June in the Czech capital.  Not yet summer, but hot: twenty-nine whopping degrees, according to the blinking sign outside the bank. Even if you know that twenty-nine degrees Celsius is eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit—and I don’t; metric conversion has never been my forte—the temperature reading alone doesn’t capture the heat’s oppressive grandeur, because it doesn’t factor in the malarial humidity, or the fact that I’ve been walking around for hours and have yet to hit a patch of shade. I feel like I’m in one of those cartoons where a thundercloud is following me around, raining only on me, except that instead of a thundercloud overhead, it’s the baking kiln-hot sun.

The heat is only one of the day’s obstacles. We arrived in Prague less than two days ago, so I’m still jet-lagged. My last meal was a crude goulash made from what tasted like paprika and horse meat, and that was over twenty-four hours ago. I’m so hungry I could eat…not a horse—I already tried that—but something really big.

So I’m hot, I’m jet-lagged, I’m hungry, and, oh yeah, I’m hungover. Not just hungover. Suffering through one of the worst hangovers of all time, a hangover that belongs in the Book of Lists, if not the Guinness Book of World Records. This is what happens when the local beer is the best you’ve ever consumed, and it costs eighteen cents a half-litre, and you drink it in lieu of dinner, as it is preferable to equine cuisine, and after your tenth or eleventh refill, you decide to fortify it with absinthe—which isn’t really absinthe but a syrupy green licorice liqueur that looks like and tastes like and for all you know is NyQuil, and is only sold to hapless expats at touristy bars like Chapeau Rouge—and you stay at Chapeau Rouge till it closes at four in the morning, and the whole evening, including the cab back to your room, costs less than ten dollars.



Prague is the sort of place where you can buy a drink for everyone in the bar without taking out a second mortgage. Or breaking a twenty. My friend Chris, who’d matched me beer for beer and shot for shot, is so hungover he couldn’t even get out of bed this morning. And this is a guy who can throw down like Burton and Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. That I am able to function at all is a testament to the quality of the liquid gold the Czechs call pivo.

So I’m hot, I’m jet-lagged, I’m hungry, I’m hungover, and, if that’s not enough, I’m lost. Calibrated to the neat New York grid system, my inner compass is completely useless on the tortuous byways of Prague.

The urban planning here seems to have involved paving the paths of meandering cattle. The Staré Město, in particular, is a veritable maze. With a decent map and a good night’s sleep, I might have a fighting chance. But my map sucks. And, as discussed, I’m hungover, hungry, jet-lagged, and hot, and I slept for maybe four hours last night. Plus, I’m carting around a bottle of wine, which, in my current condition, may as well be a bowling ball.

The wine is a gift for the AP’s Prague correspondent, who was good enough to find me inexpensive yet comfortable accommodations, and who I want to thank in person. The AP’s Prague correspondent is not expecting me to call, and had said correspondent been Pablo Gorondi or Dusan Stojanovic—our men in Budapest and Belgrade, respectively—I would probably be back in the hotel with Chris, sleeping it off. But I feel compelled to visit the bureau of our mutual employer, and not just to be polite. See, in addition to being hot, jet-lagged, hungry, hungover, and lost, I’m also a single red-blooded American male, and the AP’s Prague correspondent is named Nadia Romanova.

Nadia Romanova! Oo la la! I spent most of the flight over manufacturing a crush on her, even though I don’t know what she looks like, how old she is, if she’s married, or, for that matter, if she prefers the company of men. All I know is her name—but that’s enough. Nadia Romanova is either James Bond’s love interest or Anna Kournikova’s doubles partner. Either way, she’s hot. If you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to present Nadia Romanova with a bottle of wine and ask her to dinner, you have to seize it, hungover or not. Who knows? She might be up for a no-strings-attached liaison with a young American aspiring-novelist-cum-benefits-coordinator.

To present the bottle of wine to the AP correspondent, of course, I must first locate the AP bureau. This is easier said than done, as I am, at the moment, walking through an urban, Czech Blair Witch Project.

The bureau is on Národní. According to my map, Národní is a major thoroughfare, or as major a thoroughfare as you can find in the Staré Město: a wide, straight road extending from the metro station at Můstek, past the National Theatre, to the Most Legií, which is a bridge. Unfortunately, what appears straight on my map is, in actuality, anything but.

I began at Můstek, so I was able to locate that. After walking around for forty minutes, I stumbled upon the bridge. I didn’t find the National Theatre, which is supposed to be visible from the Most Legií, and if I couldn’t find the biggest performing arts center in the Czech Republic, I certainly didn’t spot the unassuming AP bureau. How can I walk from one end of Národní to the other, three times, and miss it? It’s like starting at the Williamsburg Bridge and not being able to find Delancey.

I’ve long since abandoned my map and am carrying only the bottle of wine when an insanely tall blonde dude approaches me. He looks like one of the lesser bad guys from Die Hard, except for the sandals. Birkenstocks don’t exactly inspire menace.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Do you know where is Metro station?”

This is the third time someone has stopped me on the street to ask for directions since we arrived. It’s like they’re seeking me out. Do I really look like I know my way around, or is everyone else even more clueless than I am? Ironically, I am able to tell him where the metro station is. He thanks me and bounds away, on legs as tall as my entire body.

Watching him go, I spot, on a nondescript Soviet-looking concrete building, among a bevy of Slavic signs, a small plaque bearing the familiar burnt-orange interlocking A and P that is the logo of my employer.

“Hallelujah,” I say out loud.

With renewed vigor, I make for the building. Once inside, I see that the bureau is on the sixth floor, Suite 604. There does not appear to be an elevator. Just what a hot, jet-lagged, hungry, hungover guy needs—a session with the Stairmaster.

The sixth floor—which is actually the seventh floor, because what Europeans call the first floor is really the second floor; such are the wonders of the metric system—appears to be residential. There is nothing that indicates any business is transacted here. No AP logo, no sound of teletype machines, nothing. Weird. But I hit the buzzer for Suite 604.

The door opens to reveal a cute, voluptuous brunette, her hair wavy and short. Gorgeous hazel eyes twinkle at me. I was expecting taller and leaner—a tennis player—but I prefer cute and voluptuous. The only drawback, and it is glaring, is that there are two small children clinging to her like koalas, one on her calf, the other on her hip. Nothing, not even a ring with a diamond the size of Gibraltar, says unavailable more unequivocally than a pair of clingy toddlers.

Swallowing my disappointment, I give her the happiest smile I can muster in my current condition.  “Hi. Um…are you Nadia?”

Her English is fair to middling, but she manages to convey that a) she is Nadia’s sister, b) this is Nadia’s apartment and not her place of business, and c) to get to the AP bureau, I need to go back down to the ground floor, follow a long hallway to the other side of the building, and then climb up a different but equally steep set of stairs.

I’m not thrilled about the walking, but that’s the only thing. Not only is Nadia unencumbered by two small children, but the chances of her being a stone-cold fox have actually gone up. In the patois of Las Vegas, the line has moved. How much hotness disparity can there be between sisters? Kourtney Kardashian is not Kim Kardashian, but she’s still, er, kute. My buzz safely restored, I thank Nadia’s sister and go.


*   *   *


This is my first trip to Europe. Other than a long weekend in Montreal and a spring break in the Virgin Islands, it’s my first trip outside the continental United States. Oh, I’ve had opportunities. I could have gone to Paris with my high school French class. I could have spent my junior year of college abroad, instead of in New York. Can’t ask Mom and Dad; too expensive—that was my excuse for not going both times. But really, I was afraid to leave my comfort zone.

But I’m an adult now, with a steady paycheck and a yen for life experience, and I decided two months ago that I needed to get my feet wet, so to speak, with Old World water, phobias be damned. Logic would have sent me to England, because there is no language barrier; France, because I speak un peu French; or Italy, because I am fully half Italian. Plus, England, France and Italy are the obvious places for a young writer to visit, just like New York is the obvious place for a young writer to live. But none of those destinations piqued my fancy, probably because they were so obvious.

