Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Category: Travel (Page 2 of 3)

Musings on Travel

How Travel Expands the Mind: Edges of the Known World

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.

Travel expands the mind

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.

Travel expands the mind

Gerhard Mercator’s 1607 map Typus Orbis Terrarum.

The mapmakers who were uncomfortable with the void imagined the features of unknown areas and some even embellished their creations with mythical creatures like mermaids and dragons.

Travel expands the mind

Jean Boisseau’s 1630 map of Iceland.

I love these maps because they show the limits of humanity’s understanding of our own world and suggest the progress since then. And the 13 year-old in me loves picturing the adventures of explorers as they stepped or sailed into the unknown; I still want to be one of them when I grow up.

Travel expands the mind

North America circa 1732.

To those devoid of imagination, a blank place on the map is a useless waste; to others, the most valuable part.  —Aldo Leopold

Blank spaces on the mental world map

In my mind I carry two images of the world. The image of the cartographic map tells me what the world looks like and shows me the places I can go. My mental world map traces my own travel experience. The known world consists of all the places—countries, regions, cities, nature destinations—I have visited. In each country on the first leg of the 2013-2014 Where Is Your Toothbrush? World Tour (the Netherlands, France, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina) I was able to at least get by speaking the local language. I’d been to all these countries, they were my known world.

Travel expands the mind

Blue areas are my known world at the end of the trip in June 2014 (43 countries), gray ones my blank spaces.

The blank space on my mental world map represents the places I have never been. As soon as we entered Greece, I crossed that invisible line into the unknown. The dragons took the form of an unfamiliar script and an unknown language. I felt an unfamiliar unease at being unable to understand anything, at being out of my element. Thailand multiplied this feeling exponentially: my mind became overwhelmed with stimuli that bombarded the senses at every step. But as soon as I settled down a bit, I realized my childhood dream was coming true. At last I had become an explorer, if only of my mental world map.

Travel expands the mind

Hua Lomphong train station in Bangkok, Thailand.

Exploration and the end of mystery

With continued exploration and conquest cartographers filled the blank spaces: Lewis and Clark trekked across North America to the West Coast; Captain Cook landed in Australia; Magellan’s expedition circumnavigated the globe. Then, sometime in the 19th century white spaces vanished from contemporary maps altogether. When maps were completed, the idea of the Earth’s geography finalized in humanity’s consciousness.

Travel expands the mind

The world in 1910.

The completion of the world map ended further exploration: with no blank spaces to fill, there was nothing to discover. Cartography then had to occupy itself with enhancing the maps’ detail, improving the accuracy of projections and the measurements of Earth’s surface, and improving materials used for making maps. Maps and the world they represented lost forever the mystery that had shrouded them since the first map was drawn centuries before.

How travel expands mental blank spaces

Travel fills in the blank spaces on the mental world map. But the parallel with the two-dimensional map ends there: travel expands the mind, multiplying its blank spaces. Once in Greece, my mental world map lost a chunk of blank space but a much bigger space opened up: there was so much to learn about the country’s customs, cuisine, and culture overall. And when I left I knew I’d barely scratched the surface. The experience repeated and intensified in Thailand: because the contrast with my own culture and experiences of cultures I knew was greater, the newly opened, unexplored space was much bigger than in Greece.

Travel expands the mind

The emptiness of Monolithos Beach in Santorini, Greece.

They say that travel broadens one’s horizons, and it is true. Yet it’s bigger than that: travel opens entire new dimensions. For example, before the world trip, I considered food as fuel. Historically the Slovak cuisine is based on starch (potatoes) and fat (cheap meat) that provided peasants with energy for work in the fields. I now appreciate food as an experience in itself: I wanted to write a poem for a cheese in Greece; I fell in love with a soup in Malaysia; and I can’t wait for what Argentinian steaks and wine will do.

The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know now and how little I will ever know. Travel expands the mental blank space so much it can never be filled. But I’ll be damned if I don’t try.

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Travel lessons from a world trip

It’s been two months since I returned to the U.S. after the round-the-world trip a.k.a. the 2014 Where Is Your Toothbrush? World Tour. The dust of resettlement has settled, the destination portion of this blog is winding down, I’m adjusting to life back in Portland (looking for a job, reconnecting with friends, sampling microbrews), and learning how to live like a perpetual traveler. Similar to many travel bloggers after they return home (see here, here, here, here, here, or here), I also reflect on what I learned on/from the big trip. No, I hadn’t set out to gain any of these insights—these travel lessons came as epiphanies.

