Book Review: A Long Ways from Home by Mike Martin #rbrt #murder mystery # cozy


a-long-ways-from-homeThis is the first Sgt. Windflower book I have read, and I was curious about a book with a Native American member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police as the protagonist.  The series takes place in Newfoundland on the east coast of Canada. Sgt. Winston Windflower is an RCMP officer and a Cree from Northern Alberta, who is stationed in the small town of Grand Bank.

The story is fairly straightforward with a few twists:  A large crew of outlaw bikers terrorizing the town of Grand Falls leaves behind the bodies of two people, a man and a woman, shot execution style in the head. The bodies are believed to be linked to the Bacchus Motorcycle Club, whose members are professional criminals who deal in prostitution, drugs, and brutality. The club is not only the nexus for a large drug distribution ring but is fighting another club for the territory. Sgt. Windflower, whose wedding to Sheila Hillier is rapidly approaching, is called to the town to clean up the mess. Budget cuts, meaning fewer officers to cover the territory, means trouble not only in Grand Falls but also at home, where his future wife is the mayor.  A complication arises when the motorcycle belonging to Sheila’s cousin, Carol Jackson, is found abandoned by the side of the road outside of Grand Bank.  Windflower learns from Sheila that Carole has been a member of motorcycle gangs in the past.

Windflower has to rely on his fellow Mounties to assist him in solving the crime and neutralizing Bacchus and its leader. He is supported by Sheila and his dog Lady, who is sensitive to his feelings and who is an important part of his life.  Windflower’s Cree background also figures into his emotional support – helping him interpret his dreams through his uncle and aunt who are dreamwalkers, and beginning each day with the smoke of his smudge pot to remind him to be kind, strong, and determined.

The one word I can think of to describe this book is ‘nice.’ Such an overworked word, but it means good and enjoyable, kind, polite, and friendly. The characters in the book who are not part of the biker gang are believable, well drawn and, well, nice. The story moves along at a sedate pace, serene in its descriptions, and detailed in the police procedures.  Even the tension-filled scenes are not high octane, and the dialogue is almost stately. The lives of the police are realistically portrayed in this way with lots of detail and even the occasionally boring parts. Most significantly, their contributions to helping people and communities overcome new and very difficult challenges is emphasized.

There is food in this book – delicious, mouth-watering in its description – and I am a sucker for food.  I was introduced to bakeapples, another term for cloudberries, which are somewhat similar to raspberries of strawberries, but found in cool temperate, alpine climates, arctic tundra and boreal forests. I can’t wait to try them.

One other character that has to be mentioned is Newfoundland itself, an island whose natural beauty the author describes so well that I want to visit.

This was a slow read, but a ‘nice’ one.

 About the author

mike-martinMike Martin was born in Newfoundland and now lives and works in Ottawa, Ontario. He is a long-time freelance writer and his articles and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines and online across Canada as well as in the United States and New Zealand. He is the author of Change the Things You Can: Dealing with Difficult People and has written a number of short stories that have published in various publications including Canadian Stories and Downhome magazine. The Walker on the Cape was his first full fiction book and the premiere of the Sgt. Windflower Mystery Series. Other books in the series include The Body on the T, Beneath the Surface and A Twist of Fortune.  He is a member of Ottawa Independent Writers, Capital Crime Writers, the Crime Writers of Canada and the Newfoundland Writers’ Guild.

You can find Mike Martin on twitter, Facebook and his blog:


You can find A Long Ways from Home on Amazon:


New Followers Friday


This is about as eclectic a group of followers that I’ve encountered. Read about them and maybe check them out? Amazingly, this is exactly what the title says it is. A blog about how to repair your own TV or finding someone who can. GO figure!

Larissa Takahashi at blogs about fashion, beauty menswear etc.  She is a Brazil born journalist with a strong sense of justice and fair play, a lover of beauty, harmony and fascinated by the balance and symmetry and wants to be surrounded by art, music and beautiful places. Her blog on home décor was fantastic.

 Voulaah at This blog s in both French and English, written by Anita, young woman of 32 years from Madagascar who is fascinated by the fashion’s world and all that happens in the world of students. She shares her passion for fashion & beauty. She’s been working in the field of communication by being a journalist with a newspaper (Ma-Laza) and a local TV station (TVM) while she has a State Doctorate in Economics.

