Athens — Since ancient times, Greeks have embarked from the shores of their homeland to seek better fortunes abroad. Homer was one of the first to describe the global wanderings of the ancient Greeks, who, like the protagonist in the Odyssey, founded new cities in the Mediterranean.
Now, for the first time in their modern history, Greeks are coming home in larger numbers than they are leaving.
Some, like Odysseus, always intended to return home for sentimental reasons. Others are motivated by the practical reasons that made them leave in the first place. But more than anything else, it is improved conditions in Greece, and rising unemployment in their host countries, that has resulted in Greece's falling emigration.
Vasilios Massios, a retired New York restaurant owner, returned here after working in the United States for 20 years.
''I enjoyed living in my adopted country, worked hard, and saved up enough money to come back home,'' he said. ''I love America, but I always intended to spend my retirement here because I am Greek. It's easy to understand why. You can never love your stepmother as much as your real mother.''
Of the 13.5 million Greeks in the world, 4.5 million live outside Greece, according to the Foreign Ministry. More than 3 million of them are in the US, 500,000 in Australia, and 300,000 in West Germany.
Another 60,000 fled to Eastern Europe after the defeat of the Communists in the Greek civil war in the late 1940s, but about half of them have returned. Recently, more have been encouraged to return by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou. Of the 800,000 Greeks seen strictly as migrant workers in the West, more than one-quarter have returned in the past five years.
The reverse migration trend started in 1974. In that year, for the first time since 1850, when statistics were first compiled, more Greeks returned home than emigrated: 24,476 returned, 24,448 left. By 1976, the most recent year statistics were gathered, the gap had widened to 32,067 returning and 20,374 leaving. Though figures for last year are not yet available, Pericles Economides of the Foreign Ministry's Department of Expatriates estimated that the rate of returnees to emigrants is now ''at least 5 to 1.''
He expects this trend to grow even more in the next few years. ''This comes as a result not only of increasing opportunities and material prosperity here, but because the economic crisis is sweeping those countries that once prospered and absorbed our workers.''
The unemployment rate in Greece is between 4.5 and 5 percent, lower than that of most of its Western host countries. Gross national product grew at 0.7 percent in 1982, and inflation is running at around 18 percent. A survey last year in an influential West German newspaper showed that 84 percent of Greek migrant workers there wanted to return home, a mood expected to be encouraged by the new conservative Bonn government.
A drop in migration has been noted in all major host countries. In the peak year of 1965, when a total of 118,000 Greeks emigrated, 12,000 went to the US. But the number going to the US dropped to fewer than 2,000 in 1982.
A similar trend was seen in the number of Greeks being accepted for settlement. Only 612 Greeks were granted permission to immigrate to Australia last year, compared to 1,900 in 1981 and over 4,000 in 1975. In Canada, 3,500 immigrant visas were issued to Greeks in 1975; last year, 971 were issued. The number of Greeks in West Germany has dropped from nearly 1 million in the early 1970s to just under 300,000 today.
Many of the host countries, particularly West Germany and Belgium, want to facilitate repatriation, says Theodore Katsanevas, president of the Greek Labor Employment Organization. Athens is trying to revitalize a West German-inspired project whereby migrants would use their savings and be given loans, financed primarily by Bonn, to start a business on their return to Greece.
The Labor Employment Organization has recently set up a program to train unskilled returning workers, and help both skilled and unskilled ones find jobs.
Despite the relatively soft landing for returning Greeks, there is often a certain disillusionment when they compare their renewed Greek experiences with the standards that prevailed in their host countries.
''We are, of course, very happy to be back,'' says former New York restaurant owner Massios, ''but we are not exactly like Odysseus, for he had a kingdom waiting for him upon his return. As soon as I came back, seven years ago, I made an application for a telephone line. It has only recently been installed.''