Memoir honors first family entrepreneuer

Grandpa paved way for entrepreneurship

Grandpa Joseph Drabek of Vizovice was the first entrepreneur in the family. He worked for a shoe factory Svedrup as a master sewing machine repairman. He even had his own apprentice. But, on the side he did so called “fusky” or moonlighting for cash. He continued with moonlighting even more so after retiring from Svedrup. Now, that was strictly prohibited under communism, since all private businesses in former Czechoslovakia were nationalized in February of 1948. Penalties for violating the nationalization law included jail time. And grandpa did some.
There were no legal private butcher shops, no funeral parlors, no general stores, no bakeries, no jewelers, and no farmers, just cooperatives. The agricultural land was taken away from farmers, including my second uncles, and put into cooperatives.
So, at a time when any private enterprise was considered an illicit business, grandpa’s biz was flourishing due to the lack of skilled people in his trade.
He proudly gave his corporate headquarters a grandiose name, “shoppa.” The shop was a shack put together from scavenger boards and planks, window panes and stolen material from the shoe factory. It was well hidden behind the old house under a walnut tree. Grandpa painted the shop with old oil from his cars, and he got offended when someone called it a shed.

Grandpa's Shoppa in 2006
Grandpa’s Shoppa in 2006

Grandpa Joseph spent a lot of time on the road. And that’s when my dad, a professor of math and physics, became a part of the business. Dad couldn’t get a teaching job after returning home from the USA, so grandpa as a true entrepreneur exploited that without hesitation.
Dad chauffeured grandpa around the Moravian region for gas money, instead of teaching calculus and trigonometry. He patiently waited in the car calculating math problems in his head, while jovial grandpa chatted with seamstresses who had broken sewing machines.
Grandpa could be easily recognized from far by his signature beret, blue work shirt with oil streaks, his two leather bags filled with tools, and a little canted walk. He quite often swore at the machines, when he couldn’t fix them.
“Where were you,” mom asked once after the duo had been gone for the entire day.
Well that was part of the problem. We never knew when they were coming home. At a time when even land phone lines were a luxury, it was impossible to track them down.

Blog pics deda 003
Grandpa Joseph with my parents in Big Rapids, MI

And it wasn’t unusual for them to end up in strange places, since dad didn’t know the hilly region well.
Grandpa took the business another step further when he put an ad in the local paper advertising his craft. That too was a big no, no. He laughed for the longest time at the single response he got, “Dear Mr. Advertiser.”
No matter what grandpa did, he was a true pioneer ahead of his time.

Grandpa did get to visit with my parents Ella and Vaclav in Big Rapids, Michigan in the late 1980s, soon before he died of cancer. His shoppa survived both him and all the political and development upheaval.
I salute both men, who ever so bravely, journeyed through the countryside to earn an honest crown, that is a good Czech currency.


Copyright © 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova

Radio talk transcript

Radio talk April 10, 2013 LHS


“Know thyself”- Socrates

Most people spend more time planning their summer vacation than their lives, GRCC psychology instructor Tom Deschaine.

It took me a long time to figure out what I want in life, because I am good at everything. And that’s not an exaggeration. Just ask my husband.

As funny as it is, it can become a disadvantage that sends you on different tangents wandering around like a hobo. Some call it ADD, lack of focus, lack of determination, whatever.

The writer in me

Deep down inside me I knew I always wanted to write. But that’s like saying I want to eat. What do you want to eat? Hamburger or a steak? Well, it was probably steak.

So, I started writing for Czech papers as a correspondent out of Montreal, while I was teaching ESL. On the side, I wrote fiction, short stories, now in a living collection “Glass Flowers.”

I still enjoyed doing all three things that is writing fiction and non-fiction, as well as teaching. Call it a trichotomy.

When I officially entered the journalism arena in the US, I loved it immediately from the get go.  I learned photography upgrading my skills. My forte or strong side are human interest stories about people doing interesting things.

 News story vs. human interest

The difference between a news story and a human interest story is in its sudden impact, and lasting. I prefer the lasting stories, just as much as I prefer perennials to annuals.

I don’t remember most of the news stories that I have done, (they were all the same crashed cars, bloody bodies, shot people) but I remember outstanding features syndicated by the AP such as the one about a Belding apple farmer losing his orchard due to economy, an Orleans man weaving stockings through the Great Depression, or a boy who delivered his sister.

And that takes me directly to what I am doing now.  I am working on our family immigration saga Greenwich Meridian spanning three generations. It is a true work of creative non-fiction, in which I combine creativity with facts from life. Much like in the human interest features, I elevate the stuff I like about the characters, or the details and downplay what I don’t like.


I apply a similar but even more liberal technique in my screenplays.  I either base a character on a real person, put him in a real setting, but expose him or her to a fictive situation. Or any mix of the above.

For example for my screenwriting software test, I wrote a skit called “Santa on the Showboat”  based on picture taking with Santa right here in town. The skit features three major characters, Santa based on real Santa,…hahaha, who is real Santa?…..and the city manager and his wife.

