The following excerpts from travel writer Elizabeth Hansen of her personal ancestry travel experience. Ancestry Traveler can assist you in researching your family history and planning a similar authentic travel adventure to uncover your roots.

February 19, 2015 | Updated: February 21, 2015 | By Elizabeth Hansen | www.elizabethhansen.net

Ancestry travel – think of it as authentic travel on steroids. You wander off the beaten path looking for “missing” family members and, in the process, you make connections with local people and learn about your cultural DNA. It doesn’t get more authentic than that.

My trip to Italy to research my roots took me to a place that isn’t on most maps. It also brought me face to face with people I’d never met, but with whom I felt an immediate connection.

Below, you’ll find my ancestry travel story and some advice for your own roots trip.

My ancestry travel took me to Senerchia, Provincia di Avellino. 

My ancestry travel

I entered Senerchia armed with a sentence written on the back of an envelope: “Mia nonna é nata qui.” I didn’t actually know if my grandmother was born there, but that sentence opened the door for me and eventually led to my success. 

Not ready for ancestry travel

Even if you aren’t ready to travel, do oral histories now. Your relatives – who are your best source of information – might not be around when you decide to fill those empty branches on your family tree. I can’t emphasize how important this is. Write down as many names and places as you can, even if you know you won’t be traveling any time soon.

My story, my ancestry travel

The empty branches on my family tree had always made me wonder. What names belonged in those blank spaces? The unknown information presented a challenge to my sense of order and my need for things to be complete.

For a time it appeared the challenge would go unmet. No one in my family knew the name of the village in Italy from which our grandparents and great-grandmother had emigrated. Like so many turn-of-the-century immigrants, they had put ashore at Ellis Island and left the Old World behind. Once settled in Chicago, all three – the young couple and her mother – turned their full attention to finding work and securing the necessities of life.

As I grew older, the empty branches continued to bother me. I was determined to find my roots, but without the name of the town, filling in the blanks seemed nearly impossible. My mother hummed Italian folk songs while she cooked and got a faraway look on her face when she listened to Pavarotti sing “O Sole Mio,” but she couldn’t provide any concrete information.

When pressed, my aunts and uncles thought that “our” town was in the Province of Avellino and they had an idea that its name began with S-E-N. This led me to a directory where “Senerchia” was the only – but still iffy – prospect.

In the church in Senerchia there’s a plaque acknowledging the emigrants from the village who sent money “home” from Chicago. Does that include mia nonna I wondered? Credit: Renee Van Arsdale.

Ancestry travel – The story continues in Italy

In Naples, the man at the car rental agency helped by writing “Mia nonna é nata qui” (my grandmother was born here) on the back of the envelope containing the rental agreement. Following his directions, I took the autostrada and miles of scenic country lanes to a quiet village with a single main street. My shiny red rental created a stir. The men drinking espresso at tables under the trees stared; the school children stared, and the old women dressed in black stared.

The police station seemed like a good place to start my search. Inside, two men sat drinking coffee in a rather bare office. One seemed to belong to the big desk in the room and the other appeared to be a visitor. They understood what I was after without looking at the envelope. Yes, there were records, but why did I want to look up records in books? It was easier, they assured me, just to ask the old people of the village. I didn’t think this would be helpful, but I recognized the determined look in their eyes as one I’d seen in my mother many times and didn’t bother protesting.

The three of us walked out into the square and our leader, the one who belonged to the desk, began calling to people who came out onto their balconies. He told them the names of my relatives and they recited them over and over, but the litany didn’t spark a memory. Lots of del Giudices, but no Angela. Lots of Izzos, but no Caterina. Before long the piazza was full of people milling around – some repeating “Izzo, Caterina” and others reciting “Chee-ca-go” as if it was a mantra.

Soon my escorts were summoned to their midday meal. But what, I wanted to know, about “mia nonna“? They shrugged. I reminded them about the records, but they said it would take too long to go through them. I offered to do it myself after lunch; they exchanged sidelong glances and nodded.

They were already at work when I arrived. The documents – contained in huge dusty tomes – were in two rooms. The visitor had taken the room with the older, bundled books and was already waist deep in brown wrapping paper. I joined the man who belonged to the desk. The records were written in Old Italian script that was difficult to read. I was scared that they’d get discouraged and give up – but before that happened we found the birth certificate of a bambina “Caterina Izzo,” dated 1852.

That bambina was my great-grandmother, and this discovery erased any doubt I’d had about being in the right place. Eventually, we located her marriage certificate and the birth certificate of a sister no one knew she had. This led to other family records – a real bonanza.

An ancestry travel story with a happy ending

I gave both of the men a big hug, and in doing so realized that my eyes weren’t the only wet ones in the room. I offered to help them clean up the mess we’d created, but they said nevermind; it was late. They’d do it “domani.”

As I drove back to Naples, I savored my discoveries. I reviewed the strange and wonderful day I’d just experienced – and knew I’d never forget. I cried and I smiled. I felt like I’d just won the lottery.

Knowing where I’m from doesn’t change who I am, but it’s immensely satisfying. Years have passed since my visit to Senerchia.  I still can’t speak Italian, and my spaghetti sauce will never be as good as my mother’s. But now I’m the one with a faraway look and tears in my eyes when I hear Pavarotti sing “O Sole Mio.”

Ciao Mama.