‘I have arrived. I am home.
In the here. In the now.’
- Tich Nhat Hanh
Air France flight 5106 from Paris has landed in Beirut, on time. It is 6:55 pm on the twenty-eighth of December, exactly two nights before New Year’s Eve. A planeful of loved ones spills onto the jetway, the last batch of the year; the prodigal expats, graduate students, young professionals and families, laden with bags of chocolate, perfume, and sparkling wine from the Duty Free.
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They poke, shove, knee their way forward as aggressively as polite can still be, past passport control, luggage claim and customs, then pause at the very last door. It has been a long trip and year for them, and the antsy parents, siblings, lovers, friends outside. Three hundred sixty-two days, hundreds of thousands of kilometers, now they are almost home.
The swallow is a migrating bird with a strong sense of home. It always returns to the same place to nest, year after year. There are eighty-three species of swallows, of around nineteen genera, all over the world.
There are more than twelve million Lebanese living in over thirty countries outside Lebanon.
In ancient Greek mythology, swallows were associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love.
Perhaps because they remain faithful to one partner their entire lives.
The ancient Egyptians would watch swallows nest along the banks of the Nile each night, and pray for their own souls to transform into ones too when they died. Sailors at sea looked for swallows in the sky, a sign that they were close to land. And in almost every culture, at any point in history, returning swallows mean that winter is over and spring is finally here.
Seven hundred thousand Lebanese expatriates came home for the holidays this year. There have not been this many inbound flights since the 1975 civil war.
These seven hundred thousand arrivals lit up, I am sure, more than seven hundred thousand homes. Clean sheets have been spread for the occasion on beds now too narrow and short. They smell of lemongrass and lavender, as do the closets and coats. The fridges are stocked with labne, hummus, mighle. Zaatar w zeit is on the counter by the bread, and every favorite childhood dish has been prepared, in bulk; tabboule does not taste the same abroad.
The larger coffee pots are ready to pour hot drinks into bottomless cups that will sustain the four am conversations catching up on the previous months. The little news, the big news, the pent up good and bad that do not travel well over the phone are waiting to be unpacked.
We have all grown and traveled, even those of us who stayed. Some of our edges have frayed, hardened, sagged. Our shoulders hunched more from the weight. We took planes and roads to destinations we did not anticipate, got sidetracked, got lost, lost things and people we loved along the way. But in the living room plastic evergreen boughs have been pulled out of the crates. They hang in the same spots as last year; they have, reassuringly, not changed.
There are three hundred and sixty-five days behind us, three hundred and sixty-five days ahead, and the only certainty we have is that they will come and we will have to go.
The famous cliff swallows of San Juan Capistrano leave town on the same day every year. On the twenty-third of October, a swirling tornado of birds sets off on a journey of six thousand miles. They wait out the cold in Goya, Corrientes, Argentina, and return to the ringing bells of San Juan every year precisely on the 19th of March.
Time is circular, not linear. The swallows know this well. We carry love with us, wherever we go. We carry it in our hearts. Next year we will return to parents, siblings, lovers, friends, and if next year we cannot, our names and seats at the table are saved till we do. Our journeys are circular too.