The story is about the city manager who has never had his pics taken with Santa, so his wife escorts him to the Showboat. What ends up happening, is that Santa throws the manager of the boat because he raised taxes and got rid of fowl in the city. And Santa has a full backyard of chickens. And all the hilarious stuff in between.

It’s a magical combination that I found out works.

I applied it in the script “Riddleyville Clowns” which is totally inspired by local happenings in 2006 that I have taken to an extreme.  A local resident put together a clown parade to celebrate the city’s 175th anniversary. I used the parade as a vehicle for the entire screenplay that takes us through life in small town America to witness a disaster.


Difference between writing and screenwriting: which is more difficult?

 1-Back to square one, depends on your skills and knowing yourself what you can do.

2-In screenwriting you must be able constantly to visualize the scenes, you have to see them before you write them or as you write them, and know how to separate them.

3-Regular writing is more of a conglomerate, you don’t have to visualize as much and you are describing the events, rather than breaking them into different scenes.


The blog-why do I have it

 I have the blog as a platform much like a politician. The publishing and the entertainment industries require that you develop your audience or following that will ultimately buy your book and come to see your movie.

It makes sense to me. If I wasn’t a writer, I’d be a politician.


Thank you,

Emma Palova

April 10, 2013


Copyright (c) Emma Palova

Czech & Slovak Easter traditions-continued

Easter in Czech Republic is longer by Monday. Easter Monday is the day of the big “Schmigrust” or whipping in  Czech, while in Slovakia, girls and women get splashed with water, no matter how cold it is outside.

Long awaited “schmigrust” in Moravian villages.

As with any holiday, the food is opulent even in modest households. The family pig, rabbits, fowl or poultry may get butchered for the festive occasion. Baking starts usually on Friday and goes into Saturday.

The recipes are passed from mother to daughter, at times to son. A lot of them have traveled across the Atlantic with their owners.

Traditional pastries for festive occasions are round kolache, small, medium or big. They can be made with various toppings and fillings. The small kolache are labor intensive, and the saying goes, “the smaller, the better.” So, I make the big round ones that look like  pizza. I made them for my daughter’s open house, and a neighbor asked me, “Is that a Czech pizza?” It could be, the dough is probably the same, you just add sugar. Usually, they’re topped with plums and cinnamon, plum butter or marmelade. I like to experiment. so, this one I made with a mix of berries, and with cottage cheese. That’s how many recipes get changed through immigration into a different country. You mix the past and the old, with the new and better. This really reminded me of a great cheesecake.

Moravian kolache with cottage cheese and berries. Looks like Czech pizza.
Moravian kolache with cottage cheese and berries. Looks like Czech pizza.

During the era of communism, we were not allowed to travel, so we couldn’t learn anything new. Our version of pizza was with hard-boiled eggs and ripe tomatoes. Go figure. It was edible. Pizza is pizza, good or bad.

For Easter we colored eggs in onion skins, brown, yellow or purple. First we boiled the eggs and let them dry. Then we tied pieces of grass, leaves or flowers to them with wool, and dipped them in a solution made from onion skins and vinegar for stabilization. Once we unwrapped them and peeled off the leaves, we got beautiful rich brown color with white decorations. For exquisite shine, we polished them in butter.

Copyright (c) 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova


Excerpts from the interview for Greenwich Meridian-continued

All my parents Ella and Vaclav ever wanted was to have enough money to buy a small car, so they could drive from Brno to visit with my grandparents in former socialist Czechoslovakia. At the time, with their rookie wages fresh out of school, that was a utopia. So my dad, a physicist,  took an advantage of a teaching opportunity in Africa in 1964.  The plan was just to make money for that coveted small car, and to add to some savings for an apartment, in a country with chronic shortage of housing.
“I was ready for the opportunity,” Vaclav said. “The politics were beginning to loosen up.”
Dad already spoke fluent English, and he had a deep desire to expand his knowledge of mathematics.
And the opportunity in Africa turned into the best years of their lives. That is until Prague Spring came along with Soviet invasion in 1968, and put a hamper on many people’s dreams of freedom.
Following is an excerpt from an interview with my parents in Venice, Florida on March 5th, 2013. It tracks the beginnings of the immigration.

Vaclav & Ella on Sharky's Pier in Venice.
Vaclav & Ella on Sharky’s Pier in Venice.

