A Time of Gifts

Free A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

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Authors: Patrick Leigh Fermor
    Beyond the Cathedral and directly beneath the flying-buttressesof the apse, a street dropped sharply to the quays. Tramp steamers and tugs and barges and fair-sized ships lay at anchor under the spans of the bridges, and cafés and bars were raucous with music. I had been toying with the idea, if I could make the right friends, of cadging a lift on a barge and sailing upstream in style for a bit.
    I made friends all right. It was impossible not to. The first place was a haunt of seamen and bargees shod in tall sea-boots rolled down to the knee, with felt linings and thick wooden soles. They were throwing schnapps down their throats at a brisk rate. Each swig was followed by a chaser of beer, and I started doing the same. The girls who drifted in and out were pretty but a rough lot and there was one bulky terror, bursting out of a sailor’s jersey and wearing a bargeman’s cap askew on a nest of candy-floss hair, called Maggi—which was short for Magda—who greeted every newcomer with a cry of “Hallo, Bubi!” and a sharp, cunningly twisted and very painful pinch on the cheek. I liked the place, especially after several schnapps, and I was soon firm friends with two beaming bargemen whose Low German speech, even sober, would have been blurred beyond the most expert linguist’s grasp. They were called Uli and Peter. “Don’t keep on saying Sie ,” Uli insisted, with a troubled brow and an unsteadily admonishing forefinger: “Say Du .” This advance from the plural to the greater intimacy of the singular was then celebrated by drinking Brüderschaft. Glasses in hand, with our right arms crooked through the other two with the complexity of the three Graces on a Parisian public fountain, we drank in unison. Then we reversed the process with our left arms, preparatory to ending with a triune embrace on both cheeks, a manoeuvre as elaborate as being knighted or invested with the Golden Fleece. The first half of the ceremony went without a hitch, but a loss of balance in the second, while our forearms were still interlocked, landed the three of us in the sawdust in a sottish heap. Later, in the fickle fashion of the very drunk, they lurched away into the night, leaving their newly-created brother dancing with a girl who had joined our unsteady group: my hobnail boots could do no more damage to her shiny dancing shoes, Ithought, than the seaboots that were clumping all round us. She was very pretty except for two missing front teeth. They had been knocked out in a brawl the week before, she told me.
    * * *
    I woke up in a bargemen’s lodging house above a cluster of masts and determined to stay another day in this marvellous town.
    It had occurred to me that I might learn German quicker by reading Shakespeare in the famous German translation. The young man in the bookshop spoke some English. Was it really so good, I asked him. He was enthusiastic: Schlegel and Tieck’s version, he said, was almost as good as the original; so I bought Hamlet, Prinz von Dänemark , in a paperbound pocket edition. He was so helpful that I asked him if there were any way of travelling up the Rhine by barge. He called a friend into consultation who was more fluent in English: I explained I was a student, travelling to Constantinople on foot with not much money, and that I didn’t mind how uncomfortable I was. The newcomer asked: student of what? Well—literature: I wanted to write a book. “ So! You are travelling about Europe like Childe Harold?,” he said. “Yes, yes ! Absolutely like Childe Harold!” Where was I staying? I told them. “Pfui!” They were horrified, and amused. Both were delightful and, as the upshot of all this, I was asked to stay with one of them. We were to meet in the evening.
    The day passed in exploring churches and picture galleries and looking at old buildings, with a borrowed guidebook.
    Hans, who was my host, had been a

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