I’ve been writing this post for a week now. I think it’s time to just hit “post” …

I keep thinking about heritage and culture and how our DNA is as blended as our cuisine. Last year, I did my DNA for a laugh, really. I thought that it would just reinforce what I already knew. What I didn’t expect was to find out that I’m Scandinavian, Ashkenazi Jewish, and Mediterranean. A lot of what I thought I knew about my family fell apart and it was actually spurred by people telling me “You Can’t Possibly Be That”, “Your Story Doesn’t Make Sense”.

They were right.

My family sometimes told stories. Fractured, shattered shards of stories that were woven together by thin strands of memory. Just like our meals were cobbled together from foods that were one half memory and one half availability.  No one really spoke of a past though; a solid, unshakeable history and I still have to wonder why. Through DNA testing and sharing, and reconnecting with family, I have found relatives in Finland and Poland and Germany (as well as Australia/New Zealand – my maternal great grandmother’s sister (my g-great aunt??) moved there with her husband).

I have to wonder if our meals were shared with any relatives too – did we bring or take anything with us? Are we from those places or did we just pass through? We liked to eat cabbage rolls, sauerkraut, paprikas, goulas. We also chili con carne, spaghetti bolognese, boeuf bourguignon, bangers and mash, steak and kidney, liver and onions, Sunday roast. Lots of fish and seafood, smoked, dried, fried, stewed. Our diet was as varied, it seems as our history.

When I first came to the internet, I wrote like I had no story. I wrote about trying to discover where I was from. I wrote about being half this and half that. I posted limited photos of myself and most of those were deliberately washed out and badly edited (I am neither as light nor as dark as I look in some of my photos). I wrote about the links I thought we had. I didn’t want to tell my truth as I didn’t know how it would be taken, how it would unfold, what it would bring. Little did I know that these things would be unearthed eight years later and passed around.

I did have another narrative though, one given to me in scattered pieces, like broken pottery. I slowly became brave enough to share what I thought was my truth, but in trying to assemble those stories, I went monstrously wrong. I added things without explicitly sharing their origins. I clung onto snippets of a language that was not mine, like it would be the end of me if I let go. I embellished my story just to have a story. My life didn’t make sense, it was like looking through one of those kiddie kaleidoscopes but the slides were all broken.

My stories were mainly fueled by a family member (no longer living) who sent memories and photos and embellished the truth in so many ways. I found out, for whatever reason, that they firmly believed the stories they told and went to their grave believing them. They lived those stories as much as they could. Some of the photos they shared were of our family and some were not. I trusted them and I deeply regret that. I don’t know what their motives were. I do know that the truth I thought was mine, is not. That was difficult for me at first (the memories I shared about things we did together, were true – the places we went, the things we did), but there were other things that I was told, second hand, that I wove in as my own (and they turned out to be false).

When someone said to me, “your story doesn’t make sense, stop writing,” it actually came as a relief. I was feeling more and more confused and more and more alone. After their death, I had drifted away from writing for almost a year and I started my own research. I started discovering glaring holes in my past. I had begun to see through my family member’s stories and lies, but their sudden death came as a surprise (in some ways and not in others). My DNA had also thrown a huge spanner in the works as it clearly pointed to a much more checkered past than I had ever believed.

My paternal grandparents are Romani/Romanichal. My grandmother’s family is originally from Slovakia (though they came to the UK much earlier than I ever knew). Some of her family lived in Europe during WWII and some of them died in the Holocaust. My paternal grandfather is Romanichal (from the Cooper line) and is originally from the south of England. They were very poor. I was ashamed of being Romanichal (for reasons I won’t elaborate on at this time) and of them being poor and this issues surrounding that.

Someone in my family is from northern Finland , Sweden, or Russia though Finland is most likely and the relative I contacted currently lives further south, in Siikainen, Finland. Perhaps this is through my grandfather. I have yet to figure these things out. I honestly don’t even know where to begin with this one – I have some suggested names (don’t know if they’re place names or people names at this point) – including Aikio, Kemi, Seppälä, Näätsaari, Turi – but these haven’t been confirmed and I haven’t had a chance to do any research or much question-asking. But, this would explain my eye colour and shape, round face, and freckles…

Someone is Ashkenazi Jewish from Poland. I think it comes through my maternal grandmother’s line, several generations back. I don’t know much about my grandmother or grandfather, except that she scrubbed floors for a rich family (I have the census information confirming this fact – the family name she worked for and the house where she worked). I remember hearing some connection to Poland – maybe this is the link.  I originally thought they were distant Romani or Romanichal too – but this definitely disproves that theory.

I don’t hold much weight to commercial DNA tests and am basing most of my research on talking to family and genealogical resources, but they have been useful in confirming some of the information I received and in helping me find several relatives (second and third cousins in Australia, thus far). Since they are confirmed, I am comparing anyone else I come across to myself, plus these other matches. For those interested, my main DNA results are (in order of percentage):

Northern European and Scandinavian – Including Northern England, Scotland, and Norway, Sweden, and North West Russia – upper Karelia/Murmansk/Kola Peninsula, basically Fennoscandia.

