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Go Digging for Roots: Genealogy Abroad

    Plan your trip to include a stop in your family's ancestral homeland.
Start at home
    Genealogy is so popular, even if you haven’t done any work on it you'll probably discover that someone in your family already has. Ask around and find out who’s done some family roots digging. You may find that Uncle Joe has a list of family clans in Scotland, or the towns in China your ancestors once called home.
      Find you family on the web.There are many genealogy sites on-line around the world. Some will give you forms in a foreign language that help make the right connections to genealogical societies abroad.
      Here are a couple of helpful websites maintained by companies that produce genealogy tracking software:
The United States Goverment National Archives
    Ancestry.com
While you're there
  When you're in an area that has special meaning to you, it's surprisingly simple to check out church and town hall records for family records. Knowing that your great-great-great- grandmother was born in the area will make it all the more special to tour.
  If you aren't multi-lingual, it's good to download some of the online request forms that put your questions in the local language (you'll find them on the Web sites listed above).
  Maiden names, original surname spellings, birth dates and marriage dates are all "doorways" into a potential gold mine of information buried in record halls.
A personal perspective
  Recently, a chance encounter introduced me to a young man who was born in the same Spanish village as my Arboleda ancestor who left for Peru in 1555. He told me we are surely "cousins" since there are few Arboledas in Spain and most of them come from that town. A little more digging and I found that two parts of my family tree rode with El Cid in the reconquest of Spain in the 1400s. Finding out little details like that makes history seem a little more intimate!
  Whatever you know about your family history will make any trip to a "homeland" special - perhaps even cathartic. Let me tell you another personal story…
Salverry
  Along with hundreds of thousands of others, my parents came to the U.S. in the 1940s, part of the world-wide upheaval caused by WWII. My mother was born in Koblenz, Germany, in the 1920s, descended from generations of German Jews who had farmed Bavaria and the Rhineland for hundreds of years. My father was a Peruvian descended on his father's side from a Spaniard who came to Peru in 1555. His mother's mother was French, his mother's father Basque.
  I was born and raised in California, where my earliest travels were to ride in gymkhanas in Carmel Valley, the roller coaster in Santa Cruz, the mono-rail at Disneyland, with occasional trips to Mexico.
  All in all, as good an example of the American melting-pot as any.
  But in 1964 we spent almost an entire year traveling. We flew to Mexico, Panama, Peru. Spent some time getting to know relatives and then took a ship to Europe that passed through Venezuela, the Panama Canal and finally docked in Spain. After a wonderful summer in Spain, where I learned to speak the language and took a few flamenco lessons, we traveled up through the heart of Western Europe into Germany. So, in one year I saw for the first time my Peruvian, Spanish, Basque, French, and German "homelands."
  Going to Germany in 1964 was an emotional experience for my Jewish-German mother. She and most of her extended family had escaped in 1937, only to be scattered all over the globe: England, Peru, the United States. We returned to the little village outside Koblenz where her father had once owned a pharmacy, where she had grown up.
Grandad in buggy
  Metternich is a charming town on the banks of the Mosel. We wandered through the village houses and shops hundreds of years old, past the fruit orchards to the banks of the river. My mother pointed out the school house where her teacher had ordered the children to do math problems calculating the fortune "Herr Hitler" was amassing through sales of "Mein Kampf." Where she had been told that it was unnecessary for her to say "Heil Hitler" at the start of class. She stood at the edge of a cherry orchard and told us how she and all the other school children would swipe ripe cherries on their way home from classes.
  Spying an elderly gentleman making his way through the cherry trees, she sent me down to buy some cherries.
  In my halting German I asked. He stared a me with his head cocked to one side. He looked up to where my mother stood, then back at me. Taking me by the hand he led me up to the road and, in a stern voice, spoke to my mother: "Marie-Ruth, you come home after all these years and you don't say hello?"
  I was 10, my mother had been 11 when she had left in 1937. Somehow, he had seen the child she had been in the child I was. He asked about her family, her parents, sister, brother, and was moved to hear they had escaped. Then he took her by the hand and led her back into town, calling to the shop-keepers to come out, to see Marie-Ruth, all grown up.
  And out they came, crowding around her. Her childhood best friend. An almost forgotten neighbor – and another. One of them ran to get the butcher. The butcher! Now in his 60s, he had been a young man when she left – and the only other Jew in the town. He told us his story, how the entire town had conspired to protect him for seven long years, how they had lied over and over to the Gestapo, insisting there were no Jews in their town.
Drogerie
  I have a picture of my mother, my sister and me standing with the butcher, her childhood friends grouped in front of what had been her father's drug-store years ago. She peered inside and said she could still remember the smell of developing solutions and licorice: on top of making pharmaceuticals, my grandfather had developed pictures for the towns folk and made candy to give his customer's children. His had also been the only car in town - it was to him the townsfolk came if they had an emergency. They hugged her and cried.
  Sometimes, looking for one's roots in the places you travel to, can reveal wonderful surprises – it can even be cathartic. It was so for my mother: she discovered that the people she had known, the people who had known her as a child, had been decent in a long dark time.
  Alba Arboleda
travel for kids | travel tips | geneaology abroad
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