My love affair with Hungary began in 2004. I was then the Deputy Ambassador at the British Embassy in Bucharest, Romania. I had never been to Hungary, although Budapest had captured my imagination for many years. In the summer of that year, we drove across Europe from Romania, holidaying en-route in Croatia and Italy, and then putting our son, Calum, into boarding school in England. I had to fly back to Bucharest for work leaving my wife, Bridget and our car. We agreed that we would meet in Budapest after she had driven across Western Europe, so that I could drive us back through Romania to Bucharest, then a difficult day-long journey with no expressway in Romania.
First visit to Budapest
I got the overnight train from Bucharest to Budapest (an experience!), arriving at Keleti Pályaudvar station on a beautiful early Saturday morning in September. The first thing I noticed when I got off the train was the language. I looked at the adverts around the station and I wondered what planet I had arrived on, so foreign seemed the words. That day we visited the Vár (the Buda Castle), which was just beautiful, and saw for the first time the magnificent views over the Danube, in particular towards the incredibly impressive parliament building. The annual wine festival was taking place, my first introduction to what I consider to be one of the great secrets of Hungary, its wines (of every variety). We very much enjoyed our first day in this stunning city. The following morning, we drove back to Bucharest. But my appetite had been whetted.
The Hungarian job
Roll on to autumn 2014. I was by then the British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain. Due to leave in the summer of 2015, I was applying for further ambassadorial jobs. I couldn’t believe my luck when the job of Ambassador to Hungary came up. I should explain at this point that in the British Foreign Office all jobs at all levels, including Ambassador, are advertised and decided by open competition (i.e. no backroom deals, no decisions by faceless bureaucrats in HQ). I sent in my application, essentially my manifesto for how I would do the job and what I would bring by way of skills, was interviewed and, hey presto!, I was selected for the job. I was delighted!
But part of the job specification was, as is the case with virtually every single British ambassadorial position in a non-English speaking country, that I had to learn the language to C1/felsőfokú (advanced) level before I arrived in Budapest in March 2016. In the British Foreign Office we take our language training really seriously. Our timelines for applying for jobs take into account the amount of full-time training required to reach the required level of the local language. For Hungarian, this is about 13 months of full-time language training. I had previously learned Japanese and Romanian on a full-time basis with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) so, I had a reasonable idea of what to expect. But I learned Japanese when I was 22 and Romanian when I was 43. Learning a foreign language in your 50s isn’t so easy!
In the Tower of Babel
I had two lovely and incredibly patient teachers, both Hungarians who had lived in the UK for many years; one, for example, was a journalist who had worked for the BBC and Magyar Rádió. Every day I would have a three- or four-hour lesson, surrounded by
fellow diplomats learning languages from Chinese to Spanish, Japanese to Swahili, Arabic to Hindi. Sitting in the middle of the language center was like being in a Tower of Babel, hearing snatches of foreign languages every minute!
The Hungarian language syllabus I followed was MagyarOK, the award-winning program developed by Pécs University Medical Faculty. My full-time language training in London lasted five months during which I passed the A2 and B2 exams, the latter just a few days before flying to Hungary for two months of intensive training, first at Pécs University and then at the Nyári Egyetem (summer university) in Debrecen. So, what does intensive language immersion training entail? Well, in both places, I stayed with wonderful homestay families, eating meals with them and spending much of my free time with them. I got to learn much more than the language, which is, of course, a major reason for investing in in-country language training. It’s about getting under the skin of a country. I got to know about the people, the culture, the history, the cuisine and, of course, the wine!
In both Pécs and Debrecen I had 4-5 hour lessons each day, augmented by a few meetings (in Hungarian!) each week with local dignitaries as well as cultural events and visits. At the end of my first week in Pécs, I was totally exhausted by having to understand Hungarian every minute of the day. As I used to say: “Reggeliztem, ebédeltem és vacsoráztam magyarul, és még álmodtam is magyarul!” Or, “I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in Hungarian, and even dreamt in Hungarian, too”! But also, there is a huge difference between one-to-one tuition and group tuition. The former is much more tiring. In a group, when you feel frazzled you can ‘hide’ behind another student. When it’s one-to-one there is no hiding place!
A difficult language?
People talk about Hungarian being a difficult language to learn. Yes and no. Objectively speaking, Hungarian is one of the most difficult European languages, along with Finnish and Estonian. I now know that Hungarian grammar is more difficult than Japanese grammar, although Japanese as a whole is a far more difficult language. And the concept of word order is not something we are familiar with in English. But, contrary to the views of many Hungarians I meet, Hungarian is a pretty logical language. Not least the pronunciation which, unlike English, does not vary. But seven months is not enough time to learn Hungarian to C1 level. However, shortly after I arrived in Budapest in March 2016, the Brexit referendum in the UK took place and with all the work related to that I had a hiatus of several months in my Hungarian studies. However, in the British Foreign Office language system, you must take the exam of the level to which you have committed, so, I restarted learning Hungarian with regular lessons. Even then, I still needed to go back to Pécs for a two-week cramming course immediately prior to my exam in September 2017. I passed the exam except for the listening part which I had to re-sit the following spring. Somehow, I managed to pass that, as well! And so, I use Hungarian on an everyday basis. I give speeches in Hungarian, including recently to Hungarian language teachers! That was like an exam! I give interviews in Hungarian, although, not all the time. If I am giving a TV or radio interview in English, I like to speak Hungarian at some stage in the interview. And, as part of the Embassy’s very strong social media presence in Hungary, I make a lot of videos in Hungarian, on a range of issues, from Brexit to poetry! My most memorable moments included speaking Hungarian to music at a concert at MÜPA; giving a speech in the town square in Nyíregyháza to hundreds of Hungarian soldiers and the Defense Minister; doing a live interview about my exam on Music FM and reciting Petőfi Sándor’s ‘Nemzeti Dal’ on March 15. In summary, it has been wonderful to learn this beautiful language and – through the language – to get to know this lovely country and its great people. Hajrá!