In 1980, prostitution inadvertently became legal in Rhode Island, the consequence of one of those boneheaded foul-ups for which the Ocean State’s legislature, the General Assembly, is justly famous. The state’s politicians made a lot of speeches decrying the shame of it, but for 29 years, they didn’t do anything about it. I couldn’t help but wonder why.

Chapter 24

“Yes,” I said, “I am a member of Joseph DeLucca’s immediate family.”

“And exactly how are you related?”

“He’s my brother.”

“Why is it, then, that you have a different last name?”

“We’re half- brothers.”

“I’m skeptical,” the hospital Nazi said.

A few months after Robert B. Parker died of a heart attack at his writing desk in January of 2010, his publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, approached Ace Atkins with a proposition. Parker’s family wanted Spenser, one of the most iconic private detectives in crime fiction history, to live on; and they were searching for the right writer to continue the series. Would Ace like to audition for the role by sending in 50 sample pages?

This was not an offer to be taken lightly.

It has been two years since Hope—Jack and Jenna Tanner’s bright and beautiful only child—walked out of her apartment door at the University of Wisconsin and vanished into the night.

Since then, Jenna’s grief has led to madness. She is confined now in a psychiatric hospital. Jack has been unable to concentrate on business. He has lost his job as a tax attorney at the largest law firm in Minneapolis.

Meanwhile, Slater Babcock, Hope’s college boyfriend and the only suspect in her disappearance, is enjoying the decadent life of a rich man’s spoiled son in sunny Key West.

Most great pop songs leave you wanting to know more about the story taking place within their allotted three minutes. About how things came to be, where things went after the outro, what the singer was doing during the guitar solo, that kind of thing. Did Gary Numan ever get out of his car? Did the Michael Jackson character in “Billie Jean” secretly think that, yeah, the kid probably was his son? Did Cyndi Lauper’s fun-loving party girl in “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” ever calm the fuck down?

The answers to these questions can’t be known, but they are peripheral to our enjoyment of the song anyway, so though they are fun to ponder, they are ultimately not important. But some songs pose questions that are so central to the song’s appeal that ignoring them is not an option. Such is the case in PJ Harvey’s song “You Said Something” from her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, in which a teasingly undelivered piece of information ensures that a pivotal moment in the relationship between the two main characters remains frustratingly, wonderfully mysterious.


Gregory McDonald has been dead for less than three years, yet already he seems in danger of being forgotten. A Google search turns up no recent chatter about his novels, and very little since his productive life as a writer came to an end in the late 1990s.

Aside from occasional late-night cable screenings of Fletch, a 1985 Universal Pictures movie starring Chevy Chase, McDonald’s most intriguing character also seems to be fading from American popular culture.

That’s a damn shame because McDonald was a gifted storyteller who peopled his crisply-written, very funny mysteries with irresistibly quirky characters. And behind the humor, he had some serious things to say about a host of American institutions from organized religion to the press.

Rear Window

By Tina Traster


Lately, I’ve been feeling like Jimmy Stewart in “Rear Window” — but in the suburbs.

Why haven’t I seen the school bus stop next door? Why is there only one car going in and out of the driveway? What’s happened to the wife and teenage daughters?

On a typical suburban street, such a mystery easily would be solved by popping by or picking up the phone. At the very least, I could call another neighbor and ask what’s going on at so-and-so’s house.

But not on this road. I live on an undulating mountain pass — the kind you might drive along if you were apple-picking upstate. Traffic moves fast. There are no sidewalks. At least one other person besides me raises chickens. I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks tote shotguns.

It’s the kind of road for people who live in a bedroom community but who’d rather not.

Dwellers include a small-press publisher, two sculptors, a moviemaker, a yoga teacher and holistic healers. I’ve met some of these people briefly, but most of us prefer a reclusive lifestyle. That’s why we live on a road where there’s never a block party or a communal effort to get a fallow townhouse development knocked down.

