Peter Korchnak

Writer. Immigrant. Traveler.

Tag: Czechoslovakia

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

dream of traveling

When the Dream of Traveling Comes True

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

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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.

how to piss off a slovak

How to Piss Off a Slovak

As a Slovak I must every day cope with a harsh reality: my country, Slovakia, a tiny mountainous patch of land squeezed between Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic, remains far from a popular tourist destination and will never be an influential player in world politics. The main ways to piss me off as a Slovak, therefore, spring from my desire to be known, respected, and found on the map. Lately I’ve started to turn the tables around and view your ignorance as your problem, not mine. But both verses of the Slovak anthem contain the words ‘lightning’ and ‘thunder,’ so if you want to see these natural phenomena personified, try one of the following ways to rile me up.

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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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