For his 12th birthday last summer, my son, Oliver, had a British-spy-themed party. He and his friends maintained their cover as they ran from shop to park bench to cemetery, solving a treasure hunt we’d planted around town. They unearthed the enemy’s blueprints in a basement. Then there was cake.
We have been indulging Oliver’s fanatical love of Britain for some time. He has a British flag hanging over his bed. He and his best friend, Fiona, drink tea together every Friday and call it British Club. He was thrilled about the birth of the new prince. This in spite of the fact that he’s lived his entire life in Brooklyn, New York, and in many other respects is a regular American child.
And yet, this year, I developed a concern about his Anglophilia. As I made regular visits to my 102-year-old Norwegian grandmother at her assisted-living facility, I realized that Oliver has been paying no attention at all to that side of his heritage. I became indignant on my Nordic ancestors’ behalf. I entreated him to appreciate what Norway has to offer him — fjords! Trolls! Ancient Viking ships!
Unmoved, he returned to his model of a Royal Air Force fighter plane.
Determined to expose my son to his full heritage before he’s a teenager, I proposed a game. For spring break, we will go to two places: Cornwall, the region of western England that is the ancestral land of his father, whose name is Neal Medlyn; and Voss, the part of western Norway native to my family. Oliver will see firsthand his cultures of origin. Then he can pick his favorite. If a tiny country like Norway can win so many Olympic skiing medals, surely it can wow a tween.
As a reporter, I subscribe to the philosophy “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” so before we go all in on this Norway and England stuff, I have us do DNA tests to make sure we are not, in fact, Armenian. There are few surprises in our results. Oliver is 57 percent from England, Wales, and Northwestern Europe; 28 percent Norway; 12 percent Ireland and Scotland; and 3 percent Sweden.
“Look at that!” I tell Oliver. “Almost a third Viking!”
“More than half British!” he cheers.
Next, we seek information about our distant relatives. Neal and I join Ancestry.com. Family-tree building becomes my second favorite way to waste time after stress cleaning, even though it turns out my husband is way better at it than I am.
Neal traces the Medlins back to 1530, when John Medlyn, Neal’s 12th great-grandfather, was born in Cornwall, and where the Medlins (or Medlyns, or Medlands — they didn’t settle on a spelling for generations) lived until Neal’s eighth great-grandfather Richard Medlin left Cornwall in 1670 with his wife, Rachel. Richard and Rachel traveled to America via Barbados to start a farm in the Carolinas. The Medlins stayed in that area until Neal’s second great-grandfather John Benjamin Medlin left for Texas, where I would meet Neal in the year 2000; he would move with me to New York City.
Neal went a step further and made a playlist of songs from or about both Cornwall and Norway. While Oliver liked Ylvis’s version of “What Does the Fox Say?” and the deLillos’s “Suser Avgårde,” his favorite by far was “Cornwall My Home.”
Not to be outdone by Neal’s work, I visit my grandmother Charlene Schjeldahl. (Schjeldahl is my legal name; Calhoun, my middle name, is what I use as a byline.)
“When we went to Norway, to the Skjeldal farm, they had a big party for us,” my grandmother tells me. “I remember the mountains and the river and how in the summertime the children, maybe 8 years old, slept up on the mountain to watch the sheep. We got lost once on the way to Bulken. We stopped the car and asked someone who was in the driveway of his house where to go. He went back in the house, put on a tie, and had us follow him to the destination. I liked that he dressed up just to show us the way.”
My grandmother is thrilled to hear that we will be going to Norway, and that we will be visiting my cousin Inger in Brandbu, not far from Oslo. When I was traveling as a teenager during a gap year, my grandmother arranged for me to spend some weeks with Inger. This time around, Inger invited us to spend time with her, her husband, and their three children, the youngest of whom is roughly Oliver’s age — something that bodes well for my mission to interest him in the country.
As I leave my grandmother that day, she is giddy with anticipation for our Norway trip. Could this be the secret to her longevity? I wonder. Has she been waiting all this time for someone to appreciate her ancestry? As I’m leaving her room, she says, “You’re an It girl! Like Clara Bow! The farmers in Norway better watch out!”
I am 43 years old, married, and a workaholic. No one has to watch out. But it is always nice when your centenarian grandmother thinks you are a fox.
At her encouragement, I acquire, from an aunt who now has a lot more closet space, several shopping bags full of binders of newspaper clippings, photographs, and painstaking pre-internet research. Using these resources and logging my own time on Ancestry, I get the Schjeldahl line back to the mid-1600s, when Mikkjel Endreson Tesdal/Skjeldal took the name upon coming to work at the family farm in Voss.
