Traveling to find home

A student studying abroad finds a little slice of home—2,000 miles from where she was raised.

The mountain path ended abruptly ahead. Though my joints seemed to audibly sigh in relief, there was a twinge of disappointment in my chest. I stood for a moment longer, watching the tall grass sway in the afternoon sunlight. Towering peaks rose in the distance, mottled with blue and violet.

I turned my attention back to the path. The sharp turn ahead revealed an old-fashioned bed and breakfast with a sign: “local cider sold here.”

Having just climbed a mountain, my friend and I decided we deserved a pint. We were tired. Our bones ached.

I let Kelly go first, following her blue and black braid up the patio stairs. The inside of the bed and breakfast was dressed like a widow in dark woods, the stone floors worn with years of use. I took a deep breath. Something smelled familiar.

A lot felt familiar since I set foot in Wales, the country my ancestors left some three or four hundred years prior. The trip was a leap of faith—hostel reservations made three days before our train departed, my companions two fellow Temple students studying abroad in London. I had known them for a week, maybe less.

All I wanted was to go. See a castle, climb a mountain, breathe fresh, wild air into my lungs. I needed to go. I couldn’t explain why.

“Two ciders,” the older gentleman at the bar called, hidden behind a hatch door that made me think of Bilbo Baggins and the adventures I’d read about as a child.

The “famous local cider” tasted like apples past their prime, growing stale and mushy in a damp November field. But it was cold and plentiful. And I was in Wales, after years of wishing and waiting. Complaining didn’t seem right.

The older man from the bar—the owner, it turned out—wanted to know if Kelly and I were just traveling, or if we had any Welsh heritage. Kelly looked expectantly at me.

“My family is Welsh and I think they’re from North Wales, so I always wanted to visit,” I said.

“Do you know the surname?” The man asked, adjusting his glasses. The frames looked a lot like mine—thick, black, square.

“Griffiths,” I told him with a shrug, under the impression the name was as common as Smith or Jones.

“Griffiths? You’re a Griffiths?”

“My great grandmother was. I don’t have the name anymore. I think my family left for America in the 1700s.”

“I’m Stefan,” the man said excitedly, “and I’m related to the Griffiths as well. It’s not a common name at all, particularly in North Wales.”

He told me he traced genealogy of Welsh families—a hobby that he took quite seriously. Stefan even offered vacations at his bed and breakfast centered on tracing Welsh heritage.

“Come look at this room,” he said, bounding up the stone steps back into the house. He stepped over a chain with a sign that proclaimed “STAFF ONLY.” Clearly, I was to follow.

“This is an eighteenth-century Welsh home and it hasn’t changed at all. This is exactly how a home would look before your family left for America.”

I ran my hand along the curve of the table, looking at the sepia photographs he pointed to on the walls. I was a little light-headed. My heart thudded like a drum.

Stefan dug through an old wooden chest with eager hands, photographs, books and census reports spilling onto the floor. The chest smelled like cedar and something else—something musky with a hint of spice, like cardamom. It smelled like home.

I looked out the window past the soft hills, heavy with heather, to the mountains beyond.

My ribcage had filled with something aching and alien when I reached the midpoint of the climb earlier that day, the valleys laid out before me like jaggedly cut emeralds, dark veins of roads and trees running through the gems’ facets. The mountains had spoken to me, something old and lovely, dark and deep.

Stefan instructed me to find the names of farms or manors my family had owned. Then he could tell me what they did for a living, what church they went to, where they were buried.

I asked my mom to email me a list of names and places from our family’s book—a culmination of a great aunt’s research, bound in faded blue. An ancestor had been buried in the cathedral of the town I had stayed in, a fact I didn’t know when I picked it as a destination.

I forwarded her email to Stefan. Then I emailed him again a week later, just to be sure.

I got home from London in early August and I still haven’t heard back. Maybe it wasn’t the right email address. Maybe I should just call him.

Maybe, if I hear his voice, I will be able to smell the heather on the hills and feel the expanse of that wild mountain, silent and jagged like a slumbering dragon.

I think I’m going to call him tomorrow.

Victoria Mier can be reached at or on Twitter @victoria_mier_.

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