I think back to the Brooklyn house I grew up in. It was on a tree-lined street with small lawns and tidy back yards. Houses were in spitting distance of one another. We could see directly into our neighbor’s kitchen.

I remember gazing through the window while we cleared dishes after dinner. The husband and wife next door would become quite animated sometimes, moving in circles around one another, arms gesticulating. Were they quarreling or cavorting? It was an intriguing mime act to decipher.

When I ask my husband what he thinks happened to the wife and girls from next door, he says, “Has anyone looked in the wood chipper?”

He doesn’t care. He doesn’t wonder about strangers who live 200 feet from us. I’m not sure why I do.

After weeks of concluding I hadn’t seen the family, I made an intentional effort to see if the school bus was still stopping at their house. It wasn’t. During the long, snowy winter, I’d only seen the husband outside, shoveling — and only occasionally.

Then I remembered something: A few months ago, I’d noticed a U-Haul in their driveway. I assumed one of the girls was off to college.

Like Stewart’s character, I am overcome with curiosity — and theories. Is the couple going through a divorce? Did something terrible happen? Is it temporary or permanent?

My antenna is up.

Meanwhile, another mystery is dividing my detective time.

Several weeks back, I saw my elderly neighbor from across the street brought home in an ambulance, on a stretcher. From my window, he looked very withered and old. He is, by now, at least in his early 90s.

When we moved in nearly six years ago, he tottered across the dangerous road and introduced himself while we were doing a fall cleanup outside.

He’d been living on this road for a half-century. He told us stories about knowing people up here who used to trap minks. He was here before the New York State Thruway cut through Rockland County and brought a stream of traffic to our road. He was amused by the recent installation of sewers. He complimented us on rescuing the dilapidated farmhouse we bought and bringing it back to life.

What I remember most keenly about him was how much he loved living on this mountain road; he treasured the wildlife at his doorstep.

That was the longest conversation we ever had. After that, he occasionally waved while he was picking up his mail. Over time, I noticed he stopped driving. He no longer ambled down his long driveway to collect the mail. His son who lives in a neighboring house does that now.

The other day, I saw an ambulance with flashing lights return to his driveway. I think this time it was taking him away.

As the tires crunched down the gravel, my eyes welled up, over someone I never knew. Perhaps that’s what made me sad.

Read more about Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb in “Burb Appeal: The Collection,” now available on Amazon.com.

E-mail: [email protected]

The questions I’m asked most often about my new crime novel, Rogue Island, are: “How long did it take to write?” and “How did you find a publisher?”

“That figures,” a friend quipped.“Nobody wants to read a book anymore, but everybody wants to get published.”

A contributor to Goodreads, one of those websites where people comment on the books they’ve read, was baffled by The Last Talk with Lola Faye, the latest literary crime novel by Thomas H. Cook.

“I did not understand the point,” she said. “Who did it? I’m so lost!”

Crime Dog

By Bruce DeSilva


Say Hello to Brady.  He’s a pure-bred Bernese Mountain Dog, and he turns one year old this week. When we got him, he was eight weeks old and about the size of a loaf of pumpernickel. Now he’s a hundred and ten pounds and still growing.

From the moment I laid eyes on him, he had my heart. And now he’s sneaked into the crime novel I’m writing.

It happened when my protagonist, an investigative reporter named Mulligan, was trying to figure out how to introduce himself to Peggy, a perky young secretary who works for a guy Mulligan thinks is up to no good. As a former investigative reporter myself, I knew that when you can’t get the goods on someone the easy way–from the cops or from documents–the best sources of information are ex-wives and disgruntled employees. Mulligan didn’t know if Peggy was disgruntled, but he was determined to find out.

So he was hanging around outside her apartment building in Providence, R.I. one afternoon, trying to decide what to say when he knocked on her door. Suddenly the door swung open and out stepped Peggy with a dog on a leash. At first, it was a small dog, so Mulligan bent down to pet it. Then I looked at Brady, who was sitting on my feet as I wrote, and had a better idea. I deleted the paragraph and started again.