Travel lessons

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia.

Travel lessons: I took things for granted

After repeatedly going over to the dark side of traveling during the trip, I understood I hadn’t properly appreciated some of what my life in the U.S. provided. It was the little things, for example:

  • clean underwear
  • a hot shower with decent water pressure
  • decent wifi
  • decent pizza
  • espresso or just good coffee
  • air-conditioning
  • no touts in front of restaurants or taxi stations
  • no sewer smell on the street
  • drinking-safe tap water

as well as the big ones like health, time (see below), and money.

I’ve learned to value what I have when I have it because not only most people on the planet don’t have the same ‘luxuries,’ I myself may lose them at any time, especially when traveling. I returned transformed: more humble, more appreciative of everything.

Travel lessons: I need less than I thought (and less than I have)

I set out to travel lightly, bringing only essential gear in a 44-liter / 2,650-cubic-inch backpack and a shoulder bag weighing a total of 14 kilos / 31 pounds. But barely halfway through the trip I realized I still carried too much. I downsized to a 32-liter backpack and a smaller shoulder bag (I never got to weigh myself with the new combo) with some room left over, and after a few months I felt I could go even smaller. Many travelers learn this and exhort others to pack little. I learned, as the common advice goes, to buy whatever I lacked and then shed it, usually by leaving it behind for whomever comes after me or throwing it away, if necessary. I believe this can only be truly learned from personal experience.

The point was driven home again when I returned and looked at the little shed at my mother-in-law’s where Lindsay and I had stored a few boxes of personal stuff we wanted to keep. I went through every box to select what to bring with me back up to Portland. Ninety percent of the things made me wonder, ‘Why did I keep all this?’

Just like tasks tend to stretch themselves to the time allotted, the amount of stuff tends to accumulate in the space available. But no matter how small or large the space I live in, I need less than I think and most likely less than I have.

Travel lessons

A padlock on our little storage unit at Lindsay’s mother’s house.

Travel lessons: It happens when it happens

I come from a punctual culture. When I’m late for anything I feel a great deal of anxiety. Vice-versa, I hate waiting. And now I live in a culture where ‘time is money’ and real-time (as in now) rules. Yet, in most of the world, or at least most of the places we visited, time flows differently.

Though I was familiar with the concept of event time—’it happens when it happens,’ or, ‘whenever it happens is the right time’—as opposed to my own clock time conception, it was only on the trip that I truly learned to appreciate it and enjoy its advantages. Ever since I started letting things happen on their own schedule (I’m not talking about business appointments here, but rather about things I have no control over), I am calmer, more level-headed, and happier.

Traveling is my life

When I was a teenager I dreamed of a life in which I would live in a different country every 6-12 months. In college and for a few years thereafter I traveled a good deal, mostly around Europe and the U.S., so much so that my Serbian friends, whom I met traveling, gave me the nickname Petar Jebivetar (Peter the Windf#$&r). Then I moved to the U.S., and with just a few exceptions spread over a decade, I only traveled to visit family and in-laws.

On the trip, in Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia, and Australia, I reconnected with friends I knew from my previous traveling life, and made a few new ones. I reconnected with the traveling version of myself, resumed the love affair with travel that had made so whole, became younger even as days kept adding up toward the ultimate Finish line. When I realized this was happening, about 4 months into the trip, it was an epiphany: traveling is my life. In fact, it is, as George Santayana points out, life itself.

Travel lessons: I am nothing

We humans tend to think we each are the center of the universe, but in the end we’re all unique just like everyone else. I passed through a lot of places, traveled more than 40,000 miles, saw a lot of people and a lot of natural and man-made things. When I placed myself next to all that, to all the humanity and its creations and to all the planet’s beauty, I felt small, nothing even. This was more immediate than the kind of smallness and insignificance one feels gazing at the night sky. It was a physical, visceral experience, that shook my body and mind into knowing that in any grand scheme of things I don’t matter. Just the thought of it now makes me once again bow my head in humility. It’s a good thing.

