"Repats" make Greece home


ATHENS — In the second half of the 20th century, poverty and instability drove more than a million Greeks to leave their homeland. Now many of their children, and grandchildren, are coming back.

Drawn by the pull of their roots and the slower pace of life in Europe, thousands of hyphenated Greeks are returning to their ancestral land. But these “repatriates” often find life here isn’t as simple as they expected.

As a child, Greek-American Anna Haughton spent summers in Greece with the family of her Athens-born mother. She considered herself Greek and thought every American went “home” to their country during school vacations.

Now 47, Haughton has been living in Athens for the past six years. She doesn’t regret the move, but says it’s changed the way she thinks of herself.

“I love Greece. I feel like this is my second home, if not my first home, “ said Haughton, a U.S.-trained lawyer who helps Greek-Americans settle property disputes. “I feel less Greek living here. I feel more American.”

There are no exact statistics on the number of returned Greeks, but according to the U.S. Department of State, there are between 90,000 and 100,000 American passport holders in Greece, and most of them are dual citizens. Thousands of Greek-Canadians, Greek-Australians and other members of the diaspora have also claimed Greek citizenship under a law that grants passports to anyone who can prove they have a parent or grandparent who was a Greek citizen.

A number of other European countries, such as Italy and Ireland, also grant the right of return to members of the diaspora and have experienced similar waves of returnees.

Most Greek “repatriates” have close family connections in Greece and many, like Haughton, have inherited property here. But they also often struggle with language and cultural differences — and the perceptions of other Greeks.

Stavroula Logothettis, an actress and documentary filmmaker, was born in Greece but moved to Canada when she was 5. She says she always felt Greece was her true home. Now she lives in Athens, but is frustrated that many Greeks don’t see her as fully Greek.

“It feels like home at a very gut level,” said Logothettis, who had a supporting role in the hit movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” But, she added, “they won’t let us forget that we’re not Greek. They call you ‘the little American.’”

Logothettis has explored this sense of displacement through her work and recently starred in a movie, “Athanassia, Well Kept Secrets,” about a Greek-American who comes to Greece in search of her true identity.

“It’s a painful journey,” for Athanassia, Logothettis said, “as I think it’s painful for a lot of us who come back here and don’t find what they expected to find.”

Some hyphenated Greeks have shot to success in Greece, sometimes despite speaking broken Greek. Kalomoira Saranti, a Greek-American from Astoria, Queens, became a local pop star after winning a reality television show. She went on to represent Greece in the Eurovision Song Contest last year.

And Greek diaspora organizations, and their money, still play an important role in domestic politics.

But Dr. Anastasia Christou, a Greek-American research fellow at the University of Sussex who studies second-generation Greek returnees, says feelings of cultural dislocation are common.

“There are mixed feelings — a sense of frustration and disillusionment and rupture because of previous idealized images of the homeland,” she said. That image, she said, “does not coincide with their everyday experiences” in Greece.

Greece today is a different country than the one many economic migrants fled decades ago. It’s politically stable and a member of the European Union.

But the country still has a tangled bureaucracy and sluggish economy. Thousands of young Greeks still leave every year to seek higher education in England and America and salaries are low compared to the cost of living.

Haughton said Greeks often express disbelief that she would leave America, still seen as the land of opportunity, and choose to live in Athens: “They think I’m insane.” That view has begun to change, she said, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which showed many Greeks for the first time that extreme poverty exists in America.

But Haughton said she’s learned that home is both countries and neither. Like many hyphenated Greeks, she’s found a niche in helping others navigate the two worlds.

“We fit both places, but we don’t totally fit,” she said. “I think there are lots of opportunities, but it’s not easy.”

More on expatriates:

The benefits of being "farang"

Going downhill fast — and loving it

A new sort of off-shoring

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of a name.