I enjoy reading historical fiction and detective novels, and Philip Kerr’s Prussian Blue hits both genres. Philip Kerr was a British author who died in 2018 from bladder cancer. He wrote 14 historical thrillers in the detective Bernie Gunther series. Prussian Blue was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, a British Literary Award for historical fiction in 2018. The novel soothed my racing mind in the evenings and allowed me to focus on the plot and characters, putting me to sleep.
The book is set in Hitler’s Bavarian Alps retreat, Berghof. It is 1939, months before Germany invades Poland and a murder occurs on the veranda of the Berghof. Bernie Gunther is a Berlin detective that is sent there to solve the crime before Hitler’s 50th birthday party, which is scheduled to take place at the Berghof in a couple of weeks. There are a lot of villainous, greedy Nazis leaders doing unsavory things in and around the retreat. Gunther is an outsider, but a respected detective. Kerr either did a lot of research and/or lived in Germany because as a reader, I felt I was following the story from German eyes. Kerr has attention to detail and one of the highlights for me was learning the mistrust Hitler and his party had for Germans from Berlin. Hitler’s henchman and his base of operations were mostly in Bavaria. It would have been fascinating if the place was kept as a museum, but in some ways, it is good that it was destroyed. I love this photo of American troops celebrating in the ruins of the Berghof. So many lost lives, both German and American were planned in Berghof.
The book jumps between the murder investigation in 1939, the height of the National Socialist Party’s power in Germany, and 1956 when Bernie Gunther is being harassed by the East German Secret Police, the Stasi. The stories in both times have much action, murder, chase scenes, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Prussian Blue.
As some of you who read my blog or know me personally have heard my concerns about climate change. This is a slow-motion disaster occurring over several generations. It frustrates me that the evidence is quite clear that humanity will be living in a diminished world in the near future, and we are doing nothing to prevent it. It was through this lens that I read journalist Lizzie Johnson’s “Paradise: One Town’s Struggle to Survive an American Wildfire.” Drought is more frequent, especially in the American West and I wanted to get a better understanding of the most destructive wildfire in US history that took place in November of 2018. The fire completely destroyed several towns in Butte County, 150 miles northeast of San Francisco. Over 80 people died in the fire and it was the most expensive home and building damage in history.
A downed electrical wire was the cause of the fire. It made me angry that the Pacific Gas and Electric Company was so negligent and incompetent in the maintenance of the grid. PG&E services over 5 million homes in northern California and takes in immense profits. They should have paid their investors and administration less and put more into safety. The greed and carelessness are gross.
PG&E’s incompetence and avarice were not the only cause of the fire. Another cause that really irks me is the tendency for people to move out of towns and build homes on some forested acreage. The concept is called “Wildland-Urban Interface,” where people want to move out of town for privacy and quiet. They build homes on 1-10 acre forested plots. This creates a fire risk and also breaks up wilderness areas. I wish people would stay in town instead of many choosing privacy. In my opinion, people are better off being close to neighbors and having more community interaction instead of being in their homes or on their decks in isolation. Well-being comes from interaction with others, and the solitude of nature can be found daily in many of these areas through hiking, kayaking, camping, etc., instead of many people having their little piece of wilderness. I hope municipalities of the future see this trend and put a stop to it through thoughtful zoning laws. The other causes are, of course, drought and mismanagement of forests and fire. Controlled burning should be implemented to mimic natural conditions to reduce fuel for big fires.
Johnson does incredible reporting! She lived with families from Paradise for 2 years and collected all of their stories. The book reads like an action movie, and the reader feels like they are trying to evacuate or escape the fire. It also highlights the uncertainty and misinformation that occurs in emergencies. For example, the police were stopping all traffic coming entering the highway leading out of Paradise, backing up traffic all the way into the fire zone due to not knowing where the fire danger actually was. I would like to read more about the Australian government’s strategy of advising people to stay put instead of evacuating wildfires in the Wildland-Urban Interface. Many people who stayed in the fire zone survived through finding shelter away from trees. For example, a big parking lot surrounding a WalMart. Wildfire passes quite quickly and sometimes it is better to stay in place, rather than get trapped in cars on narrow, tree-lined streets.
The Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan is the northern and more elevated landmass of the two major landmasses that make up the state of Michigan. The UP is larger than Switzerland and larger than 9 US states. I love the Upper Peninsula because it is a land of forests, water, snow, and few people. There is 2,700 km of Great Lakes shoreline (Great Lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron), 43,000 inland lakes, and 19,000 km of streams and rivers. 84% of the peninsula is boreal forest with 8.8 million acres of wilderness. Much of the peninsula is located in the “snow belt” due to westerly winds picking up moisture from Lake Superior and dumping 2-3 meters of snow annually. With only just over 300,000 residents, it is quiet and remote from urban centers. The closest cities by driving distance are Minneapolis, Chicago and Detroit, all over 6 hour-drives, depending on where you start in the UP.
How I became a Yooper (phonetic UP-er) was a bit serendiptious. My birth mother before I was born, spent time in the Air Force and was stationed at the Kinross Airforce Base. When she had an out-of-wedlock pregnancy as a young nurse in Pennsylvania, she returned to Sault Ste. Marie, the Chippewa County seat near the base to give birth to me and put me up for adoption in secret from her family and friends. I was adopted by a family from the western side of Upper Peninsula, Iron River, through Catholic Social Services in 1967. I was twelve days old when my adopted parents picked me up from a foster home in Trout Lake, Michigan. As a parent, I know how painful this was for my birth mother, but I understand her predicament. I’ll cover this whole story in my memoirs someday, but for the sake of this blog post, I am glad she had ties to the UP and I grew up in this distinct region of the USA. The four western counties of the UP that border on Wisconsin are in the Central Time Zone while the rest of the peninsula and the state are in the Eastern time zone. The Upper Peninsula became part of Michigan thanks to President Andrew Jackson. He offered the UP to Michigan to stop the war with Ohio and the claims to the Toledo Strip, a piece of land south of Detroit. I think Michigan won the deal by gaining such a big piece of wilderness to add to their state. I’ve been to Toledo and northern Ohio, and it is nothing special.
The UP reminds me of Winterfell and the North in HBO television series, Game of Thrones. The long, harsh winters forge an identify on the people and landscapes of the region. The bitter cold keeps most people away, and unlike the western and southern parts of America, the region is actually slightly depopulating. Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world is approximately the size of the state of Maine, and acts like the Wall in the Game of Thrones. I guess that would make the Canadians the “wildlings.” 🙂 As the two maps below demonstrate, there are a lot of trees and not much noise or light pollution in the peninsula.
I still own my childhood home in the village of Caspian, in Iron County with my brother. We also bought a home in Marquette, the largest city in the UP (19,000 people) and my son goes to Northern Michigan University. As many Yoopers, as I get older, home is calling me back. I loved seeing old friends and family. I also have a lot of nostalgia and being back there reminds me of things I’ve lost, my parents and family/friends and my youth. The quiet, cool evenings, dark forests, seemingly endless gravel roads leading to inland lakes, brings me contentment.
I was disheartened to read much of Nancy Langston’s “Sustaining Lake Superior: An extraordinary lake in a changing world.” Climate change experts predict if current trends continue, by the end of the century (2100), the UP will have a climate equivalent to Arkansas. That would be a shame as the cold-weather plants and animals that make the UP home give it a distinct identity. Lake Superior is the fastest warming lake in the world. Surface temperatures of Lake Superior rose 4.5 F between 1979 and today. For now, it is still very cold most of the year because of its immense size and depth. This allows nutrients to cycle up and down twice a year, keeping from eutrophication. However, with increased air temperatures and decreased winter ice cover, this will change.
