Thursday, October 22, 2009

Life In The Trenches: Yolina Stoyanova Brunner

Hey, I'm sorry I forgot to upload this interview on Wednesday. It's been a busy week and even though I am trying to create a somewhat regular blogging schedule for myself... I have a hard time keeping up. Anyway, meet Yo and Marcel! And can I please draw attention to the fact that we seem to be one very good looking bunch of people?!

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 Yolina, I am 33; I am Bulgarian and my husband, Marcel, is German speaking Swiss. I am finance manager for an e-commerce company; Marcel is a project manager for financial software. We are together for 7 years, married since one and we currently live in Switzerland.

How did you and your partner meet?

During my last year in university in Bulgaria, I applied for internship in Switzerland. I knew almost nothing about every day life there – average costs, accommodation etc., so I searched randomly on ICQ for a Swiss person at my age to ask about the most burning issues. Marcel was the first one on the list. I did not know if it was he or she, but he spoke English and he had 10 min to answer my very concrete questions. The internship did not work out, but we kept chatting every once in a while and really enjoyed each other's company. A year later I accepted another internship, in Germany, and he came to meet me in person. Later on we fell in love.

How did your friends and family initially respond to your relationship? Have their reactions changed? My friends did not have any special reaction. My parents, from the other side, were very cautious. Although they were open minded and educated people they lived most of their lives during the socialism and they never had any Western friends. Their biggest concern was that Marcel, as someone from such rich country, may look down on us, the "underdeveloped" Bulgarians. It took them about a day after they met him to realize how irrelevant their fears were. They were impressed that he was always calm and in a good mood, no matter the circumstances, and although he wasn't blind for the flying plastic bags in the air judging was the last thing on his mind. Instead he was fascinated by the explosive Bulgarian emotions ("Yo, you are all talking at the same time!") and the fact that everyone wanted to feed him. A few years later he went to visit my family without me - I was being interviewed for jobs in Switzerland. During his visit he experienced the Bulgarian summer as native - learning about cultural life in Varna with my mom, beer & football with my dad and of course participated in the home lyutenitsa production. From this point onwards he stopped being The Swiss. He became one of us.

How do your different backgrounds play into your relationship?
My generation was 13 when the socialism in Bulgaria collapsed, so my teenage years and early 20s were heavily impacted by a major social change. We lived through hyperinflation, unemployment, political demonstrations and travel limitations – facts, which never occurred in Switzerland. I never thought it's a big drama, honestly, it's just how life happened. My safest circle has always been my family and close friends. But in our relationship I realized the impact of these events on me. I had a haunting fear that something may collapse any minute. What if my pension fund bankrupts tomorrow? Or the bank? Or if my work permit is not prolonged? At the same time when something did go not as planned, I did not panic and just managed somehow. For Marcel was exactly the opposite – he had some turbulences in his family, but society, on the other hand, changed calmly. In this society there were always jobs for educated people. The health care system functioned smoothly. Insurance companies covered risks. Despite its challenges his life was, in a good way, more predictable then mine. I was amazed and annoyed by his calmness. He couldn't understand why I was always so suspicious towards everything. This led to ongoing steamy discussions where we were explaining to each other our axiomatic believes and behaviours. It was emotionally draining and enriching at the same time.

What are some of your biggest cultural clashes: food, social life, domesticity, communication, family?
I am a messy person, so it was definitely an issue. My definition of "clean" was "bring the item to the same condition it was before it got dirty", while Marcel insisted on "make this item look as if it was never used before", which is quite Swiss. He found it strange that I talk to my family on daily basis. But then he also got into it and now he is probably more up to date with my relatives then with his own. Generally, it was beneficial to learn from each other and make peace.

What do you love about being in such a relationship?
It makes me more open minded, more tolerant. It shows me that there is an alternative of "my way" without making my way the wrong one. It turns me into a better version of me. Despite all differences I truly love this person and his weird custom to put cheese on all kinds of food, including Indian.

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

We have no kids yet, but Bulgaria will play a role of course. Bulgaria is part of who I am and who has more influence on children then their own mom? Marcel also speaks good Bulgarian and loves the country, we share friends. Thing is, after all these years, our nationalities do not hang between us like exotic pink elephants. They naturally blend with who we are as people. Each culture is a heritage and it's just great that our future kids can benefit from both of them.

