Category Archives: travel

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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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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First Impressions of Romania, 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. 87-88:

When the fog lifts, the landscape shows little change from the Great Plain I thought I had left, except for wooded hills in the distance. It was a geometrical interlock of chocolate-coloured ploughland with stripes of barley, wheat, oats, rye and maize with some tobacco and the sudden mustard flare of charlock. Clumps of trees broke it up and every few miles russet and sulphur-coloured belfries rose from shingle roofs. Each village had a rustic baroque church for the Catholics and another for the Uniats, and sometimes, though not so much hereabouts, a third for Calvinists or Lutherans; for though the Counter-Reformation had triumphed in Austria, lively and varied crops survived in Hungary and Transylvania. These churches were outwardly the same, but once indoors, the Stations of the Cross or a roodscreen encrusted with icons or the austerity of the Ten Commandments in Magyar above a Communion table gave their allegiance away at once. There were storks’ nests and sweep-wells and flocks and cattle and Gypsies on the move. I began to like buffaloes the more I saw of them; their great liquid eyes, which seemed to lose the resentment I thought I had discerned on the banks of the Tisza, now looked aswim with pathos. But there was an important difference in the people. After the last weeks of blunt Magyar faces, the features were different—or was it merely imagination and recent reading that lent them a more Latin look? I fell in with a party carrying sickles and scythes and slung babies. Their ample white homespun tunics were caught in with belts as wide as girths and sometimes covered in iron studs, and, except for those who were barefoot, they were shod in the familiar canoe-tipped moccasins and rawhide thongs. Their rank sheepskin jackets were put on smooth side out and their hats—bulbous cones of black or white fleece over a foot high—gave them a wild and rakish look. They could all understand my hard-won fragments of Magyar; but I soon felt that the language they spoke to each other would be much easier to learn. A man was om, a woman, femeie; and ochi, nas, mâna and foaie were eyes, nose, hand and leaf. They were a little puzzled at first by my pointing at everything in sight with gestures of enquiry. Dog? Ox? Cow? Horse? Câine, bou, vaca, cal! It was marvellous: homo, femina, nasus, manus, folium, canis, bos, vacca and caballus thronged through my brain in a delirious troop. Câmp was a field and fag a beech-tree (‘…quatit ungula campum!’…‘sub tegmine fagi…!’). How odd to find this Latin speech marooned so far from its kindred! The Black Sea hemmed it in to the east and Slavonic to north and south, while the west was barred by the Finno-Ugrian dactyls of the Magyars.

By late afternoon, these linguistic exchanges brought us to the little town of Ineu—‘Borosjenö’ on my pre-war map—where a market day was ending. The place was full of lowing, bleating and squealing, carts were being loaded, pens broken up and hurdles stacked. Women and girls were busy with long goads keeping troops of poultry together. Kerchiefs of different colours were knotted under their chins and pleated skirts, with embroidered aprons back and front, sprang from girdles woven in patterns of red and yellow. A few of them had scarlet boots to the knee like figures out of the Russian ballet.

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Musical Rapture and Melancholy, 1934

This one’s for Dumneazu.

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. 62-63:

We shared a paprika chicken in an eating-house and had coffee out of doors. Then noise and music enticed us into a much humbler vendéglö full of shepherds and drovers. They were tough, tousled and weather-beaten fellows in knee-boots or raw-hide moccasins lashed on with thongs, and they wore small black hats and smoked queer-looking pipes with lidded metal bowls and six-inch stems of reed or bamboo; the collars of the smarter ones, worn with no tie, were buttoned with apoplectic tightness. The instruments of the Gypsies were a violin, a ’cello, a double-bass, a czembalom and, most improbably, an ornate harp, chipped and gilded and six feet high between the knees of a very dark harpist; his sweeps across the strings added a liquid ripple to the languor and the sudden fury of the tunes. Some of the customers were groggy already: spilt liquor, glassy eyes and benign smiles abounded. Like all country people venturing into towns, new arrivals were shy and awkward at first, but this soon dissolved. One rowdy tableful, riotously calling for wilder music and for stronger wine, was close to collapse. “They will be in tears soon,” Miklos said with a smile, and he was right. But they were not tears of sorrow; it was a sort of ecstasy that damped those wrinkled eye-sockets. I learnt about mulatság for the first time—the high spirits, that is, the rapture and the melancholy and sometimes the breakage that the stringed instruments of Gypsies, abetted by constant fluid intake, can bring about. I loved this despised music too, and when we got up to go after a couple of hours, felt touched by the same maudlin delectation. A lot of wine had passed our lips.

