Photograph by Thomas Peter, Reuters

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The Greek and German national flags wave outside a Greek café in Berlin.

Photograph by Thomas Peter, Reuters

Family With Roots in Berlin and Athens Has Unique Perspective

Greeks living in Germany combine the two mentalities and cultures to get the best out of both countries.

As our story in the March issue of National Geographic shows, the modern, high-profile clash across the width of Europe of the two great cities of Berlin and Athens, and everything they represent, can sometimes look like an exercise in elite realpolitik—​the maneuverings of politicians dealing with the backwash of high finance and the grand strategy of European unification.

But at a human level, it can also bring subtle pressures to bear. Irini Paicos's Greek family has been living in Germany, in Berlin, for generations, and she and her husband, Sterios Anastasiadis, a corporate lawyer, continue to divide their time between their northern and southern homes.

From their Greek home, in the center of Athens, Irini talks about how her family's life in Germany began, why her family's marriages have ended in divorce, and, with Sterios, why a dinner party they hosted their home in the Berlin suburb of Grunewald during the economic crisis didn't go so well.

Irini, how did your German connection begin?

It was in the 1850s, when my great-great-grandfather, a Greek, set up shop in Germany, first as an oil merchant and then selling Turkish tobacco. Since then, we've had one foot in Germany and one in Greece.

Did the family live in Germany full-time in those early days?

No. In the 19th century, they began by traveling back and forth from Greece to Germany, attending to suppliers at one end, customers at the other, until the 1890s when they put down roots in Germany.

Tell us about the Paicos cigarette business.

Paicos cigarettes became a mainstay of German life right up until the 1970s, with a factory originally in what became the eastern half of Berlin. But it was moved to the west in 1945. There was no tobacco there then.

My grandfather put an ad in the paper asking people with tobacco plants on their windowsills to bring all their tobacco to the factory. He promised them ten cigarettes each in two days. That's what saved us. And the business kept going until things changed in the 1960s. In the end, in the 1970s, it was sold to Rothmans.

What about the cultural crossover, the stresses and strains of that?

It was a family rule that we should remain genetically Greek, and that every son should marry a Greek woman, to keep that connection alive.

All my family divorced because they were all arranged marriages. My mother, who was married in 1955, stayed in Berlin 15 years before the marriage came to an end.

My father had been sent to Greece one summer—the marriage had been arranged, almost a contract, a discussion of dowries—and the wedding was held in Greece in the autumn.

I was born in Berlin in 1958, and I and my sister were brought up there. I remember as a teenager—16, 17—we had these beautiful summer vacations on Cape Sounion on the shore of the Aegean, in a perfect house with no electricity, a dream of Greece.

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The Paicos family started a cigarette company in the mid-1850s in Berlin (shown above in 1894). Since then, they've had one foot in Germany and one in Greece.

So were you a Greek family or a German family?

We were a Greek family! At home I spoke Greek with my mother, German with my father. He was German in his manner and way of thinking, Greek only in his blood. My parents spoke Greek together, but I was given Greek lessons when in Berlin and German lessons when in Greece! The only Greekness is due to my mother. But, you know, as a child you accept these things. It's not strange. But it was a strain for my mother.

Is there an element of not belonging in either half of your lives?

Sterios and I still keep the house in Berlin, and my daughter is studying engineering there. And we both admire German culture. In Germany, there's a great deal of mutual respect. When you're driving, you say, "Yes, please, go ahead, thank you." [Laughs]

In Greece, well, you wouldn't quite expect that, particularly in the younger generation. The way people drive is a sign of the culture. If you have respect in your mind, it goes all the way—not only on the street but at home, in politics.

The Germans do know how to be one nation together, how to bring up their kids, how to build a community. People say they're cold, but they aren't. They're warm, funny, friendly, outgoing, welcoming. My German is not so good, and so they converse in English as an act of generosity on their part.

The best thing is to have six months here, six months there. Greece is so much more beautiful ... the summer, the water, you know.

What one thing from each of the cities, cultures, would you be much happier doing without?

The German lack of family traditions and the Greek so-called impulsiveness and lack of self-criticism that leads to false conclusions and fictitious enemies.

How has your dual inheritance played out during the Great Recession?

My friends tease me here [in Greece]. That I'm Merkel. I'm Angela, the "big, tough one." There's no doubt Berlin is home for me, but two or three years ago, at the height of the crisis, we had a dinner ...

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Irini Paicos and her husband, Sterios Anastasiadis, divide their time between Berlin and Athens. “We always try to combine the two mentalities and cultures,” Irini says.

Sterios: There were some ambassadors there, with about 18 other people, including some bankers. We were having drinks before we went in to dinner. I was the host.

"Things are looking bad," a chairman of a German bank said to me. "Tell us how things are in Greece."

"Not glorious," I said.

"Are the Greeks doing what they have to do?"

"Unfortunately, not really. It has to be slow; it can only be slow."

"Oh, why is that?"

"Because many social changes have to be made. It's not easy to change things in less than decades."

"But don't you think this is very unfortunate for the German people, who have to pay, when you don't do what you have to do?"

It was an awkward moment.

I said, "You've given us the loan, and we're paying the interest."

I think he understood from my face what I thought, but I couldn't exactly throw him out. The truth is that we have not many friends there [in Germany], not a lot of social life.

Irini: But it isn't complicated—actually, it's very interesting. We always try to combine the two mentalities and cultures so that we could get the best out of both countries. That is surely what you have to do in such a situation.