Bethrider13 at Beth is a Texas girl with sights set to live in as many places as physically possible. She reads voraciously and reviews everything she reads. She is a such a good person to do this for us authors.

Minal Dalal at is the founder and of POORNAM – Venturing Wholeness.  Poornam is a venturing Institute that supports wholeness thorough the process of knowing and connecting with self, eliminating age old toxins, Invoking potentiality, uniting whole self and enhancing self to the universe. This sounds like a great source of self-help since it uses very gentle creative and natural processes and tools to resolve the core issues of life.

Ray Hernandez and Will Herens at They blog about about being positive, motivation, life and personal development, with hopes of helping themselves while helping others. If you need a little uplift, this is the blog to visit.

Raul Conde 011 at has a blow-my-mind blog with all sorts of things on it – movie reviews, quotes, takes on vampires and Peter Pan, I could go on forever. Loved it and I think you will, too.

All Things Steph at is about love, life and everything in between. It is written by Stephanie B., a 26 year old college student studying Early Childhood and development. She loves to travel, read, write, and meet new people. She was born in South Boston, but raised in Dorchester (hah! my part of the country. “Southies” have a unique vision of the world – check her out!

Several times in the last week, I’ve only gotten a Gravatar (OrphanHelp, Fall) – sorry I can’t say anything about you!


Who Killed Vivien Morse? by Diana J. Febry @DianaJFebry #rbrt #modern mystery


who-killed-vivien-morseWho Killed Vivien Morse? is the fourth book in the DCI Peter Hatherall series. I haven’t read the other three, but the author has done a great job making this a stand-alone book.

This is what I would call a traditional English mystery. It opens with a complaint to the nattily dressed DCI Hatherall by a neighborhood busybody, who reports seeing a man, looking like a Druid and accompanied by a dog, peeking into the windows of houses in her neighborhood. Hatherall’s interaction with her is humorous but is quickly leavened by the discovery of the body of a young social worker, the Vivien Morse of the title, battered to death in a local wood.

The reader is quickly introduced to the main players in the action: Hatherall’s partner, Fiona; Ellen, a disturbed, strange young woman who was Vivien’s last client contact; Nigel Morse, Vivian’s husband – a prime suspect but with an alibi; Jane Salt, Vivien’s boss, with whom Vivien has publicly argued; Lucy and Ian, Ellen’s parents, whose marital relationship is strained, and Kathy, Ellen’s aunt.

We learn that Ellen’s problems date from being run down by her boyfriend, Robbie Creer, who is serving time in prison for fraud. Creer is discovered to have links to each of these characters as the yarn unwinds, including Dick Death (pronounced Deeath), the hulking, sandal-wearing Druid-like man. I enjoyed the characters, although Dick Death, and his new, elderly girlfriend, Gladys, rather overpowered everyone else. Ellen, with clear mental issues, also stands out, with her occasional violent episodes and her attachment to a ragged doll she calls ‘Future,’ a replacement for Robbie’s baby which she lost in the accident.

There are a number of McGuffins cleverly placed to lead the reader, Hatherall and Fiona down various paths before the main path to the solution is discovered. The story is complex and the reader needs to pay close attention to figure out whodunit.

I loved the light humor of various parts of the book. What did become somewhat tedious after a while were the long, long dialogues between Peter and Fiona, not quite the give-and-take of real conversation. Nevertheless, the characters were human, with all the normal warts and foibles.

Four stars

About the Author

diana-j-febryThe author describes herself as an accidental writer of mysteries with quirky characters. She is an avid reader and reviewer and loves live theatre, horses and dogs. Her books are traditional mysteries set in the Cotsworlds, England, and reflect the tensions between old traditions and contemporary lifestyles.

You can find her at

and on Twitter: @DianaJFebry

and a list of her books on Smashwords:

Who Killed Vivien Morse? can be found on Amazon books:

Reviews of Death by Pumpkin


49266584_high-resolution-front-cover_6292375I am inordinately pleased with reviews of my third book, Death by Pumpkin, by two bloggers with who are great writers themselves and whose critiques I value.







