(CNN) – When I sent DNA samples to genetic testing services last year looking for my birth family, I had no idea they would launch me on an adventure across three continents.
In 1961, I was adopted when I was born in California. Over the years, I’ve searched for my birth family intermittently, but I’ve always been held back by sealed records and shady officials. But in the past decade, home DNA testing and easy online access to official records have changed the game.
I spat it into plastic tubes (one for each of the industry’s big US players: 23andMe and Ancestry.com), dropped them in the mail, and anxiously awaited the results. When the email arrived, I was shocked.
After my whole life believing I was a basic white American, I learned that was only half the truth. My mother was born in Iowa. But it turned out that my father was from North Africa.
I reached out to my anonymous DNA matches through the messaging systems of 23andMe and Ancestry, but no one responded. Then came weeks of searching using Ancestry.com and various public records databases until I was able to identify my parents and find contact information for a group of their close relatives.
I found out that my birth father was born in the mid-thirties in Casablanca. Romantic visions of Bogart and Bergman (fictionally) running from the Nazis swirled through my head.
Records showed that he immigrated to the United States in 1959 and ended up in San Francisco. My mom grew up in San Diego, and also moved to San Francisco right after high school. But why did he leave Morocco? What brought her to San Francisco? I should have known more.
The author, center, with new family connections in July 2022 held in Paris in his honor.
Courtesy of Tim Curran
After days of imagining the best and the worst, I drafted scripts for what to say to genetically close family members who likely had no idea I existed. Then I arrived anxiously.
Happily, my mum and dad’s families welcomed me with open arms – though they were shocked when they discovered my presence.
I quickly learned that both of my biological parents had died, and I was terribly disappointed that I had forever lost the opportunity to meet them. Would things have been different if I had searched harder earlier?
But I was thrilled that all of their siblings were still alive.
From my new family, I’ve pulled together a rough outline of my parents’ stories: On opposite sides of the world, they were both butting heads with difficult parents and leaving home at the first opportunity. They end up in one of the most free-thinking places on Earth: San Francisco.
He worked as a flooring installer in the city’s North Beach neighborhood – as a waitress and cocktail dancer. She imagined them meeting while he was fixing the floors in the nightclub where she worked.
By all accounts, it should be very short. My father lived with a friend, and my mother’s sister says she never heard my mother discuss my father in any way. Other than the sister and her mother, no one else in her family has been told that she is pregnant. And my father’s family says they are 100% sure he was never told.
There were other big surprises: I was told my mother never had another child—or even a serious boyfriend—for the rest of her life. On my father’s side, I was shocked to learn that I had a half-brother, a sister, and dozens of cousins in France and Morocco.
They invited me to visit. I booked a trip to meet my dad’s huge and hospitable family.
The author’s extended family owns property on a rocky outcrop in Dar Bouazza, a coastal region west of Casablanca.
“You hugged me so warmly”
In Paris, a relative of mine threw me a wild party in her sunny house in the suburbs, where I was warmly embraced by the entire French branch of the family. They gave me insider tips tailored to my interests on where to go and what to get off the beaten path.
On their recommendation, I spent the afternoon in a huge and beautiful city park in the east of Paris called Buttes-Chaumont. I ate a dinner in the French equivalent of a working-class dinner (A brothbroth) labeled julienne. It was my third time in Paris – but now I saw it with fresh eyes, imagining myself as something of an honorary son of the city.
Morocco was a whole other world. I have never been to a Muslim country, or anywhere outside of Europe or the Americas. The experience was a strange and magical mixture of foreign adventure and comfortable travel, stocked by the family looking for me.
I spent the first six days in the seaside resort of Dar Bouazza, about 45 minutes from Casablanca, where my extended Moroccan family owns a cluster of adjoining summer homes just yards from the beach. The houses are built on property that my grandfather bought nearly a century ago (when he thought land was worthless) as a place to escape the summer heat in Casablanca.
Photo of Fez at sunset, taken from the rooftop of one of the riads in the Moroccan city.
