A homecoming as old as Homer

Reunions at the old Athens airport were surely as heartfelt as the longing Odysseus felt for the familiar

Nostalgia is a central theme of Greek culture. The story of Odysseus started it all; his adventures in returning to Ithaca after the Trojan War are at their heart about memories and yearning for the familiar.

My family's nostalgia took us to Greece every second summer to spend our holidays with Yiayia (my grandmother) and other close family. Arrival there was a homecoming so special that even as a child I knew the moments would echo with my best memories.

My mother had worked out well how to travel with small children on an airplane: She would sleep up against the window, while my younger sister lay across her and our two seats.

As the older and therefore more durable child, I was relegated to a blanket on the floor in front of our seats. My mother would not hear my protestations. In fact, other passengers complimented her on the clever way she moved her children between continents without losing her mind.

After 10 hours, the plane would approach for landing over the bluest Mediterranean Sea, over cargo ships and sailboats, water, and more water, until the last possible moment, when a bit of land and a runway appeared just in time to land on it.

Passengers would burst into applause, a tradition I wish would establish itself in other parts of the world, because it's terrific fun. It's as if you've all been through something together, or are about to embark on a fabulous adventure.

The old Hellenikon Airport did not have jetways, so the plane came to a stop in the middle of the tarmac, and trucks with staircases on them would pull up alongside. We'd disembark into this incredibly clear golden light that I believe is peculiar to Greece. Warm air off the sea enveloped us as we descended to Greek soil.

Then a mad rush to waiting buses, which would drive us - bumping and jostling each other with our excessive carry-on luggage laden with such American specialities as no-iron sheets - to the airport terminal.

I loved Hellenikon's eccentricities. This past March saw its last day of operation, when Athens finally opened the long-awaited, state-of-the-art Eleftherios Venizelos Airport to the east.

On that day, the old airport was shut down and everything was moved overnight to the new chrome-and-steel palace that is meant to show the world that Greece is European, modern, and ready to host the 2004 Olympics.

But in olden days, the buses would drop you off at immigration, a smoke-filled hall sporting Greek National Tourism Organization posters of the Parthenon bathed in pink and purple light, just as the ancients had intended. Throngs of tourists pushed through passport control to escalators that led up to baggage claim.

Only frequent travelers to Greece, the ones who were met by family and friends, could enjoy the congestion, for as the escalator ascended, passengers in the know would turn around to face a giant glass wall, behind which were hundreds of ecstatic relatives pounding on the glass, shouting greetings, and waving as their loved ones came into view.

Every happiness and lack of concern for propriety or reserve was squashed up against the glass. My sister and mother and I would scan the faces for familiar ones, and once we saw Yiayia, uncles, aunts, and cousins, we'd wave and shout with joy, giving the inevitable German and Scandinavian backpackers their first taste of Greek exuberance.

Upon one arrival, after delays and rerouting, we arrived in the middle of the night to find that our luggage had been sent to Chile. My Yiayia and my Aunt Mary took us outside to the airport's steps while my mother fought with airline officials. From their purses, they broke out keftethes (oregano-seasoned meatballs), feta cheese, and white bread. It was one of the most delicious meals I had ever had -on those steps, up later than I had ever been, enjoying the coolest air, and being close to these people who loved us so very much.

I spent spring break this year in Greece, with six graduate-school classmates. We were supposed to arrive at the new airport, but its opening had been delayed. While German engineers had completed the new airport on time, Greeks responsible for building the highway from the city to the airport had run a bit behind schedule.

So we landed the old-fashioned way, over the water, and applauded when we touched down. As we waited in the buses that were to take us to the terminal, one of my friends handed me her camera. I had told her so many stories of this airport, she insisted I take a picture of it on this, the last arrival.

I got out of the bus and took a picture of the sea only yards away, and then the main terminal opposite, with its large yellow lettering that read Athinai Airport, and the terrace at the top of it where my Yiayia used to wave goodbye as we climbed the stairs to board our flights home. You could always spot her frantically waving a white handkerchief.

The very last thing we did on our visits was wave goodbye from the landing at the top of the stairs and blow the biggest kiss before entering the plane.

I took pictures of the terminal from a couple angles, ignoring weird looks from Greek passengers and airline workers, then boarded the bus with the yiayias and grandchildren, tourists and students for the terminal. Since I was arriving with friends in tow, I had asked my family not to bother meeting us, that I would arrive by taxi after settling everyone else in.

But after I was stamped through immigration, I got on the escalator and turned around to take it all in. There were the cousins, aunts, friends, grandparents, pounding on the glass, the ladies using their rings to rap against the window and try to catch the eye of long-awaited loved ones.

The new airport opened four days after we left Greece to start our final term. The first few days of the new airport were mired with mishaps, mishandled luggage, hours of delays, computer failures, and other glitches. It's now reported to be running smoothly. I don't know if they have a glass wall behind the escalators leading to baggage claim.

The next time I go, I will look for that glass, or at least its equivalent, which is certain to be somewhere. There, families will wait for returning aunts and uncles, or use embroidered white handkerchiefs to wave goodbye to grandchildren, handkerchiefs to absorb tears shed upon both their arrival and their departure.

And the new airport, though sparkling and modern, will witness homecomings such as those that have occurred in Greece for millennia -and happily will for many more.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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