Saturday, 18 January 2014

I finished The Broken Road and loved it

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's The Broken Road, the final volume in his account of his walk aged 18 across Europe in 1934, is like feeling a fresh spring breeze. It reminds me of Aristotle's definition of happiness as bloom upon the cheek of youth.  It reminds me too of why I am in South-Eastern Europe and how much I love Romania and Bucharest, because after fifteen years here I am still a tourist. But let's start with Constantinople.

After taking over a year to walk there from the Hook of Holland, we now learn from The Broken Road that Patrick Leigh Fermor stayed in the city he (rightly) always called Constantinople only ten days before setting off again for Greece, where he was to make his life. He said he never left Constantinople without a lightening of the heart. This is all the more telling because he saw it when it was still Constantinople, by which I mean still the Ottoman city made of wood and many Greeks still lived there. 

When I first saw the city in 1990 it was a great anticlimax. I arrived by train from Budapest and I had just seen and fallen in love with Romania. Hungary, where I had watched the red star being winched from the top of the Parliament building and Bulgaria were also fascinating though much less so than Romania. Istanbul was sort of Third World, but with Mars bars and Coca Cola, the International Herald Tribune and all mod cons it meant coming back to the West. 

Since then on many visits I  keep changing my mind about the place. I had a Lithuanian friend who lived there, in a flat facing the Golden Horn, who a long time said it was the most wonderful city in Europe. The last time I was with him there he said he had moved from hating it to complete indifference. I, on the other hand, on my last two or three visits, decided I loved it, despite the fact that it is no longer multiracial, has been rebuilt in concrete and the traffic is impossible. But I love it away from the tourist-crowded bits. I love working-class Fatih, full of barbershops, cafes where men sit eating falafel on little stools and wondrous mosques sans tourists.

Fermor's passion for mediaeval history and old churches and his knowledge of Ancient Greek gave him a great dislike of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. Turkish rule destoyed the social structure and the upper classes of Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia, though Fermor speculates that paying heavy taxes to the Porte rather than being directly ruled by the Sultan might have done Wallachia and Moldavia just as much harm. It may well be that Turkish administration was even worse than administration by native princes, with rule by Phanariots being somewhere in between. I just don't know. On the other hand had Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece not liberated themselves the First World War would not have come about or at least not where and when it did. The First World War was the Third Balkan War. 

Fermor did not love Constantinople, but on the other hand he did love Bucharest, as do I, even after fifteen years here. Oddly enough though, the chapter on Bucharest is one of the weakest in the book. It does read at times, as he himself admits, like an article from The Tatler. Yet the chapter is terribly interesting for those of us who live in Bucharest; one cannot imagine a Tatlerish Bucharest now. How different Bucharest was in 1934 - not least in the upper class circles where he moved, after putting up by mistake for a few days at a bordello called Pisica Vesela, where the girls made friends with him.

On his first full day in Bucharest he enters a cafe on Calea Victoriei and feels a revulsion from the well dressed customers, who looked 
'shiny and commercial despite their rice-paper cheeks. I had the illusion that the talk of this gleaming and overupholstered Babylon consisted entirely of sneers.
That sounds like some Bucuresteni of the present day but Fermor has a remarkable gift for inspiring friendship in total strangers and in the cafe he meets a man who takes him to the opera and after that to a grand party and from then on he is lionised by the aristocracy. He also had many introductions from his time moving from castle to castle in Transylvania as described in the second volume of his travels. 

He says
there was a strong bohemian, anti-conventional and un-pompous strain in the section of the Romanian world in which I now found myself.
That describes quite a number of my close Romanian friends, but I have been very lucky indeed. Most Romanians are very different, very conventional, very unbohemian, sometimes even a little pompous. 

Of course he is describing a class most of which has gone now. Most of the 'historic centre' of Bucharest, i.e. the part built from 1880 to 1914, as a taxi driver reminded me the other day, was built by and for a class of people who left the country after the war if they could - not the upper classes only but the upper middle classes and the business class. Bohemiansim in 1934 in Romania and in England was confined to a minority of the upper classes and a tiny minority of metropolitan intellectuals. Since then it became much more common in England, but is very rare in Romania.

The Romania of the elite in 1934 had great style, we learn. Nowadays the elite - the rich and powerful, if they are the elite - are singularly lacking in style. In fact, Romania has so many wonderful charms but style is not one of them. Another reason why Romania should restore the monarchy. The peasants clad in costume are gone too but much about the countryside remains much the same or did until a moment ago. 

Apart from two chapters on Romania the book is about Bulgaria and very good indeed. I liked it all the more because even though I do not think I know Bulgaria very well I had been to all the places he visited. He describes Plovdiv and Veliko Tarnovo well and thinks Sofia a pleasant village. How lucky he was to get there in time - before modernity. 

Reading his Roumeli in memoriam just after he died has made me decide that Greece is still worth visiting, despite the affluence and tourism that have altered it out of recognition from the shepherd-strewn Balkan kingdom he knew. I shall try to find the profound Greece, if it still exists, far from motorways and airports. The profound Romania is everywhere and I must visit it much more before it too goes.

More on The Broken Road here.


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  2. Ah, so you finally got around to reading "The Broken Road" - well done! It is indeed a wonderful book, written with a compelling mix of youthful enthusiasm and powerful descriptive prose. Like you, I enjoyed very much the chapters on his time in Romania, although little of what he describes still exists today, and the parts of his account dealing with Bulgaria are at times almost lyrical. I was just disappointed that after finally arriving at his long-sought destination in "Constantinople", he recorded almost nothing about his stay there, which seemed a major anti-climax. However, my experiences of Greece and Turkey have been very different from his; I have generally been much more impressed by the Turks than the Greeks - but that is a story for another day ...

    1. I have always felt I was too late for both countries, having visited them after they became mass tourism places. Fermor's Roumeli made me see what I missed but I feel Albania is much more interesting than either, because still 'uncooked'. But I have liked every Turk I ever met. Romanians I notice, despite their dislike of Islam usually seem slightly to prefer Turks to Greeks. I think Greece and Turkey are in many ways the same place and it would have been better had they ended up as a federal state. I said that to a young political science lecturer in Istanbul recently intending to provoke her and she warmly agreed.

  3. Thanks for this. My only comment is that PLF's disdain of the Turks is understandable but when I was last there I learned that the Greeks, Brits, French and Americans had all invaded Turkey just after WW1 and went on a desperate land-grab spree that failed totally and poisoned relations with Greece forever after. I'm surprised that Turkey remained so open to the west ever since, as if that outrage had never happened. Because it was a disgraceful act of colonialism it is not mentioned in British schools or university (at least in my experience).

    A book that covers that period, but not this invasion, and is absolutely brilliant is Birds Without Wings by Louis de Berniers. It's set in a Turkish coastal village at the end of WW1; all is peaceful until the Greeks get sent home and the Armenians massacred. Read it!

    1. The history of Greek-Turkish relations is very complicated and you have simplified it too much but I think it is tragic that the Ottoman Empire went to war with us in 1914 leading to her destruction. Unlike you I am sympathetic to colonialism and wish a democratic Ottoman Empire still ruled the Middle East. I started the book you mention, which had charm but it did not hold my interest. It was clearly a parable about 1990s Europe and the need for Christians and Muslims to be friends. I feel the author, as Wilde said of Wordsworth, discovered among the stones the sermons he had previously hidden there. All historical novels are really about the time in which they are written and are pretty pointless though I love Pushkin and James Hogg.