…makes knowing where you’re going a whole lot easier.
Like most Canadians, my family are immigrants. Dutch on my Dad’s side, Polish/British on my Mom’s. For whatever reason, I’ve always identified more with my Dutch side, likely because I knew more about them, and had heard numerous stories from my Oma and Opa over the years. If you read my blog during the time I lived in the Netherlands (a purely coincidental happening, which had nothing to do with my family or heritage), you’ll know what a period of self-discovery and growth it was for me. My experience there was not your typical “live abroad in Europe for a year.” It was an opportunity to, in solitude, discover my family’s history. Of course Gabriel was there with me, but he worked full-time, and during the days I would trek across the country, re-tracing the steps of my ancestors. Sometimes I marvel at my 21-year-old self’s bravery. I like to think I’d still be the same way, but taking off on a train to a new city, in a country where I don’t speak the language (although most Dutch people speak impeccable English), without a cell phone, was quite remarkable if I do say so myself hah! Simple things, like walking through the streets I knew my grandmother had walked through during her twenties, or shopping at the same stores, connected with something deep in the pit of my stomach. I would talk to Gabriel about my day, when we both returned home in the evenings, and of course he was interested. But I always wondered if he ever really understood what I was experiencing. The kind of discovery, transformation, and unraveling of my ancestry…I don’t think he really did, and I don’t expect him to. It was my journey, and I am infinitely grateful to him for allowing me the means and opportunity to live abroad with him during his international job experience.
The pinnacle of my time abroad, and one which has stayed with me far longer than the rest of my experiences, was my trip to Terschelling. Terschelling is a small island in the North Sea, belonging to the Netherlands. I went there in May of 2009 with my parents, when they came for two weeks to visit me. We took the ferry across from Harlingen, and spent the next few days exploring the very place where my paternal ancestors all originated. It was remarkable. Life-changing. I had grown up knowing my Opa and Oma’s families hailed from Terschelling. But to me, it was a little speck on a big map. It was a place from a fairy-tale, a family saga, a thousand stories. I didn’t know what to expect when we stepped off the ferry, other than that it would be windy and likely very beautiful (it is now a popular vacation destination for Dutch families).
It was more than just the surface-things. Sure, the people looked similar to me, more-so than anyone I’d ever seen walking around Canada. Of course we saw the signs for the towns from my family’s stories. But what really stood out to me, was the feeling I got cycling through Terschelling. Feeling so connected to one’s heritage, after it being nothing more than a mere tale for twenty-odd years, is a rather unique experience. It was the root of half of my DNA, and lineages that spanned centuries (we have the detailed family trees that explain it all). Seeing the cemetery in Midsland, behind the small church, with our surnames plastered on nearly every headstone, was unreal. These were my family members. This was where I was from. Meeting family members I had heard about in stories, and seeing, by chance, a framed photograph of an ancestor, identical to one in our home in Canada, gave me chills. Learning that distant cousins, my age, were still attending nautical school to enter into our family career as ship captains, showed me how deep a history our family still has.
It seems that now, as I finish my MBA and move on to law school, the reality that two years has passed since I left the Netherlands hits hard. I don’t want the lessons I learned there, the feelings I got, and the knowledge and wisdom I found to ever leave me. Knowing where you’re from is a feeling like no other, and I am determined to one day experience my maternal sides’ ancestry as well. For me, as I’m sure it would be for most people, experiencing my family’s ancestral roots, and having it affect me in a way I never realized it would, has stuck with me. It has made me have a sense of self, and knowing my foundation has allowed me to build upon it, and figure out where I want to go in my life. And for that experience, I will be forever grateful.