The Twinge Of Heritage: Ghostly Urges Of A Post-Immigration Life

Since the Ottoman royal harems were filled with women from the Mediterranean and the Baltic -- Italian families even casting their daughters on the Adriatic to be picked up by the sultan's sailors -- my Turkish husband jokes he finally brought me back to Istanbul where I belong. I don’t know, anything's possible. The Turks were also laying seige to Eastern Europe and my Lithuanian family name, echoing a town and river on today’s Belarus border, sounds a lot like the imperial Turkish bloodline of Osman.

For New World types like me the mysteries of our extended lineage often crop up as synchronicity. Wanderlust. Quirks of taste, like ghost urges from genes and culture long ago severed.

Why does this Northern California girl raised on turkey burgers crave the beet soup borscht? When I feel kinship with my Ukrainian, Estonian, Jewish, Italian and Greek friends, what do their wide brows or brown eyes, their stoicism or talkative personality, remind me of? Do they mirror the mix that is me?

You could call me a fourth generation immigrant. My parents and their parents and their parents before them each left their homes in search of safety and opportunity. Moving to Europe in 2003, I completed what we know of my family’s loop. When I slather Aegean olive oil on a spicy bed of wild arugula, I’m enjoying a harvest like a distant Italian ancestor must have -- yet one my closer relatives did not, as my grandmother served Spam in Chicago and my mother laid tofu taco salad on the table in Berkeley.

What ethnic or regional mystery reverberates in you? +++ I remember meeting a blueblood American at a Thanksgiving dinner in Bedford Hills NY and within a minute he had already inquired where my people were from and we’d established that I had only a general idea. As a Californian, a person from a state of reinvention, I remember thinking it was an odd thing to get hung up about. For him, it was a way to know who he was dealing with.

I was just talking with a friend on Twitter about these ethnic stirrings…for many of us it seems nationalism (especially for melting pot nations like America) has been a way to calm those feelings by lumping us together with others who happen to share passports or places of birth — but ultimately it’s superficial to who we are.