A Night with a Farm Family, 1934

From A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube, by Patrick Leigh Fermor (Journey Across Europe Book 1, NYRB Classics, 2011), Kindle pp. 73-75:

There was no doubt about it, I thought next day: I’d taken a wrong turning. Instead of reaching Pforzheim towards sunset, I was plodding across open fields with snow and the night both falling fast. My new goal was a light which soon turned out to be the window of a farmhouse by the edge of a wood. A dog had started barking. When I reached the door a man’s silhouette appeared in the threshold and told the dog to be quiet and shouted: “Wer ist da?” Concluding that I was harmless, he let me in.

A dozen faces peered up in surprise, their spoons halted in mid air, and their features, lit from below by a lantern on the table, were as gnarled and grained as the board itself. Their clogs were hidden in the dark underneath, and the rest of the room, except for the crucifix on the wall, was swallowed by shadow. The spell was broken by the unexpectedness of the irruption: A stranger from Ausland! Shy, amazed hospitality replaced earlier fears and I was soon seated among them on the bench and busy with a spoon as well.

The habit of grasping and speaking German had been outpaced during the last few days by another change of accent and idiom. These farmhouse sentences were all but out of reach. But there was something else here that was enigmatically familiar. Raw knuckles of enormous hands, half clenched still from the grasp of ploughs and spades and bill-hooks, lay loose among the cut onions and the chipped pitchers and a brown loaf broken open. Smoke had blackened the earthenware tureen and the light caught its pewter ladle and stressed the furrowed faces, and the bricky cheeks of young and hemp-haired giants…A small crone in a pleated coif sat at the end of the table, her eyes bright and timid in their hollows of bone and all these puzzled features were flung into relief by a single wick from below. Supper at Emmaus or Bethany? Painted by whom?

Dog-tired from the fields, the family began to stretch and get down the moment the meal was over and to amble bedwards with dragging clogs. A grandson, apologizing because there was no room indoors, slung a pillow and two blankets over his shoulder, took the lantern and led the way across the yard. In the barn the other side, harrows, ploughshares, scythes and sieves loomed for a moment, and beyond, tethered to a manger that ran the length of the barn, horns and tousled brows and liquid eyes gleamed in the lantern’s beam. The head of a cart-horse, with a pale mane and tail and ears pricked at our advent, almost touched the rafters.

When I was alone I stretched out on a bed of sliced hay like a crusader on his tomb, snugly wrapped up in greatcoat and blankets, with crossed legs still putteed and clodhoppered. Two owls were within earshot. The composite smell of snow, wood, dust, cobwebs, mangolds, beetroots, fodder, cattlecake and the cows’ breath was laced with an ammoniac tang from the plip-plop and the splash that sometimes broke the rhythm of the munching and the click of horns. There was an occasional grate of blocks and halters through their iron rings, a moo from time to time, or a huge horseshoe scraping or clinking on the cobbles. This was more like it!

The eaves were stiff with icicles next morning. Everyone was out of the kitchen and already at work, except the old woman in the coif. She gave me a scalding bowl of coffee and milk with dark brown bread broken in it. Would an offer to pay be putting my foot in it, I wondered; and then tentatively proposed it. There was no offence; but, equally, it was out of the question: “Nee, nee!” she said, with a light pat of her transparent hand. (It sounded the same as the English ‘Nay.’) The smile of her totally dismantled gums had the innocence of an infant’s. “Gar nix!” After farewells, she called me back with a shrill cry and put a foot-long slice of buttered black bread in my hand; I ate my way along this gigantic and delicious butterbrot as I went, and after a furlong, caught sight of all the others. They waved and shouted “Gute Reise!” They were hacking at the frost-bitten grass with mattocks, delving into a field that looked and sounded as hard as iron.

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Filed under Britain, food, Germany, labor, travel

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