How Discovering My Roots Changed My Life

Croatia

Europe

Italy

Poland

Everyone’s family has that crazy uncle who busts out the family tree at every reunion and rambles on about your distant ancestors who you really couldn’t care less about. That crazy uncle has become me. Keep reading guys, because I’m also going to explain why you should actually care about your family history.

Growing up, I knew jack shi* about my ancestral roots. I knew my dad was ethnically Sicilian and that my mom had Polish roots. That’s it. However, once I entered high school, I started asking questions and I enrolled myself in an elective on genealogy which threw me head-first into discovering my family’s history. 

Guy in Sicily
A snapshot from my first time in Paternò, my grandmother's absolutely breathtaking hometown in Sicily

First let’s talk about my grandma, you know, the Italian one. I knew she came from Sicily but I had no idea from which town. She wasn’t alive so I couldn’t ask her, and my father wasn’t too helpful either. Luckily, one day during my freshman year of high school, we received a Facebook message from a woman named Anna from near Catania who told us she was our cousin. We started Skyping her every month and she told us how she had tracked us down because one of my bajillion uncles had flown there 20 years earlier to search for a wife. Shortly after entering into contact with them, my parents and I planned a month-long trip to Italy, and I started seriously working on my Italian.  That year, we actually met Anna along with around 60 more cousins who lived in Sicily. This trip to discover my roots actually changed my life.  In fact, the day after I landed in Rome I knew that I would one day live in Italy. Flash-forward to today, I’ve lived in Italy now for two years, I’m fluent in Italian, and I visit my family in Sicily at least a couple of times per year. Oh and lastly, I’m preparing to become an Italian citizen by descent. (Need advice on that? Feel free to hit me up).  

Plitvice Lakes
This photo from my grandfather's country perfectly captures the beauty of discovering your ancestral homeland. Just look!

Next, let’s address my paternal grandfather. He’s kinda Italian but also kinda not. He grew up in Italy, spoke fluent Italian, fought for the Italian army and all of that jazz – but his city of Zadar is part of modern-day Croatia. For all intensive purposes, let’s call him Croatian. I possessed a basic idea of his complex identity growing up, but I knew absolutely nothing about my family in Croatia. After I had started digging, I found out that my grandfather’s family is descended from a tribe of Catholics who fled Albania in the 1700s to avoid religious persecution. In 2016, my parents and I decided to visit some cousins who we knew still lived in Zadar and we stayed for an entire month. In that time, I realized that almost every other person I met was a cousin and for the first time, I was in a place where my last name was extremely well-known. 

On one night, I relaxed by the beach with my cousin Rinaldo and he busted out this dusty brick of a book which happened to contain our family tree dating back to the end of the 1700s.  After slamming it on the table, he grinned at my father and I.  

Want a beer?  This might take a while.

Sifting through the countless pages of my bloodline overwhelmed me in the best way possible.  At the same time, I developed such a deep connection for Zadar after hearing story after story of my ancestors and seeing their my own history in the history of the city itself. Aside from the fact I barely spoke Croatian (let alone the Albanian dialect my cousins were also fluent in), part of me felt like I belonged in this timeless beach town. My research also helped me realize that I might actually be recognized as a Croatian citizen in the near future.  It doesn’t end there though! The government has this scholarship that sends “Croats Abroad” on a fully-funded program to become fluent in Croatian and reconnect with the culture. YOU READ THAT RIGHT! You best be bettin’ that I’ll be taking advantage of that opportunity!  

Guy in Zadar
Feeling pretty well (pun intended) on my first day exploring my grandfather's hometown of Zadar, Croatia

Lastly, let’s talk about the Polish side of my family. On my mother’s side, I am fourth generation Polish. I don’t have a deep connection with the culture (aside from my fond appreciation of Pierogis) but I’ve always been curious to discover more about this part of my identity. Low and behold, the perfect opportunity for an internship in Poland came up and in 2020 I’ll be living in Poznań. Better yet, the day after I accepted the internship offer I found distant cousins who live literally right outside of Poznań and are dying to meet me! We had connected our family trees via my Mom’s 23andme DNA test (the same one Damon and Jo took before they set off to Portugal). This chapter of my heritage adventure is to be continued, but of course I’ve already busted out my notebooks and started cramming the Polish language. 

As you can see, traveling abroad has a different meaning when you visit places where your ancestors once stepped foot. My experiences in Italy and Croatia would not nearly have been as impactful on my life without the context I had gained from researching my family history and getting to know my relatives who still live there to this day. On the other hand, my experience in Poland is not only going involve me learning about a new country, but rather I am also going to learn more about the history of my family and the culture we used to practice. 

As Americans, we are taught to value our roots, but when we travel abroad to where our ancestors come from, we can finally appreciate the beautiful mixture that makes us authentically… us. 

Don’t tell me it’s not possible to research your family history, because it is. Last time I checked, it’s 2019. You can submit DNA tests, access historical archives online, and WhatsApp a distant relative who lives across the globe all from the comfort of your own couch. In 2014, I started my family tree with only 20 people.  Today, I have documented well over 1,000 members.

Let’s also not forget that tracing back your history can make you eligible for certain citizenships, scholarships, and language programs that you might have never even heard of before!  I know our teachers always tell us not to use Wikipedia, but they have pretty bangin’ guide to see which citizenships you might qualify for via Jus Sanguinis.  As anyone who has ever earned a second passport can tell you, it can allow you to live, travel, and work in a whole new set of places!  How’s that for Shutting up and Going?  

Now, I have a few questions for you all! Where are your ancestors from? Have you visited their homeland? If so, how was the experience? Let me know in the comments below!  

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