That's the distance between San Francisco and Norway. We came by two plane flights, a train ride, a catamaran trip down a fjord and, finally, a rental-car drive to the village of Loftesnes. But that was nothing. My grandfather had been making his way back here his whole life. Though this was the first time he'd set foot in Norway, he'd heard plenty about it from his Norwegian-speaking grandfather on their South Dakota homestead. My grandfather settled farther west, in the Bay Area, where we all live now. But his grandparents' birthplace held a strong draw for him, and how could it not? Add an s to the end of the town of Loftesnes and you've got his last name.
We American Loftesnesses had always been fond of our Norwegian heritage. During holidays, we'd eat lefse (potato-based flatbread) and say "Uff da!" ("Good grief!") whenever the occasion would arise. We came to Norway armed with genealogy records from the Internet and black-and-white photos of stern-faced Scandinavian relatives. Though we knew no one there now, we, like so many people, felt a pull to connect to our personal piece of the "old country," and maybe place it in the context of our modern lives. More urgently, I was in that all-too-brief postcollege gap, and my grandparents weren't getting any younger. It seemed like the perfect -- and perhaps only -- moment to make this journey as a family.
At first glance, the little town was all we had hoped for. We looked through the windows of the rental car and saw ourselves everywhere, including on half a dozen painted mailboxes: A. Loftesnes, R. Loftesnes, T. Loftesnes. Here were our relatives!
We climbed out of the car and walked up the road to explore the village: a few bright houses and expanses of green fields behind wooden fences. We sprinted around, taking pictures of each other standing in front of "our land." A flock of sheep watched us nonchalantly from the hillside. "Loftesnes sheep!" we cried. A tall blonde woman ambled down the road, and we accosted her. My grandmother called out, "Hello! We're Loftesnes, too!" The woman was Aase Loftesnes, manager of the six cabins we'd spotted. She didn't speak much English, and we didn't know Norwegian, but we communicated our connection to the place with enthusiastic hand motions. She smiled broadly but didn't invite us in. And that was that.
Later, sitting on my little deck overlooking the shores of Sognefjord, I glumly considered what little connection we actually had with our homeland. I don't know what I expected: a grand reunion? The village greeting us with open arms?
I spotted my grandparents sitting together on the grass below. I thought maybe Grandpa had brought us here not merely to connect to an ancient past, but to celebrate our family as we are now, so he could look at us in this place together and see all that had been created, stemming from this very land. The uff das and lefse had always struck me as kind of superficial, but now I saw them as signs of a larger heritage that -- despite personal differences on display at family gatherings - was the one thing we all shared.
We hadn't found a long-lost family, but we were forging a deeper connection to one another. Suddenly, the land seemed secondary.
FIND YOUR FAMILY
Check ancestry.com and rootsweb.com to unearth facts about your own heritage. To start, all you need are the last names of any deceased family members. Some sites charge a fee, but most offer a free trial.
Ask older generations for any photos of their hometown and whether they have distant relatives who still live there. While there, ask those relatives plenty of questions -- and take notes!
CHOOSE A LEADER
If traveling as a large family, appoint someone to be in charge. Everyone should send that person suggestions; then he or she can establish the final itinerary (with the help of a travel agent).