Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

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, caused 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 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, Božena Mačingová, a local, casts 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 “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 it dies down it hides “like a bad child after a mischief.” Other times, the wind is a benevolent creature: it carresses 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 while 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 Kolowrat, a local band. “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. Dead 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 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.

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2 Comments

  1. Andrea

    A poignant story about the wind and at times reflecting my own memories of a hometown. I come from Kosice and I am not so lucky to be able to travel there very often. In my last visit, in 2011, I felt like a stranger in my hometown , it was a bitter-sweet experience, coming home only to discover how much has changed ( or me). A song ‘Cudzinec vo vlastnom meste’, by Jana Kirschner comes to a mind. It’s beautifully written, Peter, thank you.

    • Peter Korchnak

      Ďakujem, Andrea. I used to feel the same way, increasingly like a stranger in my own home town, both of us having changed. But then something shifted, perhaps when I recognized that change, in both the city and myself are inevitable, and now it feels more like home than ever.

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