Tuesday, October 17, 2006


"NOSTALGIA: Nostos (Gr) "Returning home" - algia (akin to Old English 'genesan') "to survive", the state of being homesick, a wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes abnormal yearning to return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition."

The other day, while browsing the shops in my new neighbourhood, I saw for sale a 10 lb bag of green olives. I bought them and brought them home, and later that day, sat on my balcony and began to prepare them for pickling. First, you slice them to the pit, then put them in a heavy salt brine for 10 days before finally packing them in jars with olive oil, vinegar, oregano and a bit of lemon. Delicious home-made olives! As I sat there, I had such strong feelings of nostalgia for the village in Greece, remembering sunny afternoons sitting on the porch cutting olives that I'd picked from the trees around my little spitaki. I had a big crock to put them in with the brine. Antonia's son told me I made better olives than his mother. And when I brought some home to my family in Canada, my little two year old grandson gobbled them down like popcorn.

I am a writer who tends to be influenced by nostalgia. Perhaps it's my life style, the fact I've always been on the move, even from when I was a small child. Perhaps it's my keen interest in the past, history and old family stories.

I just finished reading an excellent memoir by Isabel Allende, "My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile" . She writes that at a conference where she was a guest speaker, a young man asked her what role nostalgia played in her novels. According to the dictionary, nostalgia is "A bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past. The condition of being homesick." She said she hadn't realized til then that she writes as an exercise in longing.

I thought, as I read this, of how much of my own writing has a nostalgic theme as well. Like Allende, in spite of my many friends and family I have often felt like an outsider, and like her I've traveled many roads, said goodbye so many times.

My friend Anibal, who I loved so much, often spoke to me of his nostalgia. Like Allende, he was an exile from the horrifying events that occured in Chile in 1972. Like her, his life was changed forever by these events. I still have an email message he sent to me (written on Oct 26, 2004 - exactly 1 year before the day he died) We had been discussing nostalgia and here is what he wrote to me. "Hey there, friend, here is what I found about Nosta algos ..."the Greek word for "return" is Nostos. Algos means "suffering. So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. In each language this word has a different nuance. Often it means only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one's country" a longing for country, for home. What in English is called "homesickness"...You are far away and I don't know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don't know what is happening there. The dawn of ancient Greek culture brought the bird of "The odyssey, the founding epic of nostalgia. Odysseus, the greatest adventurere of all time, is also the great nostalgic"

Anibal, like Allende, was a political exile. I'll never forget how, on the day the World Trade Centre collapsed, Anibal, clearly shocked as we all were, told me the blood chilling story of how he had watched the media towers in santiago attacked and bombed by military planes in the 1973 military coup in Chile, a terrorist act orchestrated by the CIA against a democracy, at exactly the same day, week and month and almost the same time of morning. Nothing was ever the same again for him as it was all Chileans, (and Americans after 9/11). He fled to Argentina, and after the coup there in '78 he fled to Canada. He was forever haunted by nostalgia, that deep longing to return home.

I recalled the story of Sappho, the poet, and my as yet unfinished play House of the Muses.
Sappho's life changed forever when she was sent into exile far from her island of Lesbos. her life was never to be the same again, and when she returned she found her world turned upside down, her shool (The House of the Muses) in chaos, her land taken by the tyrants, her most beloved friend gone. because of her political stance against the tyrants and her love of the girls in her shcool, she was accused of disorderly conduct and being a 'woman-lover'. She was slandered and defiled, and most of her poetry was destroyed. In the end, betrayed by her young male lover and desrted by her goddess, Aphrodite, she committed suicide.

Nostalgia and tragedy often seem to go hand-in-hand.

I've spent enough time in Greece to have put downs some small but firmly planted roots there. I am forever torn, not knowing where I want to be most -- there or here. I have nostalgic memories of the hey-days of the '80's when I'd sit with friends in Plaka Square drinking retsina and spinning yarns with my pal Roberto, who like Anibal, suffered the nostalgia of an exile and dreamed of returning to his home in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Robbie died without his dream being fulfilled. He's buried in a simple grave in Athens. After Anibal died, his wife Cecilia took his ashes home to Chile. She's made a little shrine for him on the beach "Where he is quiet and happy."

I'm looking forward to retracing his steps soon, seeing the places he told me about, visiting the houses of the poet Pablo Neruda who he loved so much; accompanying Cecilia around their city, Santiago, to the places where they used to go and loved to be together before theri world was turned upside down that September day in 1973.

Strange, as I was making the notes for this blog, I suddenly realized that the melody of the bolero we often danced to was playing in my head. Nostalgia brought the tears once again.

How much does nostalgia influence your writing?

"...for some reason or other, I am a sad exile.
In some way or other, our land travels with me
and with me too, though far, far away, live the
longitudinal essences of my country." -- Pablo Neruda, 1972


Anonymous said...

What a beautiful piece of writing, Ruthie! I know how precious your memories are to you, how vividly you can breathe new life into them. What I love about this blog is how your memories of Anibel will be shaping your visit to Santiago soon. You keep the past alive and fresh in so many ways!!

Ivan Loyola said...

hey that intro really took me to a backyard in greece (nver been there) with olives trees around and you sitting on a bench leaning against a stone of wall and mud, slicing through olives. Awesome imagery!

Gabriele Campbell said...

I'm a second generation expatriate (it's my parents who had to flee their homes in Eastern Germany resp, in what is now Poland), so for me the feeling of nostalgia is not strong. I've moved around quite a bit, too, but never longed to be back in another place. Thus, most of my characters who are exiles or uprooted in some way, find a new place to live. Not entirely without nostalgia of course, but not deeply unhappy, either. I think the only character who could not live away from home for the rest of his life is Alastair from Kings and Rebels.

Wynn Bexton said...

The sentimental journey beings in just 1 month (talk about more nostalgia!) you Can read the preliminary on my travel blog:

Thanks for commenting!