When learning a foreign language, you typically master useful survival phrases like “hello,” “thank you,” and “where is the toilet?” My Czech grandmother had a special teaching style. Her idea of survival Czech meant teaching me how to say “f*uck off” and “give me a kiss.” I suppose if you know those two phrases, you’ll get by in most situations.
Growing up I was fascinated with my feisty grandmother’s homeland. Eastern Europe was exotic, not a region people talked about much after the Cold War ended. And by the time I traveled there in 2003, Eastern Europe certainly wasn’t a hip destination.
One summer in college, I headed off to Germany to study abroad. Prague was high on my budget travel list because of my inappropriate grandmother (may she rest).
Everyone was excited to hear about the few long weekend excursions I had planned. When I mentioned I was going to Prague, friends questioned my sanity. With all of the destination options, why on earth would I go there? Why not Rome or London?
Because my grandmother was from the Czech Republic, I answered. Unanimously, the reaction was…crickets.
Basically, to hell with everyone else. Travel is about you—what you want to unearth, what you want to learn, what you want to experience. If you’re itching to explore your ancestral roots, then ancestry travel should be the theme of your next solo travel adventure. Allow me to explain…
Ancestry Travel: Why It’s a Thing Now
Over the past two years ancestry travel (aka heritage travel or genealogy travel) has been on the rise. The availability and accessibility of DNA testing is a prominent reason for this new travel category.
At the beginning of 2019, north of 26 million people had added their DNA to the leading ancestry and health databases. If this pace continues, in two years that number is expected to climb to 100 million people.
Think about it: You’ve taken a DNA test and/or you know someone who has taken one. At the very least, you’ve seen other people’s DNA test results broadcasted across social media in stat-driven visuals like this one…
…and you were unexplainably intrigued, right?
If someone you knew shared their results, you snuck a rather intimate glimpse into their family’s past. If you took a DNA test, you gained a fresh understanding and fascination about your family.
And along the way, maybe you got a special surprise or two. Like my dad’s DNA results revealing unexpected relatives. Turns out that Grandpa Skrabanek swept a little secret about an illegitimate child under the rug back in the day. (Whoa, but yay! We have a bigger family now.)
Anyhow, ancestry travel was a natural progression in the DNA testing craze. But, ancestry travel isn’t just another travel trend. It’s a chance to connect with ourselves on a deeper level.
Finding a Deeper Connection Through Genealogy Travel
In this hyper-connected world we live in, people often feel disconnected. That sense of disconnect is fueled by the very technology that brings us all “closer” to each other and everything. The disconnect is further amplified by the lack of connection with our ancestral history.
Many of us grew up knowing bits and pieces about our heritage. I knew I was half Czech, but knew little about my mom’s half. I enjoyed my Grandmother’s flavorful cooking, but I didn’t know much about her.
I ended up specializing in Eastern Europe for my Bachelor’s degree in International Studies. Because I wanted to get my hands on any information about my cultural heritage so I could better understand my family and myself.
Now we have DNA test results at our fingertips. So, the technology that often distracts us redeems itself by offering up intel about our heritage in the form of reasonably priced DNA tests.
It’s during this time that we unravel family myths about our heritage. (Raise your hand if you’re an American who grew up thinking you had Native American blood only to find that the biology doesn’t add up.)
After facing the DNA data, the next logical step in this self-discovery process is taking action with the new information we discovered about ourselves. Ancestry travel is an opportunity to find that deeper connection.
In today’s fast-paced environment, we yearn for simpler times…like the times our ancestors lived in. We want to have experiences that last, like exploring a faraway city or town where we can lose ourselves in our own roots. So, why not travel to a place that is actually a part of us?
Ancestry Travel Works Well for Solo Travelers
My first ancestry travel experience to Prague transpired many moons before the DNA test craze—and well before ancestry travel was coined. I was also a solo female traveler, which was pretty uncommon.
At the time I was newly engaged. But studying abroad was a journey I needed to take on my own. For me, going to Prague alone was self-discovery in its rawest form, an opportunity I seized to connect with my true identity.
This trip made such an impact on my life. Almost ten years later, I captured some of this magical experience in my second novel, Everything’s Not Bigger. The main character, Jaye, travels solo to Prague on a journey of self-discovery. But unlike countless other clichéd self-discovery stories, she actually embarks on an ancestry travel expedition after losing her sense of self and identity in the witness protection program.
The thing is your heritage is yours, and no one else’s. It’s a prime solo travel opportunity. You can take a deep dive into your cultural roots and enjoy culture the way you prefer. Even if you are married, everyone has different travel styles. When ancestry comes into the mix, how far you decide to take the heritage exploration is entirely up to you.
Some people like to really nerd out. They dig into all of their ancestral data then visit every cemetery, shop, country home, and church that their great-great-great aunts and uncles touched. Others, like myself, are happy with cultural ambiance. Like, drinking copious amounts of Czech beer, eating delicious kolaches, and meandering across Charles Bridge with all of the crystal shops illuminating the night sky.
Travel is a great escape. But, it is also a great teacher. Ancestry travel is a chance to go somewhere with substance and create a unique life learning experience. Make it your own.