This week’s People of Eastern Europe (#POEE) interview is with Vasil. He is the founder of Be Duende – a brand that sells clothing, accessories, furniture, and other creations by small, yet very talented Bulgarian artists. He has spent many years living abroad with his family, first in Egypt and then in the UK, but recently returned to Bulgaria to build a life and a business here. Above all, he’s a great guy with an inspiring point of view 🙂

Who are you?

My name is Vasil. I am a graduate of History and then Sociology in a couple of London universities. I am the founder of Be Duende – an online shop that represents Bulgarian independent artists and designers. I’m also an editor at shash.bg. I love music and I also do photography for pleasure.

What do you think of, when you think of Eastern Europe?

Despite being native to Eastern Europe and quite aware of the nuances that exist around here I feel like I am not immune to the stereotypes that persist. For example, my first association was tough, slightly unrefined people. I think memes like the example below are very funny but don’t do us any favours when it comes to the way we are perceived by others, as well as our own self-perception.

On the other hand, it’s a sign of good confidence to have some levels of self-irony but we should be careful because it can easily devolve into self-loath.

People of Eastern Europe Vasil Vladimirov

You and your family spent years outside of Eastern Europe. Could you tell us a bit about what was lacking there and you hoped to find by coming back here?

I’ve lived abroad in two very different stages of my life. The first time was when I was a child, I was around 9 years old when I first moved to Egypt and shortly after to the UK. Even before that, I had moved a couple of schools so I think I developed the ability to adapt pretty easily to a changing environment.

In that period I don’t have a recollection of having a void that needed to be filled. Maybe I felt like I had everything I ever wanted since for a long time before that I was separated from my parents and we reunited abroad. Of course, I missed the food but whenever my grandparents got the chance they would send or bring some.

In my second stage, when I was no longer an unencumbered child, I became more aware of the stereotypes and prejudices that existed. I think what I missed in some occasions was acceptance, but it’s important to note that that was in the time when the whole scare of Bulgarian and Romanian immigration started as the two countries joined the EU. So it was the time of the Nigel Farages, UKIP and ultimately, a few months before I made the decision to come back to Bulgaria – Brexit.

It was in this socio-political climate that I graduated and had to look for a job. I applied to over 100 places and only got one positive response. On paper I believed I was as good as the other candidates so I couldn’t help thinking that employers might prefer someone who is culturally closer to the company and the people who work there. Of course that is a speculation and I don’t want to whine about it. But the political context created some insecurities in the way I perceived myself and my background. So in that sense, I could say that sometimes I missed acceptance.

People of Eastern Europe Vasil Vladimirov

Has anyone ever treated you differently after they found out you were from Eastern Europe? How about your family?

Not really, to be honest. Not personally at least or not something huge that left an impression on me. I’ve heard of some cases of prejudice, and definitely the way that Eastern Europeans were portrayed in the media when I was in London between 2011 and 2016 was quite negative. I think most of the things I say in regards to this question are relevant for the previous and vice versa.

My parents were immigrants in the 90s and even they don’t have any shocking stories about being treated differently.

I spoke to my dad recently about that because he still lives there and is actually a British citizen, and he said that since the Brexit hysteria the prejudice is more palpable. But again, neither I nor my family have any sensational stories. Actually, a lot of people asked me if we speak Russian in Bulgaria, or just assumed that we do. But on a more positive note, that actually got me a few freelance jobs which was pretty funny.

I would like to share this article, which illustrates some of my points.

People of Eastern Europe Vasil Vladimirov

What were the first differences between Eastern and Western Europe that you noticed when you came back to Bulgaria? Has your impression changed in any way over the time you’ve spent here?

Funny but when I came back to Bulgaria I started noticing more the similarities rather than the contrasts. It is probably because of that that I ultimately made the decision to live here. I think Bulgaria is forming to be, what we call here a “European country”, despite the fact that we are in Europe geographically and have been institutionally for a long time.

But let’s just say that it’s changing for the better in many different aspects. However, the idiosyncratic Eastern European flare still persists. I like that and I really think the future lies in embracing our own culture and constantly adapting it to our own needs in the ever-changing global context.

