What is nostalgia? The feeling has haunted me for most of my life, although I can’t say I’ve had a clear understanding of its origin. In ancient Greek, nostos is a return to one’s homeland, like Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Along with the war or raid story, the nostos is one of the two classic epic plot structures. Algos is pain, so nostalgia is the longing to return, which afflicts us like a pain, like a sickness.
But return where?
I grew up with a mixed sense of where I belonged. Although I was born in Canada, I actually couldn’t speak English until I started kindergarten. I was surrounded by Greeks — relatives and friends of my parents. I remember in kindergarten using Greek words whenever I didn’t know the English one. I didn’t have a clear idea that at home I spoke a language that my Chinese friend Charlie, for example, couldn’t understand.
Gradually, though, I began to perceive myself as different in an unwelcome way. I was Greek without ever having been to Greece, or really knowing much about it. (I came here for the first time when I was nine.) More than an actual place, Greece was made up of stories my father and grandparents told me. It was the place where, at night, my father had done his homework by the light of a small lamp which consisted of a wick stuck in some cork floating in some oil. Greece was the large photograph of my grandfather’s older brother, who got sick and died during the war in Asia Minor. It was the place where my grandfather had seen some people executed and thrown into a well during the civil war. My father used to tell me the story of Odysseus kept prisoner in Polyphemus’ cave, and of his escape, but I never thought of it as having taken place a long time ago. I thought Greece was a place where Odysseus — and blind Polyphemus — still lived, perhaps with some of my more distant relatives.
What was clearer to me was what other people were like. Canadians. People who didn’t have funny-sounding names, who spoke English at home, and whose parents didn’t embarrass them by playing awful music. I wanted to be like them.
But then, the nostalgia started. The sense that something was missing. The sense that if I knew where to look, I could find what I needed to be happy.
It came to me as an image. It was a room. The walls were bare and white. The open window let in a lot of light and a cool breeze. In the corner, up against the wall, a small bed. In the centre, a large wooden table, and one or two chairs. And outside, the sea.
Where was this place? Could I find it on the map? If it had ever really existed, did it still exist now?
More than in any other poet, I found in Elytis someone who mapped out my nostalgia. I was born to have so much, he said, and nothing more. And also, I wanted the least, and they punished me with more.
I’m sitting at a table now, out on a terrace. After each sentence I write, I look up from my notebook at the same gulf which, if our Homeric geography is accurate, the ships from Argos sailed down on their way to Troy some 3,200 years ago. The sun is exactly as I want it. The wind ruffles my hair as I always wanted it to. I came a long way to sit here, just so. I wonder if I can say, as Elytis did, So, he whom I sought, I am.
The nostalgia, though, persists. Is it because I miss the Greece I discovered when I was 17, and my life changed forever? It seemed farther away from the rest of the world back then. (“I would be in exile now,” sang Phil Ochs in Ticket Home, “but everywhere’s the same.”) It must be the sense that, as the years go by, the world moves farther away from that room, and takes me with it, the world that refuses to conform with my wishes. All men have been given bad times in which to live, says Borges, and I know if I had been born in another time — those times that the compass in my heart always seems to point back to — the nostalgia would still be there.
With his singular melancholy, Elytis gave us a picture of his own paradise, which he said was made of the same materials as hell, only put together differently. (A little more charity from over there, a little less greed from over here.) I believe I have gathered together some of the materials of that particular paradise to which I journey. It is unfortunate that English does not have a verb form of nostalgia, as Greek does. If it did, it would define this journey. If you could utter its syllables, they would spell out the name of the place where the journey ends.
I am standing on the deck of a ship, leaning against the railing at the bow. The sea stretches out in every direction. The sun and wind are as they are right now. White gulls circle above, following me as I sail out. I am returning to an island where I’ve never been, where someone I’ve never met waits to welcome me home.
Ξένος εσύ, ξένος κι εγώ
δυο ξένοι, δυο αδερφοί.
Θάλασσα, γη, κι ουρανό
αν ψάξουμε μαζί
θα βρούμε, δε μπορεί,
του νόστου το νησί.