“Reading Leigh Fermor’s exquisite prose, about a variety of subjects that I loved, stirred my own lesser and corporate repressed creative juices. This was a man who, when writing about the ‘long eclipsed’ Turkish legacy in Central Europe, referred to their legacy ‘commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possession like a spear stuck in the ground.’ He understood instinctively, as I did, the mosaic and the borders of Central Europe and the Balkans.”—Alexander Billinis
Roaming East Roman
By Alexander Billinis
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—January 2018—How did I miss him? How did I even avoid him? How could our paths not have crossed, even by chance, when we waked the same paths? Too often, though, gold is hidden in plain sight. We walk by in our haste, or are blinded culturally to what lies just beyond our narrow, particular focus. It is a problem for us all. I cannot fathom, however, how it took me over 32 years of a very Greece-oriented life to discover the works of Patrick Leigh Fermor.
“Paddy” was one of the greatest biographers of Modern Greece, and of that shatter zone comprising the Balkans and Eastern Europe but, until early middle age, I had never read him.
We haunted, he and I, many of the same lanes in Athens and in the villages of the Peloponnese. I had a house on Hydra, where my father was born and where Leigh Fermor had lived.
As a college student, I navigated the warrens of London, as well as of various cities in the Low Countries and Bavaria, all described by him in delightful detail. I even spent a memorable half-year in Hungary, the pivot of Leigh Fermor’s Holland to Constantinople trek. We had, to quote the author, “drunk at the same fountains.” Yet it took me too long to discover this adventurous writer, whose work thereafter irrevocably colored my life.
Perhaps the student must be ready, or readie. Leigh Fermor was a modern master of English prose: could I even have appreciated him earlier in life?
In my case, “the student” was an international banker, traveling constantly, trying to settle into my first condominium and entering into a relationship with the Serbian-American woman who would become my wife. Books, of varied merit and styles, were my only solace in a profession for which I was ill-suited, and which took me away from my home and fiancée. This was a time, not so long ago, when books were analog, and their weight and shapes were obvious in my English briefcase, singling me out as “not quite one of the team” at work.
In one of these oft-dragged tomes there was an interview with Patrick Leigh Fermor and, though the interviewer’s tone and approach were factual and bloodless, the interviewee was larger than life.
Who was this Leigh Fermor guy? I had heard from my father of Paddy’s (he was that to his friends) brave and audacious (some say foolhardy) kidnapping of a German general on Crete during World War Two. I recalled reading something about his history in Greece, here and there in the large library my father and I possessed. I also vaguely remembered his name being mentioned by fellow Hydriots when recalling the era when the island hosted a colony of Anglophone writers and artists. Paddy had described our island as a “place where geological tumult and the symmetry of architecture are in perpetual strife.” A literal—and figurative—truth, to anyone knowing amphitheatrical Hydra, and its prickly yet noble inhabitants.
In any event, having discovered Leigh Fermor, I did my best to make up for lost time. Happily, amazon (the 1.0 version) did exist by the time I “found” him, and I spared no expense in buying and devouring all his books, a new addition to my bulging briefcase, a distraction from my colleagues’ call reports and prying eyes. In fairness, the sheer, serene pleasure on my face was a perfect “tell” to my colleagues that I was not reading a call report or an investment banker write-up.
Reading the man’s exquisite prose, about a variety of subjects very close to my Hellenic heart, stirred my own lesser and repressed creative juices.
Leigh Fermor, writing about the “long eclipsed” Turkish legacy of Central Europe, referred to the Ottoman influence as “commemorated here and there by a minaret left in their lost possessions like a spear stuck in the ground.”
He understood instinctively, as I did, the inherently borderless mosaic that comprises Central Europe and the Balkans. Crossing the Danube from Transylvanian Romania into Bulgaria, the faded legacy of the Turks blazes forth again; their legacy “thick and plentiful on every side,” with “minarets, and the smoky tang of kebabs cooking on spits,” along with “the evidence of the Slavo-Byzantine kingdom which the Turkish wave had submerged.”
Leigh Fermor always expresses my own impressions and feelings in prose I can only dream of imitating.
Naïve to the challenges of becoming a writer, in corporate London I would steal moments on my notepad or word-pad at work, in airport lounges or in the steerage of flight, or when my wife and (quickly enough our newborn son) were asleep . . . trying to put my stories down on paper.
I had written periodically while in law school, though legal and business writing skills are probably worse tools to wield in writing literary prose than no skills at all, as my editors no doubt agree.
Most of my work was flat and factual, as I fell victim to my lack of preparation, as well as the lack of time for concentrated composition. I had, as well, set as my role model one of the greatest writers in the English language.
In 2006, several years into my relationship with Leigh Fermor’s work, we moved to Greece, where my corporate obligations increased in an environment of gross inefficiency, Ottoman bureaucracy, and debt-fueled corporate politics. I could not find the time to write, though the “Greek Reality” showered me with material. I found myself again stealing time away from business meetings to lose myself in the winding “oriental” lanes of Athens and Piraeus, tracing the youthful steps of my late father and of Leigh Fermor, himself.
I would often pull out an analog from my briefcase to track a scene or a theme, comparing Paddy’s description to the present in concrete and rebar-altered Athens.
Taking a coffee in a shaded Plaka taverna, particularly in off-season, it was easy enough to imagine Paddy holding court with his gang of Greek intellectuals and Philhellenic fellow Brits.
The Greek reading public was well versed in Paddy, who claimed Greece as a second home, living most of his life in Kardamyli, on a promontory just north of the famed and wild Mani Peninsula, the middle of the three fingers of southernmost Greece.
