Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Category: Nonfiction (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, 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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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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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?

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

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