dance, Dimitri joined us by the fire and swelled the accompaniment with his own voice and another gourd. The next dance, on which Costa now embarked solo, though akin to its forerunner, was even odder. There was the same delay and deliberation, the same hanging head with its cap on the side, a cigarette in the middle of the dancer’s mouth. He gazed at the ground with his eyes almost closed, rotating on the spot with his hands crossed in the small of his back; soon they rose above his head like a vulture’s wings opening, then soared in alternate sweeps before his lowered face with an occasional carefully placed crack of thumb and forefinger as the slow and complex steps evolved. The downward gaze, the absorption, the precise placing of the feet, the sudden twirl of the body, the sinking on alternate knees, the sweep of an outstretched leg in three quarters of a circle, with the arms all at once outflung in two radii as the dancer rose again in another slow circle, gathering pace till he spun for a few seconds at high speed and then slowed down in defiance of all the laws of momentum – these steps and passes and above all the downward scrutiny were as though the dancer were proving, on the fish scales and the goats’ droppings underfoot, some lost theorem about tangents and circles, or retracing the conclusions of Pythagoras about the square on the hypotenuse. Sometimes during these subsidences, he slapped the ground with one hand and shot into the air again. A leap, after a few grave and nearly static paces, would carry him effortlessly through the air to land motionless with knees bent and ankles crossed. He would rise from this crouched posture, his trunk flung forward like a pair of scissors closing, the smoke from his cigarette spiralling round him. These abrupt acrobatics and calculated flashes of strength were redoubled in effect by the measured smoothness and abstraction of the steps that bracketed them. This controlled acceleration and braking wove them all into a single and solemn choreographic line. Perhaps the most striking aspect of it was the tragic and doomed aura that surrounded the dance, the flaunting so quickly muffled, and the introvert and cerebral aloofness of the dancer, so cut off by indifference from the others in the cave that he might have been alone in another room, applying ritual devices to conundrums reluctant of yielding their answers, or exorcizing a private and incommunicable pain. The loneliness was absolute. The singing had stopped and nothing but the jangle of the wire strings accompanied him.

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A Recipe for Pastourma

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 252-253, 263-264:

It was the first time I had tasted pastourma, an Asia Minor version of pemmican or biltong. (A couple of months later, I asked a Greek refugee tavern-keeper from Iconium how this amazing stuff was made. His eyes sparkled. ‘You get a camel or an ox, but a camel’s best,’ he said with elliptic urgency, ‘then you put it in an olive press, and you tighten it up till every drop of moisture has been squeezed out. Every drop! Then cut it up in strips and salt it, then lay it in the sun for a month or two – best of all, in the branches of a tree, so that the wind cures it as well – but in a cage, of course, so the crows can’t get at it.’ Then it is taken down and embedded in a paste of poached garlic and the hottest paprika you can find on the market, reinforced by whatever spices of the Orient are handy. When this has again been dried to a hard crust, it has nearly the consistency of wood: it keeps for years. Thin slices, cut off with a razor-sharp knife, are normally eaten raw; occasionally it is cooked, when the aroma, always unmanning to the uninitiated, becomes explosive. The taste is terrific and marvellous, but anathema to many because not only is the ordinary smell of garlic squared or cubed in strength – breath emerges with the violence of a blowlamp – but a baleful redolence of great range and power surfaces at every pore; people reel backwards and leave an empty ring around the diner, as though one were whirling in incendiary parabolas.)

As I grew better acquainted with the taste of pastourma, a specious and flimsy theory took shape about its origins. Turkish cooking, like Turkish architecture, is really a coalition of the civilizations of the races they invaded and conquered on their journey to the West: nearly everything can ultimately be traced back to the Persians, the Arabs and the Byzantines. Perhaps pastourma is the last culinary survivor of the days before the Turks irrupted into Western history. Dried meat is true nomad food, a primordial technique developed, perhaps, in the steppes of the Ural and the Altai, where camels were numbered by the hundred thousand: imperishable, palatable and sustaining.