This time the apartment door flew open and an enormous Bernese Mountain Dog burst out, dragging the perky young blonde down the steps. The dog was just a pup, maybe nine months old, but he was already closing in on a hundred pounds. He took one look at Mulligan and bolted straight for him.  Peggy shouted “Brady, no!” but Brady wasn’t listening. He kept coming, ears and big pink tongue flopping. She outweighed him, but not by much, and he was a lot stronger. He dragged her right to Mulligan. Good doggie. Mulligan squatted on his heels to meet him. The dog draped his front paws over the reporter’s shoulders and worked that tongue in his ear. “Brady!” Peggy said again, and tugged on the leash with no discernible effect. “He can’t help himself,” Mulligan said. “Dogs and women love me.” The perfect introduction.

Since the real Brady came to live with me, he’s helped me with a lot of things. He’s great company when my wife is on the road. He’s brought joy to our 15-year-old girl. He sniffed out a box turtle that became a welcome guest in our house for a week before we released him into the wild. Brady gets me up from the computer to take him on walks, exercise we both badly need. I’d tell you that he is a great chick magnet if I weren’t worried that my wife might read this. And now he’s helping me write the sequel to “Rogue Island” (Forge, Oct. 12).

I’ve lived with dogs most of my life. On my fourth birthday, my father surprised me with a little black mutt that I ingeniously named Blackie. He was a terror. Snarled at visitors. Killed and ate our neighbor’s chickens. Chased cars, getting sideswiped by tires. And died in his sleep at the age of 17.

Later, I raised Border Collies. Our Sadie, progeny of Scottish champions, had great litters. Some of her pups went on to become obedience champions, and one ended up making commercials in Hollywood. I kept two of Sadie’s pups, Poco and Panda. Mama and the pups were all smart (everything you have heard about the breed is true), but Poco was a genius among dogs. When I trimmed the hedge, she’d try to help by jumping up and tearing at the branches. When I picked strawberries in our garden, she’d pluck them with her mouth and drop them in my basket. When I husked corn, she’d grab an ear, brace it with her front paws, and tear the husks away with her teeth. Anything to lend a hand.

Back then, I was working out of my house in Massachusetts, covering eastern and northern New England for a newspaper in another state. I was one of those writers who needed to read his stories out loud to someone so I could hear how the words sounded when they came out of my mouth. But often I was alone at home with the dogs.

So I’d call Poco and say, “sit.” Poco would sit. I’d say, “stay,” and Poco would stay. Then I’d read my story to her, and Poco would listen to my voice, cocking her head as if she were fascinated by every line. For a while there, I was worried I might have to save for her college tuition.

Twelve years ago, I moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets and stayed there for ten years. Boy did I miss having a dog. So last summer, after we bought a house in a nice suburban town in New Jersey, the very next thing we got for ourselves was Brady.

You can learn a lot about people by how they treat dogs. The same goes for fictional characters.

So when I started writing my first crime novel, “Rogue Island,” dogs inevitably worked their way into the story. In that book, Mulligan pines for Rewrite, the Portuguese Water Dog his harpy of an ex-wife doesn’t care for but keeps out of spite. And a mutt named Sassy, looking like a cross between a German Shepard and a Humvee, figures significantly into one of the sub-plots. Rewrite reappears in the last lines of the book–lines that Ken Bruen, Irish master of noir, calls “as callous as I ever read, and perfectly fitting.”

In the sequel I’m writing now, tentatively titled “Cliff Walk,” an aging bookie named Zerilli adopts a big mutt from the pound.

“Got a name for him yet?” Mulligan asks.

“Calling him Shortstop.”

“How come?”

“‘Cause Centerfielder’s a stupid fuckin’ name.”

Zerilli got the dog to guard his place at night, but it’s not working. The dog loves everybody. Mulligan almost asks if Zerilli is going to keep the dog, but from the way the bookmaker’s fingers are working behind the dog’s ears, he already has his answer.