“The climate change scenarios currently projected for Wisconsin at the end of this century utterly boggle the mind. Conservative middle-ground scenarios show Wisconsin becoming the climatological equivalent of Arkansas, while Madison’s climate will morph into a twin of Oklahoma City…Meanwhile, the North Woods may gradually transition into an oak savannah…Forests will change as well, with models predicting that our forests may become similar to those now in Arkansas. Nearly 85% of the Lake Superior basin is currently forested, with a mixture of boreal forests in the north and aspen-birch, and white-red-jack pine trees along the southern shores.”
Climate change will increase stresses on trees and may cause the loss of the boreal forest in the basin. These stressors include drought, wind, insects, fires and insects and increased deer herbivory.
Another thing I learned from the book is that the first European explorers to the Great Lakes Basin came across abundant beavers. There were perhaps 200 million beavers in the USA and over 10% of the land near the Great Lakes was flooded with beaver dams. This benefited the area, increasing biodiversity and keeping the lake free of sediment and toxins. Langston describes the impact of the logging and mining boom on the region and lake. She lives in the Keweenaw Peninsula and it was largely deforested to fuel the copper smelters and remained bare for a three quarters of a century. Sawmills in Wisconsin during the lumber industry boom processed 60 billion board feet of lumber between 1873 and 1897 alone. A forestry expert at the time estimated that only 13% of the white pine in Wisconsin was still standing.
Although humans have altered the UP a lot, it is still one of the wildest areas in the USA. It will be interesting to see how the global economy and climate change impact life in the UP and the Great Lakes region as a whole. It will always be home for me.
We had an unexpected extra day for our summer vacation. American Airlines canceled our flight leaving Marquette due to a lack of pilots. American Airlines reduced the number of weekly flights leaving Marquette from 5 to 3. That has been a theme of the holiday; deficiencies in the workforce causing decreasing services. Some examples include waiting 45 minutes for our meal at The Library restaurant in Houghton due to a lack of chefs or my friend having to close a gas station he manages early regularly because they cannot find people to work. We had several discussions about the cause of the worker shortage with friends. My take is a combination of people taking early retirements, COVID deaths, and as a friend observed, young people don’t have to get summer jobs the way they used to because of increased affluence or different priorities.
After finding out that our flight was canceled upon arrival at KI Sawyer International Airport, we quickly made new travel logistics. The airport is 90 minutes drive from Iron River. When the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base closed in the early 1990s, local officials converted it to a civilian airport. American Airlines had booked us on the flight the next day without informing me, so that part was taken care of. Our school travel coordinator spoke to the travel agent in Tashkent, and they re-booked our flights for the next day as well. There have been many flight cancellations, so there were seats on both connecting flights. I then changed our reservations at the Yotel, the hotel inside the Istanbul airport, for our 12-hour layover. Finally, we got a room at the Cedar Inn in Marquette, and with the typical UP hospitality, they found 1 room for all of us at $119 per night.
My brother dropped us and the bags off at the hotel. In the morning, Owen showed us the Northern Michigan University campus. We stopped at the bookstore to buy some NMU swag. My takeaway from the tour of the campus is I like how they market themselves as a university in an outdoor pursuit destination. They promote kayaking, hiking, biking, skiing, etc. in various provocative ways. It must appeal to students from neighboring states and downstate Michigan to come to the shores of Lake Superior in a hip, progressive town to enjoy nature while getting a degree at a decent university. I was surprised to learn that the CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, is an NMU graduate.
We went out to Presque Isle Park which is always beautiful! It was a perfect day, and as you can see by the photos, Lake Superior and the Northwoods were looking their best. Nadia and Ocean went shopping at many cute and independent shops downtown. Marquette is a liberal, democratic, progressive town in a mostly red-state culture of the Upper Peninsula. I see why Marquette County always votes blue. We were tired from getting up at 3:00 AM to catch our 6:20 AM flight departing KI Sawyer. We napped in the afternoon and went to the Fish Express Truck at the Third Street Market for delicious Lake Superior WhiteFish Tacos.
We said goodbye to Owen the next morning at the airport. It always breaks my heart to see him leave us, but such is life. I am happy to see him mature and start to become an independent man.