I wonder how much Cuman and how much Jazygian blood mingled with Hungarian in the veins of all these revellers?

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Learning Magyar on the Go, 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. 60-62:

Later, as Malek and I tittuped past a sleepy railway-halt called Pusztapo, the scene clears a bit; its name has stuck only because of its oddity. Hamlets like this were hardly more than a row of thatched cottages on either side of the dusty way. Sometimes I would stop and buy some oats; when the word kocsma over a door or painted in white on a window-pane indicated a tavern, I would dismount and sit on the bench among the budding hollyhocks over a small glass of a fierce country schnapps called seprü, or cseresznye, when made of cherries. Sometimes, blinking in the sun and the dust, a waggoner or two might be on the same bench and, though we were incommunicado, I was among friends at once because of the prevalent sympathy for horses: Malek’s fine looks won all hearts, and everyone stroked him. “Nagyon szép!” they would murmur, “Very beautiful” or “Az egy szép ló,” “He’s a fine horse…” (Sketchy vocabularies are jotted in the journal here and there: zab, oats; ló, horse; lovagolok, I ride; lovagolni fogok, I will ride; lovagolni fogok holnap Mezötúrra, I will ride to Mezötúr tomorrow. Gyönyörü! excellent or first class, it continues, and Rettenetes!, terrible! and so on.) Sitting with the reins loose in my hands under the transparent leaves of the acacias, I felt like a lone cowboy venturing among little-known tribes and the Gypsies and the shepherds with their tomahawk-staves supplied corroborative detail.

When a village fell behind, we were alone once more in a flat and now familiar landscape, half desert and half sown, with its flocks and its herdsmen and its solitary sweep-wells and its cloud-processions along the horizon. In the late afternoon we were picking our way through another enormous herd of cattle with those long straight horns. Soon Gypsy hovels appeared and a straggle of kilns and sheds and thousands of bricks set out to dry and a rambling overgrown churchyard; then solider houses multiplied and we were on the outskirts of the substantial country-town of Mezötúr.

Smaller than Szolnok, it was a place of some consequence nevertheless. (Between two coffee-houses in the main street with kávéház helpfully inscribed across their fronts, another shop-window full of cosmetics and lotions and pictures of women with lowered lids stroking their soft complexions had a mysterious superscription: Szépség Szálón. After a few seconds’ delay, like the working of a slow calculating machine, ‘Beauty Parlour’ came to the surface…) Many of the shops had Jewish names, German in origin but spelt in the Hungarian way. Others were simple Hungarian words—Kis, Nagy, Fehér, Fekete—which may have been translations of Klein, Gross, Weiss and Schwarz, changed during Magyarising drives in the past. A grocer called Csillag—Stern?—set me on the right track for stabling. There were plenty of horses about and many country carts; old and battered four-wheelers with their hoods down waited patiently under the leaves or trundled about in the dusty evening light. Down a back lane at the stables I fell in with an ex-student called Miklos Lederer. He had just been apprenticed to a chemist; when Malek had been watered and fed, he helped me carry all the tack to a room in the house where he had taken digs. Half Hungarian and half Swabian, he too spoke German. Like everyone else at this time of the day, we strolled about the town, while busy swallows whisked by; there was something indefinably oriental in the atmosphere of the place. (I only discovered later on that south of varying parallels of latitude the corso—this universal evening promenade—was a phenomenon that stretched all the way from Portugal to the Great Wall of China.)