And the reader has learned something important about Zerilli.

I could tell you more about all this, but Brady is tugging at my pants leg. It’s time to go for a walk.

Recently I sat in a dark auditorium to watch a screening of “The Maltese Falcon” for what must have been the 100th time. Most of the others in the audience were college students, and within minutes they began to titter. By the third scene, the titters turned into belly laughs.


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.





My father’s family has been in Brooklyn since the 1600’s. Seriously. I’m pretty sure that if we had had a relative on the Mayflower, I’d know it, but we were here since soon after that. Of course that is only Dad’s side. Our other sides are pretty much Johnny-come-latelies. In any case, it was inconceivable for my Dad’s family to imagine living anywhere but Brooklyn. Forget another state, Manhattan wasn’t even in the cards. Our two aunts and their husbands and kids lived in Brooklyn. Our uncle, (horror of horrors!) was sent kicking and screaming to Pennsylvania by his company. There was practically a wake over it. One of the things my father used to say was: “If you’re not in Brooklyn, you’re camping out.”

Our family got together every single weekend for my entire childhood in Brooklyn. The parents got together over whiskey sours and the kids were sent away with Pepsi, Coke, 7up and pretzels. After we hung around in our separate groups for a while, we would all have a big dinner then the mothers would clean up and the fathers would go smoke cigarettes and then we’d go home. Each holiday was also included, in addition to the weekends. This was our extended family, all of it, and we stuck together. We earnestly stuck together.

When I was about eleven, my father announced that it was time that we visit our mother’s mother.

(She had a mother?)

This came as a shock to me and my brother. We never knew she had a mother. We discovered that she actually did have a mother and she lived in CANADA! Her mother and some of her brothers lived in Manitoba on a farm.

(She had brothers?)

(They lived on a farm?)

This was before President Eisenhower started the Interstate Highway system we have today. It took five full days to drive on two lane roads from Brooklyn to Manitoba. This was summer, and I might point out for those of you who are young, there was no such thing as air conditioning anywhere, let alone in cars.

My brother and I fought the whole way for entertainment and my father kept trying to hit us from the front seat while driving, but we had mastered the art of not getting hit in the car by wedging ourselves in the far corners where his right arm swinging and punching at us while driving couldn’t reach. One odd thing I remember is that we got turned around at some point and my mom mentioned the placement of the sun and my dad actually backed out of South Dakota. How many people can say they have done that, eh?

When we arrived in Manitoba, which is a place that is actually NORTH of North Dakota, we found my Mystery Grandmother’s farm. My mother got out of the car and walked over to this teeny, tiny, squat old lady. This person was easily 145 years old.

Then my mother started speaking in tongues. My brother and I were thoroughly flummoxed. It appeared that our mother was speaking another language, unknown to us. Understand here that no one had explained anything to us. This mystery family we had never heard of, on a mystery farm in a foreign country NORTH of North Dakota, spoke Ukrainian. My brother finally gleaned this somehow. He was a pretty good detective, and four years older than I. I just thought the whole bunch of them were possessed.

There were more surprises. My mother had ten and a half brothers and one sister. On this trip we met some of them. There were the short, squat ones and the tall, thin ones. Their stature was divided approximately in half. We didn’t know what a half a brother was, but we left that one alone because taking in the whole our mom had a family thing was more than enough to process.

My Mystery Grandmother had fingers that were gnarled up as though they were in knots. She had NO fingernails. Not one. She didn’t even look in our direction for the whole visit, which I think lasted about four days. It was as though we were not visible. She totally creeped me out. As she showed no interest in me, and there was no way to communicate with her, it was not a problem staying away from her.

We never were told anything to call her, so I will just refer to her as MG. MG’s farmhouse had no running water. There was an outhouse, replete with spiders. There was a well for drinking from and a river for doing laundry, since the well water was too hard. MG’s farmhouse had no electricity.