Conversely, I rejected Bucharest and Krakow and Warsaw as too alien. My college roommate, Jeff, had backpacked fearlessly across Europe in ’95…until he hit Poland, whereupon the lugubrious post-Communist strangeness gave him pause. A country that spooked the well-traveled Jeff was sure to terrify me.

What I wanted was someplace foreign but familiar, not too obvious but not too strange, a combination of East and West. What I wanted was Prague.

The Czech metropolis was an unusual choice for a maiden voyage to the Continent, but in 1998, it wasn’t that unusual. The so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989 had opened the doors of what was still Czechoslovakia, and with a bang. Prague became an obligatory destination for aspiring men of letters. That the city of Kundera, Kafka, and Klima had selected a playwright, Vaclav Havel, as its president only enhanced its literary cachet. Expatriates of a writerly bent flocked to Prague to soak up its vibrancy, its novelty, and, yes, its astoundingly cheap and delicious pivo.

If you wanted to be a Bohemian, where better to decamp than the capital of Bohemia?

Not that I was a true Bohemian. Or even a convincing fake one. Bohemian enclaves are known for cheapness and grit. Paris between the wars, Greenwich Village a generation before. Prague? Maybe in the early 90s, in its hipster heyday. By ’98, the bubble had burst. It was still cheap, but hardly gritty. I wouldn’t say I made it to the party after the keg was kicked (an apt metaphor in Bohemia), but the tap was definitely farting foam.

So: beer, life experience, aspirations literary and hipster. Good enough reasons to go where I did—but post hoc ergo propter hoc rationalizations, all. I chose Prague over Paris, Rome, London, Budapest, Moscow, and Athens—and, for that matter, Tokyo, Cairo, Hong Kong, Jerusalem, Rio de Janiero, and Havana—because, quite simply, I felt like going there. Prague appealed to me, in the same way that the Yankees appeal to some people, the Mets to others. There was no logic to it. It can’t really be explained, any more than you can explain my mother’s love of the color yellow, or my friend Chris’s hatred of Led Zeppelin. I prefer Milton to Shakespeare, Bach to Mozart, Dalton to Brosnan. Why? Nature? Nurture? Or something else entirely?

Prague called out to me. And here I am.


*   *   *


Not that I’m mulling over anything so metaphysical as I climb up the last of the seven flights of stairs. The stream of my consciousness flows from Nadia to goulash to sleep to Nadia to Chapeau Rouge to the weird Czech Space Needle on the outskirts of town that isn’t even mentioned in my Rough Guide and back to Nadia. Genealogy may not be riding the last car on my train of thought, but it’s very close to the caboose. My final thought as I ring the buzzer for the AP bureau is, What will Nadia look like? Voluptuous and cute, like her sister? Tall and sinewy, like Anna Kournikova? Somewhere in between?

The person who opens the door is neither voluptuous nor cute nor sinewy nor tall. I am face to face with David Crosby. OK, he’s not really David Crosby, just his döppelganger: same white curly locks cascading from a receding hairline, same walrus mustache, same intense eyes, same leonine bearing. I half expect to see Neil Young behind him with an acoustic guitar. Or Melissa Etheridge with a turkey baster.

“Good morning,” he bellows, his voice at least a six on the Richter scale.

I open my mouth to speak, but I’m having trouble, what with the jet lag, hunger, heat, and hangover. Finally, drawing on all my powers of elocution, I stammer, with erudition that would make the home office proud, “You, AP? Me, AP. New York.”

His eyes light up even more, which I wouldn’t have thought possible.

“You are Olear!” he exclaims, possibly causing a building across town to tremble.


“Welcome. I am Ondrej. Please, come in.”

Only when I cross the threshold do I realize that he pronounced my last name correctly. This bears mention, because no one ever says my last name correctly on the first try. A dactyl, like “caviar”—and not an iambic appeal to the titular tragic king. My father, worn down by the constant and futile attempt to correct everyone, has acquiesced to the Irish pronunciation. The percentage of my own friends who think there is an apostrophe after the “O” is, I’m sad to say, somewhere between the unemployment rate and Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average. And yet Ondrej, a complete stranger, nailed it in one take.

He glances at the brown paper bag tucked under my arm. “Is that wine?”

I nod once, indicating affirmation. He nods twice, indicating approval. “Good.”

I’ve always liked the neat economy of my last name: five letters, three syllables, no schwas. I like the way it reads on the printed page. I like the way it looks spelled out in Scrabble tiles. I like that it provides my full name with so many anagrammatic possibilities (greg olear=roger gale, larger ego). I like that, if I ever get a book published, it should delight Will Shortz and his wordsmith brethren, and allow me to join Sheri Oteri in the Federation of People With Unusual Last Names Beginning With “O” Who Are Crossword Puzzle Clues More Than Their Meager Fame Allows. Even the constant mispronunciation has its silver lining; telemarketers are easy to peg.

“Wow,” I say, following Ondrej into the large but unpopulated room that is the bureau. “You said my name correctly.”

One of the empty desks, I notice, bears a nameplate and a photo ID of the AP’s Prague correspondent. My inkling that she might be attractive was right on the money. Long brown hair, fashion model face. But what Ondrej says next makes me forget all about Nadia Romanova.

“Of course,” he exclaims. “It is a Slovak name. Olej means oil, and –ar means dealer in or supplier of.” He pats me enthusiastically on the shoulder, which would have knocked me over had I not grabbed an empty desk for support. “You, sir, are Oil Man!”

The news bowls me over almost as much as his pat on the shoulder. I stand there speechless, and not because of jet lag, hunger, heat, humidity, or hangover.

I never knew what my name meant. Because of the illegitimate skeleton in the Olear family closet, the subject of ancestry was off limits. My paternal grandfather, Stephen Olear, was born out of wedlock. He didn’t know who his father was—or so he claimed. I asked him about his family history once, before he died, and, as my father predicted, he refused to elaborate. He wouldn’t even tell me what my great-grandfather’s name was; Stephen’s surname, an Americanized version of Olejár, came not from his father but his mother. His last name, then—and by extention, mine—was a matrilineal inheritance.

I never knew what my name meant. I didn’t even now how to find out what it meant. And here the Czech David Crosby, of all people, has satisfied my lifelong curiosity. (Later, I will learn that Ondrej fronts a band called Žlutý Pes, so the “Déjà Vu” comparison is not far off ).

“Nadia is out covering the elections,” says Ondrej, taking the wine. “I will take care of this for you.”


My mind is elsewhere. I’m processing the information, connecting the dots from “Oil Man” to my father’s father, who worked his entire adult life at Standard Oil. And then something else Ondrej said sinks in.

“Wait…did you say it was a Slovak name?”

Ondrej, who is now inspecting the wine (a moderately-priced but well-regarded California red), nods without looking up.

“I always thought we were Polish.”

“No,” and he is emphatic, “Slovak.”

“Wow. I never knew that.”

The unexpected depth of the exchange has sapped what little strength I had remaining. All my life, I thought I was half-Polish, and I’m not; I’m half…Slovak? I know what it means to be Polish—being the butt of jokes, mostly—but what does it mean to be Slovak?

And then my thoughts turn metaphysical.

Prague called out to me. And here I am.

Despite my inability to navigate its twisted roads, Prague seems eerily familiar to me, like a landscape from a half-forgotten dream. The Czech language, which should be so intimidatingly foreign, sounds more musical to my ear than my native tongue. Six months of immersive study, I’d be fluent, no question. The Slavic faces on the street are familiar, too—and mine must look like one of them, or people wouldn’t keep asking me for directions. Heck, Montreal felt stranger to me than Prague does, and I took French for nine years. Why should this be?

Perhaps there really is a collective soul, what the Hindus call the atman, and memories of places, of faces, of historical events, are stored there for all of humanity to tap into, as the html files of IMDB.com are stored on a giant web server for universal access. Just as you can only look up Tom Cruise’s IMDB.com page on a computer, so you can only access the atman subconsciously, when you dream. When we dream of places we’ve never been before, then, we are tapping into the atman. Our dreamscapes are memories from past lives, or else mnemonic heirlooms from long-dead ancestors.

Maybe I wanted to go to Prague because I’ve been here before.

That or I’m still drunk.