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Eliciting Romany in Hungary, 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. 44-47:

Three camp-fires, spreading spokes of light through the tree-trunks, lit up the canvas of tents and shapes of men and horses. A party of Gypsies had settled for the night by yet another sweep-well, and our arrival caused bewilderment. Except for the fires, there was no glimmer in any direction and I saw, half with excitement and half with a touch of fright, that we would have to spend the night there. I had heard many hair-raising stories about Gypsies recently and I was chiefly scared about Malek. … Shaggy and unkempt, they were the darkest Gypsies I had ever seen. Some of the men wore loose white Hungarian trousers, the others were in ordinary town clothes and black hats, all in the last stage of decay. … Beautiful girls, flounced and bedraggled in green and yellow and magenta, stared with effulgent eyes. Beyond the fires there was a munching of unyoked oxen; horses were hobbled under the branches and a couple of mares grazed loose with tall foals beside them. Dogs bickered and snarled and the poultry, loosed from their travelling coop, pecked about the dust. Black and brown tents were stretched over crossed poles and the ramshackle style and the jumbled scattering of household stuff gave no hint of a thousand or two thousand years’ practice in pitching camp; except for the reeds and withies and the half-woven baskets on which brown hands were already busy, the whole tribe might have fled half-an-hour ago from a burning slum. I think they were heading for the banks of the Tisza to cut a new stock.

I escaped the hubbub for ten minutes by walking Malek up and down before watering him at the trough, where a man called György helped with the bucket. I had been wondering whether to tether Malek to a tree; there were some oats and a headstall in the saddle-bag, but the halter was far too short for him to graze. Best to hobble him as the Gypsies had done with theirs, but I had no idea how to set about it. György showed me, linking Malek’s forelegs with a neat figure of eight. I was anxious about this: Malek couldn’t have been used to it; but he behaved with great forbearance. I gave him some of his feed and some hay from the Gypsy, then took the saddle and tack and settled with the rest of them by the fire.

Thank heavens, their informal supper was over! Apart from hedge-hogs, delicious by hearsay, the untoothsomeness and even danger of their usual food were famous. There was a sound of rattling metal: a dog was licking out a cooking-pot by the fire. Seeing my worried look, a girl of ten, who had just begged for a cigarette, hurled an accurate stone at the dog, which scuttled off with a surprised yelp; then, tossing up the vessel so that it caught on a convenient twig, she coiled to the ground again with an indulgent smile as she let the smoke stream lazily from her nostrils. The chief item of [his last host] Berta’s supplies was a salami nearly a yard long, ribboned half-way down with the national colours. I made a good impression by cutting off a third and handing it over; it was the signal for a brief uproar of grabs and curses and blows. Then thirty pairs of eyes, accompanied by a soft chorus of whispers, watched raptly as I ate a sandwich and an apple. I took three fast gigantic gulps out of my wine-bottle before surrendering it. They seemed half-fascinated; also, and I couldn’t make out why, half-alarmed by my presence: perhaps all strangers, except as prey, boded ill. We were incommunicado at first; but I had been alerted by what the oldest man had said to György before he helped me give Malek a drink: the mumbled sentence had ended, I thought, with the word pani—immediately recognisable, to anyone at all in touch with Anglo-India, as the Hindi for water. When I pointed questioningly at the water-jar and asked what was inside, they said “Víz,” using the Magyar word; I cunningly answered, “Nem [not] víz! Pani.” There was a sensation! Bewilderment and wonder were written on their firelit features. When I held up the fingers of my hand and said “Panch!”—the word for five in both Hindi and Romany (öt, in Magyar), the wonder grew. I tried the only other words I could remember from Lavengro, pointing to my tongue and saying “Lav?”; but drew a blank; tchib was their word for it. I drew another blank with “penning dukkerin,” Borrow’s—or rather Mr. Petulengro’s—word for ‘fortune-telling.’ But I had better luck with the word petulengro itself, at least with the first half. The whole word (‘horseshoe-master’ in Borrow, i.e. blacksmith) caused no reaction, but when I cut it down to petul, and pointed to the anvil, a small boy dashed into the dark and came back holding up a horseshoe in triumph.