We had a relaxing weekend enjoying the summer weather of Tashkent. I love dinners outside by the pool with my family. It usually ends up with me falling asleep on the topchan. 🙂 Our teenage children spend less time with us and more time with their friends which is natural stage of life. It means they are pulling away from us to become independent adults. 😦
The tapchan is a raised platform that is used in Central Asia for relaxing and reclining outdoors. It functions as a table, or as a bed, and often has a smaller table on it for serving food and tea. The tapchan can be made of wood or welded steel, and often has a thin mattress, cushion, or carpet on wood planks. You will find them in parks, restaurants, back yards, and at hotels. Sometimes the tapchan is covered with a mosquito net at night for outdoor sleeping on hot nights when you don’t want to sleep in the house. Some tapchans are made with tall corner posts that can support a latticework roof, and vines or climbing plants can cover it for shade. The tapchan is important for entertaining guests and socializing. A nice sized tapchan can be big enough for 6 people to sit around the small tea table.
On Friday night, we went out with friends to the Carlsberg Beer Garden. The beer garden next to the brewery is open in the summer months and is a great venue for a night out. A really good rock band was playing covers ranging from Coldplay to Led Zepplin to the Eagles. Our party chose Baltica pitchers but I switched to Sarbast the beer Carlsberg brews for the Uzbek market. “Sarbast” means soldier in English and the unfiltered version is a medium bodied lager.
Saturday morning I rode my bike through the rolling hills between the towns of Parkent and Changi nestled against the Chatkal mountains, about 45 minutes outside of Tashkent. I love riding back roads because of light car traffic. I also took some of the trails through the grape and plum orchards. It was quite dusty but nice views and the perk of sneaking a few juicy grapes and plums on breaks.
In the late afternoon Nadia, Ocean and I took Obi on a walk with our dog-owning friends along the Ankhor Canal. We took a photo of the kids posed on one of the lovely London Plane Trees that line the canal. (below)
Sunday is our shopping day and Nadia and I usually first head to our favorite supermarket Korzinka or Magnit, and then to a couple of markets (bazaars in Uzbek) to find fresh vegetables and fruits. We like the Mirabad Bazaar because it is close to our house and uncrowded with a wide range of products. I am always curious about the helpers below. These are guys that cruise around the market, asking to carry the produce and shopping of customers for a small fee. They use wheeled crate and will escort people to their cars. We usually pay them around $5 for the service. I am curious about their finances. How much do they make in a day? Is this a side gig or main source of income? What is the average tip they receive?
I changed diapers for 8 consecutive years! That was the time from when our first son was born in 2002 to our daughter getting out of diapers in 2010. I could have avoided much of that if we had encountered an Uzbek beshik. Last weekend I went to the big Chorsu Bazaar in Tashkent looking for some aluminum buckets for Nadia’s classroom. I noticed many of these wooden structures and I guessed they were baby cribs. A little research turned up the YouTube video below.
The beshik was invented before disposable diapers came around and people settled in cities. The hole in the bottom of the cradle is for waste, both #1 and #2. I can see the functionality of them although I would have a hard time strapping down the babies. I guess they get used to it and from the little scholarly research on benefits or harm of using beshiks, it seemed not to have an impact on normal child development. I laugh that the children in the thumbnail of the video are holding onto the “catheters”. I wonder how many people in Tashkent still use the beshik. There were plenty for sale, but I sense it is more ceremonial rather that useful. I always encounter new things living in exotic countries!
Patterned ceramic tiles are a big deal in Islamic architecture. Nadia is looking for tiles to put in a coffee table she is designing so we stopped a the workshop of a friend. It was located in an old school building . They were working on the tiles for a new Islamic library that is being built here in Tashkent. As you can see in the photo on the far left, the intricate patterns require many tiles. The scale of the building is immense. One of the masters is holding up one tile in front of a diagram of that one portion of the library wall. We found a couple tiles we liked although they were charging us a bit too much, so Nadia will continue looking for some less expensive tiles. It is cool that there are ceramic workshops like this throughout Uzbekistan.