Thorsten Olavson Skjeldal came to America and eventually settled in North Dakota. Having anglicized his name to Schjeldahl (would it have killed him to take out the j while he was at it?), he married a Norwegian girl named Martha Knutsdatter Bjørgo, and they had a son named Ole, who would have a son named Gilmore, who would have a son named Peter, my father. Peter, like Thorsten, would move away — in this case, to Manhattan, where I would be born, and, later, where my own son would be born.
It is clear that Neal has every intention of winning our competitive ancestry adventure. “I’m going into this the way LeBron James would go into a pickup basketball game — with the humility of confirmed greatness,” he tells me. And at first glance, he does have the advantage. His ancestors hail from near Tintagel Castle. My son loves castles, military history, and caves. He does not enjoy heights, mud, or Reformation hymns, which is the gist of what I turn up on my end.
My ancestors, Lutheran farmers, lived quiet, hardworking lives for centuries without much excitement, though one hiking-guide relative evidently died falling into a fjord — or, as Neal puts it, fjalling into a fjord.
I flip through my grandmother’s Norway photo book and find a picture of her grandmother’s homestead in Gol, Norway. I show it to Oliver.
“That’s not a house,” he says. “That’s a hut.”
I guess it does look more like a pile of rocks and sticks than a palace.
I offer a Norwegian motto that my great-grandmother apparently liked: “Verda er vid, men Voss er vidare.”
“What does that mean?” Oliver asks.
“The world is wide, but Voss is wider,” I say.
“What does that mean?” he asks.
I admit that I don’t know.
Growing desperate, I write to someone named marwendt1 on Ancestry who has done research on Voss ancestors. I ask her if she knows who lives on the Skjeldal farm now. She tells me to email the Voss librarian, who not only knows the family but even offers to call them for me. The current residents, Hermann and Eva Skjeldal, say they remember having met my grandmother some 30 years ago on her trip to Norway. Hermann says we are welcome to visit. They could show us their new baby lambs, even. Baby lambs! Now we’re talking.
On Easter night, we take an Aer Lingus red-eye from New York to Newquay, England, with a breakfast stopover in Dublin. We land sleepy but excited. We go to pick up our rental car, at which point I am asked if I can drive stick shift.
Yes, of course. My first cars were standards. When we get in the car, a Škoda Octavia with just 300 miles on it, I realize that the stick is on the left-hand side. I have to drive sitting in what I think of as the passenger seat, in the left-hand lane, while changing gears with my left hand. It is like some kind of sick science experiment.
What follows is the worst driving experience of my life, and I say that as someone who routinely takes the FDR Drive in New York City during rush hour. It does not help that as I stall out and curse and try to yield properly on the roundabouts, which appear every few kilometers, Neal is shrieking, reaching for an imaginary steering wheel in front of him. “That’s the curb!” he says, unhelpfully, when I bump it.
At one point, I say, “Right or left?” and he yells, “That one!” and points, what looks from my vantage point, like straight ahead, into the embankment. I think, This is the end of our family tree, right now, because we are not going to survive this trip.
Nevertheless, I get us in one piece to the pin Neal has dropped on Google Maps. We drive past an open gate on which is written in iron: medlyn moor wildlife sanctuary. It feels bizarre that Medlyn — Neal’s last name — is here on this gate thousands of miles from our home, like a secret message that was left for us decades ago. We pass through the gate into a field full of butterflies, dandelions, and white and yellow flowers to find the ruins of an ancient tin mine with gigantic crows nesting in the windows.
That night, Neal, Oliver, and I stay in a 200-year-old, two-story converted tollgate cottage beneath Gothic arches in St. Austell. In the next room, I can hear Oliver singing himself to sleep. The song: “Cornwall My Home.” As an adventurer, I feel this day has gone quite well. As a competitor, it was a complete disaster.
The next day, we take the train to Falmouth, home of Pendennis Castle, built by Henry VIII in the 1540s. As Oliver flips through BBC Top Gear magazine and eats his first Cornish pasty, proclaiming it “the food I have been waiting for my whole life,” I google Medlins in Cornwall.
Right away, I find a news story about one who lives, as luck would have it, in Falmouth: a photo-realistic painter named Jamie Medlin. Via his website, I send him a quick email introducing myself. I ask if his work is showing anywhere in Falmouth.
Pendennis Castle does not disappoint. We see a Napoleonic tunnel, the firing of a musket, and a World War II bunker. Roaming the grounds, we encounter a group of tiny British schoolchildren dressed as knights and princesses.
