Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Category: Central/Eastern Europe (Page 1 of 2)

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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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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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

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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Trainstationspotting - Kosice train station

Trainstationspotting around Central Europe

This (photo)essay first appeared at Where Is Your Toothbrush?

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Most travelers love traveling by train, particularly around Europe. The railway’s ubiquity and popularity in Central Europe stems from its history: from 1840’s on, the Austro-Hungarian rulers built one of the world’s densest railway networks to accelerate economic and cultural integration across the Empire. There are plenty of other reasons to love train travel, and I have mine: my father worked for the railway, so not only did I grow up traveling by train, it’s in my DNA.

Train stations, where the magic of the railway begins and ends, get much less ink. Let me fix this with a confession: I love trainstationspotting, especially around Central Europe.

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Belgrade

Belgrade’s Great Erasure

This essay is my translation from the Slovak of my article appearing in the 45/2013 (November 4, 2013) issue of the weekly Týždeň. The translation first appeared on the Where Is Your Toothbrush? blog.

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Someone turned a facade plinth of an old apartment building in the center of Belgrade into a shelf. Underneath it he scribbled with a crayon, “Put here what you don’t need.” So passers-by place junk here. Today I see a broken pencil, a headless Superman action figure, an expired bus pass, a computer mouse with a torn off cable, a left slipper, a perfume flacon, a Matchbox car without wheels, a school stencil with ZOO animals, a ceramic breaker, a pile of puzzle pieces, a coat hanger, a handbag with no handles, an almost-burned-out candle, a bent aluminum spoon, and a dozen other debris objects. The collection changes day to day: my marked-up map of Vienna is long gone. And when there’s no more room, the unknown person gets to work under cover of the night and the next morning the makeshift shelf is ready for a new collection.

I know of no better metaphor for this city on the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers. Though it has been razed 44 times in its 2,500-year history, it always rose back up, until the next round of conquerors destroyed it again, and so on until today. The building of the former Ministry of Defense, destroyed by the NATO fighter jets, continues to stand in its bombarded beauty. Not as a memento, says the Belgrade resident Mira, but because no one knows what to do with this cultural monument. At least they covered the facade of the bombed-out Ministry of the Interior with advertising megaboards.

The oldest part of town, Savamala, is on the rise. Until recently the labyrinth of neglected buildings between the bus station and Brankov Bridge was infamous for prostitution and porn cinemas. But it’s being gradually transformed into a center of culture and night life. Bars and clubs are crowded as though the city’s next erasure were to come after the weekend.

The flea market in New Belgrade, a huge socialist-era housing development, is, however, no longer what it used to be. While prior to Milošević’s demise half the city sold here what they could to survive, today you can only buy cheap crap from Turkey or China. New regulations pushed out the old vendors and their wares, fished out of cellars, attics, or trash containers, onto the adjacent sidewalk. Luckily the collector of discarded trophies who comes here regularly doesn’t mind at all.

Holocaust memorial

“In Slovakia, a Citizen’s Effort To Build a Holocaust Memorial to His City’s Missing Jews”

The New York-based online publication Tablet Magazine today published my article “In Slovakia, a Citizen’s Effort To Build a Holocaust Memorial to His City’s Missing Jews.” This is what the magazine’s homepage looked like earlier today:

Tablet article, 10/16/2013

Before the Holocaust, one in five residents of Košice, Slovakia’s second-largest city, was Jewish. In May and June 1944, Košice served as a transit hub for Jews being sent to their deaths at Auschwitz; only about 400 Jews returned to Košice after 1945. Today, approximately 250 active Jews now live in Košice—0.1 percent of the city’s population. Nevertheless, as in other Central and Eastern European cities, interest in Jewish culture has increased in recent years; the Zvonárska Street Synagogue, which served for decades as a library warehouse after the war, was recently converted into an exhibition gallery, and in the summer tour guides offer Jewish Košice walks.

Continue reading at Tablet

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