I like a good story. I like facts and figures, too, but I’d prefer a good story any day. Give me something I will remember. Like the one about the miller’s daughter in Košice who fell in love with a man who didn’t love her back. Nothing new there, I hear you say. She was so upset that she decided life wasn’t worth living. She jumped into the water at the mill-race, determined to put an end to her misery.
Now in the mill-race lived a water goblin. He took a fancy to yer woman and pulled her deep into the waters. Her body never floated to the surface. A year later, a coach driver was passing by in an awful hurry. He was taking a midwife to assist in the birth of some local nobility. But as they approached the mill-race, the coach swung off course and drove down into the waters. Soon after, the Košice water babies were born. Today, the water goblin lives by the willows and only ever shows himself to children. What exactly all this has to do with the ugly face on the facade of a Secession style house opposite where the old mill-race used to be … that bit got lost in translation.
While the town is awash with ugly gargoyles, it also has a few patron saints and protectors hidden away in niches. The theory behind these is that each of us has our own saint – presumably someone whom we are called after. I get two – Mary and Martha – which perhaps explains my split personality. Even if we’re orphaned, we still have someone looking out for us. This statue of Our Lady is one of the few to survive 40 years of socialism and interestingly, sits atop a house that is currently up for sale… mmmm.
Elsewhere, throughout the town, there is plenty to look up at and look out for. So many nooks and crannies, so much going on. Košice is a gem of a town, one that’s made for walking around. The weather was cooperating and the coffee was good.
Another story we heard was that of the shoe tree in the park on Moyzesova Street. Back in the day, military service was part and parcel of life in Slovakia. Young men had to do their two years. They would leave home, perhaps for the first time, at a young age. Families and girlfriends stayed behind as they went to do their duty. God only knows what met them. Hazing, bullying, lonely nights wondering what they’d done to deserve it all. Enlisting is one thing; conscription an other. On their last night in the barracks, with freedom just one sleep away, they’d hurl their military boots out the window, readying to don their civvies in the morning and return to the real world. If you look up, you can still see some shoes hanging from the lime trees.
The bell tower, too, has its story. When the Germans were in town, the locals wanted rid of them. One local landowner from Perín rallied the masses. Groups of locals gathered secretly, plotting to overthrow their occupiers. One day, a couple of boys got into a serious fight. Punches were flailing and the two were going at it. As they were dragged apart by an onlooker, one of them turned to the other and taunted – you wait, you just wait till the farmer from Perín gets you; there’ll really be a war now.
Unfortunately for them, they were overheard and taken in for questioning. They told all. The city gates were closed and the local fomenters rounded up and tasked with building a bell tower for Urban’s bell. The tower was built without scaffolding. Many prisoners died. There was only so high people were prepared (or able) to go. Today, on the northern side of the tower, you can see statues of two small children – a reminder of the two young lads who betrayed the town.
Of all the stories I heard though, my favourite has to be about the beggar’s house. There’s a story going about the town that there was once a beggar who begged his way to a fortune. Enough to buy him this house. And while this is a great story, it’s simply that – a story.
While I think of it – Back in 1980, Senegalese author Aminata Sow Fall won the Grand Prix de Litterature de l’Afrique Noire and was shortlisted for France’s Prix Goncourt for her book The Beggars’ Strike. A brilliant satire on giving alms.
But back to my beggar’s house in Košice. It was built in 1898 by the Jakabs, a well-to-do construction family. And if you look closely at the man he’s more like a merchant than a beggar – given the purseful of money on his belt. The harvest scene painted on the facade is also another nod to prosperity. I must admit, though, I prefer the man-made-good story.
And on stories, seventeenth-century Spanish playwright, Pedro Calderon de la Barca, had this to say: What is life? An illusion, a shadow, a story. And the greatest good is little enough: for all life is a dream, and dreams themselves are only dreams. Enough said.