As soon as they got the hang of it, each time I pointed at something with a questioning look, back came the Gypsy word. Most of them laughed but one or two looked worried, as though tribal secrets were being revealed. A finger pointing to Heaven, and “Isten?” (the Magyar word for God), at once evoked the cry of “Devel!,” which sounds odd at first; until one thinks of Deva in Hindi and its probable Sanskrit ancestor.

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Remnant Placenames in Hungary, 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. 54-55:

When I had unfolded my map under the carob tree, the Tisza river, flowing south-east to join the Danube, uncoiled straight ahead of my path; I was struck by the place-names scattered beyond the east bank: Kúncsorba, Kúnszentmartón, Kúnvegytöke, and so on. The first syllable, it seemed, meant ‘Cuman’ and the region was still known as Nagykunság or Great Cumania. On my side of the river, a slightly different profusion spread southwards: Kiskúnhalas, Kiskúnfélegyháza, Kiskúndorozsma. ‘Kis’ means ‘little’: they belonged to the region of Kiskunság or Little Cumania.

So this was where the Cumans had ended up! And, even closer to my route, lay a still more peculiar paper-chase of place-names. Jászboldogháza, for instance, only a few miles north; and a bit farther afield, Jászladány, Jászapáti, Jászalsószentgyörgy, and many more… Here the first syllable recalled a more unexpected and still hoarier race of settlers. In the third century BC, the Jazyges, an Iranian speaking branch of the Sarmatians mentioned by Herodotus, were first observed in Scythian regions near the Sea of Azov, and some of them made their way to the west. They were allies of Mithridates—Ovid speaks of them in his Black Sea exile—and, between the Danube and the Tisza, exactly where their descendants finally settled, the Romans had much trouble with them. We know just what these Jazyges looked like from the column of Marcus Aurelius in the Piazza Colonna. The bas-relief warriors—and their horses, right down to their fetlocks—are sheathed in scale-armour like pangolins. Javelins lost, and shooting backwards in the famous Parthian style, they canter with bent bows up the spiral. Had they left any other traces in the Plain? Any dim, unexplained custom, twist of feature, scrap of language, or lingering turn of phrase? A few sparse reminders of the Pechenegs and the Cumans still flicker about the Balkans; but this entire nation seems to have vanished like will o’ the wisps and only these place-names mark the points of their evaporation.

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Slovak Resentments, 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. 295-296:

We had hardly said good-bye when a spectacled young man on a bike overtook me and dismounted, with a greeting in Slovak—‘Dobar den,’ I think, instead of ‘jo nápot kivánok’—and asked where I was going. He fell in step beside me [and we conversed in German]. He was a schoolmaster and he enlarged on the past sorrows of Slovakia. It is true that the local villages are Hungarian, but further north they are pure Slovak as far as the Polish border. They had been under the Magyars for a thousand years and always treated as an inferior race, and when any Slovak rose in the world he was promptly seduced into the lesser Magyar nobility—with the result that all local leadership evaporated. Slovak children used to be taken away from their parents and brought up as Magyars. Even when they were fighting the Austrians in defence of their nationality and language, the Hungarians were busy oppressing and Magyarizing their own Slovak subjects. The schoolmaster didn’t seem to like the Czechs much either, though this involved a different kind of resentment. The Czechs, it seems, regard the Slovaks as irredeemable bumpkins, while in Slovak eyes, the Czechs are bossy, petit bourgeois bureaucrats who take unfair advantage of their closeness to the government in Prague. The schoolmaster himself was from northern Slovakia, where—partly thanks to the Hussites, partly to the general spread of the Reformation in east Europe—much of the population is Protestant. I hadn’t realized this. It was touch and go in the Dark Ages whether the Slavs of the North became Catholic or Orthodox. Under the proselytizing influence of SS. Cyril and Methodius—the Byzantine missionaries who invented the Cyrillic script and translated the sacred writings into Old Slavonic—it could easily have been the latter. When I asked why it hadn’t, he laughed and said: “The damned Magyars came!” The link was severed, and the Czechs and Slovaks stuck to Rome and the West.

