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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finding the right form

Finding the Right Form to Tell a Story

Story does not exist without telling. “The story is in the telling” represents more than a turn of phrase. The story constitutes the What, the content; the telling is the How, the form. The How is the receptacle for the What. The two have to fit perfectly. Only true form gives story life.

This has been on my mind lately as I began writing Bubbles for a Spirit Level [1] mere four years after conception. It took finding the right form to get here.

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emergent orange

Emergent Orange and the Metaphoric Properties of Sunset Pictures

A decade ago, Jim Bumgardner discovered that a composite photo averaging any number of any images on Flickr always yields the same color: orange. Bumgardner offered a few theories why what he termed Emergent Orange exists on his blog, Krazy Dad, including:

  1. Colors blue and green do not occupy large areas of most photographs (pictures of sky and greenery aren’t that exciting, are they?), hence the red shift.
  2. Cameras today are calibrated toward warmer colors.
  3. Photos in artificial light or using flash lean spectrally toward yellows and whites.
  4. The sun is a hot yellow star, so daytime photos lean toward its color.
  5. People like to photograph Buddhist monks whose robes are orange.

More recently Bumgardner suggested that the photos reflected “the average chemical composition of the subjects being photographed.” Others have proposed their own theories, each reflecting their professional biases.

Do Sunset Photos Cause Emergent Orange?

As I read The Atlantic article about Bumgardner’s discovery, I thought the explanation was a no-brainer: the phenomenon was caused by the pervasiveness of sunset pictures, whose color profile, of course, leans toward yellows, reds, and oranges (sunrises are similar, if a bit colder in that regard, but they are photographed much more rarely). Perhaps this idea reflects my own bias: as a traveler I have taken a few photos of sunsets myself and seen a fair share of sunset pics on blogs and social media. Not even jumping photos come close to the popularity of sunset photos (332 million search results as I write this).

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google maps easter egg

An Easter Egg in the Middle of Russia?

Type the name of any country into Google Maps and the tool will render it in the center of the right-hand two thirds of your screen, likely with a red stroke tracing the international border (a sidebar with photos, quick facts and links covers the left-hand third of the screen). The only exception: Russia. As far as I can tell, this is the only country that appears with the familiar red, tear drop-shaped marker stabbed into its territory.

It made some sense for the largest country in the world, whose 17 million square kilometers far surpass Canada’s 10, to be an exception. At first, I thought the point is the country’s geographic center. But I was wrong: that honor belongs to of the Lake Vivi, some 768 kilometers northeast of the marker, where a large monument and cross indicate the spot. I got curious. What’s going on here?

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why i write

Why I Write What I Do

My first attempt at serious writing comprised a few short stories and a portion of a novel, circa 2002 while I attended graduate school in Leiden, the Netherlands. As a teenager I’d been a huge fan of Stephen King and pledged to write like him some day, so when I decided I wanted to write for real, fiction is what came out. I still have those stories saved up in a digital folder.

Setting out to write a novel changed everything. I had the entire thing outlined from beginning to end; I’d done the research and wrote copious notes (I still have those, too). But when, some five or six chapters into the project, I stepped back and looked at what I’d written, I realized I was creating an almost exact copy of my favorite film, The Garden.

All the stories have already been written. Exploring the matter I learned that it’s common wisdom. Even my epiphany wasn’t original.

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Sampling Summer’s Hike-Inspired Beers

The November issue of the Oregon Beer Growler magazine features my article, “Sampling Summer’s Hike-Inspired Beers,” covering a tapping of beers inspired by nature around Portland.

An unusual pub crawl in Southeast Portland on Oct. 10 proved that the ninth time can be a charm, too. After a series of eight walks that invited “brewers to go on nature hikes and make new beer inspired by edible and medicinal plants on the trail,” eager consumers burned a little more shoe leather as they made the trek from pub to pub during the Beers Made By Walking tapping. Oregon Beer Growler covered the original hikes in the August 2015 issue with the article “A Beer Walk in the Woods” and wanted to follow up on the process.

Continue reading in the Oregon Beer Growler

where is your toothbrush

Where Is Your Toothbrush?

This essay first appeared on The Listserve.

*

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?

Husak's Children

Husák’s Children

The Star 82 Review journal has included my essay, “Husák’s Children,” in the latest issue #3.3. The piece is the first chapter of Bubbles for a Spirit Level, a work in progress, in which I look back at my Young Pioneer oath, in 1985.

An aerial postcard of Liberators Square would have an X to mark me standing amidst four thousand forty-three second-graders in sky-blue shirts. I’d press the pen so hard the letter would show on the reverse.

Mamka tells a story of how I got lost in the Prior Department Store during a Christmas shopping trip. I searched for her among legs and coats and shelves and racks, bawling and confused. Surrounded by long rows of Sparks, at attention on a grid of yellow dots sprayed underfoot, I feel the opposite. My two best friends, Slavo Bojčík and Milan Dudrík are an arm’s length on either side of me. Comrade Teacher Polášková looks pretty in her blue skirt, white blouse, and new perm as she threads through my Class 2D making sure we’re all ready.

Continue reading at Star 82 Review

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

visit

A Visit

The May issue of Gravel magazine features my flash essay, “A Visit.”

In my dream I’m flying past snow-covered mountains over barren fields and forests. I circle back to return but an invisible barrier bars my way. Again and again I try until I realize I’ll never be able to reach home again. It isn’t me flying and the destination isn’t my town. I wake up panting, and I know. Tears push against my dreary eyes. Out by the rail yard a freight train sounds a horn in passage. The alarm clock says quarter to four. Heart racing, I shake Lindsay awake.

Continue reading at Gravel

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

Portland

Walking Portland’s Great Divide

The Narratively magazine today is featuring my essay “Walking Portland’s Great Divide,” which documents my walk along Portland’s 82nd Avenue.

Portland ends at 82nd Avenue, I’ve heard it said, where the real world begins. Exit the organic, gluten-free, locally-grown bubble of food carts, microbreweries, bike shops, bearded hipsters and condos towering over Craftsman bungalows in walkable neighborhoods. On the other side of the avenue, East Portland houses a population that’s poorer, less educated, and more diverse than the rest of the city. Most people with Section 8 housing vouchers, new immigrants from Asia and Eastern Europe and African-Americans, pushed out of close-in neighborhoods by gentrification, settle here. In the City of Roses, the other side of the tracks means the other side of 82nd Avenue.

For Portlanders, 82nd conjures an endless strip of used-car dealerships, auto-repair services, gas stations, fast-food joints, Asian restaurants, strip malls, dive bars and prostitutes. In ten years of living here — I am originally from Slovakia — I’ve only experienced it while driving to big-box stores in Clackamas, a suburb. Which is to say, I don’t know 82nd at all. I decided to launch my career as a flâneur by walking its seven miles.

Continue reading at Narratively

how to piss off a slovak

How to Piss Off a Slovak

As a Slovak I must every day cope with a harsh reality: my country, Slovakia, a tiny mountainous patch of land squeezed between Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic, remains far from a popular tourist destination and will never be an influential player in world politics. The main ways to piss me off as a Slovak, therefore, spring from my desire to be known, respected, and found on the map. Lately I’ve started to turn the tables around and view your ignorance as your problem, not mine. But both verses of the Slovak anthem contain the words ‘lightning’ and ‘thunder,’ so if you want to see these natural phenomena personified, try one of the following ways to rile me up.

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