Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Category: Travel (Page 1 of 3)

Where the Wind Blows

When I left my hometown, for university, I thought there were two kinds of people: those who fled and those who stayed. When I left for graduate school five years later, I was convinced there were those who left and those who were left behind. Both times I was wrong.

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Within Slovakia, Košice is famous for many things.

The beautiful historic core draws both accolades and jeers of envy; its crown jewel, St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral, Europe’s eastermost Gothic church, is finally scaffolding-free after nearly 30 years of renovations.

The East Slovak Ironworks, owned by U.S. Steel since 2000, led to a tripling of the city’s population since its construction in 1960.

A top-dog ice hockey team, the oldest marathon in Europe (second oldest in the world after Boston’s), and the slang, which injects into the Slovak many Hungarian, Romani, and Eastern Slovak dialect words, further bolster our intense local patriotism.

But the feature that defines my hometown for us, its residents, is invisible to the eye.

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VKV [Vyjebaný Košický Vietor] (!) – abbr. Fucking Košice Wind, the infamous strong wind attacking the city from north
—“Chapter 14: Dictionary [of Košice Slang].” In: Mišo Hudák et al. KSC Kód/Code, Košice: East Coast & Typopress, 2013

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Traveling is in my DNA.

Having moved to Košice for work—my mother from a village, my father from a small town—my parents met on a singles package tour to East Germany. Thanks to my father’s employment with the national railway company, we had free train passes, which we used for visiting family and for vacation trips as far as Bulgaria and, after 1989, Italy and Switzerland.

Throughout elementary school, adventure novels by Jules Verne opened new horizons for me and showed me there is a planet out there, full of adventure and ready to be explored. The Pocket Atlas of the World supplied such bounties of information about the world in 1984 that no amount of my handwritten updates could keep it current as the world kept changing on me and, consequently, no amount of transparent tape could prevent it from falling apart.

The foreign-news portion of the Evening Television Newscast program fascinated me with the daily proof the world of books truly existed (as a little boy I had professed my wish to someday be president because all he does is shake hands and travel).

In high school, in the early 1990’s, my dream was to live in a new country every year for the rest of my life. As Czechoslovakia split, testosterone blinded me to the irony of living in two different countries in the course of my secondary education.

I left my hometown in 1995 to spend five years attending university in the capital of our newly independent country. I left against the wind: The train to Bratislava exits Košice due north-by-west, through a valley snaking along the Hornád river.

I didn’t want to return but anything was possible back then. Thanks to the free railway pass, at first I would go home as often as every week but toward the end of my studies up to six weeks would pass between trips. An adult now, I followed the gaze I’d cast upon the world.

In 2000, I sat at the back seat of my parents’ green Škoda Felicia, packed to the brim, southwest-bound for Budapest to attend graduate school. The wind in my back, I knew I would never live in my country again.

Over the years, my friends would often remark I lived out of my backpack, coming and going frequently, staying only a few days at a time. The ones in Belgrade, Serbia—we’d met at a conference in Timisoara, Romania—even gave me a nickname, the first and only I’ve ever had: Petar Jebivetar (Peter the Windfucker).

I did not blame VKV, not then; the forecast for the day I was born had called for only light to gentle breeze.

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Košice was founded in a north-south basin, becoming in the Middle Ages a crossroad of merchant routes. Whereas trade flowed mostly between Hungary and Poland then, today the most strategic route is between Western Europe and the Ukraine.

As the city swelled in the last fifty years, it spilled out of the original valley and onto the surrounding hills. On a clear day, I can see from my parents’ apartment in the westernmost Projects of the Košice Government Program the easternmost Projects of the Dargov Heroes, some 8 kilometers away as the crow, the city’s mascot, flies.

In a 1494 document, Pope Alexander declared that, because the prevailing wind had damaged the half-built St. Elizabeth’s so much there were concerns it might collapse, he would offer indulgences to those who contributed to the cathedral’s completion.

