Meet Alexander: a Colombian photographer currently living in Blagoevgrad with his lovely Bulgarian wife Sylvia. I met him a few months ago through the How to Marry a Bulgarian group in Facebook and was so happy when he agreed to speak to Capital Light about his international marriage. Of course, I had to ask for a more extended interview for our Life in the Trenches series. Luckily, he said yes.
Hey! You were just featured in Capital AND you are giving your first interview for How to Marry a Bulgarian. You are practically a Bulgarian celebrity! Do you feel like one?
First of all, any of those brave souls involved in a multi-cultural marriage deserve 15 minutes of fame. It is indeed a very special thing you guys are doing out there. I am glad to share with the How to Marry a Bulgarian crowd. We are more than we thought we were, and we are growing! Do I feel like a Bulgarian celebrity? Not at all. Bulgarian Celebrities are very particular (laughs) I don't think I'll ever be a match for them. However, I enjoyed sharing with Bulgarians and other people what it feels like to be married to a Bulgarian: The journey of my life (laughs)
Let's start back from the beginning. Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you? What do you do? Where do you live? And, most importantly, how did you meet your lovely Bulgarian wife?
My name is Alexander Acosta Osorio. (In case you were wondering: Acosta is my father's family name, and Osorio my mother's. You carry both, that's how we do it in Colombia). I am 29, from Bogotá, Colombia. Born and Raised, but I have been living abroad, in New York City, since I was 22. That's why consider myself a Colombian by birth, a New Yorker by hearth, and a Bulgarian (proud member of th EU) by luck. Let's say I just consider myself a world citizen.
Currently I am a student of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Bulgaria. Before traveling to the States I studied International Business, but once I got to New York all that changed. I discovered a different world, that's why today I have a background working with art institutions and art spaces such as the Museum of Modern Art, PS1 Contemporary Art Center, the Guggenheim New York, and the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, among others. I like photography and I hold an Associate Degree in Fine Art from LaGuardia Community College-CUNY. Now I am combining my like for photography and my interest in telling stories. Some people call it photojournalism. I am also interested in communications and in video and film production. The future looks interesting.
New York City is truly the melting pot. I lived in Manhattan for six years and there I met my wife, Sylvia Zareva, from Lovech. She was doing her master in European Studies at New York University (NYU) when we met through Craigslist. Everything in New York happens through Craigslist. Sylvia thought herself Spanish and wanted to improve so she posted an ad in the activity partners section. I was taking a French class at the time and I was looking for a French exchange, too, but I also decided to improve my English as Spanglish was taking over. So I decided to answer it. I was living in alphabet city , the Latino section of the lower east side, so I proposed to meet somewhere near by. We met in the trendy lower west side although Sylvia was living in 113th, just three blocks form Columbia University, where she also took some classes. Lucky me that she wanted to practice her Spanish so much. When we met I was stunned, and I think I made a good impression on her because we ignored some other people who came with us and talked all night long about everything but our language lessons. I asked her out and went salsa dancing. Less than a year later we were getting married in New York's City Hall. Today I am one of the few Colombians in Bulgaria and her Spanish is better than mine.
What is the best thing about being in a relationship with someone who comes from a very different background than yours?
Discovering new ways of doing things every single day. We sort of teach each other how we see life and the world and that heps us find our own voice as a couple. We learn as we go along. True, we are used to doing things in different ways and that brings challenges and 'flavor' to our relationship. We have to find middle-grounds about pretty much everything and there is always this constant negotiation which I find hilarious at times. It is not easy, but I can definitely say differences make our marriage an unexpected journey and a pleasant discovery. That includes all the things I find odd and weird, too.
What are some of your biggest cultural clashes: food, social life, domesticity, communication, family?
