Travel

A trip overseas to visit an ancestral home elicits reflections on our origins, identity and the future

People travel for many reasons. Some travel for work, others for vacation. Travel isn’t always about taking a break or making a sale, though. Sometimes it’s about finding answers to important questions like “Where did I come from?” or “Why am I here?”

Last Saturday, a group of Alaskans climbed aboard the first Condor Airlines flight in more than two years. This summer the airline is flying nonstop from Anchorage, Fairbanks and Whitehorse to Frankfurt.

The Alaskans I spoke with at the gate were excited to once again have a nonstop option over-the-pole to Europe.

Some were headed for beach vacations in the Greek islands. Others were headed on an Italian holiday.

Still others were headed “home” to see friends and relatives in Germany. These travelers were especially thankful for the nonstop flight, so they could easily rekindle friendships and family ties.

It wasn’t always this easy to return to see friends and family. When my ancestors made the journey from Northern Ireland to America in the 18th century, they never saw their families again.

My wife, Christy, remembers her grandfather wanted to return to the “old country” of Sicily. Although he was born in the U.S., along the Mississippi River, he remembers his parents talking of the their former home.

Christy’s great-grandparents were part of a wave of Sicilian immigrants who were recruited to work in the fields in the Mississippi River delta after the Civil War. Conditions in Sicily were so bad that her ancestors joined other immigrants from Lebanon, Syria and Mexico to start a new life.

Her grandfather never made the trip. Nor did her parents. But after researching where her ancestors came from, we traveled to their ancestral home of Cefalu, on Sicily’s northern coast.

Located about 40 miles east of the Sicilian capital of Palermo, Cefalu is noted for its remarkable cathedral, built 1,000 years ago in the 12th century. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the cathedral has undergone extensive restoration and renovation, revealing the extraordinary mosaic artwork throughout the interior.

The cathedral is worth visiting. But that wasn’t the pull for Christy, who recently returned to Sicily with her brother, Samuel Little, in tow.

Walking the streets of the old town, they recognized the family names of their schoolmates from Greenville, Mississippi, on the street signs and on businesses.

While visiting, we stayed at the Cefalu Suites bed and breakfast. According to our host, Antonio, Cefalu’s year-round population is around 16,000. But there’s a beautiful beach right downtown and the population can soar to 100,000 in the summer, he said.

Antonio recommended a restaurant that was just a 10-minute walk from our apartment.

“Ask for Giuseppi. La Galleria is No. 1!” said Antonio.

We took Antonio’s advice and had a delicious meal with seafood, pasta fresca and tomatoes. Lots and lots of delicious, ripe tomatoes.

As we enjoyed our dinner, Christy shared with Giuseppi her efforts to learn more about her family’s ancestors. Then she started sharing some of the family names that she recognized: Maggio, Valenziana, Provenza.

“Wait,” said Giuseppi. “I’m a Provenza.”

That connection was an important one. For Christy and Sam, who had traveled thousands of miles, there was a feeling of being home.

These moments are modern-day miracles, thanks to the availability of frequent air travel.

But it underscores the importance of the connection with family and with the land of your ancestors.

Many travelers fly to make or renew family connections: marriages, baptisms, funerals and graduations.

But many others are enduring a rugged journey, not flying but traveling on foot or by boat. Through the centuries, people have suffered forced migration — and it’s often as a result of tragedy: war, oppression, famine, disease or conquest.

Whether they are called refugees, immigrants or simply “displaced persons,” many of those who are migrating may never see their families again.

As we look in the past to discover more about our ancestors and the land they came from, it’s important to remember those who are making a perilous journey.

The world is watching in real time how millions of Ukrainians are leaving their country. Some have come to Anchorage. Many other refugees have landed in Anchorage from Sudan, Afghanistan, Laos and Vietnam.

As these families make their perilous journey to find a new life, their children and grandchildren will ask the same questions: “Where did I come from?” and “Why am I here?”

The stories they hear from their loved ones may help them connect with other family members and to the lands of their ancestors to help answer other questions, like “Who am I?”

The sun is just coming up in Sicily. The dogs are barking and I can smell the coffee. Even though none of us speak Italian, or the distinctive Sicilian dialect, this island kingdom in the middle of the Mediterranean is a little less foreign — and a little more like home.

Scott McMurren

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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