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Friday, March 26, 2010

Parlez-vous français?

The roll of film was waiting for me when I arrived. With trembling hands, I loaded it on the microfilm reader.

The first frame of the registres de l'état civil, 1792-1892 appeared on the screen and I was instantly overwhelmed. What had I been thinking? I wanted to search for my great-great grandmother's birth record, but how could I when all the records are in a foreign language?

I took a deep breath. I'm a reasonably intelligent person, aren't I? I managed to grasp the notations in a husförhörslängder. French is just another language, one I will have to master to some extent if I want to trace this branch of my tree.

Another deep breath. Perhaps I could lower my expectations. I decided I wouldn't look for any records in particular. I would just familarize myself with this new tool. That decision removed all the self-induced pressure. Browsing is so much easier than searching.

First there is a cover sheet. I have no idea what it says. It's in French, remember? But there is a year written near the top of the page. 1811. Hmm. My 3rd great-grandfather was born in 1813. I'll just mosey along until I reach that year. As each frame appears, I get more comfortable. The records are in chronological order. The child's name is in the left margin. At the end of each year there is an alphabetical list of all the births, marriages, and deaths that occurred during the past 12 months.

There is a sequence, making the records easy to navigate. The year is clearly marked on each cover sheet and the names are in the left margin. And then I see it! The first of eight birth records I would find over the next two hours. One thrill after another.

Before I rented the film I learned that each birth record contains the names and birthdates of both parents, their birthplaces, when and where they were married and more. Since I couldn't read any of that, my search consisted of following each line of French text until I located the names Nicolas Schmitt and Marie-Anne Gury in the same record. It helped to have a French genealogical dictionary and my family group sheet close by.

After I located all the Schmitt children I knew about, I went back to the beginning of the film and read each name closely. Every Schmitt record was scrutinized to be sure I missed nothing. In 1853 I found a birth about which I hadn't previously known.

Deciding to learn about this new source of information rather than jumping right in to the records made all the difference. Or as we French say, vive la différence!

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