“If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.”
Where will you go on your next vacation trip? A trip to New England? Washington, D.C.? How about to the beach? Or how about a European vacation? How about taking a trip to the town where your grandparents grew up or visiting the country of your ancestors? What if you could actually walk the same streets as your great-great grandfather or see the home where your grandmother was born? This is something you want to put on your bucket list.
A trip back to the old home town or to “the old country” can be an immensely satisfying experience. Those who prepare for the trip usually report they have great memories and photographs of the experience.
While it is always worthwhile to visit town clerks, courthouses, libraries, and other repositories wherever your ancestors lived, you also will want to spend some time looking for old cemeteries and perhaps for the land where the old homestead stood. This provides an interesting look at history and the hardships your ancestors faced, even if the old farm is now a shopping center. Few activities are more thrilling than traveling to your ancestor’s village or gravesite. Standing where your forebears walked long ago is an amazing experience. When you visit the family homestead or homeland, you can further embrace the experience by eating the local food, and drinking the local beer, wine, or beverage of choice.
Of course, you will also want to find distant cousins, if possible. There is an interesting difference between Americans and many Europeans. Americans typically look back to find ancestors while Europeans often look forward in time, wondering what happened after people went to America.
Here are some suggestions:
Before you go
Do your homework! Research your ancestors before you leave home. Talk with older relatives to learn what they know. Visit a local Family History Center. Search the Internet. If planning a foreign visit and you do not speak, read, and write the language(s) of your ancestors, hire someone back in “the old country” to do research for you and to plan an itinerary long before you embark on the trip.
Read the Research Guides available free of charge from www.FamilySearch.org. These can provide an amazing amount of information about where records may be found. Research Guides and much more may be found in the FamilySearch Research Wiki at https://www.familysearch.org/en/wiki/Main_Page.
Even if you do speak the same language or are planning a trip to another U.S. state or Canadian province, hiring a local guide with expertise in the local area may save you a lot of (expensive) time when you arrive. The worst thing you can do is to arrive in the old country with no plan and no background information; you won’t want to be doing your research (indoors) in the old country when you could be out sightseeing and visiting the places where your ancestors walked.
Find out in advance what is available where you’re going in terms of museums, libraries, cemeteries and other sources of information. And don’t forget to make note of their days and hours of operation. Again, don’t simply show up unannounced. It is best to have an appointment in advance with a guide or staff member who is prepared to show you the information you seek. Did you ever watch the television series, “Who Do You Think You Are?” Those “discoveries” were all made well in advance by careful planning and then were shown to the celebrities when they arrived at the appointed time. You should do the same.
Study maps ahead of time to get an idea of where you want to go and how long it will take you to get there. Not only will you want to study current maps to find the current highways and the train routes, but you also will want to find maps of the areas of interest showing boundaries and village names at the time your ancestors lived there. Village names often change. Modes and routes of transportation also change. You need to know where your ancestors traveled in order to find their records and to appreciate their experiences.
You can locate cemeteries using maps or the USGS National Mapping Information (GNIS) at https://www.usgs.gov/us-board-on-geographic-names. Both foreign and U.S. place names can often be identified on the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names Online at http://www.getty.edu/vow/TGNSearchPage.jsp.
Another problem is that one country may have two, three, or even more villages of the same name. Are you sure you have the right place? Be sure to check out this possibility and verify the precise location you want to visit.
One of my favorite stories has been repeated several times in a number of countries: American tourists go to “the old county” and find the local archives where records are kept. The local archivist then informs them, “The records are too brittle to be handled. They are falling apart, so we do not allow anyone to view them anymore. However, the Mormons were here several years ago and made microfilm copies of all our records, and you are welcome to view those microfilms.” Of course, you could have looked at those same films when you were at home and not paying for hotels and restaurant meals! In many cases, you could view them on your computer while seated in your own living room
Travel can be expensive, especially in foreign countries. Plan your itinerary carefully to maximize the travel investments made.
Not everyone of the same name is related. The person you find may or may not be a relative. He or she also might not be interested in meeting American cousins who suddenly show up unannounced. Write in advance!
Be sure you enter all the information you learn before, during, and after your trip into a genealogy program. You might want to also print out everything on paper before going to the old country. When showing information to others, such as to newly-found distant relatives, it is usually easier for them to understand printouts on paper than to look at ever-changing screens of information.
Hire a guide/interpreter if you don’t speak the old language. One of the more frustrating experiences is to arrive in your ancestors’ village and then not be able to speak with anyone or even to read the signs. While English may be common in big cities throughout Europe, you may not find the same to be true in smaller villages.
Dress professionally. Looking like a researcher instead of a tourist and being focused will help you get the co-operation and assistance of courthouse workers, librarians, and cemetery caretakers in finding the information you want. Showing up in a Hawaiian shirt, cut-off jeans, and sandals will not help you get admitted to very many courthouses or libraries. And don’t even think of entering a church or a cathedral when dressed like that!
Plan for bad weather. Perhaps one of the reasons your ancestors left is that they didn’t like the weather and were seeking sunnier climates! Standing in a cemetery in the rain isn’t much fun when you have neither an umbrella nor a waterproof jacket. You have only one chance to get the information and photographs you want, so you will need sturdy shoes, an umbrella, sunscreen, insect repellent, and a hat.
Take pictures–lots of pictures. Be sure to give copies to the people you meet if they are in the pictures with you.
Allow extra time–lots of it–for getting lost, talking with locals, and taking photographs.
Be prepared for sad stories. Most of our ancestors left their homelands because they were unhappy with their lives. Perhaps the crops failed and the children were starving or else the oppressive government of the times made life too difficult. Whatever the reasons, sad stories usually drove your ancestors to relocate. Be prepared.
Finally, start planning NOW! It is never too early to start planning your next vacation/research trip.