‘I say, what have you been eating, old boy?’ Mr Kendal, halfway across the room with welcoming hand outstretched, stopped dead in his tracks. On the way from Mesembria, still unapprised of its social backlash, I had cut up the last slices of the pastourma the Turks had given me and eaten it under a carob tree, looking down at the low marshy country and the salt flats, and the far-off moles and cranes of Burgas. Now here I was at the British Consulate, whose windows commanded an enlarged version of the ships and the long mole I had seen from afar….

He sniffed. ‘I’ve got it! Pastourma! It’s the strongest I’ve ever smelt.’ A little later, in the living part of the house, Mr Kendal handed me a drink, saying he was a hero not to be using tongs.

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Converting Classical to Demotic Greek

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 261-262:

As we sat by the brazier before going to bed, I tried out the few bits of Homer I knew by heart on my host and hostess, and a couple of bits of Sappho. I suppose it was rather like a Greek, in an incomprehensible accent, hopefully murmuring passages of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English to an old fisher couple in a Penzance cottage. Even so, the verses seemed to have a sort of talismanic value to their ears, and caused pleasure rather than the nonplussed tedium its English equivalent might have evoked in Cornwall. I struck luckier with Fauriel’s Greek folksongs, in the collection of Nadejda’s grandfather. They knew several of them, and my hostess Kyria Eleni – an alert old woman with wide-open blue eyes, dressed and elaborately kerchiefed in black – even sang a few lines here and there in a quavery voice. Once I had got the hang of the modern pronunciation of the vowels and diphthongs, with the fact that all hard breathings had evaporated and that all the accents merely indicated where the stress of a word fell, I saw that reading it aloud, though halting at first, would soon become plain sailing. I could also break down the construction of the sentences; even, now and then, and in spite of the deep demotic, the ghost of an inkling of their drift. Old newspapers hinted their meanings a stage more easily, as through a glass darkly, but with a battered missal I found on a shelf, it was almost face to face. All this was full of promise for the coming months; for, Constantinople once reached, I was planning a private invasion of Greece. But, infuriatingly, we were still confined in conversation to my halting and scarcely existent Bulgarian.

This dabbling with the mysteries of Greek caused many a sigh. They had never been to Greece, and now (unlike me) never would. They seemed glad to have a guest once more. I felt that my being English played a part in their kind welcome. At all events, when I tried to offer some money before setting off next day for Burgas, they both started back in horror as though the coins were red hot. I slept on the divan, under the twinkling ikon lamp. There was a silver-covered ikon of the Virgin (I was beginning to notice these things) and another of SS Constantine and Helen, holding up the True Cross between them; also two faded marriage wreaths intertwined in a glass case, carefully kept from their wedding day in the later decades of the last century.

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Byzantine Proustians of Bucharest, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 184-188:

Historians have been united in execrating the Phanariots. They have inherited the opprobrium that used to load the word ‘Byzantine’ with suggestions of flexibility, deviousness, lack of scruple, greed and tyranny. But there are signs that the Phanariots, too, are gradually being reassessed. It may be argued that their greed and corruption were laced by zeal for the Orthodox faith and that their share in the foreign affairs of the Ottomans, which the later sultans largely and most unwisely entrusted to them, was dictated as much, or almost as much, by anxiety for the Christian cause as it was by private ambition. It is possible that without their flexibility and genius for compromise, the principalities would have sunk into total subjection to the Ottoman yoke: that all the old national institutions, instead of degeneration, would have been obliterated completely, as they had been in the rest of south-eastern Europe. In nearly every family there was a prince with virtues to offset, in some measure, the vices of his kinsmen. Since the end of their long regime, many of their descendants have been prominent and devoted figures in Rumanian life, both in conservation and reform. But whatever their drawbacks may have been, in the period of their great ascendancy, the eighteenth century, in one thing they were pre-eminent: they were the only civilized people in south-eastern Europe. The Phanar itself was the last surviving fragment of lost Byzantium, and the courts of Bucharest and Jassy the last, faint, scarcely audible echo of the empire’s death rattle.