During lunch, Oliver says, “Excuse me, please,” and runs out of the café. When Neal and I look out the window a minute later, we see Oliver lined up in a row, being trained in the use of a battle ax by a pair of 16th-century reenactors armed with various props.
While we are walking around the castle, Jamie Medlin writes back a lovely email, saying he wishes he was available to meet us, and that his artwork is in the National Maritime Museum and also a little gallery called Beside the Wave. He says we should look for one painting in particular, of an oyster dredger named the Ada, a little fishing boat manned by two people seen in silhouette. In the background are the fields of Cornwall.
This part of the trip was supposed to have nothing to do with me. This is enemy soil. And yet I find myself seduced by Cornwall again and again. The little shop where I buy us coffee and pastries in the morning is delightful. The local beer I try in the evening is delicious. When a train we’re on is delayed, the conductor sits next to us and explains how sorry he is, then gives us a new route to take, via Plymouth, so we won’t lose too much time. The fact that a Cornwall boat painted by a Medlin has my name is almost too much.
We leave the castle to visit the town of Falmouth, with its dreamy corner bookshop, where I would still be now if Neal and Oliver hadn’t dragged me out. At Beside the Wave gallery, we buy a print of Ada. Oliver calls dibs on hanging it in his room.
That night, back in St. Austell, we have dinner at Whites Restaurant, where the waiter teaches Oliver how to eat mussels using a spent shell as chopsticks. “Work smarter, not harder,” the waiter says with a wink. Oliver sighs contentedly. “I just feel so at home here, you know?” he says.
I know I’m supposed to be trying to win this, but I do, too.
The next day, we return the car. The Hertz associate walks slowly around the parked vehicle. At the left front tire, he crouches down and stares into the wheel well.
“Huh,” he says, sounding surprised.
“Huh what?” I ask. “Is there damage?”
“It’s just surprising, is all,” he says.
“No damage. Usually Americans hit a wall. The roads are so narrow and all. And they’re not used to driving on the left. They say, ‘The wall jumped out and hit me!’ But this looks fine.”
For the rest of the trip, Neal and Oliver will listen to me brag about how I am the only American to ever not crash a car in Cornwall.
“That’s not what the man said,” Neal will say each time. “He just said some — ”
“The only one!” I will crow.
And with that, it’s on to Norway. As we lift off at Gatwick, we notice Oliver look out the plane window and blow a kiss to England.
Before we even leave Bergen’s airport, Oliver observes that Norway seems “too clean and too empty.” I tell him to give it more time. As we drive to Voss, we pass giant mountains, deep fjords, and waterfalls like something out of a fantasy film. I can see why there are legends about giants crafting the Norwegian landscape and trolls living in the woods.
That said, I see Oliver’s point. There is something about the Norwegian disposition, too, that is a bit austere. It seems telling that in most Norwegian shared beds, each person gets his or her own comforter.
While Norwegians are typically known for being reserved, they are also famous for their hospitality. Sure enough, as soon as we arrive at the Skjeldal farm, we are greeted by Eva and Hermann, their daughter Randi, an anesthesia nurse, and Øivind and Guri, two friends who know about the local slektsforskning, or genealogy. They have brought over family-tree printouts and a 1925 book about emigration to America.
They show us an album with pictures of my grandmother and serve us delicious little cakes, coffee, and soda. At one point, Eva sneaks outside and returns carrying a ridiculously cute baby lamb into the kitchen.
I learn that my immigrant ancestor Thorsten’s little sister, Ragnhilda Olsdatter Skjeldal, born in 1845, stayed in Voss. Now here I am having coffee and ice cream cake with her descendants. We send a video of us all waving to my grandmother. My aunt Peggy is with her that day and facilitates a reply video: “God dag!” (“Good day!”) my grandmother says into the camera, “I wish I was there with you.”
She looks really happy, especially for a Norwegian.
When we arrive in Brandbu, Inger, red cheeked and cheerful, hugs me and takes us all inside for a big lunch of eggs and bread and sausage cakes, then all around Brandbu for a tour of where a king died in a lake around the year 1000 and the farm I visited at the age of 18.
Her middle child is about that age now and is spending the weeks leading up to the big national holiday on May 17, Norwegian Constitution Day, enjoying her senior year by engaging in the tradition of “russefeiring.” Teens about to graduate run wild around the region in party buses, wearing mostly red or blue coveralls, and are the stars of town’s May 17 festivities. It seems way more fun than American proms.