My mind is blown, to the point that I’m almost freaked out. I feel claustrophobic, I need air. Even the entrance of a naked and nymphomaniacal Nadia would not entice me to stay right now. Thanking Ondrej profusely, I beat a hasty retreat, racing down the seven flights of stairs to the street, where I gasp for breath, and head to the first bar for a cold pivo.





TAGS: , , , , , , , ,

GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

168 responses to “Prague, Revisited”

  1. “You are Olear!”
    I think we should bring back the J.
    Don’t you?

  2. Becky Palapala says:

    I’ve never heard anything but praise for Prague. I hear it’s absolutely consuming.

    I’ve never been, but my sister has. On my list of places to go in the world, Prague runs a close third behind Rome and Athens.

    And I’m totally a bohemian. Ethnically, not as a lifestyle choice.

    But my sister claims the Bohemian story is a Christian family cover for my grandmother’s black, curly hair and what is likely, actually, distant Jewish ancestry.

    Either way, I have ancestors from that vicinity. Everything about it appeals to me. Lots of stone, lots of spires, a river. I have fantasies about being in Prague at night, everything dark and lithic and cold.

    I have dreams involving Prague and darkness and cool stone. I might be a little obsessed.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Prague is a great place. And the beer is so good, it will ruin American beer for you.

      Rome is like New York — fast, always moving, and there’s all this amazing stuff to see that the natives don’t give a crap about.

      Re: ancestry, what’s interesting is that it is the oppressed peoples who came to America in droves. So there are more Slovaks than Czechs, more Chinese than Japanese, more Irish than British, and so forth, here. What was your grandmother’s maiden name?

      • Becky Palapala says:

        My grandmother’s maiden name was Bergstrom. Which is what makes her black, curly hair suspicious. HER mother’s name, was Mars, also Scandinavian (maybe; it has distribution all over Europe and has French attribution), but it’s in that line, my great-grandmother’s, that the Czech/Jewish is supposed to be.

        At least I’m pretty sure that’s how it goes.

        My sister is the main authority on this theory.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Ah, the secrets we’ll never know — and they make up who we are!

          Swedish (Bergström): ornamental name composed of the elements berg ‘mountain’, ‘hill’ + ström ‘river’.

          1. English: variant of Marsh.
          2. French: habitational name from places so named in Ardèche, Ardennes, Gard, Loire, Nièvre, and Meurthe-et-Moselle, from the Latin personal name Marcius, used adjectivally.
          3. French: from the personal name Meard, Mard, Mart, vernacular forms of the saint’s name Médard. Morlet notes that there are a number of places called Saint-Mars, formerly recorded in Latin as Sanctus Medardus.
          4. French: from the name of the month, mars ‘ March’, denoting seed sown in March, and hence a metonymic name for an arable grower.
          5. French (De Mars): habitational name from Mars in the Ardennes.
          6. Dutch: from a short form of the personal name Marsilius.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Yeah. There’s really no business being a “Mars” in Sweden. I think they were a widely-traveled bunch, hence the teasing my grandpa would give my grandma about being a gypsy.

          I reject my Frenchness.

          It’s coming at me from my dad’s side, too. I don’t like to talk about it. My dad’s genealogist brother claims we’re descendants of one of Napoleon’s illegitimate children. I think that’s how it goes.

          Instead I cling to these much cooler, smaller percentages of my ancestry, like the way-back Czech/Jewish and my Irish maiden name, which is way more Irish than I actually am.

          Being a Swede/German (on my dad’s side) in Minnesota is really boring, aside from going a long way to explain stiff social behaviors and my taste for beer. The knowledge that Bergstrom is associated somehow with the Swedish royal family is kind of neat, but I have yet to receive my share of the royal fortune.

        • Greg Olear says:

          You should totally embrace your Frenchness. The French take too much crap over here, but no nation has done more to fight censorship. Plus they have great wine and cheese.

          Napoleon was from Corsica. I bet he was Italian. Buonoparte. Doesn’t sound French to me.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Yes, his parents were Italian nobles of some kind. Or descended from them. But most of his mistresses were not from Corsica, and his children, then, would be French.

          Though I have not considered that more distant Italian relation. I invite the notion of having a little Italian (ha. HAHAHA!) blood.

          God. That’s just awful.

          Anyway, no. Assolutamente NO. I refuse to be French.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          But hey. Per your questions/assertions in this piece, maybe the Buonaparte family explains my abiding obsession with Italy (it is truly a sickness. My living room is plastered with pictures of Italy, and I’ve never even been there).

        • Greg Olear says:

          You’re too tall for it to be a little Italian.

          (Ha ha ha right back!)

          And as a half-Italian guy who grew up among Italians and spoke with an Italian accent for the first few years of his life, I’m happy to claim anyone remotely Italian as Italian (as my grandfather also did).

          St. Patrick was Italian, too.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’m going to tell my mom when I see her tomorrow that I’m Italian.

          She’ll probably gasp and tell me my grandmother is rolling over in her grave.

          Something about the protestant reformation.

          Then again, I could be wrong about all this and it might be the mistress I’m related to, not her offspring, in which case I’d just be plain old French.

        • What’s wrong with being part French? My dad’s side is French (hence the St. John – which
          was St. Jean and before that Coiteau – which I think is pretty cool – wish they had kept that).
          Whatever floats your boat – reject away – but I say NON!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I’m just too American, Steph.

          I can’t help it. I’m self-loathing.

        • Greg Olear says:

          France is also the only other country so far that is putting out a foreign-language edition of my book. That also makes them formidable.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          A ha! Hai una faziosità!

          La tua moglie ed ora il libro.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Je ne le comprends pas.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Perche’ parli quell’Italiano perverso!

          Just kidding.

          I said you had a bias (with regard to the French). Your wife and now the book.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Oui, c’est vrai. Mais j’aime beaucoup aussi l’Italie.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I won’t have you talking shit about Aussies. I LIKE Simon.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Nyah, nyah
          Nyah, nyah
          Becky li-ikes Si-mon
          Becky li-ikes Si-mon

        • Becky Palapala says:

          *blush* I do. I DO!

          Everyone likes Simon, though. It’s because he’s watery and really good-looking.

        • Zara Potts says:


        • Becky Palapala says:

          Disgusting, right? If it’s any consolation, I do actually like him for his mind.

          Romantically, I’d trash him like a high-class hotel room, which would be a damn shame.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I just realized that sounded sexual, and that’s not how I meant it.

          I’m not sure how to recover. I’ll try just shutting up.

        • Greg Olear says:

          “I’d trash him like a high-class hotel room” NEEDS to be on a t-shirt. I love it!

        • Becky says:

          *face palm*


          Sorry, Simon.

        • Simon Smithson says:

          Aha ha ha ha ha…

          I’m blushing.

          Could be worse. Were either of you a party to the ‘sex kayaking’ debacle?

          But thanks, Becky.

          If anything, you should be apologising to housekeeping.

        • Becky says:

          True enough!

          I think I’m doomed, though, since one of our first conversations ever involved NOT IMAGINING PEOPLE NAKED. WHATEVER YOU DO. That basically set the tone.

          And “sex kayaking” was hilarious.

  3. Tawni says:

    Kute. The Nadia imaginings. Melissa Etheridge with a turkey baster. HA. You are too funny, G.

    Wow. Oil Man. And your father’s father was an oil man. Amazing. You went “home” without even realizing it! What a huge moment this must have been for you.

    The idea that we have knowledge handed down from our ancestors, or from past lives, is so cool. I love that a little. We have biological “knowledge” in our bodies that make us physiologically different because of our ancestry, so the thought that our brains (souls?) might as well isn’t hard for me to believe.

    A side of my family is of unknown origin, and like your own experience, nobody’s talkin’ about it. It drives me crazy, with my questioning Scorpio detective brain. Divorces in a time when divorce was taboo, straying spouses, people locked up in mental hospitals for life, siblings with different fathers, and no explanations for olive brown skin and high cheekbones on the side that is supposed to be of ghostly pale, blond, blue-eyed German descent. Complete with silence and evasion when asked. I wish everybody would just get over it already. It’s 2010, not 1950. I’m just curious, not judgmental.