The first is from Rachel Poli at  She’s a young teacher (early childhood education), a reader, and an animal lover. She posts music, short stories, movie reviews, guest posts, and writing tips — a real Renaissance woman. You can check out her review at

Death by Pumpkin by N.A. Granger

The second is from Kate Loveton. Kate’s blog,Odyssey of a Novice Writer (which she definitely isn’t!) ( has been silent for a while and I discovered she has become overwhelmed with her job and decided to let her blog sit until she retires next year. I am so looking forward to having her back, and judged by the comments when she posted her review, there are many others out there to welcome her back as well. Thus it is an honor that she posted a review for me on her blog:

We writers need reviews like a man dying of thirst needs water! So many thanks to Rachel and Kate.

And if by any chance there is anyone else out there who has read my book or who would like to, a thousand blessings on your heads if you will post an honest review!

New Followers Friday


I think I am catching up – but still a few weeks behind! Here are some blogs for you to peruse: The title sort of says it all. This blogger confesses she’s been divorced for ten years. She’s happy to check her own oil, refill her own washer fluid, and pump her own gas. She’s learned  to use a drill, take apart a bed, put together a bed, and carry about fifty pounds of groceries up three flights of stairs. There have to be a lot of empathetic souls out there.

marmar daguob at P2P Advertising aims to help you build your brand on a personal level and advertise it person to person. Sounds like this could be an excellent site to get your book out there.

The Cracked Spine at is a simple blog for Die and Moz, two Irish readers starting out in the world of Literature Blogging and Podcasting. If you are a writer with a new novel you want reviewed, you can contact them to open a discussion. They accept submissions from all genres. They just reviewed Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (which I’ve read and loved).

Lewis (Starborn41) at is an artist who grew up in the Midwest and was drawn from an early age to art. Now 75 years old, he has been practicing for a long time, and art is still his greatest love. He enjoys wood burning (something I actually tried as a kid!), in large part due to the meticulous process for which it calls. This is a lovely blog – go visit!

Akhila at writes a gentle and eclectic blog of ideas, thoughts, and notions.  I’ve enjoyed her posts and she has a LOT of followers!

Tina Roth Eisenberg at was chugging along in her career as a designer when to become the kind of woman she had hoped her children would know, she delved into a career as a serial entrepreneur. Whether it’s through having a confetti drawer, keeping sane hours, or building environments that cultivate enthusiasm, Eisenberg urges us all to judge our success with the happiness and personal growth of those around us. She posts on lifestyle, motivation, awareness and short news stories.

Chiemezi Budus at is the blog of a young, motivated and activated entrepreneur whose passion is to make the people around him successful. His aim is to  create a simple and fast way for marketers to publish and advertise their goods.

Digital attitude at is 26 years old and fed up with the daily grind of punching my time card 6 days a week. And is a full time mother. Her greatest achievement in life is becoming a mother she wants to put her children in the best position possible for their future. She is determined to show her readers that what she is doing works, and it will change your life. Recent posts are on vulnerability, dreaming and facing your fears.

Akash Bibdal at is a young man with an upbeat blog on inspiration and self-improvement. He hopes readers will implement the practical techniques emphasized in the blog through posts.  His goal is to change life of people for the better. Recent posts include The Art of Making Money and The Power of a Smile.

Clara Lee at  The Toledo Bend Literary Journal publishes the following genres: Fiction Genres: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Realistic Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mystery, Suspense/Romance and Poetry. Nonfiction: All types of Informational Literature on any subject matter, Biography, Autobiography, and Book Reviews. Photography: Poetry on any subject You might want to check them out – they have a contest coming up.

Wendy at writes a really interesting blog about vintage clothing. She actually developed a (small) hoarding issue and accumulated way too much. had to sell/donate almost all it because she and my husband quit our jobs and got rid of pretty much everything we owned to go on a long term travel adventure.  Follow her as she travels around the world and finds vintage clothing in every port of call!

Lbath1950 at is a really funny blogger, whom I visit (or try to) regularly. The stories you read on her blog all have a kernel of truth, mixed in with a healthy serving of imagination, embroidery, and if necessary to make a point, outright confabulation. Her mother illustrates her blog.  The name of her blog? She comes from a rollicking family of nuts. A recent post: How Do You Keep Your Panties Up? DO check her out.


Beep, Beep… Beep Beep… The Car Went Beep, Beep, Beep


I want to tell you about a blog called Club 51, run by Chris White. It’s a blog for and about people who were born in 1951. I am an honorary member, since I wasn’t born in 1951. ‘Nuff said about that!