I end this post with a sunset photo of the Minor Mosque, my favorite mosque in Tashkent. It is a modern mosque, completed only a few years ago. It is located at the end of the biking trail on the canal and it never ceases to awe me with its beauty. This was taken from the back side as I cycled around the grounds of the mosque.
The weather is finally starting to cool a bit with day time temperatures in the high 80s, low 90s and nights cooling to the 70s. Perfect blue skies and a nice breeze!
For the first time since 2019, we had a regular first day of school! It was so nice not to wear masks, be concerned about physical spacing, and wonder if we would even have everyone on campus. Oliver is starting grade 11, and Ocean is starting grade 9. We are down to only high schoolers in the house. 😦 Our dog Obi was sad to see us leave as he enjoyed having people in the house all day. Nadia will teach grade 1 this year, and I am starting my fourth year as the director. We look forward to a school year rich in activities, events, and, most importantly, learning! Oliver is ready for the challenge of the IB Diploma Programme and Ocean to high school. Nadia and I are trying to savor the time we have left with children in the house. Our eldest son Owen will be starting school next week at Northern Michigan University. It is a family tradition to take photos on the opening day in our garden or doorstep.
I am trying to exercise more during the work week. It is stress relieving and helps me think through issues I deal with as a leader of a school community. It also is good for my physical health. I went for a bike ride one morning and took this photo above. The People’s Democratic Party Headquarters which I think is the political party of the current President. It has a serene, large reflection pool and fountain that works on special occasions. The classic Roman architecture and reflection pool reminds me of Washington DC. Tashkent is the capital of Uzbekistan and has many government buildings. The building has a 24/7 police/national guard presence but it would be nice to tour some of the government buildings and museums this year.
I was curious to see the completion of the lake and park between the National Park of Uzbekistan named after Alisher Navoi and the Magic City Park. I often walk Obi in the National Park and for th epast three years, a corregated metal fence has blocked the view from the park to the Magic City Shopping Mall. The mall is an homage to Disneyland as you can see. The trails around the ponds were still off limits but I took. a couple of photos the other evening. We’ll go back once the park fully opens.
Growing up a fan of James Bond films, I’ve always had a romanticized vision of what it would be like to have a career in espionage. Of course, the 007 franchise is not a realistic depiction of what spies do and the iconic spy novelist John Le Carre’s books are closer to the truth than any Bond film. Agent Running in the Field was his last novel to be published before his death. The book didn’t feel like he wrote the book in his 80s and it was a turn-paging thriller for me. He is such a good writer that his books are more than a standard thriller, and his character development and description of scenes and emotions are interesting as well.
One takeaway from this book is that spies deceive for a living. I know that is obvious, but the story helped me understand the impact of lies on the double agents spies manage and their families and colleagues. It is not glamorous, but seedy. I know the CIA or MI6 are big organizations and government intelligence is important. I would rather have governments know what their rival nations are doing and thinking rather than be in the dark. There are also many jobs in the intelligence service and I think I could work behind the scenes or intelligence collecting through other means that supporting traitors.
There were a few quotes in the book that hit close to home.
“Our daughter Steff, as we were soon calling her, would never become the kind of diplomatic brat we had seen too many of, over-nannied and shuffled from country to country and school to school in the wake of their mothers and fathers.” – This was after his the spy’s wife insisted she stayed in the UK and her daughter attend a public school.
“Well, now I was home from the sea, as Dom had kindly said. It hadn’t been easy for either of us, Prue particularly, and she had every reason to hope that I was back on dry land for good and looking for a new life in what she referred to, a little too often, as the real world.” – My wife Nadia often refers to the expatriate life as “not real”.
“For as long as I was a diplomat abroad, I at least had status. Back in the mother country, I was part of the grey mass.” – One of the reasons I chose a life abroad was to escape the ordinary. Expats live above the standards of life back at home.
