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An Ambassador Falling in Love with Hungary – Interview with Iain Lindsay, the United Kingdom’s Ambassador to Hungary

Fanni Kaszás 2020.08.21.

Iain Lindsay, the British Ambassador to Hungary, with his vibrant social media presencekeen interest in Hungarian culture, as well as outstanding Hungarian, is one of the more colorful members of the Budapest diplomatic corps. He is leaving his office in Hungary at the end of summer, as well as his diplomatic service at the British Foreign Office after 40 years of working there. Hungary Today had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with Ambassador Lindsay and talk about Brexit, coronavirus, his time in Hungary, and his lovely Hungarian dog, Juno. 

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Are you sick at heart about having to leave Hungary behind?

Yes, absolutely. Hungary has become a very special place for me. I have lived and worked in many countries, I have been to Japan twice, so that’s obviously a very special place as well, but I think particularly here, particularly learning the language, and sort of really becoming attached to Hungarian culture, Hungarian people, and everything Hungarian, that has been very special. That makes a big difference, I think in terms of learning the language and getting a view of the country. But again, it is not the case for saying goodbye, it is very much a case of viszontlátásra, see you soon! Although living here is very different from visiting the place. I had a fantastic time here, really enjoyed it, and try to make every moment now last as long as possible.

photo: Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

How would you promote Hungary as an unofficial ambassador once you return back to the UK? The country has quite a controversial reputation in Western Europe.

The word I mostly use in connection with Hungary or Hungarians is vendégszeretet, the concept of welcome, of hospitality. When I was studying at the Hungarian course, the only people who knew I was an ambassador were my hosting family, so I could get a feeling of the country and the people. And even in Budapest on the weekend, maybe some people recognize me, but 99% of them don’t know who I am. So I think I can get a pretty good idea of the real Hungary. It has a unique culture, you are not Latins, not Slavs, not Germanic. You have your own culture, your own roots… As a Scottish person, I can see the similarities and I have particular empathy for this, you know, looking after and promoting your own culture. And there’s a lot to promote, to show what the people, the country and the culture is like. But I think something, which is uniquely Hungarian, is Balaton. For us, British people it is hard to understand the lake-life in the summer. We obviously have lakes in the UK, beautiful places, but with our climate, you would never really think about going in, and we don’t have vineyards around the lakes. It took me about a year to understand Balaton.

Why did you apply to this position in 2016? Why Hungary?

In the British system, the jobs come up every 3 or 4 years and we usually apply for a job 1,5 year before it starts. In my case, it was a whole year before the mandatory language training started. So I applied for the job in August 2014. Over the course of two or three months, a couple of jobs came up, and this one particularly appealed to me for several reasons. First of all, I have already worked in Romania and Poland, so I knew the region, I had been to Budapest in 2004, and I liked what I saw. The city was beautiful and I also know that this house [the Scitovszky villa, a beautiful neo-baroque building on the Buda side of the city – editor] came with the job… In the British system, most of the ambassadors will have to learn the language of the country they are working in. For Hungary, it was part of the job description that you have to learn Hungarian before you came here. I was happy about it, I have learned Romanian, Japanese… I knew Hungarian was a difficult European language, but I like learning languages and I’m very happy I did so.

photo: Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

You started your time as an ambassador with Brexit, and now you end it with coronavirus. Let’s connect the two: Brexit and coronavirus obviously made life more difficult for Hungarians in the UK and it also kind of robbed students of the last year when they can study in England with student loans as EU students… What advice would you give to them?

The UK is a global country and London is Europe’s capital city. It’s a hub. Many people went there to live and work, and many have stayed. Hungary has the third largest community in the UK.  Some people came back, but the numbers are still gradually growing, because it still offers a lot in terms of work, experience… and for young Hungarians, who are studying in the UK, where ten of the top universities of the world are located, it is a wonderful opportunity to connect globally. The reality is that Britain will still be a very welcoming and exciting place even after Brexit. Obviously, after the end of this year, we will have our own immigration system, there’ll not be automatic entry to work in the UK, but I still think that many Hungarians who want to gain experience, will come to Britain. The change in the fees for students will also happen from September-October next year, but the UK education is high class and leaving a British university with a degree has its international kudos, so it still worth it to study there. And for Hungarians, I think, London is sort of a gateway, which has great connectivity, people can build up a global network there. For some people this will be important in the future as well. So, I hope we will still see young, bright Hungarians go to study in the UK and also Hungarians go to work in the UK. It sure will be different, not just a case of ‘you can come in’… But Hungarians are a great addition to the country, and I hope they will continue to do so.

So you don’t really see a trend among Hungarians that they are coming back due to coronavirus? Many can work from home, many lost their jobs and it is expensive to make ends meet in the UK… I see young Hungarians moving back either temporarily or permanently.