Travel lessons

Laguna Colorada, Bolivia.

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Childhood inspiration for travel

Many travel bloggers/writers claim that their love of travel springs from childhood. Books, souvenirs, or other objects sparked something within them that, years later, finds expression or fulfillment on the road (see examples here, here, and here). I can trace my desire to see the world and the love of travel to a handful of childhood artifacts.

Childhood inspiration for travel #1: Jules Verne’s novels

Childhood inspiration for travel

The five Jules Verne volumes I and my sister own. From left, The Golden Volcano, Adventures of Captain Hatteras, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Mistress Branican, and North Against South.

As a boy, I devoured books by Jules Verne. I particularly remember Five Weeks in a BalloonAround the World in 80 Days, The Children of Captain Grant (aka In Search of the Castaways), Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, The Mysterious Island, Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon, Two Years’ Vacation, and The Lighthouse at the End of the World. Over the years, perhaps from ages 7 to 12, they opened new horizons for me and showed me there is a world out there, ready to be explored and full of adventure.

Childhood inspiration for travel

A peek inside the 1985 edition of The Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Childhood inspiration for travel #2: The Pocket Atlas of the World

The 7th edition of the Pocket Atlas of the World, published in 1984 by Slovenská kartografia, succumbed to my thumbing fairly quickly. I kept it together with copious amounts of transparent tape and learned to handle it with care.

Childhood inspiration for travel

7th Edition of the Pocket Atlas of the World. This is a used copy I just bought online to replace my original that disappeared during the many remodels at my parents’ apartment.

In 1986 when Corazon Aquino became president of the Philippines, I crossed out Ferdinand Marcos’s name on page 104 and wrote hers in. Soon I realized I wouldn’t be able to keep up with all the changes happening in the world and that there isn’t any room amid the tiny, dense print for too many updates anyway. When borders in Central and Eastern Europe started to change after 1990, the level of Pocket Atlas’s outdatedness reached hopeless. The large-format atlas that replaced it never captured my imagination the way the Pocket Atlas had.

Childhood inspiration for travel

Central Europe of my childhood: Czechoslovakia, German Democratic Republic, Soviet Union… Yugoslavia peeks from the bottom edge.

Childhood inspiration for travel #3: Evening Television Newscasts

After Czechoslovakia’s 1985 gold medal at the ice hockey IIHF World Championships, at which point I realized there is a real, big world out there, I started watching the evening Television Newscasts on Czechoslovak Television’s first (of two) channel. Domestic news bored me most of the time since they were full of reports from this Party meeting or another, this agricultural or industrial succes or another; news from abroad fascinated me. I even professed my wish to someday be president because all he does is travel and shake hands.

This Television Newscast from November 20, 1989, shows extensive coverage of the “tense political situation” as what later became known as the Velvet Revolution began to unfold.

More childhood inspiration for travel

Sleuthing through memories while I was writing this post brought up more sources of inspiration for travel:

  • Trips with parents to the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, and, most frequently, Hungary as well as around Slovakia.
  • Train rides mostly to Babka’s in Spišská Nová Ves, but anywhere really.
  • The aforementioned gold medal Czechoslovakia won in the 1985 Ice Hockey World Championship.
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.

Read More

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.

Read More

Home Is…

…a collection of meanings.

With Where Is Your Toothbrush? we aim to re-imagine home as the place where you keep your toothbrush. Clearly, we use the notion as a metaphor: home is more than just a physical location or the place to store possessions. Home is a collection of meanings.

Home is your origin

I was born and raised in Košice, Slovakia—it will forever be home. Lindsay was born in Inglewood, California, but grew up in Sonoma County and in Placerville, both of which she calls home in various contexts.

Home is where you became a person. In addition to visiting family or friends, the return there entails revisiting who you were when you lived there. Get a little psychoanalytical and home is the womb whence you emerged; there’s only one and it’s forever.

Home is the “shadow partner” of the destination

As Andre Aciman has pointed out in False Papers, home is also the starting point of every journey. Home is “what sets the course to our travels. Home is what we leave behind, knowing we’ll recover it at the end of the journey. Home is also what makes going away safe.” Or, as T.S. Eliot wrote, “The end is where we start from.”