    This was a great piece, as usual. Your excellent description of the worst hangover ever made me cringe and feel grateful that I procreated, forcing myself to stop drinking so much. Don’t miss that “morning after” part at all. Also: the picture at the top is beautiful. It took my breath away. xoxo.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Tawni. And I’m glad you got the turkey baster joke!

      I go in and out with genealogy…it’s almost like I can’t hold my concentration on it for too long, or it takes too much out of me. There’s something so elemental about it that it’s terrifying, in a way.

      Have you tried getting birth certificates on some of the people in your family? Easy to do if you’re related and they’re dead. Sometimes you learn a great deal from those, and from census data as well.

      I found out about my grandfather’s illegitimacy in high school, but it never occurred to me until recently to hunt down his birth certificate. His father’s name is listed — Stephan Matuszek. So, using the usual name patterns, that should be my last name. He changed it — not legally; he just sort of did — on his draft card for the army, and that was that. You can’t do stuff like that anymore.

      That hangover really was one for the ages. In retrospect, we’re lucky we didn’t get mugged or worse.

    • Becky Palapala says:

      I feel like I’ve recently mentioned this on TNB, but maybe not.

      I have a giant, faint-but-visible freckle square in the middle of my forehead that disappears in the winter and gets darker in the summer.

      It’s melasma, the thing that pregnant ladies sometimes get, but mine is permanent–an ethnic birthmark.

      Check this out:

      “Because of genetic disposition, Native American men and women are also particularly at risk of developing melasma on the forearms, while both men and women of either Russian or German Jewish descent are at risk of developing melasma on the face.”

      Other places, I read that it’s a sign of Russian OR German OR Jewish descent, not necessarily German-Jewish.

      So, as far as biology and ancestors go, I literally have a stamp on my forehead that says I’m German (and potentially Jewish; we know we’re not Russian).

      • Greg Olear says:

        It could be that…or it could be the Mark of the Beast. Have you ever run your melasmatic forehead through a bar-code scanner?

        ; )

        • or maybe you’re part unicorn!

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I am pretty magical.

          But seriously, this stuff is fascinating.

          I watched a show not too long ago on NGC where they took a bunch of people (a hundred or so picked out from some ethnically diverse neighborhood in NYC, I think) and ran genetic tests on them to determine what part of the world some of their most distant, distant ancestors (like human migration distant, in some cases) came from. Then they gave them all colored flags and a giant map of the world laid out on the ground and told them to go stand on the corresponding colors on the map.

          There were black dudes standing in N. Europe (meaning a white male ancestor), white people standing in Asia…it was crazy.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Actually, Greg, this may or may not interest you, but it looks like anyone can take part.

          Send ’em $100 and they’ll send you a kit. Then you can be part of the project.

          I only saw the show, I didn’t know you could actually participate. I’m thinking about it.


        • Greg Olear says:

          It really is quite the mindblow. There’s also the one central ancestor that EVERYONE traces back to, which is also incredible, when you consider how many bloodlines have died out over the millennia.

          One of these days I’m going to do that study you linked to…it is all fascinating stuff.

          I mean, Brits are French, and Frenchmen are Germans, and Russians are Poles, and Magyars are Huns although no one knows for sure, and Romany are Indians, and there is no ethnic difference at all between Serbs and Croats, on and on it goes.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I forget what they call her. Mitochondrial Eve?

          Yeah. It’ll bend your brain for sure.

        • dwoz says:

          there are, I believe, twelve mitochondrial eves. And yes, it’s utterly fascinating.

          The implication isn’t necessarily toward a species chokepoint, although that’s possible…the implication that’s more accepted is that of the many lines extant at the time those twelve were the ones that have surviving blood.

          So….who begat your begats?

        • Becky Palapala says:

          If there were 12 of them, none of them would be much of an Eve.

          Mitochondrial Eve is the most recent female ancestor all humans have in common. There can be only one of such a thing.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          To preempt nitpicking, I’ll amend that. All living humans have in common.

        • dwoz says:

          it’s quite possible that there isn’t a single one.

          I can’t quite remember exactly, and don’t have time to re-research it now, but it was seven women in Africa, and five elsewhere.

          That all current bloodlines include one of the twelve. I don’t know enough about the way that’s studied to offer a comment as to whether those twelve can be further traced back to a single one…but…

          There are theories out there about species chokepoints. Some people think that the Noah story (the great flood being common to many traditions) and of course Genesis from the Christian bible are stories about severe chokes, where we got down to just a couple of samples.

          Weird stuff.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Mitochondrial Eve is the most recent, not the furthest back. And indeed, there is only one of her.

          Mitochondrial Eve doesn’t suggest she was the only female or even that she is the most recent common ancestor overall. She is just the only female whose matrilineal line is unbroken since her existence appx. 200,000 years ago. Every female alive is related to her (and by extension all humans, since males don’t pass on mitochondrial DNA).

        • Greg Olear says:

          I think Becky’s right, Dwoz, from what I recall…there was a piece in the Times about it a few years ago, that they found a new ME that was older than the one that was there…or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, it makes one’s head spin.

          I hold with Sitchin’s theory about the flood, but that’s a whole post…or series of posts…heck, that’s a book.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          I think this is confused by the fact that mitochondrial DNA is different from chromosomal DNA, of which every person gets half from their mother and half from their father.

          So you can have other chromosomal lines. Or even other mitochondrial lines prior to her, but all the other mitochondrial lines are gone. Intercepted by heirs–male children or females that never reproduced or however it happened–who couldn’t or didn’t pass it on.

          Eve’s mitochondrial DNA is all that’s left.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          What really blows my mind are theories that say all humans share a common ancestor that may have lived as recently as 5 or 6 thousand years ago.

          I hope it’s some super badazz Sumerian king or somethin’.

        • dwoz says:

          Isn’t something like 25% of the earth’s population descendant from Genghis Khan?

          On a personal note: I am a direct descendant of Henry David Thoreau’s maternal grandmother.

        • dwoz says:

          I understand the difference between Mitochondrial and chromosomal DNA.

          I have no doubt that you’re right. Certainly in terms of definition, it’s not strictly correct to call one of twelve primordial women each “eve.”

          My impression was that the closest they’d gotten to “her” was to the twelve women. But of course, I’m not particularly well-read in the field, so it’s quite possible that there is news of that, and I’m simply not aware of it.

        • dwoz says:

          I’m Sorry….abject apologies!!!!!

          I had a brain fart and posted too quickly. It is Ralph Waldo Emerson, not Thoreau.

        • Greg Olear says:

          There’s also some Braveheart-like Irish warrior of old, I read, who is the direct forefather of most extant Irishmen.

          Emerson, eh? Pretty cool.

        • Becky Palapala says:

          Well, you can only get so close to “her.” She’s theoretical.

          But as I understand it, all humans share this mitochondrial DNA, too similar to be from different people (I assume they discern this by comparing older or other, more diverse mitochondrial DNA and noting variation).

          Maybe the 12 you’re referring to are post-Eve which makes your comment earlier correct at least in that Eve predates them? I mean, it’s not quite that humans all have exactly identical mitochondrial DNA. There have been mutations that mark turning points in human history.

          Maybe those 12, too, are Eve’s descendants, but represent these notable mutations?

        • Greg Olear says:

          All I know is, Eve(s) totally took the “be fruitful and multiply” edict to heart!

        • Gloria says:

          I just asked the resident epidemiologist in my department – a scientist for the last 35 years. And he agrees – there is only one eve. It starts with one and develops from there. Just from a math perspective this has to be true.

          I didn’t finish reading this string yet, so I don’t know if this has already been resolved.

        • Becky says:

          But that’s old info!

          Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosome Adam lived tens of thousands of years apart–anywhere form 50 to 80 thousand years. And the population bottleneck which the NYT puts at 2,000 individuals, from most of what I can find, is now believed to have never been under 10,000.

        • dwoz says:

          I’ll have to look up the reference and get clear on what they were talking about. It would appear that my seven women were the haplogroup mothers, themselves “daughters” so-to-speak, of mitochondrial eve.

