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Roumeli: Travels In Northern Greece (2006)

Roumeli: Travels in Northern Greece (2006)
4.17 of 5 Votes: 1
159017187X (ISBN13: 9781590171875)
nyrb classics
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Roumeli: Travels In Northern Greece (...
Roumeli: Travels In Northern Greece (2006)

About book: This is book is filled with 5 star writing, and yet I can't shake the sense that the parts are greater than the whole. But perhaps that's the case with travel writing in general. I'm not all that widely read in the genre, and whenever I do read an acclaimed author and book, I tend to get frustrated. I suppose I like my foreign adventures (and descriptions) wrapped in a story -- or a history. So in other words, I suppose the fault lies with me. This particular book by Fermor is one of his Greek travel books, with a focus (broadly) on the northern part of the country (there's a lengthy (and beautifully poetic) wartime interlude in Crete -- which is way south). The early part of the book has Fermor attending a traditional wedding, with wonderful descriptions of food, drink, and apparel (especially the bride)-- all of which are probably now long gone (the book was written in 1966). What next follows is some monastery crawling -- most of which are located on steep mountains. (How did they build them?) The descriptions are, again, beautiful, but oddly lacking in any descriptions of the art. (In contrast, see Rebecca West's descriptions in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.) Fermor does mention, at least once, that the paintings are "darkened." In other words, maybe he's seen better, and didn't bother.Throughout the book, there are several meditations on the Greek personality, which I found circular and boring. I'm sure there are many that find them nuanced and poetic. One particularly wonderful episode, which is actually two, involves a search for a pair Lord Byron's shoes. Fermor clearly loves Byron, and he expends a number of pages on this search. The first part has Fermor and a friend visiting an eccentric 80 year old descendant of Byron's. They are pulling together what information they can for the search, which was prompted by a letter from Greece to the ancestor. The visit ends with a game of pool during a rainstorm. This could of easily been a wonderful short story. The second part has Fermor in Missolonghi (the eventual site of Byron's death) seeking out the holder of the shoes. For me this is the heart of the book, and made the reading trip all worthwhile. Things sort of tailed off for after that. Fermor continues to ramble about, but throughout all of this, there is a tinge of lament. Fermor sees the Greece that he loves dying in a wave of what we now call Globalism. That which is unique is being diluted, dumbed down or done away with. One poignant episode, late in the book, really made an impression on me. In it, Fermor, traveling on a bus, encounters a young Greek woman traveling with her child. I believe it captures the experience of the book (the best part anyway) in a nutshell:We had passed a couple of meagre hamlets and the bus had emptied of all but Andreas and me and, in the seat behind us, a pretty mountain girl whose face was alight with candour and happiness. A voluminous black kerchief swathed her head, thick chestnut plaits fell down her back, and she was encased in one of those coats of homespun goats' hair, flaring from the waist and gallooned round the hem and along the perpendicular pockets with a dark red braid, that the call a "segouni." Round silver plaques as big as saucers fastened her woven belt. A swaddled baby in a hewn cradle like a little trough rested across her lap; it had been slung across her back like a papoose when she got in. She looked about fifteen. As she listened to Andreas her eyes grew wider still and laughter covered her face with the spread fingers of one brown hand. (pg. 192).I doubt you would encounter that woman, in that attire, these days. Anyway, as you can see, Fermor doesn't write -- he paints with words. And that's a rare gift.

This is my least favorite of the 4 Fermor books I've read. Fermor's digressions become distracting here, and it took me a lot longer to finish the book than with his other titles.That being said, there are some jewels in here. I enjoyed the passages about Meteora, and those that dealt with the years of Ottoman subjugation. And there's a priceless passage about Byron'smissing slippers. The Greeks consider Byron to be their equivalentof Washington, or maybe Lafayette. He died just before going intobattle near Missolonghi during the Greek War of Independence.The story goes that Byron rewarded his boatman with a pair of hisshoes/slippers for ferrying him daily through the marshes to the battlearea. At some point in history, the slippers disappeared. In preparation for his journey through Greece, Fermor visits the 80 year-old woman who caretakes Byron's estate (she being the main remaining descendant). He wants to get all the information he can, and find the missing slippers.She wines and dines him and his companion, soundly thrashes him in billiards, and over a period of time, tells all she knows about Lord Byron, giving Fermor unlimited access to view Byron's estate. Perhaps the most important item she tells him is the name of the Byron's boatman.Armed with all of this, Fermor sets off on a tortuous trail through Greece, and is just about to give up near Missolonghi, when...Ah, but that would be telling! Suffice it to say that what unfolds has all the mystery and excitement of the best mystery fiction.For this one tale alone, I'm glad this book is in my library.
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Fermor is an erudite guide. This collection is mostly set in Northern Greece (with side trips to Crete and after Lord Byron), among nomads, monks, soldiers and villagers. His experiences are unique and these essays are difficult. Aside from his English vocabulary, Fermor's love for linguistics makes several of the essays tough for the non-linguist to generate interest. He also is, at times, too spare with context - barely explaining himself or his context/place before throwing us into a new context. I liked "Monasteries of the Air" and his encounters with local, rural folk and storytellers. Literary and linguistic quests, not as much.
Margo Berendsen
I picked this book up for research about Greece; I soon discovered I couldn't put it down. This is no mere travelogue. Fermor is part anthropologist, part linguist, and part poet. The way he describes the nomadic shepherds of the mountains of Greece (I did not know such people even existed!) is so well done I feel as if I'm still hearing their chants and the rhythmic stomp of their dances, still shivering from their superstitions (this is Greek mythology you probably haven't encountered before!) I will definitely be picking up more books by this author; there are three more and wish there were more.
I'm encountering Patrick Leigh Fermor suddenly and unexpectedly on multiple fronts...simultaneously happy to be reading him for the first time but sad that I haven't been reading him for years! Without realizing who he was, I do know the story of his daring and bravery on the Isle of Crete during WWII through the movie about same starring Dirk Bogarde, Ill Met by Moonlight. Also unbeknownst to me was his long friendship and correspondence with Debo Mitford...their letters have been recently published...In Tearing Haste...Decided to read his first two books, written as a very young man, of his travels across Europe, mainly on foot, from Holland to Constantinople, during years of rising Fascism.
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