Disaster Overtook Them All

In those especially frightening early days of the Covid pandemic, my wife Alma and I had just begun a two-week quarantine in our Rhode Island home, following our last-minute, middle-of-the-night escape from Europe in mid-March. While the economy crashed, we sewed our own masks out of old t-shirts and made our own hand wipes, we scrubbed down any available surface and we fought the almost unconscious desire to touch our faces. Meanwhile, on TV, frontline health workers on the verge of collapse described their intolerably long days fighting to protect their patients from a disease that at the time no one really understood.

New England then was one large raging pandemic hotspot. Home became a kind of cave, the walls lined with worry for loved ones, for strangers. Our son and his wife and their two children hunkered down together in New Mexico, school cancelled. Though we urged our daughter to leave New York City, she, and her partner, decided to stay in the city they have long loved, no matter how much Covid had wounded it.

Once our quarantine ended, we rolled the dice on any outside activity, including what store hours might be the least dangerous for buying food. With too many unknowns out in the air, mostly we stayed put, lucky that we were economically able to, while others died because they had to risk their lives to continue their essential jobs. Nursing homes transformed into morgues, hospitals filled with the infected, our government’s incompetence morphed into greater incompetence, and the number of dead rose and rose. No one could predict where this disaster was heading. We still can’t, can we?

From time to time, all the terrifying unknowns got my legs working, and for hours I’d weave a tight circular stroll through our small backyard, but no matter how many miles I clocked, there was no escaping what our world had become.

Not even when I attempted a different escape, by reading travel books.

As spring settled in, I perched myself in the sun room, where I often like to read and to write in my notebook. Three of the room’s four walls are almost entirely windows—I looked out into our neighborhood’s portion of the world, but I couldn’t leave. I hoped that the perfect pandemic respite might be A Time of Gifts, the first volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s celebrated account of his nearly two-year hike across Europe from 1933 to 1935. Fermor’s then nineteen-year-old self began this grand adventure almost as a lark. Up until then, he had led a rather aimless life, getting kicked out of one school after another, not because he wasn’t a first-rate student (even at that young age he was something of a polymath), but because he was the sort of fellow who chaffed under rules and regulations. So, his almost offhanded inspiration to walk across Europe—from the Netherlands to Constantinople—made a kind of supreme sense: he would be on his own, could take any route he wished as he encountered the world in ways that left far behind the strictures of a classroom and the expectations of others.

He was so eager to leave his old life behind that he began the trek in December of 1933, the coldest possible month to begin such a journey. But Fermor was possessed of boundless pluck and charm and made friends everywhere, whether it be day laborers or famers or gypsies, or wealthy families who were willing to put him up for a week or so in exchange for his growing cache of travel stories, and his boundless curiosity about their lives.

After walking through the Netherlands, he crossed the border into a Germany already affected by Hitler’s rise to power as Chancellor a mere year before. Hitler’s worst was far ahead, but already there were ominous inklings of that terrible future. His first day in Germany, Fermor came upon the unsettling transformation of the border town of Goch: “The town was hung with Socialist Nationalist flags and the window of an outfitter’s shop next door held a display of Party equipment: swastika arm-bands, daggers for the Hitler Youth, blouses for Hitler Maidens and brown shirts for grown-up S.S. men.”

Weeks later, having been offered a few days of hospitality by a middle-class German family, Fermor listened one evening to his hosts’ unsettled dinner conversation:

Hitler cropped up. The professor’s widow couldn’t bear him: such a mean face! And that voice! Both the others were against him too, and the whole Nazi movement: it was no solution to Germany’s problems; and wrong . . . the conversation slid into a trough of depression. (I divined that it was a theme of constant discussion and that they were all against it, but in different ways and for different reasons. It was a time when friendships and families were breaking up all over Germany.)

One night at a village inn, a Nazi sympathizer divined that Fermor was English and began an increasingly angry political rant until pulled away. In another town Fermor befriended a working-class drinking companion until he discovered the young man had decorated his rented room as “a shrine of Hitleriana.”

Finally Fermor crossed the border from Germany to Austria, but the night he arrived in Vienna he almost immediately encountered raging street battles. “‘It must be the Nazis again,’” a woman beside him announced. “‘They’re always shooting at people, throwing bombs, starting fires!’” Indeed, it proved to be the latest clash between anti-fascist labour unions and Austrian Nazi sympathizers.

Though Fermor had arrived penniless in the middle of this chaos, with his usual charming adaptability he raised money on the calmer streets by drawing strangers’ portraits for a modest fee.

At the end of A Time of Gifts, when Fermor crossed into Czechoslovakian territory and entered the Slavic cultural world, I felt a palpable sense of relief, glad to leave behind the disquieting influence of the Germanic countries. In 1934 Europe was just five years away from the onset of World War II, and it contained too many echoes of present-day America. For three years we’ve endured the imposition of a Muslim travel ban, White supremacist violence in Charlottesville and elsewhere, the caging of Central American immigrant children after separating them from their families, and an unparalleled governmental venality and disrespect for the rule of law nearly impossible to keep track of. Sometimes, the grim turn from the past to the future works in seeming slow motion.

If I was hoping for a little breather in Fermor’s second travel volume, Between the Woods and the Water—in which he continued his epic hike, through Hungary to the border of Bulgaria—I was quickly disappointed. Before I had read halfway through, the ruthless public murder of George Floyd set the US aflame with this latest injustice of a seemingly endless litany of injustices towards Black citizens and their bodies and souls. Once again, Fermor’s journey of almost ninety years ago had something to say about the turmoil of our country in this bedeviled year of 2020.

Although Fermor carried with him throughout his journey a set of notebooks, which he filled with the details of his adventures, he didn’t begin formally writing his travel trilogy until he reached his sixties. So the books’ narrative voice criss-crosses back and forth, from the immediacy of Fermor’s various encounters on the road so long ago, to the seasoned eye of a much older man who knows how the story ends:

Every part of Europe I had crossed so far was to be torn and shattered by the war; indeed, except for the last stage before the Turkish frontier, all the countries traversed by this journey were fought over a few years later by two mercilessly destructive powers; and when war broke out, all these friends vanished into sudden darkness. Afterwards the uprooting and destruction were on so tremendous a scale that it was sometimes years after the end of it all that the cloud became less dense and I could pick up a clue here and there and piece together what had happened in the interim. Nearly all of them had been dragged into the conflict in the teeth of their true feelings and disaster overtook them all.

Disaster could easily overtake our own country, even more than the crushing calamities we’ve already endured, as the current resident of the White House condones the violence of private militias attacking protestors, hosts rallies of unmasked crowds that then become virus super-spreader events, tries to hobble the United States Post Office in order to steal the coming election, and even refuses to say whether, if defeated, he will or will not accept the election’s result.

The future will soon be upon us, and not in slow motion. Voting, it seems, is our remaining, thin line of defense against disaster overtaking us all.

 

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