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A homecoming as old as Homer

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

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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.


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