After Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007, Nina Wasilewa-Zanechev watched in dismay as chaos unfolded: So many new procedures, between institutions unable to understand each other, and a disaster for new EU citizens stuck in legal limbo. The confusion – between administration departments, authorities and institutions – was close to total.
Take Ivan*, an employed Bulgarian, who had come to Vienna as a student before 2007, a year of immigration law reform that placed severe new restrictions on new residency permits. So the timing mattered. But when Ivan applied at MA35 for permanent residency (Bescheinigung des Daueraufenthalts), MA35 couldn’t find a record of his previous visas and refused to issue the document. So, he wrote a complaint describing how he has fulfilled the conditions – he had been working longer than five years, was insured and paying taxes.
Based on this, MA35 issued him the certificate, but later fined him for not presenting the previous visas and for not applying for the confirmation of registration (Anmeldebescheinigung), a pre-step for permanent residency. It was all absurd. He went to court, as MA35 insisted that he pay the fine. It was only €50. But the question was fundamental. It was finally settled when Ivan found his old passport, with his visas before 2007, and provided them to MA35, although he was not required by law to keep these documents.
Since 2009, Wasilewa-Zanechev has spent her days solving problems like this through her consultancy Kompass, one of the first private advisory centers for new European citizens, offering mother-tongue advice and guidance in Bulgarian and Romanian.
“I knew I couldn’t save the world, but if I could help two, three people with information that could solve their problem, that was enough for me,” she says. In one of their early victories, Kompass got the Meldeamt to create a new document informing EU citizens in their native language of the need to file a confirmation of registration (Anmeldebescheinigung) within four months, signed at the time of registration (Anmeldung) at the registry office counter.
Before Kompass, EU citizens coming to Austria struggled with questions like, “How can I stay here?” or “How can I access the labor market?” Other questions involved social benefits or taxes: “Am I socially insured? And in which country? Where should I pay my taxes and who protects my EU legal rights?” Wasilewa-Zanechev’s observations tell the tale of the Bulgarian diaspora over the last three decades.
She summarizes the waves of migration like this: In the mid ’90s, right after the collapse of communism when Bulgarians were finally free to leave the Eastern bloc, many chose emigration to Austria, to be part of the forbidden West. Those who followed often came to study, usually supported by their parents or study grants. Their goal was not to emigrate, but to get a good education and return. After they graduated, some went back to Bulgaria, but they often stayed in the social circles they had formed in Austria. Some did well; it was “the moment when the good salaries had started in Bulgaria,” says Nina. “Nevertheless, many returned to Vienna,” in the years that followed as they were not able to fully adapt.
Folklore and Music
We met Wasilewa-Zanechev online right before she left Austria for Bulgaria, where she was to study singing and conducting at the Academy of Music, Dance and Fine Arts in Plovdiv. As we talked, a sudden rush of energy, even joy, filled the conversation. Even over Zoom, she is a dynamo. She had come to Austria in 1996, to study psychology, and went through a rollercoaster of jobs as taxi driver, certified babysitter, teacher, entrepreneur. She was even a butcher for a time. Today, she leads Kompass, and in her free time, rides her motorcycle and is a passionate folklore dancer.
Which was already a lot – until, at the age of 40, she discovered a passion for singing Bulgarian folk songs. A dancer since childhood, she had learned almost all folklore dances of northern Bulgaria. “But I hadn’t sung,” she admitted. “When I found the powerful mystery of singing, I saw the way a sound can influence someone.” Today, she sees herself as “an ambassador of Bulgarian folklore.”
In Vienna she puts together polyphonic arrangements for Trelina, a group she founded in 2020. She is also a choir conductor for the ensemble Kitka and member of the international vocal ensemble Glas (Bulgarian for “voice”) that includes 15 singers – 13 Austrian, one Croat, one Bulgarian (Nina) and one Bosnian who organized the group. The idea behind Glas grew out of a workshop with arrangements of the women’s folk choir, The Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, a group “born from Bulgarian songs.” People are often surprised. “There are people who know me as a consultant, or as a colleague. But when they go to a concert and see me being a soloist, they are, “Wow!”
So where is she most at home? “I’m cosmopolitan,” she said. “I’ve lived everywhere. So where I am is [home]. I am here at the moment, so this is my place.”
It’s late evening in Sofia. Lockdown and Corona are the most spoken words at the end of the year 2020. Single people are coming back from work, rushing down the streets to their homes. At that hour they practice a distant eye contact. Some music echoes from one underpass. A lonely busker fills up the space with the folklore rhythm of his bagpipe. He blows up his instrument and lets the sound be carried away from the great acoustic.
Suddenly, a woman who gave him a few coins when she was passing just moments ago, comes back. Wrapped in a long winter coat, her face is covered with a mask, and her hands, holding two grocery bags, hang at her side. She freezes in the middle of that dungy space alone. There are only the two of them.
Then the darkness of the underpass splits in two.The woman picks up the melody of “Veljo Hajdutin” and starts singing. Actually singing is the wrong word: she makes the music alive with her voice and even with no audience, she conquers the stage. What happened that night, in that place started a fire of unfinished sympathy.
Nina went on to tell the full story: “Suddenly a girl came from somewhere and asked me if she could make a video of us. I told her it didn’t bother me, and I kept singing.
“The acoustics were amazing and the sound from the combination of bagpipe and my voice resonated in the plaster of the subway underground. I wanted to go, but I couldn’t bear to leave. Something kept me there, singing all three verses.” When they finished, the girl had left. At parting, Nina hugs the bagpiper, and he goes back to playing.
“As I was in the subway, I thought about these lonely, intimate moments, which are the real performances, and I regretted not asking the girl to exchange contacts,” she told us. “I wanted to hear the recording, to feel the resonance again.” Never mind, she tells herself, she doesn’t need the video record to remember. “it was enough that it happened and that I experienced it.”
When Nina gets home, a friend called to say she has just seen a video of her singing on the internet. By the time she woke up the next morning, the video had gone viral.
*Name was changed.