With the advent of services like Ancestry DNA people are discovering who they really are and where they really come from. For those who study genealogy this is a huge boost to filling in the gaps of the family tree. Travel plays a big part in this story and I have lost count of the people we have helped in their journeys overseas to check in on ancestral homes, villages and towns.
It is always interesting because usually the places people want to go to are generally off the tourist radar. Small villages in Scotland, Ireland, Poland, Ukraine, Germany and the Czech republic are just a few of the places where people go to visit church yards, scan birth, marriage and death records and see if anyone in the village still carries the family name.
Now this can be tricky. This is why some people don’t like the idea of DNA at all. Imagine getting a knock on the front door and a complete stranger is standing there telling you that he or she is your fourth cousin twice removed and they have travelled across the world just to come and visit you. Mmm. Might make you think twice?
The other downside of a genealogy search overseas is that because you are probably wanting to get to very small villages or out of the way places you are probably going to be travelling independently – driving a rental car – staying in very small towns that have never heard of Sheraton Hotels. The best accommodation might be just the small village inn. This can sometimes be a challenge for us spoilt North Americans. Bedrooms in European hotels are smaller and in some of the smaller villages you might even find yourself sharing a bathroom (horror of horrors).
Remember there is a reason for this. You are not a tourist – you are a sleuth on the trail of your great great great grandfather – who was maybe a shoemaker in the Swiss Alps, or the harbour security man on a small island in the Outer Hebrides. Enjoy the challenges and enjoy the discoveries along the way. You might be obliged to eat Haggis in Scotland, Black Pudding in England or Grilled Pig’s ear in Spain. If that happens follow Anthony Bourdain’s advice – never refuse a dish prepared for you by a local. And when you are struggling to get that food down – remember – this is your ancestry – so enjoy it!
A popular reason for a trip to Europe is to visit ancestral homes or villages, find out more about Great Uncle This or Great Grandmother That and maybe complete missing chapters in a family history. As Canada is a country of immigrants then just about everyone living here has a link to another country and many of the early settlers came from Europe or surrounds. In addition many Canadians will proudly remember Uncles, Great Uncles or Grandfathers who died in one of the Great Wars.
How strange that they are called that – Great Wars – when so many people died and so many towns were bombed out of existence. Yet it is so amazing to visit Europe and find beautiful buildings like the Cathedral in Cologne totally restored to its original magnificence after having been hit fourteen times by aerial bombs during the Second World War. Although it was badly damaged it remained standing tall dominating a mainly flattened city with its spires serving as a navigational landmark for Allied aircraft. It is satisfying that a building whose foundation stone was laid in 1248 is still there today for us to be enjoyed.
The Cathedral still standing after the aerial bombing raids
Serious genealogy experts will want to inspect church records, copy birth certificates and look at land records but for others less serious who want to combine a vacation with a walk down memory lane it is easy to sit in a village pub somewhere and enjoy the ambience of the place and let your imagination run riot.
Of course when digging back through your family’s history you may uncover more information than you really want. Here is one funny story I found about what to do when you uncover the Black Sheep of the family –
What to do about the Black Sheep
The Smith’s were proud of their family tradition. Their ancestors had come to America on the Mayflower. Their line had included Senators and Wall Street wizards. Now they decided to compile a family history, a legacy for the children. They hired a fine author. Only one problem arose — how to handle that great-uncle who was executed in the electric chair. The author said he could handle that chapter of history tactfully. The book appeared. It said, “Great-uncle George occupied a chair of applied electronics at an important government institution, was attached to his position by the strongest of ties and … his death came as a real shock.”
Probably the most visible sign of families connecting with the past were the people I saw visiting the famous cemeteries of Belgium. Walking through the cemeteries there was evidence of visiting family members with small tokens laid at the headstones. It made me feel so connected to be able to see which regiment they had fought with, where their home was and how old they were when they made the supreme sacrifice. Even sadder of course are the unmarked graves “Known unto God”. I only recently read that this is attributed to Rudyard Kipling who lost his son John in the First World War. His death could not be absolutely confirmed and Kipling refused to believe his son had died.
So if you are planning a trip to Europe take a little time to dig out the family history (if you have it) and find out where your family came from. Make a detour and go out to visit that little village – get a feel for the people, the atmosphere, the food. After all – these things, this place, played a part in who you are today.