Home is where you are

Just as, “Wherever you go, there you are,” we believe that, “Wherever you call home, is home.” Home is where you say it is. You can consciously decide to make a place your home and root it in memories and routines.

Home is memories

Space (a house, a city, a country) begins to feel like place and then like home when it acquires substance: the mass of memories. The more you experience there, the more it becomes the anchor cast into the sea of existence. If an effect of travel is to collect memories, you can be home anywhere.

Home is routine

Hand in hand with memories in transforming place into home comes routine. Do something enough times—navigate the apartment in the middle of the night, go to the same coffeeshop, take the same bus—and it becomes familiar and safe. That is why we plan on staying in one place for 3-4 weeks and use it as a base camp for exploring.

Home is you

George Monbiot has remarked that “identity is rooted in place.” By definition, existence is physical. Geographic space thus helps define who you are; a part of who you are depends on where you are. It remains to be seen whether creating home in many places around the globe makes for a shallower or stronger me.

Featured image by Google Maps Street View. This is where I grew up. It looked different then, grayer than the building in the background.

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…things you carry with you

“Home is where your toothbrush is” is just another way of saying home can be anywhere, as long as your most essential portable item anchors you. For us the location of our toothbrushes determines what we call home: home is my parents’ apartment, a friends’ house we’re housesitting while they’re on vacation, a mountain chalet, a hotel. Of course, this is only one of the possible definitions of home.

Home to go

József Tamás Balázs aka Bajóta, a Hungarian artist born in the Romanian region of Transylvania, recently presented his idea of home at the exhibition Utopiatrap, which culminated his residency at the K.A.I.R. Košice Artist in Residence program.

Bajóta has long been fascinated with the search for home. He told me, “Even as a child I wanted to leave home. I feel the need to move around.”

He now lives in Budapest where they speak his mother tongue but which is the capital of a foreign country. Or is his birthplace Romania the foreign country since they speak a strange language there?

How can you be home in two, or even more, different countries? Does it mean home is anywhere you are? And, consequently, is it possible to ever leave home?

Bajóta’s work reflects these dilemmas. The three installations he introduced at Utopiatrap focus on the symbols of home that are both mobile, i.e. they can be disassembled, transported, and reassembled, and utilitarian. In addition, the objects refer to folk architecture in his region of birth. In other words, you can take home with you not only in your heart but with any useful objects.

  • The Kraal represents a fence system for sheep used in mountain pastures where it is constantly moved to areas with fresh grass. You can be home anywhere you find sustenance, anywhere you’re trapped, anywhere walls enclose you, moveable as they may be. The used oil, poured around the kraal, points at the common wood preservation technique in Transylvania—call it an olfactory reminder of home.
  • The Jump is a skateboarding jump made out of pine shingles, the kind used in traditional countryside roofs. Here Bajóta makes an obscure play with the Hungarian word “szöktető”, which means both a jump and desertion or flight. You can jump off the roof of your home to fly out into the world. But the smell of pine wood and the oil sticks with you.
  • The Bird Trap. Another portable object, this time a cube made out of short beams interlaced using the ‘wolf-tooth joint’ technique, which holds the trap together with the help of gravity yet teeters in the air ready to capture its prey.
  • The Tree. The young pine tree standing in a mound of dirt points at the wastefulness of wood use in the countryside, Bajóta told me. He wants to plant the tree somewhere in Košice, perhaps in order to put his roots down here, too.

Given all this, it should come as no surprise that Bajóta can calmly declare, “I have never felt homesick.” The question is, whether he will feel homesick for Košice. The exhibition completed his residency here. The next day he left for Budapest. Then he’s headed for the mountains. There, too, he feels at home.

Home as an object

My home is anywhere my toothbrush is, no matter what the toothbrush (I do get a new one every now and then), no matter what the place. Some people carry soil from their homeland with them, others a rock or a photograph, all of which can be used in productive ways. Kristina ‘Kika’ Forbat, another K.A.I.R. artist working as my hometown Košice’s city writer (or blogger-chronicler), hangs onto a small espresso maker. She got it as a present when she moved out of her parents’ house, she writes on her blog. For 8 years now, the pot has been with her in her backpack. You can carry your home in a suitcase, she says.

Home is not just within you but also with you. Whatever the object, you can carry your home anywhere you go. The only difference is to what you attach its meaning.