It was not only on their wealth but on their knowledge of languages and their wider European horizons, in a world of fanatic barbarism, that their oligarchy was based. From the first, when they became Grand Dragomans of the Porte, they were friends of literature and art; the first Rumanian bible was translated by the orders of Sherban Cantacuzene of Wallachia, and with all his faults, a figure as polished as Alexander Mavrocordato, Byron’s and Shelley’s friend and a leader in the Greek revolt, could have sprung from no other East European soil. They studied in Venice, Padua, Vienna, Paris and St Petersburg and it was mainly due to their civilized and cosmopolitan influence that Western ideas penetrated Rumania. The influence of French ideas, and the total linguistic hegemony of France among the elite, may have gone too far; there were certainly regrettable social side effects; but it did bring a vivifying blast of the Western world, a sort of belated renaissance, into the stifling isolation of the Middle Ages which Rumania was only just sloughing off.

All these different influences, it occurred to me later on (for I knew little or nothing of such matters then), had evolved into a society which was a mixture of late Byzantium and Proustian France. The architectural mood of Bucharest, after it had arisen from its oriental beginnings, was an amalgam of Second Empire and the fin-de-siècle, with a dash of early twentieth-century opulence. The modern buildings were irrelevant postscripts. A strong whiff of the earlier period hung unmistakeably in the social air: a climate which had also been subtly modified, during the last few generations, by a stern army of English nannies and governesses. But it left the bedrock of French influence among the boyars undisturbed, the result of a hundred years of study in the lycées of France and the Sorbonne, and of inhabiting Paris as an alternative capital.

The same life, in miniature, thrived in Bucharest; the most convincing relic of it was the plush, the brass and the chandeliers of Capșa’s restaurant. I could never tire of hearing tales of this not yet wholly evaporated epoch. Although it is the last period in history I would have liked to inhabit, there is an absorbing attraction about the robust, undoubting vulgarity and glitter which held Europe in its grip for these decades. The duels, too, which had played a large part in Rumanian, as well as the rest of European life, outside England – and, to a much lesser extent, still did – exercised a morbid, Dumas-bred fascination. Frequently fatal, they were fought with pistols or rapiers which made encounters with sabres in Austria and Hungary – where only slashing was allowed, but no lunging – sound much more innocuous. It was all frantically alien.

What distinguished these people then, and later, from the rest of pleasure-loving aristocratic Europe was their anti-philistinism: a fastidious passion for erudition for its own sake, for literature, painting, music, sculpture and the movement of ideas, that turned their houses into the haunts of Academicians. (Rather like France, again, Rumania has always been a country where a few women, through their brilliance, wit, beauty or hospitality, have played a more important role than in other countries.) The devotion to writing, in particular, went far beyond literary dilettantism and emerged, in many cases, in works of great distinction. Not alas, in Rumanian, a chauvinist might sigh. But at least these extra-territorial exploits released them from the wheel of patriotic nationalism, to which the poetic and literary genius of resurgent nations is indissolubly bound. Paris after all is no mean arena in which to shine. No wonder that Proust should have been so deeply intrigued by Rumanians in Paris and sought them out as friends.

I have gone on rather a long time about this because it was so different to anything I had come across in similar circumstances in the Danubian capitals further upstream. In Hungary the candlelit talk at the end of dinner would be more inclined to concern shooting or horses, a serious weighing of the comparative merits of bootmakers and saddlers in London or long discussions about mediatization, morganatic marriages, primogenitive quarterings, Hoffähigkeit, the exact degree of cousinage between the Festitich and Fürstenberg families and how many yokes of land the Esterházys owned. So it might, mutatis mutandis, in Bucharest, but not for long.