Duh. We were from the CITY. We were from BROOKLYN!

We had traveled back in time to an earlier century.

The kitchen had a wood stove in the center. In the cold weather, (and let me tell you, there is some seriously cold weather up there in Canada, and I’m pretty sure that people still live there on purpose!), the family, each with his own blanket, slept in a circle in the kitchen around the wood stove. MG had burns all up and down her hands and arms because, for reasons I never knew, she had no feeling in her hands or arms, so she would constantly be burned by the woodstove in the winter because she was unaware when she was touching the stove.

This is the only picture of MG that someone took of my mother and my father and Woody and me with her. Here it is:

After this visit, we never saw her again. If it were not for the photograph, I might have thought I imagined the whole thing.

Later, when I was an adult, my mother showed me the other picture of her. This was with my Aunt Ann, the bigger one, and my mother, the little one, and her father and mother. She was told by her sister that her father wanted a picture taken of them with his girls. There is no picture of the myriad boys. My mother was also told that her father told my grandmother to take care of the girls, that the boys could take care of themselves. A few months after this picture was taken, my grandfather died of pneumonia after helping a neighbor pull his ox out of a frozen lake. No shit.

My Aunt Ann actually thought I was great. This was new to me, since my mother thought I was a waste of space. She sent smocked dresses to me by mail, which my girls wore also and I expect my granddaughters will, too. Of course, I never knew they came from her since I didn’t know she existed at the time.

I only met my Aunt once when I was about 13. I had never been on a plane. People just didn’t fly back then. The day before we left, I went to Coney Island with some friends and, since it was overcast, I assumed I wouldn’t burn. I was wrong. My mother had picked an outfit for me that was, oddly, the exact same color as my skin. This was a time when, if you DID fly on a plane, you dressed up for the occasion. I wore a bright red suit with patent leather shoes and a little hat.

My Aunt Ann had cancer. No one told me this. (Does anyone see a pattern forming here?) She was stick thin and could not walk. She sat, crumpled, on the couch. Later, spinal cancer was mentioned, but I never really knew what closed her eyes for good. Her husband, Uncle George, carried her everywhere. They had no children and were notoriously in love. They had owned and had been running a very successful restaurant in Calgary. (The restaurant business was something I was later to learn was one way her family escaped the farm.) We spent a few days with her, while huge swaths of my skin peeled off, rather like I was molting.

Soon after we returned from Calgary, my Aunt Ann died. My Uncle George totally disappeared. The restaurant was left abandoned. The consensus is that he could not live without her and killed himself in such a way as not to be found. I always thought this was incredibly romantic when I was young. Now, I think that perhaps he could have used some support to get him through the grief, but he wasn’t about to get that from my mother’s family. We were not a supportive family, on my mom’s side. Were my dad involved, he would have stayed with Aunt Ann until she died and then stayed with Uncle George until he was able get past the grief enough to accept living without his beloved. That’s how things were done in his family. But, then, my dad was not there. Abandonment is what was done in my mom’s family.

Recently I had occasion to order a certified copy of my birth certificate. (The surprises just keep on coming.) My mother’s place of birth was listed as California. So far as I know, my mother never set foot in California. Apparently, my mother lied on my birth certificate. How’s that for weird?



Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:20:39

I enjoy your family history so much Irene, but I’m always left wanting more. I would love to know how your parents met and how two people (from what I can figure out) so completely different in compassion, love and care, can presumably fall in love and get married…
And the picture with your MG, is that your mother over her shoulder?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:45:31

That’s my mother with the cat’s eye glasses. At the time I couldn’t see a thing, but my brother could. (Not that we knew what we were looking at.)

This is taking me so long to type on account of my right hand tried to sever a piece of my left index finger yesterday and the bandage is pressing way too many letters that are entirely unnecessary.

Is my MG STRANGE or what? (How about my brother, on the other hand?)

I’ll get to all of it eventually. My story telling comes in strange random spurts.