When he reached his turning he asked me to stay in his village, but I had to press on. He pedalled away with a wave. A nice man.

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Bratislava’s Babylon, 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. 247-248:

The Schlossberg, the rock which dominates the town with its colossal gutted castle, had a bad name, and I hadn’t climbed many of the steps of the lane before understanding why. One side of the path dropped among trees and rocks, but on the other, each of the hovels which clung to the mountain was a harlot’s nest. Dressed in their shifts with overcoats over their shoulders or glittering in brightly-coloured and threadbare satin, the inmates leaned conversationally akimbo against their door-jambs, or peered out with their elbows propped on the half-doors of their cells and asked passers-by for a light for their cigarettes. Most of them were handsome and seasoned viragos, often with peroxided hair as lifeless as straw and paint was laid on their cheeks with a doll-maker’s boldness. There were a few monsters and a number of beldames. Here and there a pretty newcomer resembled a dropped plant about to be trodden flat. Many sat indoors on their pallets, looking humble and forlorn, while Hungarian peasants and Czech and Slovak soldiers from the garrison clumped past in ascending and descending streams. During the day, except for the polyglot murmur of invitation, it was rather a silent place. But it grew noisier after dark when shadows brought confidence and the plum-brandy began to bite home. It was only lit by cigarette ends and by an indoor glow that silhouetted the girls on their thresholds. Pink lights revealed the detail of each small interior: a hastily tidied bed, a tin basin and a jug, some lustral gear and a shelf displaying a bottle of solution, pox-foiling and gentian-hued; a couple of dresses hung on a nail. There would be a crucifix, or an oleograph of the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption, and perhaps a print of St. Wenceslas, St. John Nepomuk or St. Martin of Tours. Postcards of male and female film stars were stuck in the frames of the looking-glasses, and scattered among them snapshots of Maszaryk, Admiral Horthy and Archduke Otto declared the allegiance of the inmates. A saucepan of water simmered over charcoal; there was little else. The continuity of these twinkling hollows was only broken when one of the incumbents charmed a stooping soldier under her lintel. Then a dowsed lamp and the closing of a flimsy door, or a curtain strung from nail to nail, masked their hasty embraces from the passers-by. This staircase of a hundred harlots was trodden hollow by decades of hobnails, and the lights, slanting across the night like a phosphorescent diagonal in a honeycomb, ended in the dark. One felt, but could not see, the huge battlemented ruin above. At the lower end, the diffused lights of the city cataracted downhill.

This was the first quarter of its kind I had seen. Without knowing quite how I had arrived, I found myself wandering there again and again, as an auditor more than an actor. The tacit principle to flinch at nothing on this journey quailed here. These girls, after all, were not their Viennese sisters, who could slow up a bishop with the lift of an eye lash. And even without this embargo, the retribution that I thought inevitable—no nose before the year was out—would have kept me safely out of doors. The lure was more complicated. Recoil, guilt, sympathy, attraction, romantisme du bordel and nostalgie de la boue wove a heady and sinister garland. It conjured up the abominations in the books of the Prophets and the stews of Babylon and Corinth and scenes from Lucian, Juvenal, Petronius and Villon. It was aesthetically astonishing too, a Jacob’s ladder tilted between the rooftops and the sky, crowded with shuffling ghosts and with angels long fallen and moulting. I could never tire of it.

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