When I was in elementary school my classmates and I went through an ancestral heritage phase. It may have been because we were studying it in school, but all I remember is that it suddenly became cool to say “I’m a quarter Irish” or “I’m half German” or “I’m 1/18 Cherokee” (because every elementary school class has that one kid who claims she’s related to a Cherokee princess, even though I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing as a Cherokee princess). My parents may have told me my full heritage — a mix of Czech, Swedish, German, Polish and probably a couple others — but I clung to Czech and Swedish. I may have even said I was half each. I liked that my surname was Czechoslovakian, because nobody can pronounce it (“it” being both my surname and “Czechoslovakian”). At that time Czechoslovakia may have still been a country, but I knew absolutely nothing about it. It was some mystical, magical, far away land. In true beauty pageant fashion I’m not sure I could have found it on a map. My last name was the only bit of my Czech heritage I had. That, and a Valentine written in Czech my great-great-aunt in Cleveland once sent me, and a glass vase given to me by my great-great-aunt’s Czech pen pal who came to visit her (and my entire extended family) in Cleveland when I was young. This lovely old Czech woman’s first (and I believe only) experience of America was suburban Cleveland. I remember my grandparents showed her a right good time though, and stayed in touch with her even after my great-great-aunt passed.
My Swedish heritage, however, my family embraced. My great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, emigrated from Sweden to Pennsylvania in 1914. I never met her, but she passed on some traditions to my grandmother, who passed them on to my mother, who tried to keep them up with our family. These traditions mostly came out at Christmastime. We made Swedish ginger cookies (which we Americanized by slathering them in pounds of frosting), Swedish red velvet cake, Swedish meatballs and meat cakes, and proudly displayed our Swedish candelabra, Dala horses and straw goats. My grandmother kept a very detailed photo album of the family history, and even had photos of my great-grandmother’s house built by her father (my great-great-grandfather) in Västervik, Sweden.
Based on this photo alone and an outdated address, my grandparents went looking for the house 30 years ago. The library in Västervik helped them find the new address, so they drove their rental car over and knocked on the door. I would love to have heard how that conversation went down — “Hello, do you speak English? We are from America. My grandfather built your house. Can we come in?”
But whatever they said worked, because Marianne, the new owner, let them in and gave them a grand tour (all while 8 months pregnant and renovating the place!).
This year my parents and I decided to do a little ancestral tour of Europe, visiting Prague, Stockholm and Västervik. On a whim my dad looked up Marianne on Facebook and saw that she was still living in the house. So he messaged her, and just like that we had an invite for lunch and a house tour in Västervik .
After looking at train schedules, we decided to rent a car. My dad drove while I navigated and spent 30 minutes trying to get the car’s language into English. (I’m not exaggerating, it really did take that long. Thankfully my phone, and Google Translate in particular, worked in Sweden). But eventually we pulled up to a small yellow house on a quiet street in Västervik. Marianne and Benny came out and greeted us like were long lost relatives. And in a way it felt like we were — throughout the day I had to keep reminding myself that Marianne was not my great-aunt or second cousin once removed. She was just some stranger who happened to buy the house from a guy who bought the house from my great-great-grandfather. Yet she showed us the warmest of hospitality, first giving us the grand tour of the house, pointing out which elements were original from 1903, then led us into the kitchen where a traditional Swedish lunch spread was waiting for us.
We ate Christmas bread, ham, and even drank Swedish Christmas soda. Over lunch we took the opportunity to drill Marianne and Benny with all our Swedish questions. We asked them about meatballs, ginger cookies and Dala horses, all of which they confirmed were in fact Swedish.
What about straw goats? I asked.
Maryann looked at Benny, puzzled.
“Goat?” she asked. “What is goat?”
I quickly googled Swedish straw goat and showed her a photo.
“Ah, yes!” she said. “Yulegoat! This is Swedish.” She then told us about the giant straw yulegoat they erect in Gävle every year and how every year somebody tries to burn it down. I quickly googled Gävle goat and found its Wikipedia page.
“Yep, this year’s goat has already been burned down,” I announced. Apparently even Sweden can’t have nice things.
My mom then asked her about red velvet cake, something we usually bake for my birthday or Christmas. The recipe card from my grandmother says “Swedish red cake.”
“Red welwit?” Marianne asked, struggling to pronounce it.
“Yes, it’s red cake,” my mom said. I pulled up a photo on my phone.
“It’s red?” Marianne asked. “Is it strawberry flavored?”
“No,” we said. “It’s just loaded with artificial coloring. Or beet juice.”
“Sorry, I have never heard of this red velvet,” Marianne said. A quick google search shows red velvet cake was likely invented in America in order to sell more red food coloring. Figures. Oh well, it’s still tasty even if it’s not Swedish.
After lunch we walked around town. I tried to imagine my great-grandmother walking these streets as a girl. What would there have been in place of the McDonald’s and H&M? We strolled along the waterfront, passed the house being constructed by Björn of ABBA, who, fun fact, grew up in Västervik.
We saw the ruins of the Stegeholm Castle and walked up to Gränsö slotts ljusstöperi, an old-school candlestick maker (so famous in the country their website is actually http://www.swedishcandles.com/ and we saw them for sale in gift shops in Stockholm).
After loading up on souvenirs to take home, we walked back to the house, took some more photos, then said our goodbyes. We told them they were welcome to visit us in the U.S. anytime, though it’s hard to imagine someone as well-traveled as Marianne coming to Kentucky (but hey, if Vera from the Czech Republic can enjoy suburban Cleveland, maybe Marianne from Västervik would like Florence, Kentucky!). I told Marianne I would email her the photos I took and my dad said he would keep in touch via Facebook, and we hopped in our rental car and made the 3-hour journey back to Stockholm. (With a quick pit stop at IKEA, because you cannot go all the way to Sweden and not check out an authentic Swedish IKEA. For the record, it looks like an American or British IKEA, only slightly bigger and better designed. And their giant hot dog poster doesn’t have to say “not actual size.”)
We also had a nice time in Prague, strolling Charles Bridge, gazing up at the castle and visiting the impressive Old Town Christmas market. But I’m pretty sure my ancestors didn’t live in Prague’s Old Town (or even Prague for that matter), so it didn’t have the same effect as traveling to Västervik. A lot of Americans can’t even narrow down their ancestors to a city, yet alone an exact address, so it was such an incredible experience to be able to step back in time for a day.