Emma: Why did you decide to leave Czechoslovakia?
Dad: Because of the Soviet occupation. There was a legitimate fear that the country would be annexed to the Soviet Union.
Mom: My friends were leaving the country crossing the border on foot with just a suitcase in their hands.
Emma: How did you find out about the Soviet occupation?
Dad: From radio BBC and from colleagues at school.
Mom: I was back home in Carlsbad  on a spa treatment. I went to the colonnade and people were crying. They were listening to the radio, and there were big demonstrations. People were knocking down statues. There was no telephone connection. I had to spend extra three days because the roads were closed. Then I took a detour bus through Shumava to Brno.
Emma: What was you reaction to the Soviet occupation?
Dad: We were discussing it with colleagues in Africa. Many of them talked about immigrating to Canada.
Mom: I did not want to leave my parents, my country.
Emma: How did the transition to Canada come about?
Dad: In 1970, a colleague helped me land a post-doctorate fellowship at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
Mom: We flew out of Vienna to Montreal and then to Saskatoon. We had tourist visa. But our exit visa were only valid until the end of the year.
Emma: What happened after that?
Dad: I worked on research for the university. I applied for several jobs in Toronto, but it just didn’t work out. So, I found an ad for a teaching job in Texas, and had a telephone interview. I sent out 20 applications.
Mom: You went to school, and we all took tutoring in English.
Emma: How did we end up in Hawkins, Texas?
Dad: Well I took the first offer, which was from Jarvis Christian College in Texas.
Mom: I had no choice but to go with your dad. We got a letter from Czech officials that we have to return by March 31. Your dad did not want to go back. I threatened that I would return home. For two years I lived in limbo.
Emma:  What was the biggest surprise when you arrived in Texas?
Mom: We had no idea that a college could be in a small town. It was a shock, that I will never forget. Hawkins had population of 800.
Emma: What were the repercussions for the immigration?
Mom: We were tried in absencio in Brno. Your dad received a two-year sentence. I received a year and a half for illegally leaving. Grandma went to the trial.
Emma: What were your reactions to the sentencing?
Dad: That I would never go back to Czechoslovakia.
Mom: I cried and cried. I wasn’t a criminal. I always wanted to go back home.
Emma: If it wasn’t for the Soviet occupation, would you have left the country?
Dad: Probably not. I would have gone to another university to gain more expertise, and to make some money.
Mom: Never.
Emma: Now, forty years later; do you have any regrets?
Dad: No. I have achieved my professional goals.
Mom:  Living in a foreign country is not easy. But, USA was the best choice for immigration.
Emma: How has the immigration changed you as a person?
Dad: I have gained great expertise.
Mom:  I got used to living here. But I feel like I was hurled out of the Czech society. I feel split between the two countries.
Emma: Is there camaraderie among fellow countrymen in immigration?
Mom: Any solidarity between Czechs, whether in immigration or at home, disintegrated with the fall of communism.
Emma: What do you miss the most?
Dad: Nothing now. My parents and friends have passed, and the entire country has changed.
Mom: I feel guilty not being able to help my own parents. I shed a lot of tears. In life, you always trade something for something. It all turned out for the better.
Emma: What kind of character attributes do you need to “make it” in immigration?
Dad: You have to pursue things. Be humble, go with the flow, and learn from others.
Mom: You have to fit in the best way you can. We were taught to obey, and to listen.

Thank you, mom and dad.

This story is one of three installments about the interview with my parents for memoir “Greenwich Meridian where East meets West.”  Previous installments were published on March 10 and March 13.

Copyright (c) 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova


Interview with my parents for Greenwich Meridian-continued

When we finally sat down after the news and dinner on March 5 to talk about our immigration in Venice, I felt nervous. But, I was well equipped with interviewing skills honed by years of talking to people for newspaper stories, who quite often lied to me. The bad part about newspaper interviews is that you don’t have a lot of time to double check and research everything. There’s only so many people you can call around. Eventually you run out of time. You usually have one good shot, and you have to make the best of it.

In the interview with my parents, I finally had one good long awaited shot, so I was determined to make full use of it. I carefully crafted the questions, so no one got offended. A good interview requires a high level of diplomacy and psychology, because usually you don’t know your story subjects, unless you’ve been covering the city or township hall for years. And I have done that in many communities like Plainwell, Ionia, Belding, Greenville, Grattan, Otisco, Vergennes and Lowell.

Vaclav & Ella in Venice.

In this case I did know my story subjects. Well, of course. I spent a lot of time with them. Ella and Vaclav are my parents, the adventurers who have traveled halfway around the world, from East to West, and back to Czechoslovakia in 1973 on presidential amnesty, only to finally return to USA. Mom returned to the states in 1980 on March 19th, which is the Feast of St.Joseph, after turbulent years in the communist homeland.

During the interview, I found out things that I did not know about before. This included a clandestine farewell meeting between my parents and grandparents in Vienna prior to the first immigration to Canada in 1970.
“I was still hoping we could return because our exit visa were extended until the end of the year,” mom said.
But, in all reality, and once in Canada, we were beyond the point of return. At that time, Czechoslovakia was under tight Soviet grip with troops stationed all along the border with Western Europe.

Watch for excerpts from the interview in Venice, Florida as well as for behind the scenes of the “Greenwich Meridian” memoir, timeline and a list of major characters.

to be continued

Copyright (c) 2013 story and photos by Emma Palova

EW This site is about Emma's Writings.

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