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Worldly Diseases in Romanian

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle p. 206:

At this point, to cheer [Bulgarian] Gatcho up, I told him of the Rumanian name for these fell diseases which had first caught my eye on a doctor’s plate in Arad: Boale Lumetși (the first word is a dissyllable, the second, Loomeshti: literally, ‘ailments of the world’ – ‘world’ is lume in Rumanian) – rather lyrical-sounding words for a thought to send a shudder down young spines. ‘Boale lumetși . . . boale lumetși!’ We uttered the syllables in slow, elevated and almost dreamy tones, as though they were a charm or an exorcism. Weltliche Krankheiten . . . the ills of the world . . .

Volume 3 in this series of books was published posthumously, and the editors did not have Fermor’s facility with languages. The acknowledgements credit someone for checking the Romanian, but this passage contains an egregious error: every instance of lumetși should be lumești. The singular form (now archaic) is boală-lumească. The palatalization in the plural is the same thing you see in, for instance, citesc ‘I read’, citești ‘you read’, citește ‘s/he reads’, and in the name of the national capital, București.

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Status of Jews in Moldavia, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 149-151:

These hostile feelings were much more deeply rooted in the north, where the Jewish population had increased from about two thousand families to close on a million in a hundred and thirty years, most of them in flight from the appalling conditions in Poland and the Russian Pale, until in several large Moldavian towns, including Yassy, the Moldavian capital, they now outnumbered the Rumanian inhabitants and monopolized the commerce of the province. Small wonder that this indigestible explosion of people caused dismay, resentment and hostility among the inhabitants; there was nothing comparable here to the harmonious and long established position of the polished and much less numerous Sephardim of the Ottoman world; small wonder, too, that the Jews, denied full citizenship and with nearly every route to advancement or honour denied to them, should expand and excel in the only field that was not barred by prejudice. The remote principality in which they suddenly began to proliferate had no middle class; rural society knew nothing between the mediaeval feudalism of landowners – the great and the lesser boyars, many of whom seldom set foot on their accumulations of acres – and a vast and callously exploited peasantry. There was no urban middle class, and, in Moldavia especially, as the country expanded, the Jewish population became a semi-alien bourgeoisie of middlemen and retailers.

Everyone reluctantly admitted that the Jews were honest in their dealings, however ruthless, and faithful to their agreements. I also noticed that nearly everyone, however ill-disposed in general, had one Jewish friend who ‘was not like the others’, an array of exemptions that must have added up to an imposing total. It was only on later travels in Moldavia and Bukovina that I got to know, talk to and even make friends with Jews not isolated in a Gentile majority. Lack of any need to conform to alien ways had left their way of life absolutely intact: the long black kaftans, broad-brimmed black velvet hats, skullcaps, black, red and blond beards, corkscrew side-whiskers (like those of my host and his son in the woods of the Banat), and a Yiddish largely unalloyed by Rumanian, but embedded with Polish and Russian words as well as the Hebrew studied by the rabbis and divinity students.

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Bulgarian Monastery Hospitality, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 12-15:

St John of Rila is only surpassed in venerability by SS Cyril and Methodius, the inventors of the Cyrillic script, and by St Simeon, in Bulgarian hagiography. The great monastery that he founded near his hermitage in these lonely mountains is, in a sense, the most important religious centre in the kingdom. The church, burnt down again and again in the disturbed past of Bulgaria, was rebuilt in the last century. The poor quality of the frescoes which smothered every inch of interior wall space and the brazen proliferation of the ikonostasis was mitigated by the candlelight. The Slav liturgy of vespers boomed out by a score of black-clad and long-haired and long-bearded monks, all leaning or standing in their miserere stalls, sounded marvellous. It continued for hours. Afterwards, charitably singled out as a foreigner, I was given a little cell to myself, although the monastery was so full that villagers were sleeping out with their bundles all over the yard and under the trees. Many more arrived next day and the inside of the church virtually seized up with the pious multitude. There were an archbishop and several bishops and archimandrites besides the abbot and his retinue. They officiated in copes as stiff and brilliant as beetles’ wings, and the higher clergy, coiffed with globular gold mitres the size of pumpkins and glistening with gems, leaned on croziers topped with twin coiling snakes. They evolved and chanted in aromatic clouds of smoke diagonally pierced by sun shafts. When all was over, a compact crocodile of votaries shuffled its way round the church to kiss St Ivan’s ikon and his thaumaturgic hand, black now as a briar root, inside its jewelled reliquary.