Well, there are so many little clashes that I don't know where to begin. Food is a big clash, yes. Colombians eat lots of stuff on the same plate, plus soups, lots of soups. Here you don't eat all at once, and for some reason there's always bread on the table. In Colombia we only eat it for breakfast. Both countries fry a lot of stuff so I haven't had a hard time adjusting to Bulgarian food. My wife is on the healthy side, so we eat lots of salads, Mediterranean, Indian and Asian food. Only when I visit grandma I can taste real Bulgarian cuisine and eat until dawn. Putting yogurt on everything is pretty new for me, as well as eating cheese with all your meals, but I like them both and I am getting used to it. Two-liter beer bottles was a pleasant discovery, I must say.
Social life has been something of a discovery for me as I don't speak the language. It feels very odd to sit at a table with ten people and drink your beer without talking to anyone. It's a total sociological experience. At first that was very tough for me, but my wife, her family and friends are always considerate. They ask me one or two questions about Colombia, make some jokes about me, then tell me I should learn Bulgarian and keep on talking. I listen and listen and I think the more I do the more I guess what everyone is talking about. I try to be very patient and understanding. What can I say? I have to learn more Bulgarian.
We both help in the house but Sylvia is the boss. She says and I do, plus I wash the dishes (She's got a bargain). Now that I think about it for some reason I do a lot of cleaning. Some people call it love, I guess.
Communication is always a work in progress. Sometimes we misunderstand each other and sometimes is fun, sometimes it just gets to you. We communicate in Spanish and English. When my wife is in a good mood, we talk in Spanish (I love that). When she is somehow annoyed for our lack of communication, we speak English. So we speak a lot of English. The more we share, the more we are finding out what works best for us. Now I have started throwing Bulgarian into the mix. I call it: BulgaSpanglish. Nothing makes Sylvia laugh more than hearing me trying to say something in Bulgarian. It has gotten me out of trouble a few times.
Meeting Sylvia's family was a total adventure. We had them come to New York City for Christmas. We threw a coin to decide which family was coming, and Sylvia won. When I met grandma she had two suitcases, one full of gifts: hand-made table cloths, bed sheets, and sweaters and even underwear! In the other suitcase she brought home made bread, banitza, and preserves. I still haven't figured out how customs let her in with all that. Sylvia's only sister works in marketing and speaks English, so she was the translator for a while until she got tired. Then, I was on my own. Grandma and Sylvia's dad, Stephan, didn't speak a word of English back then. Somehow I managed to communicate with them. Lots of pointing and repeating the few words I knew, but it sort of worked. When I came to Bulgaria I spent some time with them and we sort of got to know each other. As some people say in the art world: it has been a 'visceral experience'. Even though we barely communicate with each other we get along. Grandma likes to feed me and takes me to pick grapes and cherries with her. Stephan likes watching soccer and we sort of talk about it. We all have fun trying to break that language barrier we all find new and amusing. For Sylvia's family, as for many other Bulgarians, I am the first Colombian they have ever met. What they don't seem to realize is that I have never seen so many Bulgarians either. These are for me complete uncharted waters and that makes it really a fun experience.
A lot of the Bulgarians that I talk to dream of returning to Bulgaria one day but worry that their non-Bulgarian partners wouldn't be able to fit in and be happy there. What has your experience of living in Bulgaria been like so far? Do you get homesick a lot?
My experience in Bulgaria has been quite unique. When I came to this country I didn't know what to expect but living in Bulgaria has been on the whole a good experience. I feel I am always discovering something new. During my first months I used to compare a lot things between Colombia and Bulgaria for some reason. I used to compare nature, the way of life, and I even used to spend time trying to find things we have and what we don't have in common. That was something I barely did when I was New York. And there are far more Colombians over there. Somehow Bulgaria made me think about Colombia a lot. Perhaps it is because both countries have gorgeous nature? because both are religious? because both are emerging economies? or it's that familiar sense of pride and cultural identity? I am not sure. I believe that returning to your homeland is always a good thing, even if it is just for visiting. I am sure Bulgarians and non-Bulgarians worry about not fitting in, I did and still do. But fellas the truth is here it's just as challenging as it is anywhere else. If you want to fit in, you will. If you don't want to fit in, you won't. It is as simple as that. I strongly believe that if you are planning to settle in another culture you have to be positive, open-minded and flexible about things. You will have more fun and that will make your life a lot easier.