I don’t really see it. Some may come back, but then there will be other people, particularly once the situation gets better, who will try and see if they can get into the UK. Obviously, coronavirus had a huge impact on the country economically and socially, but I see it hopefully, as a short period, where things are difficult for everyone… but things can return to normal, when we get a vaccine. So hopefully, this is just a short term blip.

photo: Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

You said that Hungarians are good additions to the country… What did they contribute to the British economy?

When you think about students, there is no doubt that there are a lot of incredibly bright and clever young Hungarians in the UK. One of the reason they are going to the top universities, is because they are extraordinarily talented and want to go to a global university with a global reputation where hopefully their potential can be fulfilled. Then, in terms of workers, there are a lot of Hungarians in the white collar sector and in hospitality, much more than from other countries. You not going to find very many Hungarians working in fruit farms, or picking vegetables. Many of them are working in business, or in the hospitality sector, and it also goes back to what I said before: vendégszeretet. One of Hungary’s unique selling point is their hospitality, so they are obviously making a lot of contribution there. I was in a restaurant here in Budapest a couple of weeks ago and the head chef spent 17 years in the UK and almost all of the waiters also worked there for shorter or longer terms. Hungarians are also a great addition to our education. And not just those who arrived to the UK after Hungary joined the EU in 2004, but before that, the ‘56ers, for example. Many of them went on to leading positions in business, academics, medicine, economics, culture and politics. So, Hungary has a strong reputation in the UK of being achievers and I don’t see that changing. Especially with the many young Hungarian entrepreneurs and their growing start-up companies in the financial technology sector.

What are the things that you have accomplished during your ambassadorship that you are most proud of?

From the moment the results of the Brexit referendum was out, a lot of Hungarians were sad, some were angry and disappointed. Hungary was losing one of its best friends in Europe, as David Cameron and Viktor Orbán developed a very strong personal relation. But despite this, and Brexit, Hungary has been probably the most supportive, empathetic, respectful, constructive, positive European Union member state and we have actually managed to develop a much stronger bilateral relationship, particularly on the defence and economic side. When I arrived, there wasn’t much of a relationship, but now we have got a strong one. With some countries in Europe, our relationship has not been good during this time, there has been resentment after the referendum. But in September 2016, Viktor Orbán said to me and he repeated it in the Parliament, that he is not worried about the UK, he is rather worried about the rest of Europe. And ever since then, Hungarians always said that the EU did not really consider why did Britain leave, they just wanted to punish Britain. For me, it’s not just a case of seeing this relationship as an achievement, but also a massive gratitude towards Hungary from myself, my colleagues and the UK.

photo: Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

In addition, during my time here, I was awarded a prize by the Jewish community of Hungary for my work supporting them here. I am very proud of that as well… but it sounds like promoting myself, so I would rather say, I am very happy with the work I have done with the Jewish community here and especially with keeping the legacy of Jane Haining alive in Hungary. I think there are more people now who know who this brave Scottish woman was, who came to Hungary and gave her life for Jewish Hungarians. I am also proud of what I achieved with my Instagram account, but again, it is also a shared achievement. My team promoted me since I arrived to the country and helped me a lot showing that I am, like most British ambassadors, a very normal, down-to-earth person. Instagram is also great for people just to see that well, jokingly, how ‘hard’ the life of a Budapest ambassador is.

Yes, your Instagram, you going to Sziget every year, using public transport, reciting Hungarian poems to show people that you are kind of a ‘laza’, a cool ambassador… Is it really a British thing or just you?

I think it is a genuinely British thing. Our diplomats are quite modern, we can’t just rely on the past, or typical pictures people connect with Britain: the Queen, red telephone boxes, double deckers and so on… We are a very modern, very open and diverse country. We take it seriously to promote the reality of Britain, the diversity of the country. I promote our music, multi-cultural society, cutting-edge art, you know, such as Banksy… But at the same time, I do promote the Queen, Buckingham Palace and red telephone boxes as well. It’s the old and new. I can do the traditional stuff, promoting this house, the paintings we got, but I also went to Sziget, I lead the pride parade, I sponsored a beer festival… At the weekends, I go down to Fény utca market, I use the bus, the tram, I have a pretty normal lifestyle and it is nice to show people that this is who I am, this is what I do. And I get great feedback, they appreciate the fact that I am an ambassador, who is quite down-to-earth. [The Ambassador’s dog, Juno appears at the door, barking] This is my dog, Juno, she cannot understand why she cannot come in.

photo: Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

You adopted her from a shelter in Érd, right? Why did you choose a Hungarian rescue dog?