Comment by Christine W. |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:25:11

I love these old photos!

Has anyone tried to find Uncle George? I wonder where he went…hmmmm…

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:48:00

Hi Chrisitne!

I was only 13, so I didn’t know what to do.

As far as I know, he completely vanished. it was horribly sad, now that I’m old enough to know better.

Poor Uncle George. I had two Uncle Georges, but that’s a whole other story.

Comment by George |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:31:38

You said, “My mother’s place of birth was listed as California. So far as I know, my mother never set foot in California. ” Why would she lie? How could she lie? The people who print these certificates don’t ask you where you were born; they tell you. There is a story there.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-15 14:49:57


What can I say?

I just ordered the certified copy and there it was.

Not only was she born in California, but her last name was spelled differently.

Maybe I’m illegal! (Don’t tell anyone!)

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-15 15:12:20

Wow , such a boring family I have. Brooklyn does rule, however.
Now about you and getting injured. I had my turn a few years ago. remember? A friend of mine wanted to wrap me in bubble wrap. I am thinking you need the same.


Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 02:43:32


I would go for the bubble wrap, but it’s so HOT here! It would be way too sweaty.

(I call it “pop-it paper” and so does Victor. We always have. Perhaps it’s regional. It drives Sara crazy, cause she thinks we’re teaching her kids the wrong words.)

My family is extremely not boring, I agree.

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:47:34

Although my grandpa was in jail for a bit… legend has is for 2 month to 2 years who knows. My great grandfather ran away to San Fransico and supposedly died in the great earthquake. Since there are no real records we do not know if that is true or not. I bet you dollars to donuts though if there is a list , he is the only Goldstein on it.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 05:53:49

What was your grandpa in jail for? This is tasty!
Poor great grandpa!

Comment by melissa (irene’s friend) |Edit This
2009-05-17 07:52:20

If you heard Grandpa tell it , his brother set him up. They were in business together , Grandpa went to jail for extortion.
Now they say what comes around goes around, my great grandfather ran away from his family to San Fran and died in the earthquake. Hmmm, Karma?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:14:55


It sounds like Great Grandpa got what was coming to him!

did your grandpa ever get back at his brother? Some brotherly love there!

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-15 16:42:20

you left out the part about City Girl wanting to cuddle the piglets…
i like that part!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 02:56:22

Oh yeah! Thanks Sara!

I was wandering around the farm and I found a pen full of the sweetest, pinkest baby piglets, so I climbed over the fence to cuddle them. (I always have been a sucker for animals.)

The next thing I new my mother was flying over the fence, grabbing me and hurling me and then herself out of the pen.

City girls don’t know that the 350 pound sow is not happy with people cuddling her babies.

I used to think it was the only sign ever that she cared about me, but actually now I think that she did it because my father really liked me and he would have been angry at her if I’d been attacked and possibly eaten by an angry sow.

When NANA was living a block from us at the ritzy retirement community she did a similar thing for Lenore. Lenore went down to the lake to pet the swans, but they had recently laid a clutch of eggs and were not friendly. My mother booked her skinny body down the hill and snatched up Lenore right before the swan attacked.

I was surprised for two reasons. First, birds have no teeth, so how bad could a bite or two be? My mother explained that when she was growing up they had attack swans to warn them when someone was on the farm. They made lots of noise and their bites really do hurt. Remember, we were the city people.

Second, my mother only liked Lonny out of all five of my kids. It amazed me that she snapped up Lenore from the jaws of danger. Perhaps it would have looked bad to her fellow retirees to allow her granddaughter to be attacked.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-16 04:26:22

maybe it was the messiness factor?
think of all the paring that would be necessary if you (or lenore) had significant injuries from the pig (or swan)… plus, the bleaching, and ironing, and sewing… it would take all day! how irritating!

