Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Life in the Trenches: Vely Zajec

Administrative note: I am going to follow Eva's advice and am now declaring Thursdays "Life in the Trenches Thursday". This way even if you don't care about the rest of the stuff that I write about, you can still come by once a week and read the interviews.

Vely's interview that you are about to enjoy came to me on September 30. In her email she wrote: "John and I just realized that the day we met, the one I describe below, is actually tomorrow - October 1. Seventeen years ago, holly s#it!"

Enjoy the interview and please wish Vely and John a very happy, albeit belated, anniversary!

Please introduce yourself. Who are you? What do you do? Where are you and your partner from? Where do you currently live?

My name is Vely. I was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria. In 1991, when I was first year in college, my family and I moved to the States. A year and a half after my arrival I met my husband John. He and I have been happily married since 1995 and living in California with our two kids. I am an Architect, John is in Real Estate, and our children are both spastic goofballs.

How did you and your partner meet?

We met at an apartment complex at the City of Orange, CA, where I lived with my parents at the time. One summer evening I spotted an intriguing guy out my window. He looked like a corporate dude that had unraveled back to his crazy casual self in the car. Seemed determined and in a hurry, darkest shades, cutest nose, but most importantly, he was carrying in his hand his shirt and shoes, but his tie was still on! The universe may have paused for a second…

So we met later that week in front of the laundry room. Yes, yes, it was one of those moments, imagine it in slow motion. Turns out he lived 5 apartment doors down. Turns out he is 100% Slovenian (but second generation US born, so pretty much all American). Turns out the Eastern European looking dude my dad had been cracking jokes and smoking with by the pool every night was John’s dad.

How did your friends and family initially respond to your relationship? Have their reactions changed?

My mom was very skeptical of the relationship . She was skeptical of all American boys in general. Heck, I was skeptical of everything myself, I wasn’t thinking I would ever find my place here in the States! You have to be skeptical of most things if you are gonna call yourself a Bulgarian. Anyways, his family sized me up quite e bit too. They are very cool and accepting people but at the time I know they didn’t know what to make of me: the shy little eastern European who barely spoke English, didn’t smile, or hug a lot, like Americans do, and just started her life over in the US at the age of 20... Oh, we all totally love each other now!! Also at the time I had an attorney helping me with the switch from a student visa to a work visa. When I mentioned to him I had met a really nice guy, the kind that I would marry, he put down the paperwork, lowered his glasses and said “You know you can go to jail for that”… It took me a while to get that he was saying “don’t try to get citizenship through marriage” And other such nonsense. John and I knew quickly, however, that we were totally and completely “the one” for each other so there was no point in worrying about what others thought.

How do your different backgrounds play into your relationship?

Being the products of two radically different cultures has absolutely made our relationship richer and more fascinating. There isn’t a boring day in this family, I swear! I am actually very surprised how many laughs we still get out of the simple everyday things. It just never ends. Small example today: “you call that a sandwich???” he still can’t get over the fact that a skinny piece of salami with a skinny piece of cheese on a skinny piece of Russian rye is what I call a sandwich. Just like I still cannot get over what HE considers a sandwich: that… 4 inch tall stack of mismatched sandwich material that gets squished down by yet another piece of bread on top, and then the toothpick and all that… ugh. And, you know, if it all fails one can always shout “You are being SO Bulgarian right now!”, or “That’s great, typical American!”

What are some of your biggest cultural clashes: food , social life, domesticity, communication, family?

In the beginning one obvious clash was our communication styles. For one, I barely spoke English, and two, we Bulgarians can go around in circles when we talk and well, that pretty much makes Americans dizzy. Even when my English improved, I can tell John often had a hard time following what I was saying. Sometimes Bulgarians make a point in a much more long-winded way, sometimes we are passionate about completely different subjects than Americans. I think we were extra patient with each other because we were in love.

When it came to social events like going to a party or dropping by someone’s house, time promptness was something I simply didn’t get. Structured activities of social nature made ME dizzy. But now it’s the Bulgarians that drive me crazy… hehe. I just don’t know how to party any more. Oh, wait we have kids anyways.