Recently Chris had a post on the 1951 DeSoto (a old car for those of you too young to know what a DeSoto is!). When I read it, I thought of the little green Nash Rambler station wagon my family had, the first car I can actually remember. I suggested since Nash Ramblers were popular in the 50s, he might want to do a post on them, And he did. Here it is:

A quote from that post: “The Nash Rambler is a North American automobile that was produced by the Nash Motors division of Nash-Kelvinator Corporation from 1950 to 1954/55. It is widely acknowledged to be the first successful modern American compact car.”

62320c1cadc0751b1f5f64ac94f59ac4After he posted on the Nash cars, I remembered a song by the Playmates about a Nash Rambler, and I’m giving you the link here because it’s pretty darn funny.

The Strangely Surreal Adventures of Sylvia Smetana by Meira Eliot @meiraeliot #rbrt #women’s fiction


the-strangely-surrealI will freely confess it took me a while to finish this book. Life got in the way and I had to go back and reread a goodly portion of it, because the story jumps around.

It begins in medieval Prague, now the capitol of the Czech Republic, and a city I know well having lived there for more than a year. The author asks, “What is life?” and then describes a barber, bored with his profession, who leaves his wife and children to follow the perceived enchanted life of a traveling scholar and alchemist. He carries with him a green stone of moldovite, the only gem not of this earth, but from a meteorite. When he returns to Prague after many fruitless years, he finds his wife dead and his daughters working in a brothel and realizes he had squandered a good life.

This is the prospect facing the main character in this book, Sylvia Smetana, a likeable middle-aged teacher at Our Lady of Ransom’s private school for girls, where she teaches religious studies. She was more or less contented with her life until she traveled to Prague with her mother Svetlana, a Czech ex-pat who has lived in England since the 1950s. Svetlana gives her daughter a ring of moldovite, and from that time, Sylvia feels a psychic draw to Prague, to which she escapes as often as possible, and she begins to observe and question the lives of ambition populating the school.

The book is part scathingly funny description of the school’s hierarchy and the lengths to which the members of the administration will go to advance. The author has clearly had experience with the machinations of academia, and her sarcastic views tickled my funny bone, since I’m a long time academic.  She takes the concepts of head hunting, steering committees and thinking outside the box to new heights of ridiculousness, and I loved these parts of the book.

I also enjoyed the author’s colorful descriptions of Prague and the many sites I know so well. It was a trip down memory lane for me and her affection for the city comes through loud and clear. I, too, would love to return again and again.

One problem I had with the book was the changing points of view. The story jumped from Sylvia to her mother to the parent of a prospective student and to another faculty member who is having a nervous breakdown and back again. I found the transitions jarring and occasionally perplexing. There are also digressions to the history of John Dee, English mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, occult philosopher, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, and his links to Prague, specifically to Thaddeus Hajek. Hajek was the personal physician of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and a Bohemian astronomer. I see these digressions as part of the Sylva’s growing desire to nurture her inner life, and the book concludes with wandering thoughts on love and trust, the finding of self, and the creation of our lives through experience.

I give this book four stars, largely based on its characters and humor, which makes it well worth reading.

About the author

meira-eliotMeira Eliot was born in North Yorkshire in England, but spent most of her in the what is now the Czech Republic and Germany, working as a teacher and translator. She states that around pretentious people her wit becomes hysterically delinquent and she often sounds as if she had just swallowed a dictionary. Ms. Eliot studied at Durham and Oxford and learned how to string sentences together and first began translating other people’s books, which taught her how remarkably rare it is for people to say what they really mean.  Always a bookworm, she gradually realized that writing is her true vocation. Her favorite kind of writing is humorous and involves some kind of mystery or imagination, which The Strangely Surreal Adventures of Sylvia Smetana demonstrates.

