Discovering foreign family roots

By on May 30, 2013

One question that I’m obliged to answer very often is why I chose to study abroad in Switzerland. Out of all the countries I could have chosen to go to – and I could have chosen almost any country in the world – why did I choose this small, seemingly insignificant country in the middle of Europe?

Well, first of all, I wanted to take advantage of the three years of German I had taken at school, so that about narrowed my choices to little more than three countries. However, the main reason why I didn’t choose Germany was that I could trace some family roots to a specific town in Switzerland.

I discovered this obscure village a few years ago when I searched as far back as I could in a family book from my mom’s side, and it took me to the family that had first emigrated from Switzerland in the 1700s. From there I could actually search further back on the internet because there had once been studies done on the Beiler family name. Since then, it had always been my dream to visit this small town called Guggisberg in the Swiss countryside.

I thought it would be a little unfair to go by myself, since this family isn’t just my own, so I waited until my mom visited me in Switzerland about two weeks ago, and we went together.

I’ll admit, it was strange seeing my mom again after so much time and introducing her to my new but totally different life here, but it was great to be with her again. Of course, she brought lots of American goodies for me, such as peanut butter. However, what I didn’t expect was her to point out more differences between the U.S. and Switzerland that I hadn’t noticed before, like how the traffic lights turn yellow before and after they turn green.

After doing some traveling around Switzerland, which was convenient for us because the country is so small, my host mother directed us to Guggisberg where we were given a small tour around the tiny town, guided through the little museum, and taught lots of interesting facts about emigrants from the area.

There were in fact lots of families that had emigrated from Guggisberg, and "Beiler/Beyeler" was only one of sixty such family names that went to America. We didn’t actually find any records of our specific ancestors, but they were from so long ago anyway that it wasn’t very likely.

The feeling of being in the same town as my ancestors was indescribable, and learning how people used to live back then and how they dressed was extremely cool. We even learned that the coat of arms for "Beyeler" featured a bee hive because in the dialect from the Bern canton, the name actually means a person who looks after bees. This trip also gave us lots of insight as to where some Amish people came from. Even Pennsylvania Dutch seems to have originated from Swiss German dialects.

Despite the rainy weather on this special day, we could still appreciate the landscape of that beautiful place. No picture could really do it justice, for the hills in that part of Switzerland were absolutely beautiful and almost unreal, and they even redefined the way I imagine "rolling hills." They were so green, round, and unending; it took forever just to get somewhere because the roads were so windy.

The beautiful sights made me wonder why my ancestors had ever wanted to leave Switzerland, and the answer our tour guide gave was that the families had grown so large, that there wasn’t much room left for everyone.

Besides going to Guggisberg, my mom and I also spent time traveling to other parts of Switzerland. The unique thing about this country is that different areas are dominated by different languages. We spent a day in Geneva to visit the Palace of Nations and were surrounded by French. Later we went to the part bordering Italy called Ticino, and we actually had trouble finding someone who could speak German or English because the majority speak only Italian.

Finding family roots in a foreign country is certainly not something that lots of people get to do, and I would say that it was pretty awesome for me to have gotten this opportunity. When the weather is better, I will be sure to visit Guggisberg again. Now my mom is homebound again, and I’m still here living it out the best I can, but fortunately, I still have another two months to do so.

Larissa Miller is a junior at Warwick High School. She is spending a full year studying abroad in the small town of Vordemwald, Switzerland. She will be living in all ways as a normal Swiss teenager and has agreed to share her adventures with readers of the Lititz Record Express.


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