Notes

  • This post is an expanded translation of my article for the Leto v parku/Summer in the Park festival blog (I volunteered for the festival).
  • Sources for the piece included an interview with Bajóta; the Utopiatrap leaflet and webpage; and Kika’s blog.
  • The post is the second in the occasional series “What is home?” Read Part I, “A collection of meanings.”

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…routines

Home emerges through routines. As I wrote in the introduction to the “What is home?” series, “Do something enough times—navigate the apartment in the middle of the night, go to the same coffeeshop, take the same bus—and it becomes familiar and safe.”

On this last visit to my hometown, Košice, eighteen years since moving away and two years since the last visit, I found many details and memories gone from my mental map of the place. I couldn’t recall names of major streets or picture where they are when reminded, for example (true, many things had changed during my absences: busses changed routes; new bars, cafes, art spaces, or stores cropped up; and buildings sprouted graffiti). When you visit a place, you are just a visitor, even if it’s your hometown and you’re staying with your parents.

So in the spirit of toothbrushism, i.e. making a home anywhere, I established three routines that helped me make Košice into a home again. The fun part: all three were completely new to me.

What is home? Swimming at the Municipal Pool

Following my third-grade compulsory swimming course, I helped teach newbies how to swim. Since the third year of high school, when I thought I’d drown in a pond during an English-language summer camp, I hated swimming, or even entering any large bodies of water. So when Lindsay suggested we take up swimming as our exercise on the trip, naturally I said yes.

Home routines

The interior of the Municipal Pool in Košice, Slovakia.

On the first visit to the Municipal Pool, I was petrified. Lindsay helped me establish an exercise routine and gave me tips for improving my swimming skills. We went to the pool together several times, on most days we were in town. It became a routine after three or four times. I even went by myself when Lindsay was studying Slovak in Bratislava.

Swimming at Košice’s Municipal Pool helped me reconnect with my hometown, the way any exploration of new places does (I had never even set foot at the Pool before July 2013). It helped me feel more at home there: repetition breeds familiarity, which, in turn, generates the sense of being at home in a place. Finally, swimming was not only great exercise, it forced me to overcome my fear of water.

What is home? Sitting at the Kávy sveta café

Whenever I found myself in Košice’s historic downtown, including after taking a swim at the Municipal Pool, I stopped at the Kávy sveta/A Világ Kávei/Coffee World cafe. Great coffee (including a selection of specialty brews), cold beer, and Lindsay’s and my favorite white wine, Cserszegi Fűszeres. A prime people-watching location on the historic Main Street and live music on Friday nights made for a wonderful place to make myself at home. I went there so often the staff started recognizing me after only a few weeks.

One of the best ways to feel at home anywhere is to frequent a favorite coffee shop (bar, pub, restaurant). Being recognized as a regular; becoming familiar with a long menu; and simply going to the same place again and again creates the right kind of comfortability with a place.

What is home? Reading the local newspaper

Home routines

A portion of my walk to get the papers led through this underpass at Čordákova Street. A local artist took photographs of the Košice Government Program Housing Development residents, captioning each with a skill the resident said s/he was good at. The newsstand is at the top of the stairs.

Though I tend to get my news online, whenever I’m in Slovakia I enjoy reading newspapers and magazines in print. Staying with my parents, I often walked to the newsstand up the street to get my SME daily, Korzár thrice-weekly, and Týždeň weekly papers. Thanks to my regular readership, I even got a couple of my pieces published in the weekly.

Home routines

The cover of Týždeň No. 33/2013 with my article.

Once again, the routine of walking to the newsstand, of reading the physical publications, and of daily learning of the news gets you closer to the place, makes you more rooted there.

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…a familiar spot

When Peter and I visited Trogir, Croatia, in 2008, we desperately searched for better coffee than the hotel buffet. Every day, we ended up drinking espresso at the same spot before the crowds of vacationers showed up on the beach to swim. The beach-side cafe was just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel, and it was nothing special in appearance. Local retired men occupied a few tables and sat chatting and smoking long after emptying their cups. After several visits and increasingly friendly grunts from the waitress, the locals stopped staring at us and we grew to love the cafe’s plastic furniture, astro-turf, Hajduk Split logo under the counter, and cheesy name: Fast Food Atlantis.

