If you asked me to characterize my field of study a year ago, I would have said that it is as ‘European’ as you can imagine – with French and German as languages, and the rest in English: an analysis of EU structures, European law, the heritage of European philosophy (Locke, Hume, Kant and Rousseau), and in history, the French Revolution or the Congress of Vienna thoroughly discussed. We have indeed studied all of this.

However, as I was crossing Europe last summer to volunteer in Romania, it occurred to me that the history of for example the Slovak-Hungarian town Kosice is probably just as interesting as the history of the German-French Strasbourg, with the difference that there is no EU institution residing in Kosice, and we don’t learn about it.

I decided to change major language and gained thereby the privilege of having lessons on the last floor on SSEES (School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies), a top institute founded a century ago by Masaryk (as discussed in my first blog). There, I would have one-to-one lessons with an enthusiastic linguist who would sometimes translate the vocabulary into Czech for me, as she had also studied the language, and because Hungarian and Czech are in many ways resembling each other as a result of a long history of German influence, shared Central European realities and similar rejuvenation tendencies. When she left for maternity leave, I was again very pleasantly surprised; this time, by a lady who apart from me (her only pupil at UCL) was teaching also the to-be-Ambassador of the UK in Budapest. She did not speak Czech, but we could translate some words into the more similar German instead of English, and would I unwittingly discover that she had translated Orwell’s Animal Farm into Hungarian as a samizdat, for instance.

While in French lessons, we learnt about global issues and our vocabulary was focused on the environment and ecology, in Hungarian textbooks, I could read about Vienna, Prague and Budapest and I was afforded the time (also thanks to other linguistically-focused modules and great teachers) to analyse studied words, and finally write essays explaining that Hungarian isn’t quite as untouched by Slavonic languages, or what the impacts of a political drive to purify a language can be, and why the uniqueness of a language is desired so much. Even in the most negligible words like numerals, there was an ancient Persian influence waiting to be discovered, then the undeniable legacy of the Ottomans, the Slavonic peoples…and my study of language naturally turned into the study of history, diplomacy and politics, this time perceived from a different angle and with an enlarged capacity for understanding, for Hungarian sources began to open before me, by which I mean not only the media, but also friends and acquaintances who had welcomed me amongst them as a fresh Hungarophile. For instance, half a year after starting the language, I was invited to a book launch of a contemporary Hungarian writer who had just published her translation in London.

If you asked me now, after my first year, about the content of my degree, I would answer again: ‘European Studies, as ‘European’ as you can imagine’. Thanks to having had complementary subjects to both French and Hungarian (my major languages), I could strive to embrace Europe with all that I love about her. But I did not want to learn only about her. There were times when learning vocabulary became a desired change after studying complex theories of the historiography of the French Revolution or reading long texts of European philosophy mentioned in the first paragraph. At other times, after an intensive two-hour session which my teacher had made into a three-hour one, I suffered in Hungarian dreams and sat bent over declination of unpronounceable verbs long into the night. One morning, waiting in the corridor and hearing a group of British students discussing Hungarian politics in lesson, I realised I could have been learning about Hungary rather than learning Hungarian, but I have never regretted that I had taken the trouble of learning seventeen cases. It has led me towards fascinating reflections and brought me into contact with unforeseen grammatical structures, tendencies that had existed in Hungarian culture (and thus to an extent also in politics) for centuries, I was brought into contact with people who were not afraid to talk to me concretely and share with me articles and posters that were never translated…until I learnt to translate them myself.


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