I'm delighted to host my first ever guest blog, and doubly so, because it happens to be from an author whose book - Running Away to Home - I genuinely loved (yes, I had already read it when we tripped across each other on Twitter). Having dragged two groups of 40 Americans to an ancestral village in Slovakia, I could totally relate to so many of the escapades that Jennifer Wilson shares, but I promise, you don't have to be a world traveler to smile in recognition at her family's adventures and mishaps! If you enjoy what you read below (and I expect you will), please consider adding Jen's book to your library.
(P.S. Sharing of this post encouraged!)
How to follow the roots of your family tree across the globe
by Jennifer Wilson
A few years back, when the economy tanked, my husband Jim and I took a life time-out.
We’d been feeling restless, running around too much with the kids, spinning on The Great Hamster Wheel. It was time to get our family back on track before our daughter headed to the mall with some skeevy dude and our son started wearing black eyeliner. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
At about that time, my great aunt, Sister Mary Paula Radošević, passed away—the last of the immigrant relatives. I inherited her personal papers and became immediately enchanted by our ancestral home: the ancient Croatian mountain village of Mrkopalj (pronounced MER-koe-pie). It’s like the dead relatives were whispering in my ear, tempting my mom-frazzled brain with a simpler life in the Old Country. I wanted my kids out of soccer practice and into the branches of apple trees in this place that looked like it was built for gnomes in a cleave between forested mountains. I wanted Jim out from behind from his office computer screen, walking with me through fairytale meadows.
Losing half our savings in the 2008 stock market crash was the final nudge we needed. It was just a crazy enough time to follow our roots back to the beginning and start over as a family. We sold our stuff in a name-your-own-price garage sale, worked extra jobs and saved every penny. And then we ran away.
We lived in Mrkopalj for several months, milking the neighbor’s cow (which lived in her house), turning sheep on a spit at village festivals, shooting nosehair-burning rakija with the neighbors. I wrote about the whole fabulously messy adventure in my new book, RUNNING AWAY TO HOME .
You really can’t beat roots travel for insider access. If you’re curious about building your own journey—whether it’s for one week or one year—here are some tips.
- Scout It Out. Just as my great-grandfather before me, I took a short scouting trip to Mrko palj before we moved there. Sure, it worried me when the tourism guy was too drunk to help me. But the dead ancestors whispered in my ear that this trip would be worth it. They were right. Short-term travelers: You can scout from home on the interwebs.
- Scour for Connections. Consult your genealogy papers. Call local ethnic clubs. Ask relatives about family members in the Old Country. Any contacts to greet and guide you will enrich the experience. Even if you’re just visiting cemeteries, let people know you’re coming, because it could shake a distant relative out of the woodwork. And then they might feed you.
- Call Tourism Honchos. Contact national/local tourism boards for travel advice. Ask directly for specific things: lodging recommendations, cultural cues you need to know, potential translators, things like that. Tourism employees are busy, but they know everything. A short, friendly email that says: “I’ll be in the area researching my family, and am looking for a good B&B in San Sebastian,” will generate the information you want. A long, rambling letter about how you miss your Spanish granny will not.
- Assemble Your Documents. In addition to the usual stuff, I traveled with a letter from the Croatian Tourism Board, introducing me as an American researching my roots. It helped when my Croatian language skills couldn’t communicate why I was wandering around a post-Communist country with a camera, tape recorder and reporter’s notebook. The letter al so listed a name and number at the consulate if I got in a jam.
- Be Flexible of Mind. Prepare for surprises. As you well know, things aren’t all sunshine and daisies when you’re sifting through family history. Like the time I learned that the ancestral village was perhaps (probably) aligned with Nazis and Fascists in World War Two. It’s a long story. In fact, there’s a whole book about it! It’s called Running Away to Home and I believe you will like it.
Live Local. Once you’re walking the streets where your ancestors lived, consider yourself one of them. Expel all preconceived notions to make room for new ideas. My kids ran feral in an open meadow where the main worry was whether that mountain viper would show up again. We ate suspicious local stuff like fried dormouse. I drank the village moonshine before noon with a group of old ladies hell-bent on teaching me to knit with four needles.
We were learning about our roots through our bodies and our taste buds and our connections to another country that remain close to our hearts.
Is your own ancestral home tempting your travel muse now? I hope so. When we traveled in the footsteps of our ancestors, it changed our lives forever.
Jennifer Wilson writes for Esquire, National Geographic Traveler, Better Homes & Gardens, and many other national magazines and newspapers. Find out more about RUNNING AWAY TO HOME at http://www.jennifer-wilson.com.