Made in Hungary, born in India

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Interview with László Várkonyi, Lecturer at the Department of International Studies at IBS.

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The first thing that hit my eye in your CV was that you were born in Bombay. That is not very common for a Hungarian. Can you say something about it?

László Várkonyi: Of course, my parents were Hungarians. My father was a diplomat. He was the first Commercial Counselor of Hungary to India that had just gained independence. He was posted to Bombay which was (and still is) the commercial centre of that country. His mission was to establish trade contacts between the two friendly states. My mother used to say I was made in Hungary but born in India since she was already pregnant when they left for Bombay.

So, you continue a family tradition.

Well, in a way, yes. My father was more into business, as he was dealing with commerce, and I was more into diplomacy. But we both were holding diplomatic passports.

I know you have two adult kids, are they continuing this family line?

No way! My son is 29 and he works for IBM, actually he graduated here, at IBS and he is in London at the moment. My daughter is 30, she is a lawyer and she has got her own little law firm in Budapest.

How long have you been teaching at IBS? 

This is my fourth year.

It seems that before IBS you also had a very adventurous life, you traveled a lot, you met interesting people, I assume. 

I graduated in Budapest at the University of Economics and after finishing my studies I entered the Foreign Service right away. During the four decades of my diplomatic career I went up the compulsory ladder gradually. I was posted to several countries, starting in India as a junior diplomat, and then I was in London as a press attaché. Later I was appointed an Ambassador, and my first ambassadorial post was in India, again. So I was born there, spent a part of my childhood there, and then I went back as a young diplomat and later for the third time I went back as an Ambassador. After having spent altogether almost 15 years there, I consider India my second home.

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Does India have special place in your teaching?

You cannot talk about any aspect of human civilization without mentioning India. And yes, I like to talk about that country and about my own experiences over there. But, of course, I have a lot of experiences in other parts of the world as well. I have been to almost 100 countries and I have seen many different cultures. I think that it is a great advantage in my teaching. I always warn my students of the dangers of having a Euro-centric view of the world. Europe is but a small peninsula. We must look at the global world with the eyes of others, too. In one of my latest seminars, I showed my students a map of New Zealand. This was the map that I saw at the airport of Wellington when I landed there. You could see Asia-Pacific on the west side, Latin America on the east. And of course, you could see New Zealand in the middle as the centre of the world. This is also one angle with all its implications.

What do you teach now? 

I teach different subjects. Last semester I was teaching Political Economy of the European Union as well as Cross Cultural Management. The next semester I am going to teach World Business Geography, Social Environment for Business, and also Introduction to Political Science for first year students.

So how would you define your field of study? 

Everything that is connected to politics and international relations. I was part of the political life and I was also part of foreign affairs. I find that students appreciate when I talk about my practical, real life experiences that I gathered in these spheres.

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What do you think is the hottest issue in your field now?

In politics and diplomacy you have a hot issue every day. But to look at it from a bigger distance, I would say that the European Union is really intriguing me. Europe is at crossroads, and there are no easy answers to the crucial issues Europe has to face. In the classroom we have heated debates with the students about these issues. And even if we don’t come to a conclusion I enjoy these discussions a lot.

Do you have a hobby?

I like to read easy stuff, criminal stories, watch films. I love all kinds of sports, both watching and doing sports. I swim everyday and I play tennis three times a week.

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 I am sure you met many interesting, sort of “famous” people. Can you tell a story, an interesting meeting with an interesting person? 

I really did meet quite a few famous people. I would rather tell you a different type of meeting though. It happened in India which is an incredible place. So many strange things may happen to you there.  It was not long after my first arrival to New Delhi. As a young diplomat I was not familiar with the place, neither with the people. Attending a diplomatic reception I was standing with a glass of wine in my hand when someone came up to me. He was not well dressed, to say the least. His shirt was dirty, his suit worn out. He was not shaved, and somehow he seemed rather neglected. If I had met him in the street I probably would have taken him for a beggar and would have given him some money. He started to talk to me and asked where I came from.  After hearing I was from Hungary, he asked me, „What do Hungarians think about Ferenc Deák* these days?” I was really shocked; I  did not want to believe my ears. It turned out that he was a university professor dealing with East European affairs. No matter whether you deal with diplomacy, politics, cross cultural management, anything, this is a story you can learn a lot from. *Ferenc Deák was a 19th century Hungarian statesman, also called "The Wise Man of the Nation".Deák tér is called after him. Read more.