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

Two times per year. We both easily switch to "Bulgarian mode" – food is great, people are rarely on time, it's quite difficult to plan anything ahead, but hey – we both feel at home. And then we experience Bulgaria in remarkably different way. He relaxes and simply enjoys our way of living. He accepts things which would drive him crazy in Switzerland, because he thinks it's disrespectful to lecture people on how things should be unless explicitly asked for it. The only thing he can't stand even for a minute is the totally irresponsible driving. While I am emotionally connected with Bulgaria and keep seeing what can be improved and I am annoyed when it takes too long. Also my mom suddenly passed away two years ago, which obviously impacts me a lot. So although I enjoy our visits, it is rather stressful for me. We travel in the country a bit, meet some friends and relatives. The best part is when we all sit together until late at night and it's hot and we go into these major discussions about life and politics and problems and solutions... It's true, we all talk at the same time and I am loving it!

Has your relation to Bulgaria changed as a result of your being in this relationship?
Yes. I do not expect Bulgaria to represent me, but rather the other way round – I represent my country in every possible way. When I meet new people I assume that they have no prejudices based on my origin. If I manage to leave good impressions I am giving them nice association with Bulgaria as well. It's my way to confirm good impressions and to confront negative clichés by providing positive alternative. I am not trying to sugar coat with good behaviour the problems which Bulgaria currently faces. Today we have to cope with the consequences of many bad decisions taken at the time when we were still kids. I can't change the past, but I chose to learn from it and be a Bulgarian who smiles more often, recycles, doesn't bribe, someone careful with cynicism... I bet I am not the only one. A few more and we will reach Gladwell's tipping point.

Any advice for other people who are in the early stages of a committed relationship with a Bulgarian?
Just be authentic :). The rest will come naturally. Also, here are two book hints - For the non-Bulgarian partner - get The Lonely Planet! That's a good read for those moments when your partner is surrounded by other Bulgarians and you'd rather leave her/him to socialize without you. Lonely Planet provides crash course in Bulgarian language and history. And it will inspire you to visit the country as independent traveller - it is worth it.

If you are Bulgarian trying to explain to your partner unexplainable national habits then I can recommend the book "What Makes Us Different and Similar: A New Interpretation of the World Values Survey and Other Cross-Cultural Data" by Mihail Minkov (in Bulgarian "Европейци сме ний, ама..." България върху културната карта на света") - it gives interesting interpretations on why are Bulgarians so superstitious or why have different attitude towards different ethnic minorities etc.

Hope y'all are still enjoying this series as much as I am!


  1. Hi Yolina and Marcel! Great interview. These are so fun to read!

  2. Great interview! So thoughtful and insightful.

  3. Hey guys, your story is so romantic :)!!! Thanks for the book hints, we'll try them!

  4. Hey, I enjoyed this one a lot, very genuine and whole-hearted. I especially enjoyed this part:
    "I do not expect Bulgaria to represent me, but rather the other way round – I represent my country in every possible way. When I meet new people I assume that they have no prejudices based on my origin."
    This is exactly my attitude about it when I am abroad, for me it's the most natural and positive mindset, and positiveness usually comes back to you.

  5. Thank you very much, guys :)!!!

  6. Yolina, I am curious to know how did Marcel learn Bulgarian? I'd love to have my husband one day hang out with my parents alone

  7. Teodora, from the very beginning Marcel was really keen on learning Bulgarian - mostly because the alphabet looked exotic to him. First he picked words and expressions from my phone calls, then I started inserting a word here and there in our daily conversations. To encourage him I covered his apartment with post-its with the Bulgarian names of the items around. Later on he bought learning kit - textbook to read in the evenings and CD with exercises for the car (side effect - his colleagues started greeting me in Bulgarian as well :).
    But the most efficient of all was the simple practice. Chatting on Skype with my aunt, mailing with my mom, watching European sport events on Bulgarian TV instead on the German one so he could pick from the commentатors, reading the labels of Bulgarian products. His Bulgarian is not perfect yet, but he can easily manage on his own when we are there.

  8. Kyle learned most of his Bulgarian the summer I started my feminist blog. I would get really upset by some of the comments I got there, so Kyle started reading it in order to understand what was causing my frustration. He used Google Translate at the beginning but gradually learned to go without. It was amazing to watch him learn SO MUCH every day.

  9. Yolinke! Galin sym Lyutskanov, dano me pomnish! Dai naiakayv mail ili skype, az sym na, skype - galin.lyutskanov, ili 00447780671533! Pozdravi ot London!

  10. Leila Schubiger LindquistNovember 4, 2010 at 10:38 PM

    Hoi Yolina! Ich habe eine siebenjaehrige Tochter und wir haben sie Yolina genannt. Wir haben noch nie jemanden mit Namen Yolina getroffen und heute habe ich den Namen gegoogelt und zu meinem Erstaunen eine Schweizerin mit diesem Namen gefunden: Dich! So how did you get this name and is it common in Bulgaria and what does it mean? I am Swiss German and my husband is American and it was very hard to find names for our children that can be easily pronounced in English, Swiss German and German. We thought we had invented this name ourselves...