In 1875, a wind storm damaged the walls, towers, and pillars of St. Elizabeth’s to the point residents thought it may topple altogether;[1] a subsequent extensive renovation, lasting two decades, saved it.

During a windstorm in the 1990’s, a finial fell off the western facade and shattered on the sidewalk; luckily, because of weather conditions, no one was around. (The same windstorm separated a column of balconies from the main structure of my parents’ apartment building by a few centimeters; a construction company had to be called in to bolt the balconies back.)

A capital of Upper Hungary, Košice consistently ranked as the windiest city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. According to the celebrity city guide Milan Kolcún, the first hospital was built on the town’s southern edge because a location in the north would have caused diseases to be blown straight into the city.

Almost a century of meteorological records now shows that in an average year Košice gets 250 days of wind. My mother, who has lived here since 1970, says windy days are getting scarcer and the wind, when it does blow, weaker.

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KOŠICE WIND HAMPERS STREET SWEEPING EFFORT
by SME newspaper

(18 March 1997) — Up to 200 street sweepers have been deployed in the city’s streets to remove the remnants of winter road treatment products, which, stirred by spring winds, have been bothering residents’ eyes, noses, and collars. Working around the clock, the crews, aided by 3 street sweeper vehicles and 2 road sprinkler trucks, have already cleaned 70% of the 711 kilometers of city roads. However, in many places wind destroyed the piles of accumulated material, causing the cleaning to have to be repeated at least twice more.

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In a 2009 online poll, VKV—in proper Slovak, the abbreviation stands for Ultra-High Frequency—was nominated for Seven Wonders of Košice. Kolcún, who held the poll on his website, said he hoped the legendary wind would not make the list.

“It would make the presentation of a certificate problematic.”

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SEVEN WONDERS OF KOŠICE ANNOUNCED
by Košice City Hall

(24 February 2009) — Organizers of the Seven Wonders of Košice poll announced the results last Sunday at the City Hall. The voting showed Košice has eight wonders, the eighth being the wind, which received a consolation prize.

(…)[2]

A surprise: the 8th of Seven Wonders. No one has seen it but we know it exists. Some have felt it in intimate spots but it’s their own fault they left failed to properly cover themselves. It enters the city from the north. It is a frequent visitor here. It favors unbuttoned coats, children’s kites, and women’s hairdos right before the ball. The legendary Košice wind. The certificate was presented to the head of the local office of the Climatology Service.

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In 2013, Košice was named a European Capital of Culture. The European Union project featured hundreds of Europe-centric events, putting my sleepy hometown on the continent’s map, regenerating a number of sites, and boosting the level and frequency of cultural events and happenings.

An art grant brought a German filmmaker, Kristina Forbat, to act as the city’s chronicler for a few months and work on a documentary film. The visit was a return for Forbat: in 1989, when she was three, her parents had emigrated to Hamburg.

On her blog, The City Chronicler, Forbat describes the wind as a faithful companion, gentle and secretive one day, impulsive and wild another.

Her documentary, Return to the Windy Town, traces the city’s last 100 years or so on the stories of its residents—Germans, Jews, Hungarians, and Slovaks. Forbat sees in the city’s tumultuous history—it has belonged to five different countries since 1900—a metaphor for winds of change blowing through it. I volunteered to write the English subtitles for the film.

“I grew up here and I went to school here and then I left for good,” I told her. “I owe this to Košice.”

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“Terribly blows that Košice wind / you can’t even open the balcony / because of the constant draft / everything slamming and banging…”
—From “A farewell song (to all new doctors),” uploaded to YouTube by Ivan Ranič on May 31, 2012

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The wind has made it into literature, too. In her novel Betka and the Windy Town, the local author Božena Mačingová cast the wind as a character in the story of a poor girl living in Košice’s shanty-town outskirts between the World Wars.