“Nothing went wrong. I have houses in Petersburg and Tbilisi. However, as an internationalist I love best my Karlovy Vary. We have an Orthodox Cathedral. Pious Russian crooks worship in it once a week. when I am dead I shall join them. I have a trophy wife, very young. All my friends want to f… her. What more should I want from life? he demands in low swift tones. – A life lived abroad allows you to feel comfortable and happy living in several different countries. I always say that every place I lived has its good and bad aspects.
New vocabulary – tarmacadam (paving material made of rock, tar and sand) / emetic (something that causes vomiting) / redoubtable (causing fear or alarm; formidable)
I got the book through the Great Lakes Digital Library and so it was free. The app, Libby is like a Kindle and pretty good. It has statistics of how long it took you to read the book or at least how long I had the App open with the book. It recorded over 8 hours.
I love John LeCarre books because he understands expatriate life and can tell a good story. He died in 2020 but left behind 32 books published from 1961 to 2021.
It is a Kralovec family tradition for us to go on a hike before Owen or one of our children leaves for university. Oliver, Owen, and I did a 5-kilometer hike on the Ge Che Trails the Ottawa Lake Nature Area. I used to cross-country ski these trails often and it was nice to re-visit them . We hiked from Ottawa Lake to Hagerman Lake and then looped back to Ottawa Lake. The public beach at the Ottawa Lake Campgrounds was deserted, and we saw no one on the trails. With only 11,000 people living in Iron County, we have much of the place to ourselves. No one apparently was enjoying the beautiful Ottawa Lake on a perfect, sunny Monday afternoon in late July.
We then had a final tennis game on the Nelson Field Courts. We played a lot of tennis while in Caspian and always found open courts. On this day, some older people were playing pickleball and the tennis courts were not being used as usual. Oliver improved quite a bit with his daily playing. Often, he would play his cousin Beau, and I would play against Owen. Today we played the best of 5 game sets and rotated. This was a great day and the perfect ending to summer holidays in Iron County.
I am staying this week at my childhood home and while decluttering the house, I came across my father’s notebook record of his career in education. He worked for 35 years in education in Stambaugh Public Schools and when the district consolidated in the 1967-1968 school year, West Iron County. He started as a teacher at the Caspian Elementary School and after 7 years, became Principal of the school. Sadly for him and me, the Caspian Elementary School closed after the 1969-1970 school year, the year before I was to start kindergarten. It would have been nice to walk to school and have my dad as the principal of the school. Charlie was the last principal of Caspian Elementary School, serving for 5 years from 1965 to 1970. The closure of the Caspian Elementary School was probably because of declining enrollment and cost savings. The building was vacant for years, into the 1980s before being torn down and replaced with a state employment office. The depopulation of Iron County and declining youth enrollment in schools continues today. I see another consolidation in the future, like in 1967 when Stambaugh, Bates Township and Iron River consolidated to form West Iron County High School. Perhaps West Iron County will merge with Forest Park (a consolidation of Crystal Falls, Amasa, Alpha) on the east side of Iron County. The challenge for a possible future Iron County Public Schools is distance. Iron County is large and commuting times would increase.
With the closure of the Caspian Elementary School, my father was transferred to the Stambaugh Elementary School, just up the hill from Caspian. He was my teacher in the 1975-1976 school year when I was a grade 5 student. I went to his classroom for science and social studies. He taught at Stambaugh Elementary School for the next 14 years, teaching mostly grade 5. In 1984-1985, he was transferred again to the Bates Township Elementary School where he was the lead teacher for 3 years.
The Bates Township Elementary School eventually closed and he was transferred back to Stambaugh Elementary School to teach an additional 6 years in grade 4. He retired after the 1992-1993 school year. His career spanned 5 decades (1950s to 1990s) and two school districts (Stambaugh/West Iron County) and three campuses (Caspian,Stambaugh, Bates Township). He was a principal or lead teacher for 9 years total. He taught Grades 4-8 and he also led federal programs for Special Education and Head Start. Most importantly, he influenced the lives of thousands of students in his 35 years in education.