French is the primary language of the family, and my aunts and uncles do not speak English. Some of their younger cousins were usually available to translate, but the group conversations at the table or on deck were always in French, leaving no way for me to join in. I am determined to learn to speak French on my next visit.
Despite the gap of language, I got to know them all—the stern uncle, the maternal aunts, the deceitful cousin—and recognized many of the traits and quirks of their character—how boisterous, inquisitive, and cunning they are—in my own.
I spent nearly a week tasting delicious, authentic Moroccan meals such as lamb tagine (steam roasted with vegetables inside a casserole of the same name) and pastilla (marinated or shredded chicken or poultry wrapped in filo pastry) cooked and served on seaside terraces by the small household staff rife in Moroccan middle-class homes.
Explore a new homeland
However, I wanted to see more of my father’s homeland, so I left on a tour of Fez and Marrakech arranged by a cousin and her husband, who own a luxury travel company.
These two cities were beautiful and amazing, strange yet strangely familiar. I experienced them in a very unique and personal way thanks to my own DNA journey: as a son far from his father’s homeland.
Professional guides created customized tours to fit my interests and my family’s newfound culture and history – right down to a side trip to my family’s ancestral mausoleum in Fez.
I saw the things my father might have seen as he wandered through the colorful townships (markets) as the guides introduced me to the shopkeepers by my new last name. I saw gorgeous mosques and unexpected side lights like Marrakech’s largest synagogue, the Lazama Synagogue. I watched artisans at work, making pottery, leather goods, and weaving just as they had done for centuries.
The Roman ruins at Volubilis are remarkably pristine due to their isolation and the fact that they have been uninhabited for nearly a thousand years.
The highlight of the tour was a side trip to the ancient Roman ruins at Volubilis, between Fez and the Moroccan capital Rabat. The city was abandoned by Rome around the 3rd century and was not excavated until the early 20th century. Seeing the site’s well-preserved walls, foundations, and mosaics – something that simply cannot be seen in the Americas – was quite an experience for a history buff like me.
The tour concluded with a tour of the High Atlas Mountains for an afternoon with a local family who gave me a Berber-style cooking class, teaching me how to cook lamb and vegetables in a traditional Moroccan tagine.
The patriarch even loaned me one djellabaa traditional Moroccan outerwear robe, can be worn in a look that felt both exotic and comfortable—the perfect packaging for the entire trip.
The author and his host sampled the results of an Amazigh cooking class.
Courtesy of Tim Curran
DNA traveler beware
Taking a DNA test at home can launch you into your own great adventure – whether intended or not.
Former CNN correspondent Samuel Burke created an entire podcast series in partnership with CNN Philippines, “Suddenly Family” about the surprises — fun and otherwise — that can emerge from a DNA analysis.
“DNA testing could open this Pandora’s box that no one in the DNA industry is talking about,” he said.
Burke said some people just want to know what genetic health conditions they might carry. Many others are just looking to learn more about their race, “how Irish, how Jewish, how Native American.” But he said few realize that testing services will connect them with other people, sometimes in unexpected ways.
In Fez, Curran visited several workshops where fabrics, leather goods, and ceramics were handcrafted using ancient techniques and tools.
Whether you know nothing about your family background, or think you know everything, there are likely to be surprises. Among them, Burke lists discovering that a parent has been unfaithful or that you are the product of IVF. Or you may discover that you are not biologically related to one of your parents.
Burke said being prepared is key to avoiding some of the risks.
“Expect to discover something unexpected.” If you suspect something bad, he says, you can opt out of having your results shared. Burke added that the best advice he heard while reporting on DNA was to “slow down.” Don’t be a “puzzle bent” and share your results as soon as possible.
Whether or not your DNA test has unexpected results, it can inspire some great travel across the country or, as in my case, around the world.
But what I’ve learned on my adventure is that the best part – even more so than the places you visit – are the people you connect with, and your new family who is like you, but also very different.
Top photo: Tim Curran visited the Hassan II Mosque on a day trip to Casablanca (Photo courtesy of Tim Curran)