For the rest of the day, the glade outside the monastery was star-scattered with merrymaking pilgrims. At their heart an indefatigable ring of dancers rotated in the hora to the tune of a violin, a lute, a zither and a clarinet, ably played by Gypsies. Another Gypsy had brought his bear with him; it danced a joyless hornpipe and clapped its paws and played the tambourine to the beat of its master’s drum. A further castanet-like clashing came from an itinerant Albanian striking brass cups together, pouring out helpings of the sweetish, kvass-like boza from a spigot in a tasselled brass vessel four feet high, shaped like a mosque, its Taj Mahal dome topped by a little brass bird with wings splayed. Kebab and stuffed entrails were being grilled in culinary tabernacles as bristling with spitted and skewered meat as a shrike’s larder. Slivo and wine were reaching high tide. The lurching kalpacked villagers offered every newcomer their circular flasks of carved wood. (Elaborate woodwork plays a great part in the lives of Balkan mountaineers from the Carpathians to the Pindus in Greece, where it reaches its wildest pitch of elaboration. The same phenomenon applies to the Alps: the conjunction of harsh winters, long evenings, soft wood and sharp knives.) Under the leaves, a party of bright-aproned women sat round the feet of a shaggy bagpiper pumping out breathless pibrochs.

On the edge of this vast Balkan wassail I fell in with a party of students from Plovdiv. Like me they had come over the mountains, and were camping out. The most remarkable of these was an amusing, very pretty, fair-haired, frowning girl called Nadejda, who was studying French literature at Sofia University: a nimble hora dancer and endowed with unquenchable high spirits. She was staying on at the monastery three days to do some reading, which was exactly the length of my intended stay. We became friends at once. Apart from the stern rule of Mount Athos, women are just as welcome guests as men in most Orthodox monasteries. Bestowing hospitality seems almost the entire monastic function and the atmosphere of these cloisters is very different from the silence and recollection of abbeys in western Christendom. With its clattering hooves and constant arrivals and departures and the cheerful expansiveness of the monks, life was more like that of a castle in the Middle Ages. The planks in the tiers of galleries and catwalks were so worn and unsteady that too brisk a footfall would set the whole fabric shaking like a spider’s web. The courtyards are forever a-clatter with mules. The father Abbot, the Otetz Igoumen, a benign figure with an Olympian white beard and his locks tied in a bun like a lady out hunting, spent most of his day receiving ceremonial calls: occasions always ratified, as they are everywhere else south of the Danube, by offering a spoonful of sherbet or rose petal jam or a powdery cube of rahat loukoum, a gulp of slivo, a cup of Turkish coffee and a glass of water, to help along the formal affabilities of the visit.

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Entering Bulgaria, 1934

From The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 3, NYRB Classics, 2014), Kindle pp. 5-6:

The way lay south through the roll of the Danubian hills and plains. They were tufted with woods. Here and there a green blur of marsh expanded and the road was plumed with Lombardy poplars. Let us stride across this riparian region in seven-league boots and up into the Great Balkan range. This immense sweep – the Stara Planina, as it is called in Bulgaria, the Old Mountain – climbs and coils and leapfrogs clean across northern Bulgaria from Serbia to the Black Sea, a great lion-coloured barrier of lofty, rounded convexities, with seldom a spike or a chasm: open, airy sweeps and rounded swellings mounting higher and higher to vast basin-like valleys and hollows where one could see the white road paying itself out ahead for miles and twisting among copses and hillocks and past the scattered flocks until it disappeared over the ultimate khaki slope. Now and then I would fall in with long caravans of donkeys and mules – their place was taken by camels in the south-east, towards Haskovo – and strings of carts. The lighter of these were drawn by horses – tough little animals and gangling, hollow-flanked jades – and the heavier, laden with timber, by black buffaloes that lurched stumblingly along under heavy yokes, their eyes rolling and their moustache-like and crinkled horns clashing against their neighbours. The wooden saddles of the horses, ridden side-saddle with moccasins dangling, looked as unwieldy as elephants’ howdahs. Watermelons were the chief merchandise, and giant basket-loads of tomatoes and cucumbers and all the garden stuff for which the Bulgarians are famous throughout the Balkans. Each village was surrounded by tiers of vegetable beds and every drop of water was husbanded and irrigated through miniature aqueducts of hollow tree trunk. ‘Where was I from?’ the fur-hatted, horny-handed men would ask. ‘Ot kadè? Ot Europa? Da, da’, from Europe. ‘Nemski?’ No, not German: ‘Anglitchanin.’ Many seemed vague about England’s whereabouts. And what was I? A voinik, a soldier? Or a student? A spion perhaps? I got my own back for these questions by extorting in return, with the help of interrogatory gestures, a basic vocabulary: bread, chlab; water, voda; wine, vino; horse, kon; cat, kotka; dog, kuche; goat’s cheese, siriné; cucumber, krastavitza; church, tzerkva. These exchanges carried us many miles.

 

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Meeting a Transylvanian Rabbi, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 210-213:

My interlocutors looked bewildered when I tried to explain my reasons for not staying at home. Why was I travelling? To see the world, to study, to learn languages? I wasn’t quite clear myself. Yes, some of these things, but mostly—I couldn’t think of the word at first—and when I found it—“for fun”—it didn’t sound right and their brows were still puckered. “Also, Sie treiben so herum aus Vergnügen?” The foreman shrugged his shoulders and smiled and said something in Yiddish to the others; they all laughed and I asked what it was. “Es ist a goyim naches!” they said. ‘A goyim naches,’ they explained, is something that the goyim like but which leaves Jews unmoved; any irrational or outlandish craze, a goy’s delight or gentile’s relish. It seemed to hit the nail on the head.

The initial reserve of the other dwellers in these mountains had not lasted long; nor did it here: but the Jews had other grounds for wariness. Their centuries of persecution were not ended; there had been trials for ritual murder late in the last century in Hungary and more recently in the Ukraine, and fierce deeds in Rumania and pogroms in Bessarabia and throughout the Russian Pale. Slanderous myths abounded and the dark rumours of the Elders of Zion had only been set in motion fifteen years earlier. In Germany, meanwhile, terrible omens were gathering, though how terrible none of us knew. They came into the conversation and—it seems utterly incredible now—we talked of Hitler and the Nazis as though they merely represented a dire phase of history, a sort of transitory aberration or a nightmare that might suddenly vanish, like a cloud evaporating or a bad dream. The Jews in England—a happier theme—came next: they knew much more than I, which was not hard; and Palestine. Sighs and fatalistic humour spaced out the conversation.

Everything took a different turn when scripture cropped up. The book in front of the Rabbi was the Torah, or part of it, printed in dense Hebrew black-letter that was irresistible to someone with a passion for alphabets; especially these particular letters, with their aura of magic. Laboriously I could phonetically decipher the sounds of some of the simpler words, without a glimmer of their meanings, of course, and this sign of interest gave pleasure. I showed them some of the words I had copied down in Bratislava from shops and Jewish newspapers in cafés, and the meanings, which I had forgotten, made them laugh; those biblical symbols recommended a stall for repairing umbrellas, or ‘Daniel Kisch, Koscher Würste und Salami.’ How did the Song of Miriam sound in the original, and the Song of Deborah; David’s lament for Absolom; and the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valley? The moment it became clear, through my clumsy translations into German, which passage I was trying to convey, the Rabbi at once began to recite, often accompanied by his sons. Our eyes were alight; it was like a marvellous game. Next came the rivers of Babylon, and the harps hanging on the willows: this they uttered in unfaltering unison, and when they came to ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,’ the moment was extremely solemn.