        • Becky says:

          But what’s cool about it is this:

          Whether your wife, your girlfriend, your random stranger on the street is black or white or polka dotted or fat or skinny; she has the bad-assest mitochondrial DNA in all of human existence (that produced a daughter who also produced a daughter and so on).

          Try that one on her. “Hey there. Couldn’t help but notice you’re working some fine mitochondria, sister.”

        • Greg Olear says:

          If you say that on the subway on New York, someone will stab you. Or offer you drugs. Or both.

          I have to look harder and find the more recent article. I’m 95% sure it was in the NYT, as I read it in print.

        • Becky says:

          Doesn’t that happen whenever you talk to someone on the subway in NY?

          There’s really nothing wrong with what you posted. The theory is the same. It’s just that the numbers–the specifics–are different.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Nah, New Yorkers are friendly, beneath the gruff exterior, which is a necessary defense mechanism for living in such close quarters with so many people.

      • Tawni says:

        I get those on my face, especially when I take birth control pills. Like little clumpy puddles of freckles. I had a melasma beneath each eye at some point, and a customer I was helping told me he liked “those things” and motioned under his eyes. He was trying to be nice, but it made me so horrifically self-conscious that I started wearing make-up to cover them every day.

        I have German ancestry on both sides, among others. On my dad’s side, the last name is Welsh, but it was originally German. My grandma recently told me our Jewish German ancestors of that name fled to Wales trying to escape Hitler. I got the chance to talk to a nice Welsh couple (at a martini bar on an Alaskan cruise ship) recently and they confirmed that my father’s last name is very common in Wales. So interesting. Now I really want to go there to see if I get the same “been here before” feeling Greg got in Prague. (:

        • Greg Olear says:

          The tiny sliver of me that is from the British Isles is Welsh. One of my great-grandfathers was named James Erwine. James Irwin, in other words…

          There were, if “Austerlitz” is to be believed, ships of German Jewish children who were adopted by Welsh families during WWII…so it’s quite possible, Tawni.

        • Tawni says:

          Another James Irwin! Never enough James Irwins, that’s what I always say. (:

          My German-Jewish-Welsh maiden name is “Prosser.” My dad always told me it was very common in Wales, but I never believed him until the nice Welsh couple confirmed it.

        • Gloria says:

          That was my exact thought when I read that. And then I got all in my head about how i could make a joke about Irwin being Greg’s great grandpa and couldn’t come up with anything, so I forgot to leave a comment at all.

        • Becky says:

          Tawni, we shouldn’t even bother getting excited about ways we are the same anymore. We should start trying to find ways we are different.

          I suspect that will be more difficult.

        • Greg Olear says:

          @ Tawni:

          Welsh: Anglicized form of Welsh ap Rhosier ‘son of Roger’

          @ Gloria:
          We need to construct a space-time Mobius strip of Irwin-ness.

    • dwoz says:

      @tawni– that’s vaguely similar to my story as well. I recently started scoping out my own ancestry, and ran into a very interesting black hole on my maternal side.

      It would seem that my mother’s father’s grandmother was actually a Mohawk. The public records from that time show that there was an elopement, and some other funny business and strange jumps and gaps in the records. At the time, it was discouraged for a tribal member to become listed on “the rolls”, and intermarriage was very much frowned upon.

      Unfortunately, the effect of that is that I SHOULD be able to claim tribal membership, but basically cannot. There is a part of me that finds the idea that I am not just a washed-ashore immigrant, but actually have deep deep connection here to be very appealing.

      It’s funny how a thing that would be so hush-hush at the turn of the century, is now desirable.

      • Tawni says:

        @dwoz- That is really fascinating. How did you scope out your ancestry? None of my relatives will talk to me about it! What kind of research would it involve? I don’t even know where to start. There was funny business/divorce/procreation with a dark skinned man who makes lovely turquoise jewelry in my family, but it is never addressed. And my parent supposedly of pasty German/German descent who has olive brown skin, hazel eyes and mile-high cheekbones, has been asked if they are Native American their entire life. I feel like there are secrets… and I’d love to find them out.

        • Greg Olear says:

          I think you and Dwoz are related.

          You need to sign up for ancestry.com and pour over census data, birth records, etc. The SSN Death Index is free and useful, too. Construct the family tree with what you know, and go from there.

        • dwoz says:

          echo Greg.

          the first place to start is close. Interview family members. gather whatever anecdotes vis a vis place and time that you can. Get maiden names.

          The first breakthrough clue for me was via an anecdote my mother relayed about her grandmother (who died before I was born), that she was from “See-oh-tee” New York and was OBVIOUSLY American Indian, though she never admitted to it. The other rumors were around HER mother, who had been a little fast-and-loose and had “gone tribal.” I did searching and searching, and finally realized it was Sciota NY that she was saying, and traced her there. Her ancestors turned out to be Christian Mohawks from Montreal, and so the “break” that they didn’t admit their tribal heritage. The mohawks sided with the French against the American colonists, and later with the british against the colonists, so it wasn’t like it was considered GREAT to admit you were one.

          Since they’re not on “the rolls” (the official census of American Indian population back in the late 1800’s), it means I have at best an extremely tenuous claim…but I’m fairly certain it’s good. There was other evidence as well.

          Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) the Mormons (latter day saints) have a PASSION for genealogy and have an amazing database. That helps tremendously, particularly if you get good “starting place” info.

          Church records are pretty good, too. The clues and info about my ancestor’s Mohawk lineage came from anecdotal stories, and from Catholic church birth, marriage, and death records.

        • Greg Olear says:

          That they do, those LDSes.

          If you think about it, it is theoretically possible to create a database of everyone who ever was. One big database, with all extant genealogical data there, all interrelated. Uche, if you have some free time, maybe you can do that? ; )

        • Uche Ogbuji says:

          Pfft! I’d have done that ages ago, but I foresaw that any such computer would become Haktar, thus spawning the Krikkit war, and that would tend to get in the way of regular teatimes. So I demurred.

      • Greg Olear says:

        The black holes are fascinating. These people are all part of who were are. And we do inherit traits from them, whether we realize it or not.

        Once you get into tribal stuff, where records aren’t kept as carefully as in Europe, it really becomes a guessing game.

  4. Aaron Dietz says:

    Lovely! I’ve always wanted to go to Prague (isn’t it a requirement of all true writers?), but now I want to go even more! Cheap drinks? Heck yeah. Oh, and the culture. Yes.

    By the way, I’m jealous of your name’s anagram potential. Mine does not provide me with such excellent fodder.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I’m sure the prices have climbed a bit in the last 12 years, but if you pay $5 for a pint of swill here, it’s well worth $5 of beer of the gods there. And Prague itself is magical.

      The Z is what kills you. You have enough vowels that you should otherwise be able to make some cool combos. But “larger ego”…I don’t know that that can be topped, really…

  5. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Dobrý den! This travelogue was as fun as a Czech beer (something out of Plzeň, naturally). For one thing, I don’t think I’ve ever heard an Advaita Hindu lesson given using the metaphor of IMDB. Good one, though my own personal sensibility is to the Dvaita, where the atman is a truly individual soul connected to but distinct from each other atman and the paramatman (and thus the brahman). For another, the pursuit of the fantasy Nadia has an oh so relate-able ring.

    I was in the Czech Republic a few years ago for an XML conference. I think about 10-15 years after when you were there the city has become an utter tourist trap. I did enjoy the obligatory group tours e.g. to Pražský Hrad, but for the most part I was always itching to bolt the bounds of the little square in all the ubiquitous, free maps.

    Then again one of the most magical moments I enjoyed in Prague proper was at a large church at the end of Charles Bridge, where they were advertising a classical music evening, and I had no idea what to expect because it was so cheap, but was absolutely floored by some of the most gorgeously played and sung Handel and Bach I’d ever heard, in one of the most extraordinary acoustic venues I’d ever encountered.

    But other than that I walked and walked and walked (and occasionally broke down and took a taxi) to the far-flung real Prague, to nightclubs and open air markets, out to where not that many people spoke English, so I was forced to use and improve the basic Czech I’d worked a few months to acquire. There seem to be a ton of Nigerians in Prague now (as everywhere), so I was always disappointed that people weren’t surprised that I had a bit of Czech. I’d ask “kolik to stojí?” and the answer would come with a dismissive wave: “sto.” Not even a curious look. Not even an “Odkud jste?” (“Where are you from?”) Disappointing but thrilling at the same time.