You can find Meira Eliot

on Twitter: @meiraeliot

on Facebook:

and at

This book is available in paperback on Amazon:

Part 2 of Life in Prague Before and After the Velvet Revolution

Looking across the Vltava at Hradcany and Svaty Vit

Looking across the Vltava at Hradcany(Prague Castle) and Svaty Vit (Saint Vitus)

The laboratory where we worked in Prague during the 1970s was in the basement of a several hundred years old apartment house. Four or five of us worked in a two hundred square foot room that was pleasantly cool in the summer but frigid in the winter. A scintillation counter and spectrophotometer (something you might find in a high school nowadays) were only available in a lab on the other side of the city, so many days my husband would have to jiggle across the city on a variety of trams with a box of vials for counting.  For part of the year, there was no water and we had to walk up the hill from the lab to get water from an outside spigot. Laboratory supplies such as magic markers and glass coverslips were jealously guarded; they were not available locally and were mostly gifts from visitors or brought back by those scientists who were allowed out of the country. Our mail came to the lab, and once, when we had received no mail for nearly a month, we phoned the Consulate to complain it was being held up.  We were told there was really nothing the Consulate could do without a lot of back channel communication, but we were assured that the phone call itself would probably do the trick. Our mail arrived the next day.

The rose window over the entrance to Svaty Vit (Saint Vitus Cathedral)

The rose window over the entrance to Svaty Vit (Saint Vitus Cathedral)

Holesovice, where we lived in Prague

Holesovice, where we lived in Prague, an area surrounded by the Vltava River

Mitigating the difficulties of our day-to-day life (I once had to have a drug for a kidney infection flown over in a consulate pouch), were the warmth and generosity of our Czech friends, who took quiet pride in their history and their ability to survive under harsh circumstances. They shared with us what they had, and like the character in the classic Czech book The Good Soldier Schweik, taught us how to deal with frustration by laughing at circumstances and taking pleasure in the subtle sabotage of the regime under which they lived. We celebrated Trotsky’s birthday with banners and vodka, much to the displeasure of the Communist head of our Institute. One night, traveling home in a taxi  — the driver of which had been told to stay off the streets – we rolled down the window and swore in English at the Russian tanks and flame throwers rolling through Prague during the Warsaw Pact games; the driver rolled down his window and joined in swearing. In the winter, we swapped our coats and hats when we went in and out of the US Consulate, for the benefit of the police photographing us from a booth across the street. My greatest pleasure was losing the plainclothesman who followed me during our first summer there, by dashing in and out of department stores.  He was always waiting on a bench across the street from our apartment when I got home and never failed to give me a smile.


View of Old Town Square with Tyn, a baroque church, in the background.

View of Old Town Square with Tyn, a baroque church, in the background.

When I returned in 1992, gradual progress was apparent. There were real supermarkets and an efficient metro, although I had loved riding in the old, open, wooden trams. The old building all over Prague sparkled in the sunshine with new paint and gilt, the squares teemed with people from all over Europe and the United States, and the stores overflowed with consumer goods. Street musicians, curbside flower shops, and souvenir vendors hawked their goods and talents everywhere. The Charles Bridge, a centuries-old bridge spanning the Vltava and lined with statues of saints, with a celebration of outdoor art and music, from jazz to classical. Buildings painted in their original bright colors sported ground floor shops purchased from the state by individuals now in business for themselves. There were new hotels, hotels being renovated, and hotels being built.  Cuisine was now continental, and I found it hard to find a hospoda (tavern or pub) with traditional Czech food. There was even a MacDonald’s, where I took the children of a friend for their very first big Mac.

The downside of democracy was also evident. Prices for many items were now too expensive for the ordinary Czech citizen. A big Mac was the price of a full meal with beer in a hospoda. Some very old wine cellars, where we had spent many nights talking science and politics and enjoying the vintage, were now too pricey for all but well-heeled tourists. Even the cost of items such as oranges and bananas, now freely available, made them a special treat instead of every day food.

The Orloj or astrological clock, in Old Town Square, which for 600 years has been one of the greatest treasures of the city, still amazes people with its procession of Apostles, moving statues and visualization of time like no other instrument in the world.

The Orloj or astrological clock, in Old Town Square, which for 600 years has been one of the greatest treasures of the city, It amazed me with its procession of Apostles, moving statues and visualization of time that occurs at the top of each hour.


The crime rate was up. On the late nights when I couldn’t get a taxi, I used to walk the streets alone with no concern of my safety. Now there were muggers. There were also beggars, and there was evidence of drug use. These were some aspects of a free society the country would experience in force over the next decade.