When it gets angry because it can’t find a way to enter Betka’s room, the wind screams in the chimney like “a swallow the neighbor knocked out of its nest with a broom” or “it howls as if wolves invaded the yard.” A wind storm so strong Betka thinks it will carry away the entire city lifts a neighbor off his feet and slams him into a ditch. When the wind dies down it hides “like a bad child after a mischief.” Other times, the wind is a benevolent creature: it caresses Betka with its cold hands, it dries her tears.

Once, in a dream, Betka flies over the city, explaining to a friend accompanying her that, contrary to popular wisdom, the wind carrying them sings—“you just have to understand it.”

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KOŠICE BALLOON FIESTA MARRED BY WIND
by SITA News Agency

(12 June 2015) — Some 20 teams from Slovakia and five other countries are participating in the 22nd annual International Balloon Fiesta, which commenced in Košice on Wednesday. The daily launches of balloons were marred by strong wind gusts.…

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Nowadays I visit Košice once every two or three years, alone or with my wife Lindsay, whom I met in the Netherlands where I attended graduate school and where she visited a childhood friend who was also my housemate. Each time I feel more and more like a visitor, a tourist in my own hometown, blowing through it just like the wind. I stay with my parents for a few days at a time, making a base for trips around the environs or walks around town. I make pilgrimage to the places of my childhood where I backfill the well of my memories, marvel at the changes, and learn new stories.

During the most recent visit, for Christmas 2015, a fog straddled the city. Though the stillness underscored the season, on such windless days Košice seems out of sorts, in a strange purgatory between periods of breezy normalcy.

Only once did the wind come, the night I saw a concert of the local band Kolowrat. “I will forever have your back / I will forever walk wherever you walk,” goes one song. The singer refers to his girl, I’m sure, but walking home I felt it was the wind talking to me from within. Frozen condensation glazed every surface. Dormant vegetation crunched underfoot on lawns and weed patches as I avoided the slippery sidewalks. Just as I passed beneath a weeping willow, out of nowhere came a breeze. The thin frosted branches suspended over the sidewalk gave the softest of crackles. I stood listening until awed silence returned.

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In an undated gif I found in a listicle of things only a Košice native would know,[3] a young man walks against a raging wind. He is leaning forward into the air stream, body contorted, legs bent in an odd angle, nearly a goosewalk, as he takes tiny steps forward, and I get a feeling he’s doing this on a dare—not the filmmaking friend’s but the wind’s.

The footage in the gif may or may not be from Košice but the man’s determination to walk despite the element, which streaks across the screen in nearly visible horizontal columns and waves, reminded me of the Australian TV series Against the Wind I’d watched as a kid. Each episode opens with a voice reading verses from Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: “Yet Freedom! yet thy banner, torn but flying, / Streams like the thunder storm against the wind.”

This is who we are, our city’s residents: whether the wind is in our back or we stream against it, we remain on our feet, heading our way.

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And yet, something about describing the Košice wind as a personified character in the city’s life, as something outside of us, rings like a knell in a mist. The wind is in us, blowing some of us into the world and through it and back home, on and on until our last breath.

Twenty years since I first left my hometown, I discover the third kind of people: those who leave in body but leave their hearts behind, in the care of VKV. The Fucking Košice Wind carries us away only so we can carry it with us everywhere we roam.

Footnotes

[1] Legend has it that, in order to ensure they would get paid, the cathedral builders included somewhere in the walls one particular stone, which, if removed, would cause the cathedral to collapse. This must have slipped the late 19th century residents’ minds.

[2] Of 320 nominations submitted to the poll, these were voted to be the Seven Wonders of Košice:

  1. Jakab Palace
  2. Main Street
  3. St. Michael’s Chapel
  4. Singing Fountain
  5. The Marathon
  6. State Theater
  7. St. Elizabeth’s Cathedral

[3] VKV tops the 16-strong list.

where is your toothbrush

Where Is Your Toothbrush?

This essay first appeared on The Listserve.