Finnish from Finland (with particular markers I’ll get into in a different post).

East European (including Polish and Slovak/Czech/Austrian/Russian), Ashkenazi Jewish, and Mediterranean (Iberian Peninsula, Spain, Cyprus).

And a small percentage of South and West Asian/Indian/Middle Eastern – most likely from my Romani/Romanichal background.

Confirmed matches have mtDNA pointing mostly to the upper regions of Norway, Sweden, and Finland (particularly U5b1b1a), and Ashkenazi (any Romani markers would come through my y-DNA from my father’s side). I just tested for my own mtDNA and will update this post as that comes in.

For those interested, my full DNA breakdown will be available in another post, which I’ll crosslink here.

I guess, the point of this post is: if someone you respect tells you, “this doesn’t make sense,” listen. Don’t get offended. Don’t get angry. Listen and ask yourself, why?? Then go back and start your story over.

Memories without Food

It’s always around this time of year that I start thinking about my grandparents. Their lives and pasts were very different and it made me feel sometimes that I was living across a huge divide between the two polar opposites of the sides of our family.

Today’s story is about my Nanna (Doll or “Babka”). She never cooked. She couldn’t use the gas cooker in her council house and whenever she tried, she never failed to set her hair or eyebrows on fire. She would never use the pilot light, but always tried to use a piece of paper lit from her cigarette, a lighter, or something else. Once she tried to make toast under the grill and almost set the house on fire! Come to think of it, I don’t even know what they ate? I know her sister lived down the street, so maybe she came with food? I just know that we’d have bread and butter or cheese and tea or pop. The stodgy kind of white bread that kept the fingerprints from your fingers and tasted like play dough. Nanna always had whisky or vodka in her tea, to chase the demons, she said.

I do remember going for walks with her, up to the “moors” – a wild piece of land behind the last housing estate of the town, next to the protected park land. Sometimes we’d look for mushrooms or elderberries. Sometimes we’d make a small fire and make ‘stick bread’ – which was basically unleavened bread wrapped around a cleaned stick and set over the fire. Sometimes, we took pop with us – lemonade or fanta – in those glass bottles that you got 10p for returning to the shop. We’d wash them and return them for money to put in Nanna’s electric meter. It sat in a wee cupboard in the kitchen and you had to put 50p in at a time. I remember often the power would run out and we’d have to run down the corner shop (Saunder’s, which wasn’t actually on a corner and is now some kind of pizza shop) to change money or take a load of washed bottles to get money.

The white building with the blue frontage was where Saunder’s shop was. They were dark inside, had iron bars covering the windows, but sold cigarettes, pop, basic necessities and most importantly, sweets and ice-cream. Many the time I went by to get a “ten-penny mix-up” where they’d randomly select ten penny items from the sweets – usually flying saucers, coke bottles, jaw breakers, milk bottles, candy cigarettes…

I don’t have memories of food or recipes, really, from Nanna, except things we picked together or the basic things we made in the kitchen, which really wasn’t very much. She told a lot of half-stories, unfinished, forgotten, in front of her fire. Hunched in her chair, cigarette dangling. Neither her or Granda really spoke about their families or pasts. I know some of their history, which I’ll get into later. But, for now, we’ll leave it here!

The old town marketplace with the market cross and the cattle market. It happened every week, I think. The farmers would bring their cows and sheep and chickens to sell and the local “Gypsies” and “Tinkers” (Romanichal and Travellers) would bring their flowers, pot-mending, and wood-working skills to sell.

Happy Halloween!

I don’t really remember celebrating Halloween growing up, but I do remember one year, when I was about eight or nine, dressing up as a witch – complete with homemade black hat (a black paper cone on a black paper donut that was a little big for my head) and cape and my grannies “besom broom” (one of the ones with the twigs tied together for sweeping leaves and dirt outside). We walked around the neighbourhood reciting little poems. We didn’t get many sweets, but it was still fun.

We did make lanterns every year, though. They were seen as positive things, frightening away the spirits of the dead. Growing up in England, we would carve turnips and not pumpkins. It was quite difficult, as turnips tend to be a lot smaller than pumpkins, but it was still a lot of fun. I do remember I loved the smell as the turnip warmed up from the candle inside. We would string them up and carry them around with us. Usually, the faces weren’t very intricate… just two triangle eyes and an ugly slit for a mouth. Granny Edíta would always stew up the turnip for lunch the next day – nothing ever went to waste!

Sometimes, we’d even make little dudud lights from potatoes and set them along the path to our house or in the windows. They were much, MUCH harder to make than the turnips and didn’t really last as long either. Often we wouldn’t even put faces in them, just hollow them out and set small candles inside (usually the ends of taller candles).

We didn’t usually make any kind of special food. For Halloween we played dookin (ducking/bobbing for apples) and drank Lamb’s Wool (Lamasool – warm stewed apples mixed with milk, cinnamon, and ginger – though adults often mixed it with more whisky or rum than milk!)

It’s become so much more commercialized now, even in my old hometown, with pumpkins, pie, and decorations becoming ubiquitous. I do miss those simple old days when we’d light our turnips and dudud to keep the spirits at bay.