||TANYA ENBERG, Chic Savvy Travels
It began with a book-sized stack of papers outlining my family’s genealogy. The trouble is, the information — obviously quite thorough and incredibly well researched judging from the copies of immigration forms, government-issued documents and church records — is all written in Swedish.
The information came from my dad’s first cousin in Sweden, eventually sparking a need for me to go there and see some of the roots of my family tree in person.
The coastal view of Norway shortly after crossing the Swedish border. Photo by Tanya Enberg
The desire to travel Sweden has been swirling around in my mind since I was a kid.
Back then, in my limited global scope, mixed with majestic images found in my mom’s National Geographic magazines and stories of the Motherland passed down from my grandparents, I imagined a sprawling landscape without a clear beginning or ending — vast terrain blanketed in thick powdery snow somewhere far, far away.
My grandpa comes from Kiruna, the most northern part of Sweden. North of the Arctic Circle, in fact. To a child of four or five, it seemed like an almost impossible journey to have come from there and somehow wind up all the way in another chilly country. But, there he was, in Canada. My grandma hails from Aland, an island sandwiched between Sweden and Finland.
Aland was the property of Sweden and remains Swedish speaking, but is now Finnish land. I dream of going there as well, but this trip, which officially ended when my plane arrived in Toronto earlier this week, took me to Stockholm, Lulea and Kiruna.
A few years ago, I was thrilled when my dad’s cousin sent him a letter from Lulea, Sweden. She wanted to know about the Canadian side of the family, which, incidentally, is just a small branch in the family tree. Everyone else, it seems, had stayed in Sweden and while there was communication between relatives in the early years, it later waned.
Now there was a great disconnect. A divide in the ancestry. And she wanted the missing pieces, the stories that might’ve otherwise been lost over time. And, truly, if not for her, they would’ve been.
Breathtaking landscapes make up the Laplands of Sweden and Norway. Photo by Tanya Enberg
My dad put me in touch with his cousin and I went to work filling in the blanks of the family now residing in the Great White North. She sent me copies of photos she had in Sweden — there was my grandma, grandpa, aunts and uncles.
She sent copies of photos of my dad as a baby and my brother and I with our first dog, a gorgeous Husky that chased me around relentlessly as a child.
Every year, Sweden winds up on my must-do travel list but, until now, it has been trumped by other incidentals — work trips, scheduling conflicts and various other obstacles. Finally, I am happy to report that I’ve crossed through the mysterious terrain where my grandpa hails from.
After arriving in Stockholm and spending a couple of days there, I took a flight to Lulea where I met family there for the first time — the main link being my second cousin who’d first reached out to us.
There she was, along with more cousins, stories, photographs and generous offerings of food, including pates and caviar, gifts and lodging.
While I’ve long felt connected to this land I’d never before seen, I suddenly felt it on a tactile level too. It was no longer the connection of distant ancestry derived simply by my brave grandparents — who, incidentally had both individually set off for better lives and actually met in Canada — but a living, breathing entity, one not as far removed as I’d long believed.
From Lulea, the journey took me to Kiruna, a mining town with some of the most challenging outdoor elements one can face during the winter months. This is the place of my childhood imaginings. Thankfully, though, the harsh winter season hadn’t yet arrived.
There I met more cousins, and I recognized straight away that their twisted dark humour matched my own brilliantly. The ease between us was fascinating, as though we’d known each other all along.
Bonding with cousins in Kiruna, Sweden in a church of all places.
Almost immediately we were laughing hysterically and showing off our appreciation for politically incorrect humour. We were so much alike, it was actually kind of bizarre.
We visit the grave sites of my great grandparents and, after being told stories about them, I have a clearer picture of the kind of hearty people they were.
They help translate the family tree and I discover that my dad’s father lost several fingers while working with machinery, that my great grandma had made him a special work glove to help facilitate him afterward, and that we also have Norwegian ancestry that eventually moved to Sweden.
The son of my grandpa’s brother showed me letters sent from my grandpa, which he has kept in pristine condition for all of these years. I unfolded the delicate letters and there in familiar penmanship was my grandfather Otto’s writing, but the words, all in Swedish, didn’t translate. When he wrote letters within Canada, he always wrote in English, so his Swedish penmanship was something I’d never seen before.
“He says he hopes to buy a house in Canada, but that the prices are very high,” my cousin translates.
Later on, she tells me that his dream is to come home to Sweden once again and see the family, that he especially misses his mother and siblings.
In another letter, my great grandmother has died. He writes about how kind she was to everyone, that he had sent flowers and regrets that he never saw her again.
What I know from my grandparents’ experience here is that they had very little money. Like many new immigrants at the time, they spoke no English when they arrived and earned bottom-dollar wages for hard labour. My grandpa did construction and was often away for long stretches of time to take on work. When my grandma first arrived, she took on a cleaning job for a family just long enough to learn English.
Me (right) and my cousin go through the family tree in Kiruna, Sweden.
There is hope and longing in my grandpa’s letters, and while he hints at the economical hardships he’s faced, he never offers up great detail about just how difficult settling has been.
To do this trip from Toronto to all the spots along the way in Sweden and back again, it took 11 plane rides, four train rides and a bus. Translate that into past traveling technology, and the trek to Canada must’ve been an incredible accomplishment.
That journey in its original form is still unimaginable to me.
And now that I’ve seen the land, felt it under my feet, and met the faces of relatives in person, I am humbled and grateful for my grandparents who risked every single comfort they knew and each, on their own, embraced the unknown, creating new branches in a land far, far away. It is one I hope to again visit some day, not so far away.
Date Added: September 21, 2011 | Comments (8)
Very cool-it is such a wonderful way to connect with your roots- i have been in the South of Sweden-Lund and Helsingborg briefly but would love to go again
Comment by trish fitzpatrick — September 21, 2011 @ 4:23 pm
The next time you go to Sweden, you should check out the House of Emmigrants in Växjö. Sweden kept very detailed records of people who emigrated between 1846-1930 with passport applications, passenger lists and audio recordings with emigrants.
Comment by Laura — September 30, 2011 @ 11:31 am
Thanks for the tip! I am definitely going back … I can’t wait, actually — I already craving a return!!
Comment by TANYA ENBERG, Chic Savvy Travels — October 6, 2011 @ 10:19 pm
Hey Trish! Yes, this goes down as one of my favorite trips — it was educational, emotional & beautiful!
Comment by TANYA ENBERG, Chic Savvy Travels — October 6, 2011 @ 10:21 pm
Hi cousin, we will really try to be in Sweden next time you go there so we finally can meet.. Really nice pic’s by the way!
Comment by Malin — October 27, 2011 @ 3:01 am
Hi, I think it was a pity that I didn’t get to meet you when you were visiting Sverige.Jag is Siv’s younger brother and I live in Constance.
Comment by Tommy nberg — October 27, 2011 @ 4:24 am
Hi Tommy, I know! I wish we’d had a chance to meet, too. While the trip was incredible, I do regret that it wasn’t longer. I would’ve enjoyed meeting more of the family while there! But, I hope to return to beautiful Sverige & to meet you then.
Thanks for the email,
Comment by TANYA ENBERG, Chic Savvy Travels — October 27, 2011 @ 9:24 am
Hej cousin! Thanks for the note & I am glad you liked the pictures. It would be awesome if you were in Sweden the next time I make my way over! Hope everything is fantastic!
Comment by TANYA ENBERG, Chic Savvy Travels — October 27, 2011 @ 9:26 am