Being Bulgarian in Vienna

by Ekaterina Georgieva, Danny Nedkova & Pavel Naydenov

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the obvious: Dr. Renée Gadsden, professor at Vienna’s University of Applied Arts, has met a lot of Bulgarians in Vienna: “Almost all of you come from Sofia, and knew each other from high school,” she said grinning. Viewed from the outside, we were a small homogenous group, with collective codes of thinking and shared memories. “But you were also curious – hunters – and always knew what and where something was happening.”

Vienna’s Karlsplatz has become one of the central meeting points for the growing Bulgarian community of the city./(C) Wikimedia Commons

And if she wanted to find us, she simply went to Karlsplatz, where the “Bulgarian village” always gathered. Dr. Gadsden is from New York City. In Vienna, she was a foreigner like we were, and understood us as well as urban street life.

We grew up in Bulgaria under the communist regime, “the kids of Perestroika,” a generation of curious young people, living between the shadows of the old and the light of the new. As a side effect of everything forbidden, in our little underground street life, anything was possible. That’s how we became the New Kids on the Bloc in Vienna, who came to gain knowledge and to meet the Western side of the world.

Coming to Austria in the mid-1990s was a decision that meant the chance to study abroad at Austrian universities for a small fee. Born in the late 1970s, we were the first generation who had the chance to study abroad. So that’s how we met again, all at once, in a different country.

Vienna became our School of Life. And no one said it was going to be easy. We were not aliens, but as Bulgarians, we were almost illegal – not “Englishmen in New York.” We struggled through the long road of visa regulations and the severe restrictions on Eastern Europeans entering the labor market. We supported each other and when the time came each year to apply for a new visa – each student needed to have 70,000 Schillings (€5,000) in the bank – everyone contributed to the friend’s account for a few days. That was when we really knew we were Bulgarian, that we were different. The system put a frame around our freedom, and taught us what it meant to be a foreigner.

Those without financial help from their families and a scholarship had to work illegally. In liberal and free Austria, the positive word “foreigner” became the negative, almost cursed, word Ausländer, and we understood that there were foreigners and foreigners, according to the system.

As students, Bulgarians in Austria were not allowed to work even for a day, and the hiring procedure for foreigners was so unattractive that few employers would do it. That changed in 2007 when Bulgaria became a member of the EU. So, all the people who came in 1995 and had worked unregistered until 2007 were missing about 12 years of work experience; but it had been illegal, so we couldn’t prove it.

After Bulgaria’s entry into the EU, a lot of people decided to try their luck abroad. Before that, the flow had been to Italy and Spain, or seasonal workers to Portugal and France. After 2007, many re-oriented and when they found out about the strong social and health system in Austria, they moved here, although most didn’t speak the language yet.

At the Edge of the Balkans

Vienna turned into a magnet for students. The affordable fees made it the top choice – close enough to home but too far to go back very often! And after graduation, many decided to stay and make Vienna their new home. Particularly the artists: Before World War II, their favorite city had been Munich; after the war, it was the Austrian capital. Because of the city’s international background, Vienna created the best environment for the exchange of ideas, experience, and innovation. Maybe it took a while for most Bulgarians to adapt to the Central European manners, but for most of us, Vienna is still at the edge of the Balkans, so we call it home.

As time passed, the Bulgarians who settled in Austria realized they wanted to pass Bulgarian ways on to their children. Schools, cultural and art centers, and parents’ associations were formed, introducing the young generation to the Bulgarian culture, traditions, and language.

After the embassy school was closed in 1992, the SS. Cyril and Methodius was registered as the first financially independent scholastic institution outside Bulgaria where children could continue their Bulgarian education in their free time. Today, alongside the Prof. Ivan Shishmanov School, founded in 2019, the two schools offer a curriculum in Bulgarian language, literature, history, and geography with diplomas, recognized by the Bulgarian Ministry of Education.

Bulgarian schools in Vienna offer a curriculum in Bulgarian language, literature, history, and geography. They have launched theater projects, vocal groups and dance ensembles, giving space for students to explore Bulgarian culture outside Bulgaria./(C) Bulgarische Schule Wien

Still only a seedling in a forest, the program would not be possible without the parents’ associations and the teaching staff. Their involvement has launched theater projects, vocal groups and dance ensembles as part of the curriculum, giving space for students to explore Bulgarian culture outside Bulgaria. They also emphasize independent thinking, and the ability to criticize and recognize the essential.

Living abroad, we are trying to stay connected to our roots. Some of us do this by watching Bulgarian TV or listening to the radio, and reading books, while some of the Bulgarian shops sell our newspapers. Others hang Bulgarian mementos on their walls. For the more active, though, this is not enough. And this is where informal groups come in – where old traditions are kept alive by singing folklore songs or dancing our traditional folk dance, the Horo.

For example the Verein Bulgarische Rhythmen with a traditional folk choir Kitka, classes in traditional dance, and Kukeri – people dressed like monsters, who dance on the streets to get rid of the bad omens and energy, and to welcome fertility and health. During the pandemic, a new ensemble, Trelina, led by Nina Wasilewa-Zanechev, recorded beautiful
arrangements of well-known Bulgarian folk songs, in videos they uploaded on social media to lighten the spirits of Bulgarians in Vienna.

Media and Social Network

The Bulgarian media spectrum is diverse – from printed publications to radio and television to social media and network gatherings. It’s a well-known fact that while getting a great education in Austria one can study here forever. “The perennial Student“ is a typical Austrian phenomenon that occurs equally to the foreign student as to the Austrian. And two of them, Katherina Germanova and Ivan Karchev finally established a Bulgarian student association KIT, in 2005, to bring students together and help orient newly arrived Bulgarians. Then, OKTO TV began hosting the show “Brigada”, featuring experiences and anecdotes of Bulgarian life in Vienna, mostly in German. On radio, the Bulgarian highlight is the weekly podcast “Mit Akzent – The Unspeakable World of Todor Ovtcharov” on FM4.

One of the largest social events for the community is the annual summer Fair Заедно (Together) in the Palais Miller Aichholz. Since 2017, the fair has hosted seminars, expert talks and art workshops for its 1,500 visitors. They have launched theater projects, along with Bulgarian sports games and highlights of Bulgarian cuisine. 

Most Bulgarian print magazines from the early 2000s have evolved into more flexible digital formats and became important social nodes. As cross-cultural and informative platforms on Facebook, they have a significant impact on Viennas’ Bulgarian community.

The online community was especially strong in 2020, a year marked not only by the pandemic but also by anti-governmental demonstrations in Bulgaria. The Facebook groups Bulgarians in Vienna, with its 10K subscribers, shows how lively the community is. For the first time, an International Demonstration Network was formed to demand the resignation of Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, protesting against government corruption. Slogans like “EU are you blind” defined the hundreds of days of protest. Due to the growing political engagement of Bulgarians abroad, the government is trying to reduce the number of polling stations.

The demonstrations in Vienna launched a lively dialog among Bulgarians in different walks of life, on the streets, and on social media channels. But the point of exchange still remains the Bulgarian hotspot Karlsplatz, near the Embassy.