Since then, Fast Food Atlantis has become an inside joke referring to a familiar spot we return to develop a sense of home. We’ve come to find that each Fast Food Atlantis, be it a gyros stand, pub, or coffee house, helps us feel a little more at ease with our surroundings, especially once the staff begin to recognize us and wave back when we walk by and the regulars nod when we sit down.

Like Peter’s routine of visiting Kávy Sveta/Coffee World in Košice, finding a special spot creates intimacy with an environment. It’s even more important in countries where neither of us speaks the language; we may not be able to converse, but everyone understands a nod of recognition. Home means belonging somewhere and being recognized as belonging. For us, home is finding Fast Food Atlantis wherever we go.

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…a neighborhood park

I do love a good, crowded city, but after too long having to share my sidewalks, cafes, museums, and public toilets with millions of other people, I begin to crave my own private patch of nature. While traveling in major cities, we’ve discovered respite in a few neighborhood parks, islands of green tucked among the nooks of the concrete jungle. These little doses of nature have helped the country girl make a home in the caffeinated clamor of the big city.

National Garden, Athens

Athens’ intensity hits you from many different angles all at once: crowds, traffic, heat, restaurant touts, and, lately, the looming riot police presence. We discovered the National Garden one afternoon after we’d had enough of it all and found ourselves in great need of a quiet spot to rest our feet.

We sat for a while under the wisteria grove and snacked on koulouri, round chewy bread coated in sesame seeds. The shade and breeze cooled us as we followed paths along the historic fountains, aviaries, and postcard-worthy ponds.

Home is neighborhood park

Maçka Park, Istanbul

We lived for a month in Istanbul, just a few hundred meters from Taksim Square, which made headlines this summer during the violent protests, and steps away from Istiklal Avenue, a shopping street which can host up to three million pedestrians in a single weekend. At Maçka Park, a green patch of hills and trees in the sea of shoppers, taxis, and skyscrapers, we could forget for a while that we were living in the world’s second most populated city.

Fall leaves dotted the park with yellow and brown, but green was the popular color, and stray cats the popular wildlife, which we found apropos since mačka means cat in Slovak.

Home is neighborhood park

The steep paths made it a perfect spot for a daily dose of exercise, but in case we overdosed on nature and fresh air, there was a gondola ferrying people from one end to the other.

Home is neighborhood park

Kralingse Plas, Rotterdam

While we flew into Amsterdam, the Netherlands, during one of their biggest storms in decades, by the time we arrived to Rotterdam, the weather was calm, crispy cold, and sunny. Kralingse Plas was the perfect place for an afternoon stroll with Peter’s sister Katka and her family.

Home is neighborhood park

Bombed by the Nazis in 1940, Rotterdam’s downtown is lined with mostly modern buildings and lacks the old-world charm of other Dutch city centers. None of that mattered as we watched the winter sun set at Kralingse Plas, so large you can stroll along the lake, or through the forest, or stop for a coffee or beer at one of a few cafes. Don’t worry, there’s even some windmills, in case you do lose track of time and forget where you are.

Home is neighborhood park

Lumphini Park, Bangkok

My first 24 hours in Bangkok’s hit me so hard with sights, smells, and sounds, there was barely enough room in my brain to process it all. There is so much to take in: kilometers of sidewalk lined with stalls selling clothing, souvenirs, and questionable generic Viagra, not to mention the food stands, which fill the streets with exotic smells every other step. After a day or so, as great as it all is, it’s incredibly exhausting, especially when you’re still convalescing from a little jet lag.

Home is neighborhood park

Lumphini Park is the antidote to all of it, but we weren’t allowed to forget we were still in in Bangkok. We strolled by Buddhist shrines, watched couples and even a few solos paddle by in swan boats, and caught a session of public aerobics.

Home is neighborhood park

Around six o’clock, while we slowly made our way to the exit, the walkers and runners on our path suddenly stopped in their tracks. We followed suit, and could hear a faint song playing in the distance. When the Thai National Anthem plays in a public place, everyone, even the tourists, stops and shows their respect.

Finding a neighborhood park has become an essential part of making a home in a big city abroad.

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.

© 2018 & forever by Peter Korchnak • Header image by Pat Joyce.