    Best time in C.R. overall, though, was when one of the organizers from the conference invited me along on a trip to visit his father’s Vineyard near Znojmo. We hiked the lovely Podyji National Park and passed a marvelous evening in the cellar. I’d been in a bit of a barren patch writing poetry until then, but the company, the landscape and the culture overall inspired a little flurry of writing, so that’s an especially fondly remembered time.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Uche. My understanding of the atman goes only as far as it was explained to us by Mrs. Penner my freshman year in high school, when she wrote it on the blackboard and afterward, some jokester added a “B” at the beginning, and I’m sure I’m being a bit liberal with its usage.

      I know those concerts in that church! We never made it there, but I think I still have the flier in my scrapbook.

      The one non-touristy thing we did was hike out to that weird Soviet Space Needle thing, which no one has been able to explain to me. Doesn’t at all fit in with the city.

      I just finished reading Austerlitz, and in that book as well, the eponymous character realizes his family is from Prague. The city’s secrets open to him. Was weird, reading that after writing this. I guess there’s something magical about the place.

      I’d love to get back, tourist trap or no, and also tour the backwoods of Slovakia, where the Olejars originated.

      • Uche Ogbuji says:

        Oh I don’t think your paragraph was wrong in any way. Just triggered a bit of musing. I actually learned about atman in a crazy Hindu curiosity phase as a teen in Nigeria, at a University library. I assumed all Hindu had similar precepts and didn’t even figure out about the different subdivisions and sects (including Advaita/Dvaita) till much later. “atman” -> “batman” must have led to some fun head-scratching by the next class to file into the room 🙂

        Boo! I completely missed the Soviet Space Needle thing. I’ve always wanted to take the family to Prague, so I’ll have to add that to the list if I do.

        I was also going to say that the bit of the story where your name is so casually raveled to you is very cool, too.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Oh, I know you weren’t…but sometimes I recall stuff I learned long ago, and it may not be accurate. I do like the idea of the collective soul, though. Heaven to the raindrop is entering the lake, and all that.

          It was either that or “atman & obin.” A little more subtle.

          I can attest that the Space Needle thing is not worth walking to. At all. Especially when it’s that hot. You’re better off finding a nice bar and enjoying the pivo. (Budvar, of course, is what Budweiser ripped off).

  6. I’ve heard nothing but good things about Prague. It’s somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a long, long time.

    Most of what I hear is cheap beer, pretty buildings and prettier girls.

    A few years ago my family used to host foreign students and a few times we had Czech girls. They were lovely and they’d always bring massive crates of good Czech beer.

    The taught me how to swear in Czech too:

    Do prdele!

    • Greg Olear says:

      Get thee to Prague, Irwin. Post haste.

      It’s not just that the beer is cheap…it’s amazing. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I’m sure it’s on par with what’s brewed there, and perhaps better, depending on what kind of beer you like.

      • I’ve been to Ireland. Ireland is lovely, and the Guinness tastes better.

        I’ve never been to Prague, but that hasn’t stopped it being one of the places I plan on living in in the future. The closest thing I have to a plan is to live in two other European countries and the US before I die.

        The California dream just died though, because it’s become quite clear that I can’t function in the heat. Also I miss wearing my vintage coat.

        Next time I’m in a bar: Czech beer.

        • Greg Olear says:

          Joyce said that the sea air spoils the beer as it travels overseas, hence the difference in taste. And he would know.

          I recommend Nice. Really interesting and under-written-about.

          And for Czech beer: Krusovice, if you can find it.

        • I think the only Czech beer commonly available is Budvar/the original Budwieser…

          The problem with where I live is that it’s a small upper class British city with a fairly arty/soft university so the choice of beer is either proper ale (no bad thing) or really cheap lager. Some bars have Peroni on tap for outrageous sums…

          Reading this I have just been checking out travel costs to Prague. I’m fooling myself, I can’t afford it. May have to get a job for the sole purpose…

          I’ll keep an eye out for Krusovice though… might just pop up one day…

        • Greg Olear says:

          It used to be that lodging, at least, was quite affordable. You’d stay in private homes. And hitch rides. I’m not sure if it’s like that anymore, but it’s worth investigating.

  7. Can’t think of any other place I’d rather be with a hangover but Prague. All the best, Greg.

  8. J.E. Fishman says:

    Love the turns of phrase, Greg. Keep it up.

  9. James P. Othmer says:

    I tell you that Connecticut is the new Prague, and you go to Prague?

    Not that I’ve been to either place.

    Great piece. Thanks.

  10. Dana says:

    It seems like forever since I’ve read something by The Oilman! Love the description of the building, (why are foreign buildings always so mysterious? and weird and a mix of commercial and residential? Or maybe American buildings just too normal..) and your massive hangover being greeted by David Crosby. So surreal.

    I love the concept of atman (and especially your explanation of the concept), and have even experienced a bit of it myself. It seems to work in the animal kingdom (hummingbirds/butterflies) so why not us too? There’s a street in Kinsale, Ireland that I instantly knew.

    Also –the picture is gorgeous!

    How long were you there?

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Dana.

      We were there for five days, I think. And the day I went to the buro was wasted because we were too tired to do anything.

      I read recently that there’s a street in Prague, near the Hrad, which looks like miniature dwarf housing, and was certainly an inspiration for the goblin lairs in Rowling and some of the Tolkien stuff as well.

      I only recently learned that Ondrej is, in fact, famous in Prague. I had no idea at the time.

      What I remember most is the metro…the voice that was piped in — vystup, I think — it just sounded so familiar to me. And it wasn’t that way for my friend Chris.

      I saw a cardinal just now in the driveway, as I pulled in…he stared at me for awhile before taking off and hiding in a bush. I mean, that never happens…something in ether now, I guess.

      Are you an astrology person, too?

      • Dana says:

        I was that cardinal*.


        I don’t know that I’m an astrology person, in that I never know where Saturn is, or whose house my moon is in ;), but I’ve become increasingly convinced that there are certain traits that are almost undeniable to a Capricorn (me) and to a Gemini (him). It’s always fascinated me that time of birth could somehow affect personality. But the pragmatist, agnostic in me would love to poo poo it,… that is of course until you do my chart and tell me how awesome I am. I don’t think I’m even kidding a little bit.

        *I have a friend that refers to me as Mama Cardinal because of my fierce sense of loyalty.

  11. dwoz says:

    It’s funny…when I first saw your name, I naturally pronounced it Oh-Lee-are.

    • Dana says:

      I naturally pronounce your name DeeWahz. 🙂

      • dwoz says:


        David Wozmak == d + woz == dwoz



        • Greg Olear says:

          Thanks for getting it right! Probably because you’re also Eastern European, presumably.

          Very few Wozmaks in the Ancestry databases. Probably the spelling changed. Wajzczmak, or something similar, I’d guess (I have an old friend we call Waz, or Woz, whose last name is spelled Wajsczcuk, which is pronounced VICE-check).

        • dwoz says:

          Actually, Greg…

          Another interesting story. My ancestral surname is “Wozniak”.

          The name was changed by my great grandfather, and the story (probably apocryphal) goes like this:

          At the time, he was a brand-new young American, off the boat from Poland. He joined the army, and the fat-fingered quartermaster sergeant who filled out his paperwork mis-read the N and I together as being an M.

          He didn’t notice or think anything of it, until it came time to cash his first paycheck, and he found that he couldn’t. It turned out to be EASIER to just change his name, than to get the army to correct the paperwork. And anyway, at the time, it was all the fashion to anglicize your name. “We’re not Polish anymore, we’re American!”

        • Greg Olear says:

          That’s probably a true story. Sounds true to me!

          1. Polish (Wozniak): derivative or patronymic from the occupational or status term wozny ‘beadle’, ‘city official’ (see Wozny).
          2. Polish, Ukrainian, and Jewish (from Poland and Ukraine): derivative of wozny in its original sense, ‘carrier’, a derivative of wozic ‘to carry’, hence an occupational name for a carter, driver, or coachman.