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Neither of us can remember how we came up with the idea to travel around the world for a year. We do know that the journey of making that dream come true required us to redefine home. “Identifying home is in essence an act of ongoing imagination,” writes Michael Dorris. “When we’re home, we don’t pine to be anywhere else, we don’t feel out of place or a stranger.” We pined to be somewhere else very much.

Travel brought me, a Slovak, and her, an Californian, together in the Netherlands ten years prior; we decided home was anywhere we were together. As we watched our house sell, our budget tighten, and our belongings dwindle, tongues in cheek we also decided that the only object we absolutely needed on our travels, aside from clothes, money, and passports, was a toothbrush. And so we concluded: Home is where your toothbrush is.

Flipping Thoreau’s exhortation to live at home like a traveler on its head, we set out to live in the world like at home. Wherever we went, we made a point of visiting temples, cemeteries, and markets. We ate street food and at restaurants, went to museums and corner shops, strolled the streets of villages and cities, hiked through forests and parks, rode public transportation. Everywhere could be home if we felt it was home.

Of course, it’s not that simple. Sometimes I’d wake up and spend an eternity figuring out where I was. No wonder: in the 13 months of traveling I slept in 73 different beds. But because I am my only constant, wherever and whenever I was my habits and routines and rituals were always with me—they’re what makes a place familiar and safe. Visiting the same kinds of places in every destination became a routine in and of itself. Repetition breeds familiarity, which, in turn, generates a sense of being at home.

Once you leave the original home, you make every home yourself. A location begins to feel like place and eventually like home when it acquires substance: the mass of memories. Where routines lay the foundation of home by creating a sense of regularity and comfort, memories build home up into a distinct place on your mental world map. Like every traveler I have a million stories from the road, which stitch together quilts of memories that I associate with each place. Those memories are the place. If an effect of travel is to create memories, you can be home anywhere, even on the road itself.

When place becomes a part of you, it turns into home. The distinction between where you live and who you are becomes blurred; if, as Robert Frost predicted, the day ever comes who you are, you may know better where you are. I felt I became one with many places: Bariloche, Havana, Penang, Sarajevo… We set out to live at home out in the world and in the process we discovered, nay, redefined ourselves, as individuals and as partners in life.

Home is also where your travels begin and end. We began our round-the-world trip in our adopted home town, Portland, Oregon. In the end we decided to go back to where we started—we realized Portland is home. We discovered, like T.S. Eliot before us, that “the end is where we start from.”

My toothbrush is in Portland, Oregon, where I advocate for a good cause, make beer, and write. Where is your toothbrush?

havana cuba

The Land of Lost Time

The Cargo Literary magazine today published my essay, “The Land of Lost Time,” in which I reflect on the greatest accomplishment of Cuba’s Revolution.

Pico Iyer has called Cuba “the island of waiting”: Cubans wait for Fidel Castro to die, for an exit visa to leave the country, for goods to arrive to stores.

The check-in line for the 8:45 a.m. flight from Mexico City to Havana wends around large suitcases, shrink-wrapped luggage bales, and a lectern where a handling agent sells Cuban tourist cards and informs passengers the departure is delayed. She is uncertain until when, but probably around nine o’clock—this evening.

“What happened?”

“Operational reasons.” She motions for the next in line. I shuffle forward with nostalgia in tow: growing up in the 1980’s socialist Czechoslovakia I must have heard such non-explanations daily. But only now, a quarter-century on, do I register the absurdity. Cubana de Aviación’s check-in attendant confirms the flight will depart at “twenty-one sero-sero.”

Continue reading at Cargo Literary

What is home

What Is Home?

This essay is my introduction to the book Home Is Where Your Toothbrush Is, which may see the light of day some time in the future.

