Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Category: Nonfiction (Page 2 of 3)

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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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

twin peaks

The Strange and Twisted Dream of Twin Peaks Nostalgia

This essay originally appeared on my blog American Robotnik. It is part of a series of essays by writers and other artists about the influence of the TV show Twin Peaks on their work. Writer Shya Scanlon is collecting the essays in the Twin Peaks Project.

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Nostalgia is the immigrant’s permanent condition. Faced with the uncertainty of the unfamiliar present, not to mention the unknowable future, he turns to what he knows: his own past. Perhaps it was just a natural extension of the nostalgic condition when a couple of years ago I set out to write a memoir of becoming a man in Czechoslovakia during the regime transition from socialist to capitalist and beyond. I flicked through the collection of my memories like through a stack of library cards until one, from my college years, caught my attention. At the time it seemed unrelated to my personal history as it unfolded on the backdrop of massive historic changes. But as I tried to shake it and concentrate on more relevant memories to put down in writing, I realized I could not proceed until I saw Twin Peaks again.

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demolition

A Demolition

The summer issue of the Oregon Quarterly magazine features my essay, “A Demolition,” in which I reflect on my first job in America. The essay won first prize in the magazine’s annual Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.

7:41 a.m.

I park Sam’s old Ford pickup on the near side of the driveway leading to a 1970s single-wide mobile home with smashed windows, and put on my work gloves. On the breeze that’s scattering the remnants of dawn into a cloudless October Tuesday, I catch a whiff of wood dust from the Weyerhaeuser plywood mill off Highway 126.

Sam clambers down from the green cab of his International dump truck, marked with years of heavy duty and “Sam Wood Construction, Inc.,” in white Gothic script. “Let’s go take a gander at her. I sure hope Mike wasn’t blowing smoke up my ass and we can pack ‘er up by sundown.”

Continue reading at Oregon Quarterly

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.

Sarajevo roses

Sarajevo Roses and the Temples of Bosnian Soul

This essay is my translation from the Slovak of my article appearing in the 39/2013 (September 23, 2013) issue of the weekly Týždeň. The translation first appeared on the Where Is Your Toothbrush? blog.

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The call to prayer from the nearest minarets accompanies my first steps around Sarajevo. Past the synagogue and the Serbian Orthodox church I head toward the Cathedral of the Most Holy Heart of Jesus. Its bells are tolling six p.m. when I find the first Sarajevo Rose. After the siege people filled hundreds of holes in the pavement with red resin on the spots where bombs killed their neighbors. Most of these memorials, which resemble flowers in bloom, disappeared during reconstruction. But for the past four years a group of activists has been repainting the Roses red on the anniversary of Bosnian independence, April 6. Activists Alma and Nina told me they do this so that the war is never forgotten.

A hotter topic now is the World Cup qualifier against Slovakia. The whole city is watching; I join them at City Pub. When Slovakia scores, tension rises to electric levels. When Bosnia scores (twice), arms shoot up in the air, hugs and chanting follow. The Sarajevo native Bergin says, “Football is the only thing that connects all of us—Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, and Croats.” After the final whistle, everyone runs out into the streets. On Marshal Tito Street, a youngster straddles the pedestrian traffic light holding a giant flag. Cars honk, people wave scarves. The celebration continues deep into the night.

As I search for more Roses the next day, I pass by the true temples of the Bosnian soul. Coffee houses are everywhere, always busy, always shrouded in cigarette smoke. In one of them, on the pedestrian boulevard Ferhadija, I pour myself a Bosnian coffee from a džezva and watch the street. On memorial plaques hanging on a wall across the street the yellow lily adorns the names of fallen heroes. Nearby a thirtysome-year old woman with an amputated leg stands on crutches, hat in hand. A youngster in a striped t-shirt and tight jeans throws in some coins. Elderly men in snow-white shirts beneath black suits discuss where to sit. Suddenly I can’t believe my eyes: next to a teenager with a hijab-covered head, a girl is walking wearing a miniskirt, below whose hemline, on the back of her thigh, is a large birthmark in the shape of a heart.

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