Eastern Europe has given birth to some amazing young women, determined to be the change they want to see in the world, just like Alexandra. She is currently the driving force behind Trending Topics Bulgaria, but her path has gone through unexpected turns and the years spent in Austria have given her an interesting point of view on both the world and our little corner of it.
I am very glad that the second #POEE interview is with such an inspiringly ambitious individual and a woman at that 🙂
Who are you?
Alexandra Kozbunarova, a 26-year-old journalist, currently editorial lead at trendingtopics.bg – an online business media with Austrian roots, which talks about technology, innovation, and startups.
What do you think of, when you think of Eastern Europe?
That we’re not very good at advertising our upsides (laughs).
Why is it that people from our corner of the world are sometimes looked down on?
First of all, I don’t think that there are prejudices only against our region. During my first year at university, I did research on how tabloids in Austria present migrant women – both Africans and Eastern Europeans were stereotyped in the same way – victims, prostitutes, pickpockets, beggars, etc. But when it comes to our region, my explanation is in the historical division between Eastern and Western Europe. Many people from our parents’ generation (and it’s been happening again in the past few years) were willing to do any job, just to stay in Western Europe for as long as they could, or to save up and send money back home. My experience is that communities like that often remain tightly-knit and don’t make an effort to integrate themselves into the fiber of society, which is why they end up being stigmatized. But I don’t think that’s relevant to our generation.
Could you tell us a bit about the time you spent in Austria? How did you get there and why did you choose the country?
From an early age I wanted to work in investigative journalism and was convinced that I could write about Bulgaria outside of Bulgaria, and it would have more significance. Besides, at the time things here seemed mediocre to me and I wanted to expand my horizons. I chose Austria because I speak German and because my two best friends from high school were headed that way. To be honest, when I left, I had no intention of coming back.
My first three years there we nothing exceptional – a series of student jobs, mostly in the restaurant business, and studying. I didn’t start working in journalism and doing more skilled labor until my last year at university, and it was just because there was someone to remind me that I can’t keep hauling around glasses and plates. He was a Bulgarian journalist, who had spent many years in Austria.
I remembered having met a Bulgarian girl called Marina, who was working for dasBiber.at – a media outlet dedicated to the lives and interests of young immigrants in Austria. I got an intern position there, then did another internship, followed by freelance journalism. Around that time I was also teaching practical courses to the first-years in my department. Everything started coming together.
To summarize – I was, first of all, inspired and nudged by successful Bulgarians in Austria. I still think that the university job was given to me not just because of my huge enthusiasm, but mostly due to being a woman from Eastern Europe.
Your physical appearance doesn’t say much about where you’re from. But have you ever had someone treat you differently, once they find out you are Bulgarian?
I can’t really think of a situation like that. At times, when I didn’t feel confident enough because of the language barrier or some other reason, I shied away. People’s natural reaction is to be a bit patronizing. But how you get treated is in your own hands.
Can you describe your experience of how Eastern European people are treated in Austria, with one or more stories?
I can’t generalize. I think that it all depends on the standpoint from which you are communicating with someone, as well as how closed-minded the other person is. I have a funny story though. In my last year of university, I was already teaching, as well as working as a freelance journalist for a small paper, waiting tables at an ice cream parlor. We had a regular there – a slob who went into early retirement, one of these people who’ve never stepped a foot outside of their own country and judge negatively whatever they don’t know or understand. He would drink white wine with soda from the morning.
He saw me merely as the Bulgarian waitress, made advances, and would refuse to engage in any meaningful conversation with me, even though at the time I was just as informed about his country as he was. I don’t really know why I kept trying. Once, he saw me with my laptop behind the bar, because I was working on an article. When I explained to him what I was doing, he ogled me and stopped talking to me altogether. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.
How can we make Eastern Europe more appealing to “Westerners”?
By telling the awesome stories of the people we meet and communicate with daily. Everyone has a story like that with something they are keen on – culture, traditions, art, travel and sightseeing, business, technology. Each of these fields has at least one remarkable story. Of course, it also depends on who you’re talking to, as well as the context. There are plenty of places where the “Western world” can read about the problems we have here in Eastern Europe, but there should be an alternative narrative as well. I don’t think I’ll ever forget how last year, during the Presidency, journalists from all over Europe were gathering here for some meeting about digital transformation. Half of them had declared that they would go shoot the poverty-ridden ghettoes and look for a story there, right after the official meeting. But what if more people knew that we make some pretty avant-garde nanosatellites here, as well as the biggest cargo drone in the world? And the Nestinari rituals were happening at the time as well (traditional fire-walking practices).
I keep thinking that whenever we get asked something like, “There is lots of corruption there and no freedom of speech, right?”, because this is what the outside world hears about the most, we can simply reply with a “Yes” but not go into pointless details. Instead, we can offer a different point of view and a more interesting historical explanation. It might be naïve of me…
What do you hope would soon be the first association with Eastern Europe?
A region with great potential.
Your work is very involved with innovation. What are the journalist and startups from Eastern Europe that you think we should follow?
Of course, I’ll start with Trending Topics – it has everything that I follow and find interesting (laughs). But I would like to share an observation – lately, I’ve been noticing that mass media also talks about startups and tells the stories of people who have set out to do meaningful work.
Let’s end the interview with something from the heart.
Gather stories of and with great people 🙂
Can you relate to some of Alexandra’s thoughts? Do you want to share your own and fire up the discussion? Please do so by leaving a comment below 🙂 You can also go on the Facebook group People of Eastern Europe (#POEE) or contact me directly.
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