(i admit, i’m hamming it up a little– i really do think she loved and even liked all of us, including you. she was just, well, nana, and had a hard time showing affection. but in the end, she didn’t want her daughter or her granddaughter to be eaten by a quasi-domesticated animal, even if you two girls should’ve known better in the first place and could’ve used a lesson-learning!)

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 05:01:09

You think so, Sara? I hope that’s true.

For those of you who don’t get the reference Sara is referring to, you could go here and see:


Comment by Zara Potts |Edit This
2009-05-16 11:11:07

It’s true… Swans are scary, nasty creatures. I got bitten by a black swan when I was about six. They terrify me now. I’ve never been the same since…

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:16:31

I can’t understand how I didn’t learn swans were dangerous until I was an adult.
sometimes I think my brain is on vacation when I’m supposed to be learning things, Zara!

Comment by Melissa |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:56:30

I did get bit by a duck, when I was aobut 5. Lollipop farm on Long Island. We have it the bite and my screaming (well not really since there was no sound then) in a movie. Nasty duck, my mom said it was after me the entire time.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 05:55:38

Oh, Poor Melissa,

When you’re five you are so trusting.
You see a fluffy duck and go over to it and it ATTACKS you.
So wrong.
So very wrong.

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-15 16:46:24

also, you can totally tell that MG is has mangled hands. i wonder how she
beat herself up, so?
it’s not all that easy to lose *all* of one’s fingertips. do you think she might have had leprosy? or just many years of repeated frostbite? or renaud’s? or similar knife-handling skills as her granddaughter?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:03:16

Sara, I know! Even from far away you can see that they are HUGE. I think it was a combination of rheumatic arthritis, and Renaud’s, both of which she passed along to NANA. Also I’m sure repeated burns were a factor.

I don’t think she was missing her fingertips, I think she was just missing her fingernails. But now that you say that, perhaps she was missing them. Lord knows frostbite where it gets 50 below on a regular basis in the winter and living in a house with no heat didn’t help. She had to do the laundry at the river, remember? You still have laundry in the winter and there were scores of children there dirtying up clothes. Plus, again, the repeated burns.

Any ideas why she had no sensation in her hands and arms?

I never heard of any leprosy, but then, I wouldn’t have, would I?

Comment by Sara Zion |Edit This
2009-05-16 04:30:21

sort of looks like her fingers might have been congenitally webbed…
google medical images of congenital finger webbing or “lobster claws.” i’ll bet you’ll find some. poor gal. but i’ll bet growing up with significant malformations toughened her for a life of early widowhood in manitoba with 952 kids to support. i’ll bet she was a tough old bird.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 05:02:40

But, Sara,

WHY didn’t she have fingernails, or did she actually not have finger tips?

And WHY were her arms and hands numb to pain?

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 09:41:14

OH MY GOD! we have a flipper-person as a family member!

omg omg omg

i am so excited…i feel like i’m a character in Geek Love!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 12:22:26


You are jumping to conclusions here. She had terrible rheumatic arthritis and Reynaud’s and she was badly and repeatedly burned.
You don’t know because no one does!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:51:46


I am trying to comment on Sara’s last post , but I can’t even get close to it.

I never noticed my MG’s hands in the picture where she was young!!!

They are ENORMOUS!

I think she DID have “Lobster Claws!”


This is going to take some getting used to.

Comment by lonny |Edit This
2009-05-17 12:05:36


great grandma had sweet lobster claw flipper hands

that is super cool

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-18 05:58:02

Does anyone understand why my children think that this deformity is a cool thing?
I’m stumped here.

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-15 18:03:29

i love that nana pretended to be from california. but i’m pretty sure she was diagnosable as paranoid personality disorder, so it seems like that might have had something to do with it. crazy old lady.

do you ever think about how gross it is that you were in her womb?

by the way, i never knew anything about any of this, either. so no one tells me anything, either. i wish someone had taught me to speak russian or some eastern european language.

our family is weird.
you write about it with such fluidity though!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:10:51

How in hell could I have taught you Ukranian when I only heard it for four days when I was 13?

