Tuesday, February 10, 2015

More from Fermor: Finding Orthodoxy in Odd Places (1)

Nothing much beats the satisfaction of finishing a really good read.  Patrick Leigh Fermor’s The Broken Road, (of which I wrote earlier) is simply the best book I have read in quite a long time.  Always a keen observer of the human condition, Fermor’s open, generous spirit made wide allowances for the foibles of others.  The Broken Road takes him from Bulgaria, into Romania, back to Bulgaria, and then on to Mount Athos by way of Constantinople.  These Orthodox lands held a lasting fascination for Fermor, and indeed, he was to live the greater part of his long life there, first in Romania until the war, and then in Greece.

With an ear for languages, Fermor would--with seeming effortlessness--quickly immerse himself into local life.  I was curious to see how he would react to the pervasive Orthodoxy in his midst.  Fermor expressed interest in most anything, and the foreignness of Orthodoxy held an attraction for the inquisitive young man.  He remained appreciative, though not uncritical, of our Liturgy, the church’s iconography and the assortment of saints and scoundrels he met along the way.  He never addressed Orthodoxy systematically, but always as something of a backdrop to the story he was telling, which is the better course anyway.

One of my favorite episodes is the experience at the Savoi-Ritz in Bucharest, though the references to Orthodoxy here are so slight as to be easily missed.  After trudging north from Plovdiv, Bulgaria, the glittering Romanian capital proved to be an eye-opener for the nineteen-year old.  The pre-Ceausescu Bucharest was not known as the “Little Paris of the East” without good reason.  Fermor traveled on a shoestring, but in Buchares he did not try for a room in the disreputable outskirts, but instead chose a lodging just over the line into the barely reputable district.  A wooden sign over the door painted “Savoi-Ritz” attracted his attention.  Madame Tania, an elderly, hawk-nosed, French-speaking Bessarabian woman showed him to a surprising well-furnished room upstairs.  Fermor, “hell-bent on the bright lights of the town centre,” quickly washed and combed through his hair, then asked for directions.  The proprietress seemed hurt that he was leaving so soon, remonstrating “on s’amuse bien ici!”  Fermor insisted on attaining the Calea Victoriei, however, so she did not press the point. 

After a night on the town, Fermor returned to the Savoi-Ritz at 2:00 am.  Madame Tania let him in and invited him to join them in the kitchen for a glass of wine “as everyone was having supper.”  In the “cozy kitchen with an ikon in the corner and a chicken and potatoes in a dish,” Fermor found four “rather pretty girls” in dressing gowns or kimonos, setting around the table.  The young man suddenly realized his own naivete, as he had stumbled into a maison de passé instead of a regular hotel.  Madame Tania reassured him that they did, on occasion, take in regular travelers.  Her recounting of his error provoked good-hearted laughter all around the table, and Fermor ended-up spending the rest of the night listening to their relaxed after-work banter, and to the stories they had to tell.  After his arrival, a fifth girl “clattered down the steps on wooden patterns, shook hands, sat down, flung her dark shock of hair back, crossed herself and set to [eating].”  On the morrow, these good-hearted souls would mend and iron his best change of clothes so that he would be more presentable on the Calea Victoriei the following night.   

Fermor thought to ask them about the strange men who seemed to have a monopoly on Bucharest taxicabs.  The women howled with laughter.  Madame Tania explained. 

They belonged to a religious sect widespread in Bessarabia and southern Russia….After marriage and one or two children…the men castrated themselves, hence the beardlessness, the high voice and the expanse, and the general eunuch-like style….(One of their tenets…was the belief that Czar Paul, the murdered son of Catherine the Great, would one day return again as the Messiah.)  ‘They are bad-tempered men,’ Tania was saying, ‘always cross.  I’m not surprised.’  A smile hovered on her face.  ‘Of course, we don’t see much of them here…’