The biggest change, however, was in the attitude of my Czech friends to what the future would hold. Realize that these were people who had never had checkbooks, credit cards, a mortgage or taxes. Many had never been any further than East Berlin.  Over many nights and glasses of good beer, I discovered they anticipated a challenging future and recognized that there would be dramatic and rapid changes in their way of life with a difficult period of adjustment.  Many commented they were working harder than they had ever worked before, and they were looking to retrain, learn new skills, and find new business opportunities. They did complain about the cost of living – the first time I had heard that – but they were optimistic things would improve.

Czech scientists, who had found ways to be creative in years where their technology lagged decades behind the rest of the world, were striking out with new collaborations and establishing connections everywhere. In my filed, universities were developing centers for research, with the government-directed National Academy of Sciences, where more of the former research effort had been concentrated, now playing a much lesser role.

prague2My overall impression of this critical period of transition was there were many important tradeoffs when Czechoslovakia became democratic. One huge one was the split of the country into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which occurred peacefully along ethnic lines. Some of the tradeoffs were not that good: a much higher crime rate and the influx of drugs.

However, the most important tradeoff was most visible in the Czechs themselves: a Communist past for a real future.

In future posts I will to tell you more about my time there: climbing in the Tatras, mushroom hunting, traveling with our friend Franta Sehnal (with whom every trip was an outrageous adventure), and celebrating a traditional Czech Christmas.  And about maybe the food and beer…


Another Friday and More New Followers

Relax! The weekend is coming!

Relax! The weekend is coming!

Every time I explore this list, there are more amazing people to discover. I hope y’all will take time for visit a few of these.

Awkward at is a 15 year old who spends a lot of her time at home. She sounds like she needs some followers so why don’t you visit her page and tell her about yourself!

Hover printing at is an online magazine of fact and fiction, showcasing original stories, satirical reports and essays on great works of art. I read through some of the posts and could spend a day there. is a blog from a fellow in Cameroon. It covers daily events, health tips, etc. from a young African point of view.

Amsang at is an avid photographer, traveler and a foodie at heart. I read one of his posts on some Indian food and salivarted! His photography skills are awesome – so you might want to visit.

psychology74 – could not find a blog for this person, just a gravatar Ankit Maharishi from Jaipur, India, does not want to be called a blogger but an observer of live, less talkative, more expressive with words. This blog is reflective about the human condition. This is a fun blog that won the Sunshine Blogger Award. Francis and Anna are traveling though life’s mysteries, writing about their encounters, talking about God. Francis a sales person, hardworking and aggressive in studying his crafts. Anna is passionate about numbers, highly qualified in audit and finance. She is a creative traveler and an accidental writer. A recent post: 10 Superb Ways to Enjoy Dining Without Limits: The Terrace On the Corniche, St. Regis In Abu Dhabi was mind -blowing.

Stacey at has stories that are fun to read and will bring a smile to your face. She posts one every day and hope to make a collection in to a book for sale. Right now she is just seeing where her blog takes her because she’s a writer and is having fun!

Amber MV at is a graduate in creative writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University and created this blog to share some of her process in writing practice and development of voice.  The blog is described as a journal on the soul of the world” drawing inspiration from ecology, place-based perspectives, interreligious identity, soul, poetry, culture, urban life, community, anthropology, art, rites of passage, adult life, embodiment, animals and women’s interests.

Betty at confesses that books and libraries are some of her favorite thing. She got a library card at 6 and at a young 62 has been reading ever since, books of all kinds. And she reviews them! Bless her soul and go visit her blog!

Ramona Crisstea at is a lovely young woman who blogs about (and models) high fashion, inspiration, life and lifestyle, travel and love. She is also quite a design artist. Worth a visit and more.


Living in Prague: Before and After the Velvet Revolution


I recently discovered in an old folder an article I wrote about my experience with the city of Prague, both before the Velvet Revolution, when I lived and worked there, and after, in the early ‘90s, when I went back for a visit. Perhaps you will find this interesting?

I am going to break this article in two, to keep in manageable, and over the next few months will write more about individual adventures in Communist Czechoslovakia.


In April of 1992, I returned to what was then still Czechoslovakia for the first time in five years and the first time since the Velvet Revolution. For those of you not familiar with this term, the Velvet Revolution was the non-violent transition of power that took place from November 17 to December 29, 1989. Popular demonstrations were held against the one-party government of the Communist Party by students and older dissidents. The end result was the end of 41 years of Stalinist rule in Czechoslovakia, the subsequent dismantling of the Communist economy, and a conversion to a parliamentary republic. Vaclav Havel was the first President.

