Land of Ancestors: Denmark
It all started when Brad told Carolyn that when you go to the land of your ancestors, you feel like you are home. He had just returned from a trip to Scotland, where his ancestors lived for hundreds of generations. He said there was a connection to the land, to the sheep, to the weather that felt deeper than mere tourist enthusiasm. It felt nostalgic, felt familiar.
Since then, we have each had the opportunity to go to the land of our ancestors. We come back with our hearts full of stories, traditions, objects, and feelings we can hardly wait to bring into our homes.
We’ve learned that family history isn’t just about looking up pictures and finding out dates and names. That’s part of it. But it’s more this idea that you remember them and talk about them, and you surround yourself with things connected to them, and go to their places, and you feel that sense of home when you do that.
We want to share with you this way we choose to live family history: Go to the place your ancestors came from, incorporate things from those homelands into your home, and invite others to share these experiences with you. We have put together travel guides of the lands of our ancestors and a collection of our favorite products from the places your ancestors may be from. We hope that combining the experiences, objects, and stories from your own heritage fills you with an overwhelming sense of home.
The first time I experienced that feeling of home was my first trip to Denmark. I was traveling in Europe with a friend and we had planned a couple of days in Copenhagen. I remembered vaguely my grandmother mentioning our Danish ancestors, but that certainly wasn’t my motive in going that first time around. So it came as a surprise, this overwhelming sense of homecoming that dazzled me almost immediately as our train arrived in Copenhagen.
There was something about the dark blue seas and the brightly colored buildings—many colored bricks, bright green patinated copper roofs, spiraling towers, and heavy white plaster—and the series of bridges throughout the city. The feeling pulsed through me, and I felt giddy as I walked through the city. Nyhavn, Glyptotek, Botanical Gardens, Royal Library, Tivoli, The Church of Our Lady, Fredericksborg Palace, and The Little Mermaid. It felt like home to me, each new experience deepened the feeling. The feeling was elusive, and it took me a while to understand it. By the time I understood the impact, I was off to the next travel adventure, but in seeing other new lands, nothing quite ignited the same buoyant happiness I had left behind in Denmark.
Earlier this year, nearly five years later, life offered me another chance to travel back to Denmark. Being a few years older, a few years wiser, and a little bit more in love with family history, I wanted to test that feeling again. Brad and I were heading to a tradeshow for work. When we registered for the tradeshow, assuming it would be in Copenhagen, we were pleased to discover that it was actually in Jutland—mainland—Denmark, where most of our Danish ancestors had lived. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to follow in their footsteps in a deliberate and specific way. So we booked an Airbnb in the town where my great-great-great grandmother was born—Vejle.
Our flight arrived sometime after midnight, and we could see nothing in the darkness as we plugged some coordinates into the GPS. It was snowing and the only hint of civilization was the occasional road sign that neither of us could understand, but again I felt that sort of heart-pounding giddiness.
Now let me just say that we put lots of research and effort into some aspects of this trip and very little into others. One thing I feel is super important in traveling is finding the right place to stay. Even if it’s a little inconvenient, stay somewhere that offers an experience of its own, and you will discover far more than staying in a chain hotel. We couldn’t have found a more perfect location for this particular trip, and since pictures are worth a thousand words, here are a few.
This little thatched roof cottage instantly put us in the mood for family history. We went to sleep wondering if our ancestors had lived in a cottage similar to this (though without the modern conveniences of heated terracotta floors and fluffy down comforters we enjoyed while there).
Despite our late arrival, we awoke as the sun was rising, unwilling to miss our first view of the wintery northern city of Vejle (pronounced vie-la), the home of our many great-grandparents. We decided to race the sun, so we dressed quickly, and sped off to visit some of the other nearby villages, that had surfaced in our research: Skjold, Ørum, and others. In Skjold we found the white plastered church where several ancestors had been christened.
Walking up a small hill to the church with thoughts swirling, I felt a certain sort of reverence, but it was when I turned around at the top of the hill and overlooked the valley, fields, and hills of my ancestral land, that I finally felt it again. Warmth, awe, gratitude, and love all wrapped up together in this experience of seeing the place where my ancestors lived for centuries. They really lived, they had families, they had struggles, they were cold, they worked hard, and they loved.
After just standing in silence as the bitter cold northern winds whipped around us, we jumped back in the car and just drove through the area, looking at old farms and homes, burgeoning with questions that couldn’t be answered. As we returned back to Vejle for a late morning brunch and ancestral site seeking, a series of new questions and excitement built again. We parked near the town center and walked toward the church where several of our ancestors had been married and christened. Again, warmth filled our hearts as we set off to explore the town.
The other really important thing (in addition to intentional accommodations) is to plan time for exploration. Don’t hustle from one tourist destination to the next without the chance to stop and feel, to be spontaneous. After seeing the church, we walked the streets of the small Danish town, paved in cobblestones, and centuries old buildings. I couldn’t help but wonder which sights were the same as those my ancestors had, hundreds of years before. Did they help build these buildings? Run the shops? Or perhaps a restaurant? We sat down to a stunningly delicious brunch platter at ONKLE A. Perfection on a platter. Afterwards, we traipsed the streets. I had to go in all the shops, just in case I could be following the footsteps of my ancestors. One of my favorite Danish shops was there on the main street: it's called Søstern Grene and I picked up a few little trinkets, including some Danish flags. There are over eighty Søstern Grene stores in Denmark, so make sure you don’t miss this little treasure trove.
We then set off for our next touch of our ancestors—Odense. For those of you familiar with Denmark and its history, you many recognize this city name as the home of beloved author, Hans Christian Andersen. He shared this town with several of my ancestors during the decades of the early nineteenth century. My ancestors were christened in the same church as Andersen, only a few years apart. Perhaps they knew each other, went to the same schools, played in the streets together.
We followed the Hans Christian Andersen footsteps through the town—there really is a trail of footsteps through the town that take you to the important places where Hans Christian Andersen lived. As he was a contemporary of my ancestors, walking into his various homes (now turned museums), I felt like I could really get a picture of what life had been like for people at the time, my ancestors included.
It inspires me to pull some of their ideas into my own life. I didn't (and don't) want this experience to be confined merely to the time when I was standing in their country. I wanted to bring some of this feeling home with me in attitude, action, and even some physical ways. We went to museums and lots of antique shops (we brought a few antique treasures back to the store), and did our best to enjoy being in this place.
Odense completely charmed me, as I wandered through the fairy tale trail, I was also very aware of the hardships that my ancestors suffered during their time in that city and others. They lost children to death and disease. They undertook cross country moves and learned to adjust. And eventually, they even left their beautiful and beloved homeland and followed their newly found faith across oceans, to a land where they didn’t speak the language or have friends. They made sacrifices for the things that were important to them, and I can too.
That evening we met some Danish family friends for dinner in Odense. We sat around the table eating, talking, and laughing. In some ways, that dinner brought the experience full circle. It's all about people, love, sacrifice, and joy, then and now. As we made our way back to our little thatched roof cottage in the darkness of evening, thoughts and conversation wandered to the experiences of the day and the feelings that the small little things and places evoked. There was certainly excitement and awe. Sadness and gratitude also had their place. Mostly, there was love and it all felt a lot like coming home.
Wait for the next installment of "Land of our Ancestors" and shop our collection here.