Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Category: Travel (Page 2 of 2)

Maps - Pocket Atlas of the World

Edges of the Known World

This essay first appeared at Where Is Your Toothbrush?, a travel blog.

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I love maps. A pocket atlas I had as a boy counts as a major inspiration for my travels—I loved leafing through the little book and dreaming of visiting all those distant places some day.

Central Europe in the Pocket Atlas of the World

Central Europe in the 1984 Pocket Atlas of the World.

Among my favorite maps to contemplate as an adult are those on which blank space represents areas of the globe unknown at the time. On these old maps, boundaries of the known world fade into blank space and only a blurry line separates humanity from nothingness.

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Penang Malaysia

Twelve faces of Penang, Malaysia

An earlier version of this essay appeared on the blog Where Is Your Toothbrush?

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My favorite pastime in George Town, Malaysia, on Penang island, aside from wandering the narrow streets lined with crumbling shophouses in the colonial core, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; eating delicious, inexpensive street food at hawker stalls and food courts as well as hole-in-the-wall restaurants; and hunting down the famous and more recent specimens of fabulous street art, was figuring out the human maze: George Town is home to residents of Malay, Chinese, and Indian heritage and, correspondingly, of Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faiths. More than anything, I enjoyed people-watching. A dozen faces have stuck with me.

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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.

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.

Prague Museum of Communism

Prague, the Museum of Communism

This essay is my translation from the Slovak of my article appearing in the 33/2013 (August 12, 2013) issue of the weekly Týždeň. The translation first appeared at Where Is Your Toothbrush?

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Summer sweat brought up a sad problem during my most recent visit to Prague: I no longer wanted to see anything new here. The Mother of Cities had emptied out into a theme park. In Pragoland they now charge admission even to stroll down Golden Lane. Luckily, reminiscing is free. In addition to the Depeche Mode concert, matryoshka nesting dolls with teeth elicited memories from the posters advertising the Museum of Communism. This time I didn’t resist and for an hour willingly became a foreign tourist, the Museum’s main target audience.

No locals were to be found among the visitors. One woman past her middle age crocheted at the cash register shaped like a five-pointed red star. Another checked tickets with her head buried in a tabloid covering a 1980’s pop star’s scandal. She needed no explanations about communism. She just waved me in.

The poor foreigners find the museum confusing. A matron with a southern accent informed her husband all the dates confused her. What happened in 1969? Or was it 1968? I got disoriented shortly thereafter as I passed the museum’s jumble of artefacts, collected from flea markets and attics, thrown around the place.

Lenin’s collected works, nicely arranged beneath his bust, got me thinking, however. Had I seen them before? In about 1992 my high school principal had asked me and a couple of classmates to clean out the old Socialist Union of Youth club house. My buddies and I carted the tomes to the large garbage bin around the corner because hauling them to the recycling center up on a hill wasn’t worth the change we’d have gotten for them.

The Museum’s owner, an entrepreneurial American, wanted to say to the world how we used to live around these parts. The practical joke, with which he reduced the era into a commercial product to be consumed, turned out to be a massive success. From the shrewd marketing move highlighting the location by a McDonald’s and a casino, to the piles of merchandise in the gift shop, to the replica of the Berlin Wall inside.

I had expected all of it but I still grumbled, ‘Serves you right,’ as I climbed the path up to Letenský Orchard park where the red Prague Metronome was ticking away on the spot where a huge statue of Stalin had once stood.

The National Museum, located in the old Czechoslovak Federal Parliament building, shimmered in the distance, at the far end of the Wenceslas Square. The Bullet Never Fired and an accompanying video spot reminded me that Prague had now been a foreign city for more than half my life. Beside the commemorative bullet I pictured the real, live red-tipped bullet from World War II that my grandpa used to keep in a credenza. He took that bullet’s story to his grave. He had no video to go with it anyway.

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