You are the founder of Be Duende – an online platform that sells merchandise created by Bulgarian designers. Do you think that the work and viewpoint of Eastern European artists is different in any way, compared to the Western European ones?

What Be Duende is aiming to do is highlight the position of contemporary Bulgarian design in a global context. So the idea is to show that there are people here, who create things worthy of appreciation on a global, not just local scale.

And most of the artists and designers that we work with are already acclaimed in various places around the world. That’s why when it comes to a certain worldview and way of work, I wouldn’t say there are huge differences. In general, the scale here is smaller and I feel like artists and designers don’t pay so much attention to branding and marketing, which is becoming more important than ever if you want to stand out from the crowd. My observations cover Bulgaria alone. I am not sure how it works in other places around Eastern Europe.

When it comes to the extent to which art is being appreciated in society, do you find there are any differences between Eastern and Western Europe?

It’s important to define what type of art we’re talking about and what we mean by appreciation. But if I have to speak generally, I think art is more appreciated in the West. I am judging by the size of the art market, the heterogeneity of the art scene and audience, and also the attitude of the state towards art and culture.

Again, appreciation is a very personal thing and I am sure everyone has at least some experience with art on a daily basis, but speaking in general terms, I think it’s pretty easy to conclude that art is much, much more appreciated and cherished in the West.

People of Eastern Europe Vasil Vladimirov

Do you think that we, Eastern Europeans and Bulgarians, are proud of our folk art? And what do you think we can do to promote it?

It’s hard to speak for a whole country, let alone such a diverse region as Eastern Europe, but I personally think we are.

In Bulgaria, seem to be polarised between the people who take the position that Bulgarian folklore culture is the best, one and only and superior to everything else that exists in the world; and those that reject everything that is Bulgarian. Like the kids who are ashamed of what their parents do or say.

I think we should strive to achieve equilibrium. Neither fall for the xenophobic way nor reject our background. Perhaps everyone appreciates it as something that exists but a lot of people rarely consume it. At the end of the day, the way to preserve something is to consume it, because if there is no demand for something it will cease to exist.

I recently traveled to Greece and saw a lot of young people having fun to traditional Greek music in cafes and restaurants in the centre of the capital. For some reason, you don’t really see this here. But I guess it’s just a different culture and it doesn’t have to be the same everywhere. After all, it’s our culture and we choose the way we consume it. However, it is important to embrace it and constantly reinvent it according to our current needs and sense of aesthetics.

Do you think there is anything that needs to change in Eastern Europe so that the region would be more attractive to both locals and foreigners?

There are many things that need to change, especially on a social and political level.

There are structural problems that, unfortunately, cannot be solved by individuals or on an individual level. But that’s not unlike anywhere else, even in the countries that we look up to. Yes, we have our specific problems but so do other regions. What I think can make a big difference is to embrace our culture and our way of life, be more positive about them and learn to value what we have.

Of course, it is also important to remain critical. But I think we bash ourselves more often than we don’t. There are things to be happy about and there are many things to be proud of! I recently watched a British travel commercial from the 60s where Bulgaria was portrayed in a veeeery unrealistically amazing way. I think that sometimes we need to close our eyes and dissociate the bad things from the good. Fake it till you make it!

What do you hope would become the most widespread belief about Eastern Europe?

I think there should be more nuance when thinking about Eastern Europe because it is such a melting pot that you can’t talk in the same terms for all the different countries here.

When it comes to Bulgaria, it will be nice if our history, culture, and language are recognized as part of the broader European and world heritage.

So to answer your question, I would like it if people saw Eastern Europe as a nuanced region with rich historical and cultural heritage. But we should not take things for granted. We have our part to play in communicating this to the world. And there are millions of ways to do it.

People of Eastern Europe Vasil Vladimirov

Let’s end the interview with something from the heart. Whatever you want to add 🙂

I’d like to share the video from the 60s, about Bulgaria, that I mentioned earlier.

What do you think of Vasil’s point of view? Do you have anything to share or know someone who might be a great interview subject for People of Eastern Europe? Comment here or contact me on social media 🙂