Dad could have taught you Russian, I suppose, but he was pretty busy trying to work to support his enormous family, and making sure you did your homework.

I would have taught you Italian, if I had remembered it. I did teach you some French. We sang French songs, remember?

Only YOU would ask if I thought how gross it was to be in her womb. All I know about that part is that she didn’t want to gain weight, so she didn’t. No one could tell she was pregnant. It’s amazing that I wasn’t damaged in some obvious way. (On the other hand, the birth certificate I just got actually just has dotted lines for my weight. Could it be that I weighed nothing?)

Duh. Of course she was nuts.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:45:04

Now that I look at the picture, I don’t think I could have been thirteen. I look much younger. Maybe I was ten or eleven. My brother is four years older, how old does he look to you?
MG does look 145, though, eh?

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Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 09:44:13

you look ten or eleven there to me.

seriously, like we’re straight from Geek Love. maybe you were actually three there and you just looked ten or eleven cause you were a freak.

this is so exciting.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 12:23:33

People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, Lenore!

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:33:23


I think it’s time you knew.

All five of you were born with little stubby tails that came to a point. Each of you had different patterns in your fur. Some of you had stripes, some speckled, some with spots. The doctors all said we had to remove them or you would be scarred for life.
I really sort of regret it, they were utterly adorable little tails.
(But. What’s done is done. We just have to go on.)

Comment by Lenore |Edit This
2009-05-16 18:20:57

now it’s like i’m the MAIN CHARACTER of Geek Love!
you know this is my favorite book.
you know all of this makes sense now.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 03:56:48

Good to find your rightful place in life.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 10:20:50


I am very much afraid that if you look closely at her left hand in particular, both when she was young and when she was old, it looks just like ectrodactyly.
I think Sara is right again!
I think I just WANTED her to be wrong about this one cause it’s so totally discomforting!

Look for yourself:


Comment by lonny |Edit This
2009-05-17 12:26:25

i think we can all agree that you are both freaks

doesnt that make everything better?

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-18 06:01:18

Lonny, who so you refer to when you say “both”?

I am turning into a dithering idiot over all this.

Comment by jmb |Edit This
2009-05-15 18:05:49

See, this stuff if tricky and those who try to write
(and arent we all trying to write?)
(Who has actually written?)
know how difficult it is to tell a story like this
in a manner that moves the reader along the page.
This Irene, she’s crafty and capable.
Surely her husband is blessed among men.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:16:50

James Michael Blaine,

It is true that I am always trying to write and have never actually written. I just keep editing things over and over and I guess when I just get sick of it I finally post. But I still want to make changes. Always.

My husband is a blessing.
I am blessed among women.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-05-15 20:22:43

Your dad’s family sounds exactly like both sides of my family. Ben finds this whole extended family thing very strange.

I am really angry that my grandpa never taught my dad or any of us Swedish. It would be really cool if I were bilingual, though I would prefer a more useful language than Swedish.

Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-16 03:24:46


We would have had an extended family thing if we could have, but Victor is an only child and all his relatives are gone. I only have my elusive brother and he has no children and barely ever appears. All the rest of my relatives are gone too.

But Ben forgets that we constructed an extended family from our amazing and wonderful friends. They were better than family. We got to pick each other.

If you knew Swedish, you would be close to learning all the other languages in the area. Norwegian, Finnish and whatever you call the language from Denmark. (I’m blanking out here.)

I don’t think it would help much with Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian though. I may be wrong, but I think they are based differently.

Comment by Kate |Edit This
2009-05-16 16:21:21

Ben seems to have forgotten his entire childhood, from what I can gather.

Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish are all really similar, but I think Finnish is actually more closely related to Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. It’s not really very Scandinavian at all.

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Comment by Irene Zion (Lenore’s Mom) |Edit This
2009-05-17 04:03:32


When we were in Turkey, we were told that, odd as it may sound, Turkish is closely related to Finnish and Hungarian.