Before the Revolution

Before the Revolution

After the Revolution

After the Revolution

I have a very special place in my heart for this country and its people, since I lived and worked in Prague for over a year in the early ‘70s and had many colorful experiences during that time with the hardline Communist regime that dominated everything.  I also found the Czech people to be warm and open-hearted.

As my plane crossed into Czech airspace on that trip in 1992, I remember being anxious to see the changes brought about by democracy. One change was apparent immediately: instead of having to fly through narrow airspace corridors determined by the government, we flew over the city and I had my first view of it from the air. When I reached the car of the friends who met me at the airport, they told me, “Take a deep breath! Can you smell freedom?”

pragueTo explain how much these words meant, I need to tell you about the culture shock of 1972, when my husband and I first came to Prague from California on an exchange fellowship sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences. The effects of the Soviet invasion of 1968 were just settling in (the borders of the country had actually remained open for a time thereafter but were then defined by barbed wire and guards with guns in sentry boxes). Prague was a gray, dirty and grim city, some of its building still pockmarked with bullet holes from the invasion.

View from the top of Wenceslas Square - behind is the National Museum, which was riddled with bullet holes

View from the top of Wenceslas Square – behind is the National Museum, which was riddled with bullet holes when we first arrived.

We lived with a well-educated, English-speaking Czech couple in their apartment in Holesovice, a quiet, tree-lined section of the city located in a bend of the Vltava river. Our hosts’ son had left the country before the border closed and was now living in Tasmania, and I think they just adopted us, introducing us to Czech customs and the language. We were paid in Czech currency and had decided from the outset to live as Czechs did, eating Czech food, buying in local stores instead of the commissary in the US consulate, and learning the language so we could travel on our own. Even so, we stood out as some of the only Americans in the country.

The culture shock gradually wore off as we accommodated to the lack of most things we had taken for granted at home in California. There were not many consumer goods available beyond the basic necessities, and these were sold in individual stores. There were stores for dairy products, others for vegetable (cabbage, potatoes, onions and peppers only), and still others for meat, fish, bottled drinks and canned goods.  In some canned goods stores, you would tell the clerk what you wanted and they would fetch it for you. More often, you stood in line to be waited on, which was the way of life for babičkas, or the grandmothers, who did the shopping for their working sons and daughters. We had to plan our days carefully to allow for enough time to buy food.  In the summer, fresh vegetables and fruit would be trucked in from Italy, Bulgaria and Romania, and sold at open stalls in various city squares.

Old wooden trams, open for hopping on

Old wooden trams, open for hopping on

Newer trams, enclosed, hot and smelly in the summer

Newer trams, enclosed, hot and smelly in the summer

It became Grangers’ rule that if we spotted something unusual (like oranges, squash or lettuce) on our tram rides back and forth to work, we got off the tram at the next stop and went back to buy some. There was no guarantee we’d find it elsewhere or even later in the same place. There were often Czech babičkas in line to buy something unusual, like patty pan squash, who had no idea how to cook it. When I’d learned enough Czech, I would spend time explaining how to do it. And of course, all transactions were in cash. Credit cards had already become a way of life for us, but not for the Czechs.

Tram rides were always an adventure. In the old wooden ones, which were being replaced, you could hop off and on like the trolleys in San Francisco. The newer ones had no A/C and the windows were hardly every opened, which in the summer resulted in a hermetically sealed sweat box filled with human body odors. There were usually two places on the tram reserved for the those with disabilities and they were coveted by   babičkas. It was a frequent occurrence to see two of them battling each other with canes to get the one unoccupied seat. Hubs and I often remarked that if the babičkas had confronted the Russians when they invaded in 1968, the Russian troops would have hightailed it back home.

Before the revolution bribery was a part of living. We gave money or bottles of good liquor to policemen, guards at the border, doctors, or clerks in stores to get what we were already entitled to: a stamp on a visa, permission to leave the country with our luggage, the pants that went with a jacket, good medical care.

The scientists at our Institute lived relatively comfortably with cars and summer houses, but the living arrangements of some of the friends we made who were not scientists (plumbers, electricians, or construction workers) were much less comfortable. Five or six people might live in a two room apartment, with shared bathrooms and kitchens, sometimes no hot water or even running water.

More in my next post