I often thought of dropping in on the nonagenarian at his house, but I lacked any sort of introduction, and I did not have any portfolio or articles or work (a “brand” in today’s Kardashianesque parlance), and my manners were too good to impose on a man most likely besieged by devotees more talented and well-connected than I.
Besides, the non-tourist version of life in Greece is very different from the myth engendered by a Greek holiday, and Leigh Fermor’s existence in Greece was more idyllic due to his wife’s considerable allowance from her British inheritance, which smoothed to a degree the peaks and valleys of his writerly earnings.
For me, the reality of making a living in Greece overshadowed the myth and the beauty of Leigh Fermor’s descriptions. The cracks in the Greek pavement were widening and we left, “one hour ahead of time,” as the Greeks say, a Greece speeding full throttle towards economic crisis.
Our destination was London, and a mid-level management job at Canary Wharf, in a tense pre-Lehman-Brothers-Meltdown atmosphere. Work, commute, and family (we added a fourth member when my daughter was born in London in 2009) pushed writing to the back of an envelope. Despite this, I was in Leigh Fermor’s homeland, and bookstores in London were everywhere.
Here, I began making tentative connections to writers and fellow admirers of Paddy’s prose. At about the same time, a new, somewhat codependent relationship entered my life—Facebook. Via this digital café, a few keystrokes brought groups, individuals, and themes to my digital fingertips. At the same time, my first paid writing commission came in, about enough for a decent family meal in London. Nevertheless, it seemed as though the Heavens had opened. As in Athens, I often enough lost myself in London, following Paddy, to streets, clubs, and pubs; imagining my hero deep in conversation at the bar.
The clouds were gathering over my banking career, however, so we went to Plan B. We had bought a lovely Austrian-Hungarian-era townhouse in my wife’s Serbian hometown, Sombor. This small yet historic Austro-Byzantine town became our base for the next three years. Had Fermor, perhaps, whispered in my ear?
We lived life in the slow lane, after the dizzying, disorienting pace of London, Athens, and Chicago. Serbia’s Vojvodina Province, with its 24 nationalities, on the edge of the Balkans and Central Europe, were lands which, along with our mutual Greece, were dear to Paddy. I covered some of the same ground he so lovingly described nearly 80 years earlier. We had an independent income, with a low cost of living, and my wife immediately put her Serbia-earned architectural degree and her Chicago and London experience to work in a large local construction company.
Armed with Facebook and a passable command of Serbian, often with my daughter in her stroller, I got to know my new town, its history, historians, politics, and personalities. The global database brought in new friends and opportunities, including a steady paying gig at a couple of newspapers. Hungary was 20 kilometers away, one of my favorite day trips. Once again, along from my daughter, Leigh Fermor’s dog-eared books were my constant daily companions.
My first book appeared in 2011, a bit after Paddy gave up the ghost, at 96. Self-published and a melange of styles, it sold mostly because of my larger writing audience, but there was no blockbuster. We found, too, that we could not or would not assimilate to our new surroundings in Serbia, for the simple reason that it was hard to live happily when so many of your neighbors were suffering economically, with little prospect of any improvement in the environment.
In this we differed from Leigh Fermor; much as he loved Greece, he could affect a detachment from the Greeks’ economic and political suffering in a way we could not. In this sense, we more resembled another Anglophone writer in Greece, Kevin Andrews, an American writer who assumed Greek nationality and fully experienced and suffered the struggles of his fellow Greeks, especially during the Colonels’ Junta.
In our case, the struggle was less graphic: a global economy squeezing the life out of an educated and cultivated population, with the endorsement of the political class. It somehow felt immoral to enjoy life at a far higher standard of living than your neighbor. I could do little about all this, except by wielding my obscure pen, or voting with my feet, which we soon did.
We arrived in the US in 2013. In Chicago, writing again took a back seat in the face of the hard facts of repatriation and economics, though I emerged every so often with a midnight burst of creativity, guided now by an experienced hand, another Facebook find and the publisher of both Leigh Fermor and Andrews, author and editor Elizabeth Boleman-Herring, the founder of WeeklyHubris.com. One degree of separation!
There was no “slow lane” in Chicago: with bills to pay and two small children, we set to work. Yet the writing continued, more focused, more guided, with some discipline, now, and greater regularity, notwithstanding the demands of life and the spatial limits of a crowded Chicago flat.
A second book arrived, a novel, perhaps delivered prematurely. Yet it arrived in the context of growing creativity, of a voice emerging as my own. I dug up a high school aptitude for debate and public speaking, and a banker-era fondness for presentation, to begin lecturing on Byzantium and the Balkans, in tandem with my three or four monthly columns.
I lack, and will always lack, Leigh Fermor’s facility, and his gift, and in contrast to his hedonistic style, my life as a father and husband always comes first. Yet Paddy’s beautiful prose, lavished on topography dear to my heart, gives me the courage to keep at it. More than that, it gives me permission to pursue my love for writing and history.
Leigh Fermor still whispers in my ear, and Leigh Fermor’s mentee, our editor and publisher, exhorts me to persevere.
Seeking again life in a slower lane, we recently moved to a smaller town, in the upstate of South Carolina, surrounded by villages, villagers, and a lovely smattering of academics, writers, and artists, in an area steeped in history.
Here, my family will live near my editor, and my fellow “Weekly” Hubris writers.
Leigh Fermor’s example cannot be precisely duplicated, nor would I would want to attempt it. The era of retreating to Kardamyli, or even Hydra, is past. Yet I do feel, in my latest move, I follow his bright path, living a life informed by rich history to the degree possible in 2018, shaped by interests and passions Paddy and I share.