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Lindsay and I met in the spring of 2002 far away from home. I was living in a shared student house in Leiden, the Netherlands, where I was attending graduate school in the Political Science Department. She was in between homes, spending the period before moving to Eugene, Oregon, for her bachelor’s studies in journalism visiting a childhood friend, who happened to be one of my housemates, and backpacking around Western Europe. Our first dates, chaperoned by the matchmaking friend, took place in Amsterdam and Delft, the latter just as Slovakia’s ice hockey team won the country’s first world championship. In the next year, we kept in touch with email and phone, and visited each other in our respective home countries. Then, on my last visit, I stayed so that we could stay together.

Before Lindsay and I met, I lived for a year in Budapest, five years in Bratislava, and 18 years with my parents in Košice in two different apartments; I’d visited 25 European and North American countries as a traveler. My immigration to the U.S. represented the ultimate displacement for me, for I found myself away from home-home, as I came to call Slovakia, and not quite settled in my new home country, living with one foot in each culture, on each continent, neither here nor there. Lindsay moved around a lot and lived in nearly a dozen different places around Northern California. Together we lived in four different apartments in as many years in Eugene and Portland before we bought a house.

Travel both is second nature to each of us and constitutes the fabric of our relationship. Perhaps, it is fitting, then, that neither of us remembers who came up with the idea to take a round-the-world trip for a year, or when that happened. What we do know is that the journey of making that dream come true started with redefining home.

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dream of traveling

When the Dream of Traveling Comes True

This essay first appeared on the travel blog Where Is Your Toothbrush?

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When on the bus to work the other day, I came across a passage in Pico Iyer’s selection of W. Somerset Maugham’s travel writings, The Skeptical Romancer, describing a missionary being carried by locals up a hill. It brought to mind my hike, some 9 months prior, to Cerro Calvario, in Copacabana, Bolivia, at the southeastern edge of Lake Titicaca. At the summit, 3,966 meters / 13,012 feet above sea level, I sat on stone steps catching my oxygen-deprived breath, sipping El Inca beer, and watching a young couple make an offering involving flowers, incense, and beer in hope of soon obtaining a house, a model of which they’d bought from one of the nearby vendors. Beyond the edge of a low wall, the Lake stretched all the way to the horizon. I shielded my eyes from the reflection the setting sun spilled over the flat waters, a strip of brilliant white searing the view into the back of my eyes. I recalled that polar explorers and mountaineers must wear sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, thinking I should have brought my pair with me to prevent Titicaca blindness.

When I was a boy, I devoured adventure novels in which stories took place in various locales beyond the borders of then-Czechoslovakia and the Warsaw Pact countries; Jules Verne was my favorite author, providing a major inspiration for my love of traveling, joined by Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and many others.

When I read those pages I was transported to many faraway places alongside the protagonists. Yet I did not dream of visiting the locations of these adventures. I would locate the strange names like Madagascar or Alaska in my trusty Pocket Atlas of the World, thus attaching them to the real world. But my mind continued to associate them with the made-up stories, so they retained a mystical sheen of imaginary places, mirages on the same plane as Atlantis or the center of the Earth. Even as a teenager and college student in the 1990’s, after the borders opened and I traveled on my own, the places from my adventure books remained outside the realm of possibility, far away and beyond dreams.

When the Bolivian newlyweds departed, one step closer to fulfilling their dream of home together, and the view stilled, it occurred to me Lake Titicaca was one of those fantastical places of my boyhood. In fact, I had visited several such places on the round-the-world trip. When I hiked the mountains of Patagonia I wondered why they reminded me of the Slovak High Tatras. When I saw a troop of wild kangaroos lounging by the roadside near Sydney, Australia, I recalled my resolve to have a kangaroo sidekick like Skippy from the eponymous TV show. The Strait of Malacca. The Bosphorus. Machu Picchu. Sarajevo. The Southeast Asian jungle. Havana.