  12. JM Blaine says:

    My wife keeps wanting to
    go overseas
    I don’t like to go across town
    but Prague sounds nice
    I grew up in a bilingual home.
    If I am around French long enough
    it all comes back to me.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Prague is great. It’s a small city, similar in size, I think, to Nashville. (I’m too lazy to factcheck that).

      • Irene Zion says:

        I loved being in Prague.
        You can’t take enough pictures,
        and they can’t do the place justice.

        I think you should put the “j” back and the cool accent over the a!
        (It’s so romantic and foreign looking!)

  13. Hmm…I thought we’d just established you’re 100% Celt and you were an O’Leary. Must have read that email wrong. Enjoyed this from Baster to Burton and back again. Very much made me want to return to Europe, anywhere in Europe, soon.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, man, and ha!

      Not a drop of Irish in me, unless I’ve just had a Guinness. Although perhaps my Welsh bloodline traces back to the Druids…

      (Sidenote: “Druids” is a lob to see if Richard is paying attention).

  14. Joe Daly says:

    Greg, this peace is a meaty travelogue as well as a glorious reminder of the pulverizing brutality of a travel hangover. It’s almost like, outside the confines of your normal hangover zone, not only does the hangover itself become more vivid, but so too do the places you experience while the angry zebra with the steel-toed boots kicks the inside of your mind. It has been a very long time since I’ve had a hangover so this piece was sort of like living vicariously through yours. Is that ok?

    When you mentioned the Czech rock star, I had to wonder if that was sort of like saying you had met a traffic consultant from Billings. But really enjoyed the Crosbyesque stature of the character.

    Pretty much all of my European travel exploits have been through Western Europe, and this was a nice reminder that very different experiences wait in the east. I have to get there. I hear massages are cheap. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

    I am already looking forward to your next travel piece. Nice job, Greg.

  15. Richard Cox says:

    I love the whole subplot of imagining what Nadia was like. We all do that. Or like when you see a woman on the street from behind, you always imagine she must have the prettiest face in the world. It’s built into us to do that, I guess.

    I also loved the “This is the House That Jack Built” cadence you had with all the things slowing you down that day. Jetlagged and hungover in the heat. That is the worst.

    When I went to Europe for the first time, it was to Switzerland and Germany, and I was amazed at how many people addressed me in German. Most of the folks I was traveling with were obviously American, but since I have mostly Germanic blood in me it seemed the people thought I looked like them. It was pretty cool. I didn’t set out to be hired by a company from Liechtenstein ten years before that, but somehow my first trip overseas was back to the “homeland.”

    If I was going to pick a mystical explanation for things, the idea of being connected to things through a medium we cannot see is fairly appealing to me. A universal relational database, as it were. A conscious universe, that sort of thing. But I suppose you already knew that.

    Great post, as always.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, man.

      Funnily, I just referenced you two comments up, without realizing you’d commented here. See? Collective soul.

      I like it when science and metaphysics collide, and synthesize in a meaningful way. The best example being “The Last Question” by Asimov, which I think we may have discussed before. The work of Sitchin is rife with that, which is why I find it so appealing.

      Ah, Nadia. Even without the hangover and other ills, I don’t think that was in the cards…

      • Richard Cox says:

        Italo Calvino, Umberto Eco, Dan Brown…

        • Becky says:

          *sniff* Dan Brown.

          I don’t know if he’s a scientist, but he sure isn’t an historian.

          As you were.

        • Richard Cox says:

          That was a joke to see if Greg was paying attention.

        • Greg Olear says:


          It popped up in my inbox first, and I thought, “Where oh where does THAT comment go?”

          Have you read Sitchin, Richard? I can’t remember if we talked about him before.

        • dwoz says:

          oh, THAT GUY? Zacharia Sitchin?

          One thing I know, he has a doozy of a website, and is obsessed with “owning” his theories.

          Lots of fun…

        • Greg Olear says:

          @Dwoz. The theories are worth owning. I don’t blame him. I attended a convention, a sort of celebration of the 30th anniversary of his first book’s publication, at Columbia University. There were some seriously smart people there. Like anything, there’s good and bad, but any theory that can reconcile Creationism and Evolution, while fixing the flaws in both, is worth a look.

  16. Greg Olear says:

    I should add, as people have commented on it, that I didn’t take the photo…I lifted it from here:


    Nice job, whoever took it!

  17. Zara Potts says:

    I loved this piece, Greg. I love people writing about travel and the everyday experiences that suddenly feel unfamiliar because you are in a different place. Like the hangover – a hangover always feels different abroad.

    You really captured the feeling of Prague and of being ‘home’ in a foreign place. It’s beautifully written and super tight. I like that.

    And I like the idea of a collective unconscious. I have been thinking about that today actually, because I keep dreaming about people I haven’t seen for years – I mean YEARS – and wake up to a ‘friend request’ from that very person on FB. Spooky. There’s got to be something in it, doesn’t there?

    Oilman. I like that too. I was going to marry a Swedish American once when I was 19 – his last name was Onstad. Which apparently translated to ‘In Town.’ I thought it would be great to be called Mrs. In Town.

    Nice, nice piece.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Ms. Onstad.

      That sort of thing happens all the time, the FB friend request coincidence. Thoughts do project beyond the prison of our own minds. Some people are more receptive than others at picking up on what’s out there (usually they have a lot of water in their charts). Just because it can’t be “proved” by Science doesn’t mean it isn’t real.

      Oh, and:

      Potts, from Pott
      1. English: from a medieval personal name, a short form of Philpott.
      2. English: topographic name for someone who lived by a depression in the ground, from Middle English pot ‘drinking or storage vessel’ used in this transferred sense, or a habitational name from one of the minor places deriving their name from this word, in the sense ‘pit’, ‘hole’.
      3. English and North German (Lower Rhine-Westphalia): metonymic occupational name for a potter, from Middle English, Middle Low German pot ‘pot’. See also Potter.
      4. North German: topographic name for someone living on a low-lying plot, from Low German dialect pot ‘puddle’.

      • Zara Potts says:

        Being called Ms. Onstad just made me physically jump! Guess I made the right decision calling that wedding off.

        Thanks for the name explanation – I think I will start calling myself Zara Puddle. Funny – I was just talking about names on Alison’s piece and realised that I have five very silly middle names, but I think they would go well with ‘Puddle.’

        From now on you can call me: Zara Rose Penelope Jane Galaxy Gramaphone Potts Puddle.

  18. Gloria says:

    I backpacked through Europe in ’97. I thought I would love England most, but the place that called to me most (so much so that I involuntarily wept as the train carried me away) was Insbruch, Austria. I’ve never felt more at home anywhere. Part of the reason I eagerly moved to Portland from the desert southwest is that it reminds me of my three days in Austria. I wonder if that’s significant. You know, metaphysically. It’s hard to know my heritage. There’s been so much indiscriminate sex in my family for so many generations that my family tree goes straight up and it’s all women.

    • Greg Olear says:

      I think that in the absence of hard data, instinct is what you have to go by…and instinct is often right, especially with things like this.

      Your family tree should link up with the mitochrondrial (sp?) DNA discussion, above.

  19. Erika Rae says:

    The urban planning here seems to have involved paving the paths of meandering cattle.

    Kourtney Kardashian is not Kim Kardashian, but she’s still, er, kute.

    So many great lines. Your writing is so fun to read, Greg. I don’t have the time to read all of the comments right now as I have 2 out of 3 children pulling on my leg at the moment, but were you able to find out more about this mysterious ancestry? If yes, just tell me something like, “For answer, read 1/3 of the way through comments list.”

    I had an epiphany that I was half Persian once. Maybe I’ll write about it someday – just trying to figure out how to retain respect for mom should she ever find it. I ended up being wrong (I actually took a genetics test with my older sister – and, yes, this was only a few years ago), but I found out something pretty huge and secret in my family. Woosh. So many secrets. (Isn’t that something from the DaVinci code? My apologies if yes.)

    Anyway, carry on, sir. I always love finding a new post from you.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Erika.