Yes, the shelter is in Érd, but she was rescued from the Lyukóvölgy, near Miskolc. She was found as a three or four months old puppy, scared, and badly injured. As I recorded on Instagram, from the first day we met her, she went from – rather like in the book – from pauper to the princess, from rags to riches. She is a lovely dog. People usually ask which breed is she, but I always say ‘egy utcai vegyes,’ a Hungarian, or a Miskolc mongrel, a mix. We wanted to adopt a dog after our cat died, but travelling around the world with a dog is harder than with a cat. Our cat travelled with us from Romania to Hong Kong, Bahrain and Hungary… But this is the last time for me as a diplomat, so we got a dog here. Although first we looked for Hungarian breeds, such as vizsla, pumi, mudi, but there are so many dogs who need home, so we chose her.

photo: Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

What’s next? Where do you go with your family and Juno? You said this was your last job as a diplomat.

Yes, I am here until September. Then I retire from the Foreign Office in October, because September 8th is the 40th anniversary of me joining it as a diplomat… Quite a different world, a long time ago. I’ve been overseas basically since 2003, so although I love London, I don’t really want to go back to work there. I hope I will be going back to the Arabian Gulf to work privately there, that’s my plan. And Juno will become a travelling dog.

How did you spend your last months here in Hungary?

This is not the scenario that I would have wanted. It started really badly, because within about two weeks of the start of the coronavirus, my deputy [Steven Dick] died. He returned from his first holiday in months. That was a terrible tragedy for me, my staff, the embassy, and the whole British community. He had spent 13 months learning Hungarian, he spoke it better than me. He made a huge, positive impact, Hungarians were amazed at his language skills. We’ll never really recover from that. It was more difficult because of the fact that from the middle of March, until early to mid-June, all of us were working from home and it was really hard to show empathy virtually. There are great platforms to keep contact, but at the end of the day, they are too two-dimensional. It’s not three dimensional, not physical contact. That was really challenging. And also sending him, his body back and keeping contact with the family, his parents. A couple of weeks ago, I went down to Zala Springs Golf Club to a charity golf competition. It was the Steven Dick Memorial Golf Tournament. It raised more than 2 million forints for the Foundation for Saving Premature Babies and Paediatric Intensive Care in Zalaegerszeg. They showed a film of him I haven’t seen before, he was talking in Hungarian at a charity ball… it was really moving.

I think, the whole situation is getting better since early June, when Hungary started coming out of lockdown. I suppose from there, life became easier, we could start to work at the Embassy again. I remember going down to the Balaton, to my favorite area, Balatonfelvidék. It was the first time I was outside of Budapest in three months, and it was so strange, like seeing the countryside for the first time. It was also lovely to see my friends and have a normal life again.

photo: Attila Lambert/Hungary Today

Your videos in which you are reciting poems are incredibly popular on your social media sites. How did the idea come to read Hungarian poetry?

I had seven-eight months of full time, intensive Hungarian training in Pécs, Debrecen and London. Then, I had a nine months hiatus, when I had no Hungarian lessons, because of Brexit, which, like a tsunami, swept over me and the embassy. I had no time, but I still had to take my language exam, so I decided to start again. I found that poetry was more accessible for me, and I started reciting poetry and since then, on every occasion – the day of Hungarian poetry, or an anniversary, the birth of someone, the death of someone, I recite something. The last one was the anniversary of Péter Esterházy’s death on the 14th of July. My favourite is Milyen volt szőkesége by Gyula Juhász.

 

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Hihetetlen, de már 4 éve, hogy Esterházy Péter elment… Ma az egyik kedvenc kötetemből, A kitömött hattyúból olvasok fel nektek egy részletet, én ezzel emlékezem. It’s unbelievable that Péter Esterházy passed away 4 years ago today… so I decided to recite one of my favourite passages from his books to mark the day . . . . . #Esterhazy #reading #literature #LiteratureisGREAT #remembering #hunagrianliterature #irodalom #magyarirodalom #mik #magyarinsta #Hungary #hungarytoday #hungarytravel #explorehungary #beautifulhungary #ilovehungary #welovehungary #discoverhungary #lovehungary #hungary #ikozosseg #ikozosseghungary #instahun #igershungary #magyarig #ig_hungary #mindekozben

A post shared by Lindsay Nagykövet (@ambassadorlindsay) on

Will you send one last poem to your Hungarian fans before you leave the country?

Oh yes, definitely. Maybe a poem by Attila József, or Miklós Radnóti. And later on, I would like to continue too, because I will not lose my love for Hungarian culture. What you may see on Instagram later, will be a lot more memories of Hungary and me keeping up with my Hungarian.

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Photos and featured photo: Attila Lambert/Hungary Today