When the memories stopped flooding in, I had an even grander epiphany. All my life I had carried within me a longing, the kind of faint, shapeless sensation you experience when watching a plane cross the sky or an anchored boat bob off a sea shore. As the sun dipped below the thin clouds, the shapeless desire acquired the concrete contours of understanding. Not only did visiting the places of my childhood fantasies render them possible and real, it impressed upon me a sense of completion. Shortly thereafter the places dissolved into memory, the same way authors erase their recollections by putting them into writing.

When I was growing up, I contemplated what marks the transition from a boy to a man: a boy climbs trees, a man chops them; a boy runs through puddles, a man skirts them; a boy desires to flee home, a man yearns to return there. Now I also knew that while a boy entertains a dream of traveling, a man makes that dream come true.

When all this went through my mind, the bus #12 approached the Burnside Bridge. No longer able to focus on Maugham I closed the book mid-sentence. The morning unfolded over the city with the sky opening and the Willamette River reflecting heavy clouds rushing toward the next rainfall.

When the dreams of a boy come true, the man the boy became makes new ones.

Sarajevo roses

Roses of Sarajevo

The new #5 issue of the Compass Cultura magazine is featuring my essay, “Roses of Sarajevo,” which explores unique war memorials on the streets of Bosnia’s capital.

In the 1941 travelogue, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, Rebecca West observed that to be in Sarajevo was like “walking inside an opening flower.” I carry the image in my mind as the coach from Belgrade winds its way along the Miljacka River until, at last, the city blossoms out of the Sarajevo Valley. West was right: with some imagination, Stari Grad (Sarajevo’s Old Town), sits in a bowl-shaped calyx beneath undulating petals of several mountain slopes. Minarets, which in West’s time would have been the town’s tallest structures, point to the heavens like holy stamens and today are overshadowed by glass high-rises of the Marijin Dvor business district that is gleaming in the September afternoon.

A dozen years ago, in the spring of 2001, I traveled to the countries of former Yugoslavia in search of memories. As part of my graduate thesis research into the dissolution of federal states, including my native Czechoslovakia, I wanted to know what people (and libraries) remembered about Yugoslavia’s 1991 disintegration. Back then I wasn’t interested in the ensuing armed conflicts — the protracted Bosnian war had been analyzed to death — and the research grant I received from Central European University was small. So I skipped Bosnia and Herzegovina.

I settle into my rented studio apartment located on Sepetarevac, a street so small the taxi driver found it only after consulting with a colleague over the radio and then with another one at a traffic light. I take my first steps in the city, walking cautiously down a steep hill to the center. A rose bush from someone’s yard is climbing over a tall brick wall, next to spent buds and hips ready to be harvested. Late-blooming red roses shoot toward the sun. I feel a strange sense of nostalgia, as though I were finally returning to a place I’ve never been.

Continue reading at Compass Cultura

time on the road

Time on the Road

This essay first appeared on the travel blog Where Is Your Tootbrush?

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Time flows differently on the road. When you don’t have a regular job to go to, days of the week become equal. Many times I’ve found myself wondering if it was Tuesday or Saturday.

Traveling, clock time gives way to event time: with the exception of departures, you shift from acting when the clock tells you to when it feels right. You write not for a measly hour before your commute but when the words want to come out. Lunch at noon changes to eating when hungry. A weekend outing becomes a trip whenever you want.

Where is it, this present? It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming. William James

Wave Time: Koh Samui, Thailand

From my lounge chair in the shade of coconut trees on Bang Por Beach, I watch the green-blue hues of the Gulf of Thailand change as clouds race across the sun. A white-bellied sea eagle circles overhead, higher and higher until it disappears toward the east. Fishing boats and ferries crisscross the horizon. Clusters of seaweeds, leaves, and branches break against a rusted buoy. Waves knead the coarse sand, rolling into themselves like dough, over and over and over. A scattering of vacationers from nearby resorts walk by in silence. As a black butterfly the size of my palm dances into view, I get the feeling I am gazing at the edge of the world.

Somewhere in the world of memory it’s Christmas.

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© 2018 & forever by Peter Korchnak • Header image by Pat Joyce.