      This is the third chapter of a memoir I’ll probably never finish, involving my search for the missing ancestor. I’ve learned a lot of interesting things — such as that the first Olejar in the US, Stefan, was six feet tall, which was enormous in 1880, and explains how my dad and my son can be tall among so many shorties — but not anything about what I really want to know.

      I love huge and secret! Write about it! Do, do!

  20. Brad Listi says:

    “Nadia Romanova is either James Bond’s love interest or Anna Kournikova’s doubles partner.”

    I’m thinking a character named Nadia Romanova needs to appear in a future Olear novel.

    And I love the notion that we’re somehow drawn to places because we’ve lived in them in past lives. I think there’s something to that. Or, at the very least, I think we carry our ancestry with us in ways we don’t fully understand.

    It’s in the blood.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Brad.

      Full disclosure: I did tweak her last name a teeny-tiny bit. Her real surname is actually even cooler (and probably easy to Google).

      I really do believe that, that there are things passed down that we don’t understand or can’t fully access. The notion that we’re these super-intelligent beings whose science can explain everything I find amusing…I mean, shit, we don’t even know how to center a photograph in WordPress…

  21. Matt Baldwin says:

    To echo the chorus, I’ve heard nothing but lovely things about Prague. My graduate program actually had a study-abroad summer session there, which they changed to Barcelona the year I began my matriculation. I was always pissy about that (sorry, Barcelona–nothing personal). All of my school chums who’d gone swore by the beer and the women. Glad at least that I’m able to vicariously experience it through you.

    I completely agree that with your presumptive crush was the right move. A name like “Nadia Romanova” just honeydrips sex appeal.

    Due to my status as a bastard, it’s always been up in the air as to what my exact genetic make-up/ethnic heritage is; near as anyone can tell it’s a combination of French-Canadian/Cheyenne/Mexican/Spanish. Until I grew my beard out (which is red, not brown like the hair on my head) Mexicans around here would frequently speak to me in Spanish, and when I lived in Louisiana I was mistaken for a Creole on a fairly regular basis. One day I’ll get around to doing one of those genetic tests. One day.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Matt. Your last name, in fact, whatever the rest of your ancestry, is related to Sean’s…Baldwin/Beaudoin.

      1. English: from a Germanic personal name composed of the elements bald ‘bold’, ‘brave’ + wine ‘friend’, which was extremely popular among the Normans and in Flanders in the early Middle Ages. It was the personal name of the Crusader who in 1100 became the first Christian king of Jerusalem, and of four more Crusader kings of Jerusalem. It was also borne by Baldwin, Count of Flanders (1172–1205), leader of the Fourth Crusade, who became first Latin Emperor of Constantinople (1204). As an American surname it has absorbed Dutch spellings such as Boudewijn.
      2. Irish: surname adopted in Donegal by bearers of the Gaelic name Ó Maolagáin (see Milligan), due to association of Gaelic maol ‘bald’, ‘hairless’ with English bald.

      • Matt says:

        Hrmmm….except it’s not my birthname, it’s one that I got off my stepfather….I’ll email you the names on my birth certificate.

  22. angela says:

    greg, i loved this – the meandering through prague, the mystery of nadia, and then finally the surprising familial revelation.

    i always joke that if my geneology was done here in America, it would basically be, “and here’s your grandmother! the end!” when i lived in china, i didn’t go seek out my family roots. closest i got was meeting a woman who lived in the same village as my grandmother. i don’t even know what records were kept if any, or if the Communists destroyed everything.

    i went to Prague back in 2005 and adored it. i LOVED the fried camembert, and, like you, had very bad goulash.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Angela.

      The fact that documents are harder to obtain makes them more special. That’s why I started researching my paternal grandfather…because there was a mystery, because it was, and is, hard.

      The food in Prague was terrible. The best meal we ate was at Pizza Hut, and we were literally licking the toppings off the box.

      Countries with good beer have lousy food. I don’t know why that is…

  23. kristen says:

    “Despite my inability to navigate its twisted roads, Prague seems eerily familiar to me, like a landscape from a half-forgotten dream. … When we dream of places we’ve never been before, then, we are tapping into the atman. Our dreamscapes are memories from past lives, or else mnemonic heirlooms from long-dead ancestors.”

    As a person who in recent years has become fairly obsessed w/ dreams and what’s behind them (one of my favorite dreamwork dudes: http://mossdreams.blogspot.com), I love this line of thought. Ancient/collective truths received when earthly noise is quieted…

    I had a really intense dream a few months back that was set in Africa (I’ve never been) and involved a tribal elder-type figure who was unconditionally supportive and encouraging re: me “finding my right way.” Still stuns me.

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Kristen.

      Jung has a line about it, that of course I’ll butcher…if you focus attention on the subconscious, it will reveal its secrets to you.

      Africa, huh?

      As I type this, I just had one of the more odd dreams in recent memory. Usually I just dream about getting lost in a New York-that-isn’t-New-York.

      • kristen says:

        Sigh–love that Jung duder.

        Do you write your dreams down? The big-feeling ones, anyway?

        • Greg Olear says:

          I have to jump out of bed so quickly in the morning, on account of the kids, that I usually forget them. Alas. I wish I could.

          My wife has the most intricate dreams of anyone. Every night, without fail. Her subconscious is on peyote, I think.

  24. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    I’m mesmerized by the structure of this. Up to that second break it’s like a song with an evolving chorus, if that makes sense. Ooh, please finish this memoir! More, more, more.

    I’ve been told my German maiden name translates as “pothole” …

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Cynthia. It does, and I appreciate it.

      Your German maiden name is not in the Ancestry surname lookup database. (But then, neither is mine.) Was hoping to give you something more enlightening than “pothole.”

      But it could be worse…it could be “Gerard Butler’s Butler.”

  25. Jessica Blau says:

    Oh Iove this story. I want to go to Prague now. What I like best is your tone and perspective. You’re this cool, hipster New York writer guy who could totally play that off. But instead you go for the totally honest take–the real person, the true internal life. So much more fascinating than any facade!

    • Greg Olear says:

      Thanks, Jessica. Prague, yes, by all means go!

      And because it’s kind of you to say, I’m going to resist the urge to correct your idea of me as cool and hip. (Especially 1998 me, ordering the NyQuil absinthe. )

  26. Lenore says:

    i have to say, i think i feel slightly hungover after reading about you sweating up all those flights of stairs. thank god for the break where you discussed the pronunciation of your last name – i forgot about my psychosomatic sympathy hangover for a minute.

    • Greg Olear says:

      It really was a perfect storm of discomfort — I wasn’t exaggerating. And I checked the location of the AP buro to make sure it was on the sixth floor, as I recalled, and it is. or was, in ’98.

      I owe you a call re: Mademoiselle Six and company. Been a crazy week…

  27. Simon Smithson says:

    Damn it. I’m so lazy getting to comments on pieces that aren’t by me these days. Sorry, Greg, for my late arrival to the party.

    Damn, man.

    You were tuned in.

    The best hangover cure I’ve ever discovered was:

    – giant glasses of water before sleeping
    – bacon, eggs, and sausage the morning after
    – McDonald’s McChicken, Quarter Pounder, and chips, maybe two hours after that
    – Transformers

    I came out of the cinema a new man.

  28. Darian Arky says:

    Yeah. I’m not gonna say what I think about Prague, the 90s, and expats. I’m just not gonna do it. It’s all over now, so I don’t have to keep beating that drum. I’ll just take my meds and shut up. (Maybe I’ll buy a copy of The Prague Post and throw it in the garbage without reading it, just for good measure.)

    As for East meets West, that’s a bit of a problematic theme these days (see New START). But, sure, it’s a great place. And the great thing is that TNBers can sleep on my couch for free… 😉

  29. Surprisee Admin , i like with ur site. Do you have twitter or facebook so i can follow you ?

  30. Dusan Olejar says:

    Very nice story ;))) I was just pure accident that I was reading it, but I enjoyed it.

  31. Novelty toys says:

    Novelty Gifts…

    Prague, Revisited | The Nervous Breakdown…

  32. prestiti poste…

    […]Greg Olear | Prague, Revisited | The Nervous Breakdown[…]…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *