I have been learning foreign languages since 1995 and living abroad since 2002. My interest in foreign languages is what enabled me to travel abroad for the first time when I was 17 and went on a 2-week trip with my high school French teacher to visit Geneva, Lyons, Aosta, and Paris. One of the real highlights of that trip was meeting my distant relatives who are French. My cousins live in the Paris suburbs, in the South of France, and in Alsace.
17 also happens to be the age that my Alsatian great-great-grandfather boarded a transatlantic and sailed to New York by himself. It’s hard to imagine New York Harbor without the iconic Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, but that’s how it would have looked when he arrived on Ellis Island in 1882.
A year before I made that first trip to Europe, other cousins from Alsace came to see the U.S. and even visited California. After just 1 year of studying French, the opportunity to spend a few days connecting with family and getting to know a little about their culture was life-changing and inspiring.
Those two experiences meant that French wasn’t just a foreign language, rather it was a discovery of part of my family history and going to Europe for the first time was actually a sort of return to my origins and something felt familiar. Unfortunately, though, when I got back to the U.S. after that first trip abroad, I developed some negative opinions about my American lifestyle, culture, and attitude and instead started to idolize anything and everything French. I completely immersed myself in the language and made serious plans to eventually move back to Paris, which I did 4 years later shortly after I graduated with a B.A. in French just a few days before turning 21.
At the time of my graduation in May 2002, I was very fortunate to be debt-free without any student loans or car payments in my name. I also didn’t have any permanent job waiting for me, so I was free as a bird. While visiting Paris on vacation in August, I went to the Sorbonne and enquired about enroling there in January, but they only allowed students to begin their studies in October. I had to make some quick decisions about my future when I was offered a room at the American dorm at the Cité Universitaire. I contacted several French embassies in Washington, D.C. and New York, but I was told that I had to fly back to Los Angeles to obtain my student visa, which I did for a 4-day trip to officially say goodbye to my family and friends back home before heading back to Paris. I sometimes try to imagine what kinds of conversations my great-great-grandfather may have had with his family before leaving Europe to go to America.
Also, on that summer vacation in August, I took the train to Strasburg to spend some time with the Alsatian cousins I had met for the first time 4 years before. I was even able to go inside the home where my great-great-grandfather had lived, which was still owned by descendants of the same family. I was shown dozens and dozens of old photos and it was an incredible family history lesson. I heard lots of anecdotes and stories about people I had never had the opportunity to meet or knew had even existed, but there was always something familiar in the details about their interests or personalities. I felt at home and it was a wonderful feeling.
About 30 years before my trip to Schleithal, one of my mother’s sisters, who had also studied and taught French and Spanish, took a trip to Europe and decided to visit the village in the hopes of making contact with the distant family there. This trip came at the request of my great-grandfather who was quite dismayed that the contact had been lost with his Alsatian relatives as a result of the two World Wars, so he asked his granddaughter, my aunt, to visit the family village, and I’m glad she did because her arrival at the family home was like the return of the Prodigal Son. The local family was very excited to receive a visit from one of their lost American cousins. So, thanks to that aunt who re-initiated family contact, I was able to further benefit from the great opportunities to meet my relatives, learn about my family history, and really connect with the French language and culture on a personal level.
On my father’s side, his Irish grandparents moved to Brooklyn from the region of Cork, Ireland. I never knew much about that side of the family, but recently I watched the movie, Brooklyn, with the actress Saoirse Ronan, who plays an Irish girl who decides to leave Ireland and move to America. I connected with the story on many levels and it allowed me to imagine what life may have been like for my Irish-American grandparents back in the 1940s and 50s.
It was always a dream of my father’s to visit Ireland and I was finally able to make that dream happen for him when I was still living in Paris. He visited me in the summer of 2008 and we took a short flight on Ryan Air to Dublin. Then we took a bus to Cork and Blarney, and finally rented a car to visit several towns like Kenmare, Waterford, and Kilkenny on our way back to Dublin. It was a great experience and he was very surprised to see how diverse Ireland had become because of its growing economy and immigration from other EU member countries, such as Poland and the UK.
A few years after that trip to Ireland, my father maintained an account on Ancestry.com in the hopes of finding some distant relatives similar to those on my mother’s side in France. Just when he was ready to give up and close his account, he received a message from a cousin who was related to his mother. Had we known about these family members, we could have visited them close to Cork, but that shall be motivation for another trip in the future. To my surprise, though, when I saw some pictures on Facebook I noticed that one of the Irish cousins had an uncanny resemblance to my sister and my nephew.
Overall, I’m very lucky not only to know about my family history and its European origins, but to still be in contact with distant relatives and to keep those connections still very much alive so that some day my own children can better know about their family background. In today’s world when talk of immigrants and immigration has a negative connotation, it’s still important to remember that countriess such as the United States were founded and developed by immigrants seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Through immigration people discover the world, come into contact with people of different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs, and those exchanges are to be encouraged as they help people stay open-minded, curious, tolerant, and respectful of one another.