Several times on this blog we have talked about how many of us end up being trailing spouses (i.e. we move around because of our partner's job or family) and how difficult that is on our personal friendships. How have YOU dealt with that in Bulgaria? Did you choose to embrace your wife's friends or have you tried to make your own?
Certainly moving to another place has an impact on your way of life but in today's age cellphones, email, Skype, and Facebook makes keeping in touch something much easier than it was, lets say 50 years ago. Those guys really had it tough and the most admirable thing is that they didn't complain about it as much as we do today. That said, putting things in perspective is always helpful: It could always be worst. Even before moving I started to embrace my wife's friends in New York. They are part of her life and that's what you do when you get married, plus they turned out to be quite interesting. Once in Bulgaria I met a few more friends of hers but I started meeting people on my own, specially people going through the same things I am. It has helped me to feel more at ease with everything, plus meeting new people is always a good thing. So I have met other Colombians and foreigners married to Bulgarians as well. Yes, there are a few more. I have also made some friendships at AUBG. I am the only Colombian studying full time at the university and perhaps the only one living in Blagoevgrad. a town of about 70 thousand people. So I am pretty much the only member of the Latino community around here. Something I still find quite amusing. On the whole, moving hasn't had a strong impact on my personal friendships. I manage to keep in touch with people and after all, I have never been a guy of too many friends anyway.
What are some of the misconceptions that Bulgarians have about Colombians? My guess is that most Bulgarians you meet have never met anyone from Bogota before.
True. For most I have been their first Colombian. Among the misconceptions of Bulgarians have about Colombians and Latinos in general I have found that Bulgarians think corn and sausage is synonymous with Latin American Cuisine. They also believe we know all about mafia, drug trafficking and smuggling stuff. Most Bulgarians I've met talk to me about USA 94 World Cup for some reason. They always mention the big blond curly hair of Valderama and how good player he was. They talk to me about Rene Iguita and his Scorpion kick against England and of course ask me about Escobar, both the soccer player and the Mafia Boss. I think that is because it has been the only time Bulgaria has participated in a World Cup and that's what most people remember? Go figure. I also hear a lot about coffee, beautiful women, Shakira and Juanes' song 'la camisa negra' which it seems was very popular for a while around here. Older women and grandma tell me they know all about Bogotá because they have seen it in the popular Colombian soap operas they watch here. I always smile and play along. Just as in the US, I don't have the heart or the patience to tell people that I know pretty much just as much as they do about drugs and that soap operas are pure fiction and that Colombia is not like that. I certainly tell people that stereotypes are just that, stereotypes.
How's your Bulgarian? Have you picked up any typically Bulgarian habits?
Grandma has tough me some very handy phrases, like: I like, I don't like, I want, I don't want, a big draft beer, please. Things like that. My wife is just not patient enough, but lately she's been trying to get me to read Cyrillic. It looks cool but reading it is a challenge for me. My Bulgarian is very poor I must say. It is a complex language, and then there's the Cyrillic. Bulgarian isn't an easy language, especially for Spanish Speakers. Even though it is phonetic language like ours we just don't have some of the sounds Bulgarians use. Americans and some Europeans in the other hand seem to be pretty good at it. I have meet some of the Peace Corps volunteers and some Germans and I was very impressed. I've never heard an American speaking good Spanish, let alone a German. Given that 15 percent of the American population is Hispanic you would think they are better at it, but the truth is they usually do badly. But then, here they are rocking Bulgarian. That's life.
Any last words of wisdom?
Multi-Cultural marriages are the ultimate adventure. Be open to the journey in all its forms. You will not only discover other ways of seeing the world but you will learn more about life and surely more about yourself. Don't be afraid of living and exploring. Give yourself away, what you'll receive in return, those memories, will be priceless. You only live once, why not to make the best out of it? you are not getting out alive anyway.
Thank you so so much for chatting with me! I loved your answers and look forward to meeting you and Sylvia (hopefully) some time soon!!!
P.S. If you enjoy reading these interviews and would like to participate in the series, by all means, let me know!!!