Like so many English words, nostalgia has its roots in Greek. Νόστος, nostos, a word used by Homer, means homecoming and ἄλγος, algos, is a psychological pain or an ache. Put these together and you get nostalgia, that bittersweet feeling of longing for home. But where is home? Having grown up in one place, one home, I have now spent more than half of my life in another home and I sometimes get confused. In a practical sense, home is here in Athens, the home I go home to every day to feed the cats. Then autumn sets in and the nostalgia level raises as I begin to miss the colors of the changing leaves in my other home.
I would guess this identity confusion is common to most American expats and dual nationals and I try not to dwell on it. Every once in awhile though, something happens that kicks the nostalgia into high gear, some unexpected kindness swings my identity meter way into the American quadrant. One of those moments happened to me in Athens recently and it involved the United States Marines.
My Dad always wanted to fly so, when the US entered WWII in 1941, my Dad dropped out of school, lied about his age and joined the Army Air Corps. He didn’t see much action but he did learn how to fly and he continued to fly his own small airplanes into his 80’s. When he died a few years ago he received a veteran’s funeral. There was a large American flag on his coffin and a small military honor guard who, with great ceremony, folded the flag and presented it to me as his next of kin. The flag returned home with me to Athens where its presence in my home always reminded me of my other home.
Earlier this year we were burgled by some very professional burglars. Access from the roof terrace is one of the only cons that goes along with the many pros of living on the top floor of an Athenian apartment building (btw, all of our student apartments are on the middle floors of apartment buildings where access from both above and below is much more difficult). The burglars opened in a box of Band-Aids, looked in the freezer, emptied the sock drawer and unfolded my Dad’s flag, leaving it in a heap on the floor. The police were called, the mess was cleaned up, the flag was tidied away in a closet and we got on with everyday life.
One morning, in the intricate filing system that is the top of my desk, I found the business card of the Assistant Regional Security Officer of the US Embassy in Athens, someone I had met a few months earlier to discuss security issues that might affect students in Athens and Greece. He was a nice guy so, on a whim, I wrote to him with the story of my Dad’s flag. He responded immediately: “ I just spoke with my Marines and we would be honored to refold your Dad’s flag.” My Marines. And they didn’t just refold it.
I was met at the US Embassy by the Assistant Regional Security Officer and three young Marines who are part of the Marine unit posted to all US Embassies. “Ma'am,” they said (I really dislike being called ma’am but this time it seemed appropriate somehow), “ma’am would you like us to fly your father’s flag before we fold it?” Really? Actually fly my Dad’s flag over Athens, a city he loved to visit? So, as the morning traffic roared from Queen Sophias Avenue, the Assistant Regional Security Officer and I stood near the statue of George Marshall as my three Marines, they were mine now too, lowered the huge American flag that flies daily at every US Embassy the world over and raised my Dad’s smaller one. And the Marines didn’t just hang out at the bottom of the flagpole chewing gum and engaging in chit-chat as they switched flags. This was a ceremony and it was followed by another, the ceremony of folding my Dad’s flag into a tightly wrapped triangle which was handed over to me, again with great ceremony.
My Dad’s flag is back on the bookcase in my home reminding me of him and of my other home. And of the power of nostalgia. As you think about spending a semester away from wherever you call home, be sure to leave room in your suitcase for some little something that will remind you of home when you are in your new home.