By this time the other-worldly Rabbi and his sons and I were excited. Enthusiasm ran high. These passages, so famous in England, were doubly charged with meaning for them, and their emotion was infectious. They seemed astonished—touched, too—that their tribal poetry enjoyed such glory and affection in the outside world; utterly cut off, I think they had no inkling of this. A feeling of great warmth and delight had sprung up and the Rabbi kept polishing his glasses, not for use, but out of enjoyment and nervous energy, and his brother surveyed us with benevolent amusement. It got dark while we sat at the table, and when he took off the glass chimney to light the paraffin lamp, three pairs of spectacles flashed. If it had been Friday night, the Rabbi said, they would have asked me to light it; he explained about the shabbas goy. This was the Sabbath-gentile whom well-off Jews—“not like us”—employed in their houses to light fires and lamps and tie and untie knots or perform the many tasks the Law forbids on the Seventh Day. I said I was sorry it was only Thursday (the Sabbath begins at sunset on Friday) as I could have made myself useful for a change. We said good-night with laughter.

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Emblematic Attire in Transylvania, 1934

From Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Middle Danube to the Iron Gates, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 2, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 156-158:

But all along my itinerary the chief difference between country Hungarians and Rumanians had been the wide-skirted tunic or shirt, caught in by a wide belt, which the Rumanians wore outside their trousers. Both dressed in white homespun linen, but the Hungarians’ shirts always buttoned tightly at the throat; their trousers were unusually wide from the waist down and sometimes pleated, which almost gave them the look of long skirts. Gatya Hosen, István called them; these were often replaced by loose black breeches and shiny knee-boots. But here the peasants, almost to a man, wore narrow white homespun trews like tights stitched together out of felt. Across the Hungarian plain and in Transylvania, the women’s clothes had been varying all the time. Each village and valley enjoined a different assembly of colours and styles: braids, tunics, lace, ribands, goffering, ruffs, sashes, caps, kerchiefs, coifs and plaits free or coiled: a whole array of details announced whether they were betrothed, brides, married, spinsters or widows. Sometimes coifs framed these heads like spathe and spadix; among Saxons, they shot up in stiff scarlet cylinders. There were bodices, flowing or panelled sleeves, embroidery, gold coins at brow or throat or both, aprons front and back, a varying number of petticoats and skirts jutting at the hips like farthingales, and occasionally these were accompanied by coloured Russian boots. This village finery gave all gatherings a festal air, especially as the level of beauty among Hungarian and Rumanian girls was very high. Populations were inclined to remain aloof; but the more they overlapped and mingled—Magyar, Rumanian, Serb, Slovak, Saxon, Swabian and sometimes Armenian and perhaps some Ruthenes in the north—the more striking they looked. Their everyday dress was a sober version of their gala outfits; but these exploded on feast-days and at weddings in ravishing displays. Clothes were still emblematic, and not only among peasants: an expert in Rumanian and Hungarian symbols, looking at the passers-by in a market-place—a couple of soldiers, a captain in the Ros, iori [= Roșiori], an Ursuline prioress, a sister of St. Vincent de Paul, a Poor Clare, an Hasidic rabbi, an Armenian deacon, an Orthodox nun, a Uniat archimandrite, a Calvinist pastor, an Augustinian canon, a Benedictine, a Minorite friar, a Magyar nobleman, an ostrich-feathered coachman, a shrill-voiced Russian cab-driver, a bear-leading Gypsy with his spoon-carving fellow-tribesmen, a wool-carder, a blacksmith, a drover, a chimney-sweep, a woodman or a waggoner, and above all, women from a dozen villages and ploughmen and shepherds from widely scattered valleys and highlands—would have been able to reel off their provenances as swiftly as a herald glancing along the flags and surcoats of a fourteenth-century battle.

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