Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Page 2 of 5

where is your toothbrush

Where Is Your Toothbrush?

This essay first appeared on The Listserve.

*

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

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.

*

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.

Read More

dream of traveling

When the Dream of Traveling Comes True

This essay first appeared on the travel blog Where Is Your Toothbrush?

*

When on the bus to work the other day, I came across a passage in Pico Iyer’s selection of W. Somerset Maugham’s travel writings, The Skeptical Romancer, describing a missionary being carried by locals up a hill. It brought to mind my hike, some 9 months prior, to Cerro Calvario, in Copacabana, Bolivia, at the southeastern edge of Lake Titicaca. At the summit, 3,966 meters / 13,012 feet above sea level, I sat on stone steps catching my oxygen-deprived breath, sipping El Inca beer, and watching a young couple make an offering involving flowers, incense, and beer in hope of soon obtaining a house, a model of which they’d bought from one of the nearby vendors. Beyond the edge of a low wall, the Lake stretched all the way to the horizon. I shielded my eyes from the reflection the setting sun spilled over the flat waters, a strip of brilliant white searing the view into the back of my eyes. I recalled that polar explorers and mountaineers must wear sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, thinking I should have brought my pair with me to prevent Titicaca blindness.

When I was a boy, I devoured adventure novels in which stories took place in various locales beyond the borders of then-Czechoslovakia and the Warsaw Pact countries; Jules Verne was my favorite author, providing a major inspiration for my love of traveling, joined by Rudyard Kipling, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and many others.

When I read those pages I was transported to many faraway places alongside the protagonists. Yet I did not dream of visiting the locations of these adventures. I would locate the strange names like Madagascar or Alaska in my trusty Pocket Atlas of the World, thus attaching them to the real world. But my mind continued to associate them with the made-up stories, so they retained a mystical sheen of imaginary places, mirages on the same plane as Atlantis or the center of the Earth. Even as a teenager and college student in the 1990’s, after the borders opened and I traveled on my own, the places from my adventure books remained outside the realm of possibility, far away and beyond dreams.

When the Bolivian newlyweds departed, one step closer to fulfilling their dream of home together, and the view stilled, it occurred to me Lake Titicaca was one of those fantastical places of my boyhood. In fact, I had visited several such places on the round-the-world trip. When I hiked the mountains of Patagonia I wondered why they reminded me of the Slovak High Tatras. When I saw a troop of wild kangaroos lounging by the roadside near Sydney, Australia, I recalled my resolve to have a kangaroo sidekick like Skippy from the eponymous TV show. The Strait of Malacca. The Bosphorus. Machu Picchu. Sarajevo. The Southeast Asian jungle. Havana.

When the memories stopped flooding in, I had an even grander epiphany. All my life I had carried within me a longing, the kind of faint, shapeless sensation you experience when watching a plane cross the sky or an anchored boat bob off a sea shore. As the sun dipped below the thin clouds, the shapeless desire acquired the concrete contours of understanding. Not only did visiting the places of my childhood fantasies render them possible and real, it impressed upon me a sense of completion. Shortly thereafter the places dissolved into memory, the same way authors erase their recollections by putting them into writing.

When I was growing up, I contemplated what marks the transition from a boy to a man: a boy climbs trees, a man chops them; a boy runs through puddles, a man skirts them; a boy desires to flee home, a man yearns to return there. Now I also knew that while a boy entertains a dream of traveling, a man makes that dream come true.

When all this went through my mind, the bus #12 approached the Burnside Bridge. No longer able to focus on Maugham I closed the book mid-sentence. The morning unfolded over the city with the sky opening and the Willamette River reflecting heavy clouds rushing toward the next rainfall.

When the dreams of a boy come true, the man the boy became makes new ones.

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

Creative Commons License Forever by Peter Korchnak Code Poetry by WordPress Lovecraft Theme by Anders Norén