Taking a deep dive into my family’s heritage was far from the top of the itinerary when my sister and I began planning a five-week college backpacking trip through Europe in the early 1980s.
Truthfully, our travel goals were pretty simple: getting in some serious beach time and soaking up plenty of big-city ambience. But travel sometimes gives you more than you bargain for.
Of course, we did end up having a wonderful time pursuing our other priorities. But looking back, what really stands out for me was the time we spent getting to know the family my paternal grandfather had left behind in Norway eight decades earlier.
Growing up, it was well-known family lore that my grandfather Peter had left Porsgrunn, Norway, as a young man around the turn of the 20th century. He arrived at Ellis Island in New York City and then made his way to Minnesota, and ultimately to North Dakota, where he married an American girl, homesteaded a farm on the prairie, and raised a family.
But it wasn’t until I stood by the bedside of one of his sisters, my great aunt, as she cried and tightly grasped my hand that I really understood what his journey meant. All of a sudden, as a 20-year-old on my inaugural international trip, I had my first travel epiphany.
Not only could I clearly see the courage it had taken for my grandfather to board that ship to an unknown land, never to return again to his home country, but I also saw for the first time the heartache his decision must have meant for the family he left behind.
Through an interpreter, my great aunt Karin — by then an elderly woman in a care facility near Oslo — recalled how she and her sister Sigrid had cried as their big brother had boarded the ship that would take him to America.
Having never met my grandfather, who died years before I was born, the moment was incredibly poignant for me, and it is one that has stayed with me through the years.
Although my grandfather’s story was well known in my family, contact between the family branches had been almost non-existent. I knew that one of my aunts had been pen pals with a cousin in Norway through the years, but for my sisters and me, our Norwegian relatives were a bit of a mystery.
Then, while we were in college in the early 1980s, my sister Angie and I decided to take a month-long summer backpacking trip through Europe. In a nod to our Norwegian heritage, we planned to start the trip in Oslo.
Before we left, my dad sent a letter to his first cousin, Astrid, introducing us and explaining our family connection. This was long before quick internet responses, and we left for Norway not knowing if the letter had arrived, let alone whether the family would be interested in meeting us.
But as soon as we landed at the Oslo Airport, we heard our strangely pronounced names over the loudspeaker. In a beautiful travel moment, Astrid was there to meet us. Not only that, but she took us to her home, introduced us to her husband, adult children, and granddaughter, and then proceeded to drive us around Oslo for four days, showing us the sights.
As my first international city, Oslo will hold a special place in my heart. Add in the strong family connection, and my visit was truly transformative, laying the groundwork for a lifelong love of travel.
We visited the city’s beloved Vigeland Sculpture Park with its iconic Monolith teeming with humanity. We also took in other attractions like the Viking Ship Museum, the site of the ski-jumping event for Oslo’s 1952 Winter Olympics, and the Royal Palace. To top it off, Astrid’s family took us on an evening boat cruise around Oslofjord, complete with a picnic of grilled sausages and flatbread.
Even more impactful were the visits with our Norwegian family members, starting with Karin, but also including my great aunt Sigrid, who was well into her 80s but still living alone in Porsgrunn in an apartment above the family boutique. I remember her as a warmhearted woman who served us a lovely lunch of smorgasbord.
Then there were the fun cultural moments for me — my first tastes of aquavit and Campari (they’re acquired tastes!), and a family dinner featuring a large bucket of freshly caught, steamed shrimp, eaten simply with bread and mayonnaise.
As is the case with any international travel, there were some surprises along the way. For one thing, I remember being amazed by how fluent most Norwegians were in English, and also somewhat intimidated by how well-versed my family members were in art, science, and literature.
I was also surprised by the level of interest everyone seemed to have in their American family members. One evening, Astrid showed us letters from my grandfather the family had saved. As she read us passages, I was struck by how upbeat all of his letters were about life in North Dakota, mentioning none of the hardships that the family had endured on the prairie in the Great Depression.
We also encountered some gentle criticism for the United States. This was around the time that the U.S. had boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and I remember getting questions about why my country had allowed politics to enter into this international sporting event. It was my first instance with that slightly uncomfortable experience of trying to explain a political stance that I had nothing to do with and was ambivalent about myself.
But perhaps most of all, the trip made me contemplate my grandfather’s decision to leave Norway. Why did he do it? Did it fulfill the dreams he had as a teenager boarding that ship? And did he know he would probably never see his family again? Also, there was the big question of how things would have turned out for him if he had stayed.
In many ways, the trip made me see my country and the world in a new light. It seems so obvious now, but that trip made me realize in a big way that my way of life wasn’t the only way. Certainly, that realization opened up a thirst in me to see and experience as many other paths as I could.
Although everyone is different, and my trip was unique to its time and my family history, I believe looking back at your roots is an invaluable experience. For those who still have unexplored family ties in other countries around the world, I highly recommend taking a closer look.
Sadly, I failed to maintain ties with my Norwegian relatives after returning to my life and career in the United States. It is one of my biggest travel regrets, and I still hope to return to Oslo one day to retrace those steps that set me off on a lifetime of adventure.
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