Food – what can I say – he converted! How could you not?! Especially after spending quality time with authentic Bulgarian cuisine while traveling across the entire country. Bulgarian food is the best. He is still not sure about chubritza though. He still calls it “that dirt you put on your toast”

What do you love about being in such a relationship?

When I was younger I remember thinking that if I ever ended up marrying someone NOT from Sofia, something must have gone wrong with my life. In my mind a foreigner was way out of the question. I think that was a sign that my world was very very tiny. I feel that by meeting and marrying John my tiny world was taken for a surprising spin and then it expanded beyond my expectations! He feels the same way too (he also says he always knew he’d marry someone from really far away)

Being married to someone very different in general, seems to force you to look very critically at who you are and what you know. It can actually help you figure yourself out from a very different angle and ultimately make you happier and more interesting person.

Do you have kids? What part does Bulgaria play in their lives?

We took our Emma, who is now 6, to Bulgaria a couple of summers ago and she always says how much she wants to go back. Sometimes we read Bulgarian books and I do speak it to the kids but it’s very sporadic. My hope, for both the kids and for John, is that our summer visits to Bulgaria become more regular and they learn it there. It is so much easier that way. The good thing is Emma is always very interested in everything Bulgarian and has a certain pride about her Bulgarian-ness. She tries to show off as bilingual but that’s so pushing it. As far as Ian, our 1year old… he has a shirt with the Bulgarian alphabet on it, that’s about it, he is so due for a visit!

How often do you travel to Bulgaria and what are your visits like?

Not nearly often enough! When we do go It is very emotional, stressful, exhilarating, and just altogether beautiful and unforgettable.

Any advice for other people who are in the early stages of a committed relationship with a Bulgarian?

If you know you are with the right person don’t concern yourself too much with what others think. No matter what you do, you may get judged at some point, it’s human nature. Just open your heart and your mind, try to learn some Bulgarian and immerse yourself into the shopska salata and rakia tradition. I swear, it has magical powers, it can even out cultural differences!

P.S. Vely has a wonderful blog in which she shares funny stories about her kids and other stuff. Be sure to check it out!

P.P.S. The next interview that I am going to share is with Vely's sister, Eva. That's coming up next Thursday, remember!

If you guys want to participate in the series, let me know, and thank you SO MUCH for all your comments, emails and funny stories. I am trying to get Prof. Grady to participate too. And, yes, I did just realize that today is actually Wednesday. Ah well. It's been a strange week.


  1. “you call that a sandwich???”
    Ha-ha-ha :)!!! I understand this completely! Definitions of simple things vary dramatically between two cultures :)

  2. I was waiting for this interview so impatiently! Keep them coming please :)
    chubriza - that dirt you put on your toast! :) hahahaha so funny! loved the interview - Vely you are so energetic it shows through your writing! Are we getting the husband's interview? I do have to confess I am very interested in comparing what the Bulgarians and non Bulgarians think of the relationship...

  3. Isn't my sister so cute and funny? I know all this stuff about her, yet it was still really interesting to read! And I have to say toast with "dirt" on it is the perfect breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, etc. as far as I am concerned ;)

  4. I like that dirt, on bread with a little olive oil. :) Though I think my father in law calls it "Gypsy Banitsa"...

    I've had the sandwich discussion with Metodi. When I make his lunch for work it's an 'American' sandwich. (several slices of meat, 2 slices of cheese, lettuce, tomato...) I've watched him make 'sandwiches' and they're...bleak! (One slice of meat, one of cheese, and of course...butter?) Butter on sandwiches still makes me gag. *Shakes Head*

  5. I am so glad you guys enjoyed it!
    Sasha, yes, I am trying to get John to give us some of his input in writing, he is soooo hilarious on the subject.
    Eva, no YOU are cute and funny!love u ;)
    Samantha, good to know it's called gypsy banitza, never knew that!
    thank you, Petya, for coming up with this cool series and thank you for all of your wit, passion and insightfulness on your blog!!!