We go out for dinner at a local Brandbu restaurant called Lokstallen. At the other end of the table, I see Oliver teaching his cousins how to eat their mussels with a mussel shell. Later, back at Inger’s place for dessert, the youngest child sets the table. Inger’s husband, Hans, brings out a traditional caramel custard and coffee. Then Inger gets out the family album. She shows me relatives of ours who stayed in Norway and ones who left. A fork in the road: Her family on one side and mine on the other. But there at her table are our children, eating cake and laughing together. Sometimes paths that diverge come back together.
Before our flight back to New York, we go to Oslo and spend a few hours on the peninsula that’s home to some of the country’s greatest museums. We hit three: the Norsk Folkemuseum, the Viking Ship Museum, and the Fram Museum. In the yard next to the Viking Museum, Oliver watches reenactors engage in hand-to-hand combat encounters.
When they are done, one Viking says, “If any children would like to — ”
Before he is finished, dozens of kids rush the field and commence violently thwacking away at each other’s shields with swords and staffs.
Then we stand aboard the actual Fram ship with which Roald Amundsen led an expedition to the South Pole. There is a windmill on the deck. Oliver, whose interest in green energy had him pointing out every Tesla we saw in Europe (there are a lot of Teslas in Europe), seems ecstatic.
“Mom?” he says. I feel a surge of pride. Oliver already proclaimed his Norwegian cousins “funny and nice.” He petted baby lambs. He held a Viking sword. Now he is on Roald Amundsen’s ship, about to speak.
This is the moment, I think, when it all comes together. I taste victory.
“If this was a British ship,” Oliver says, “it would be everything I like all in one place!”
Defeat. I realize that this is a child whose identity is already formed. He’s his own person, a person who loves a light rain and the BBC News app. I ask Oliver just what it is about the UK that he likes so much. He says the history, the manners, and the sense of humor. The royal family. Shakespeare. Fish and chips. An accent so nice that even when people curse it seems charming. P.G. Wodehouse novels. Tea in the afternoon.
How could I argue? Especially when I love Cornwall, too.
Maybe the true takeaway from our contest is the serendipity involved in the creation of any single person. For Oliver to exist, so many things had to happen. Richard Medlin had to leave Cornwall. Thorsten Schjeldahl had to leave the Skjeldal farm. In America, their descendants had to move and marry and have children until Neal and I met in Austin, Texas, 19 years ago.
Getting ready for school after returning from our trip, Oliver puts a box of Cornish tea in his backpack to bring to Fiona, his British Club partner. She’d brought him two presents from Disneyland, so I suggest he add a second one — perhaps a Norwegian one-kroner coin, which has a hole in the middle. “She can make a necklace out of it!” I say brightly.
“That’s okay, but thanks,” he says. Then he gives me a hug before he leaves for school. He’s a lovely kid, and he still likes taking trips with his parents. I lost the ancestry travel game, but I think I still won.
A 5-step Heritage Tourism Game Plan
Step 1: Plunder attics
Ask your parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles for whatever old family records they have stashed around their houses. These can be helpful in putting together a family tree with a site like ancestry.com.
Step 2: Pick your main characters
If you do a good job on your tree, you will be overwhelmed by the number of ancestors you find and faced with the daunting task of picking the ones whose homelands you want to visit. (Neal and I went with each of our paternal lines to trace my last name and his last name.)
Step 3: Get a DNA test
If records are scarce or if you don’t trust your family’s stories about itself, consider a DNA test (try a site like 23andme.com). Once you’re done with this step — and bear in mind, it can take a few months to get results — you should know which countries you have a connection to. Prepare for surprises! Our families’ stories checked out, but plenty of people I know wound up learning shocking things about their parentage or origins. If you can’t handle the truth, maybe skip this step.
Step 4: Immerse yourself
If you want to visit your family’s ancestral lands and someone new is living there, you might contact the new inhabitants directly, or reach out through a local library, church, local museum, or community organization. Otherwise, you can just go to the nearest public land, town, or city and walk around. Eat the local food, listen to the local music. Check out your ancestors’ places of worship, their cemeteries, and anything still standing that might have been part of their daily life.
Step 5: Give back
If you have relatives back home who care about this sort of thing, pick up trinkets or flags to send them as souvenirs. (We got a Medlyn Moor rock for Neal’s dad. We tried to find things with the Voss crest, but western Norway’s souvenir market is dominated by terrifying troll statues, so we were unsuccessful.) Send thank-you notes and photos to anyone who helped with your planning. Also, be prepared to repay the favor. It may not be long before you get a call from distant cousins planning a visit to your town.
Airbnb and 23andMe can help you plan an end-to-end heritage trip. For details, go to Airbnb.com/heritagetravel.