The President of Hungary, László Sólyom, visited Wellington on Sunday, 27th September as part of a four-day visit to New Zealand. The last time the President of Hungary visited New Zealand was on 1999 when Árpád Göncz came to our shores. I don’t want to write a lot about Sólyom’s visit or about what he said, or what he did. Sólyom is a somewhat controversial figure in Hungary and especially so given the toxic political environment there and he carries a reputation for being somewhat austere and remote almost. This is especially so in comparison to Göncz who was known affectionately in Hungarian as Árpi bácsi, which is the avuncular form of his name. And my memory of him was exactly that: the delightful, charming uncle of the family. He took an immediate fondness to our children, Zsófi and Gábor, when he met them we have a charming photo of him sitting on a couch, the children sitting either side of him, his arms stretched around each of them. Mind you, when Göncz had visited Melbourne, Australia, prior to coming here, one or two Hungarians had shouted “rat” at his speech to the strong local Hungarian community – a reference to his alleged informing on his fellow prisoners while in the Vác prison as a result of his anti-government activities in 1956. So as with anything Hungarian one must always be mindful of the shadows.
But back to Sólyom and his visit to Wellington. The highlight was a state luncheon in his honour, held in Parliament and hosted by the New Zealand government and the Magyar Millennium Park Trust, the organisation that manages the Hungarian Garden here. In a short ceremony at around noon, he laid a special paver in commemoration of his visit here and then proceeded, on foot, to Parliament Building, some 300 metres away, entourage in tow. The lunch was a success. There were speeches of course, but all were relevant, short and worth listening too, including that of course by His Excellency. There were also performances by various members of the local Hungarian community. The President was especially taken with the performance of the local children’s dance group and at the end of their performance gladly posed for a group photo with them. He looked genuinely happy to do so.
His speech was warm and to the point. Hungarians should preserve their culture and stick together as much as possible. He spoke in Hungarian but he had an interpreter for the English-only amongst the audience. ( I must say that the interpreter was sublime. He managed to convey the President’s words in perfect English with a warmth and sincerity that was appreciated by everyone. I understand he has been the English interperter for several Hungarian Prime Ministers and it is easy to see why. He is the best.) Sólyom was keen to hear of practical suggestions as to how Hungarians so far from their homeland can maintain their “Hungarianess” and offered to make himself available to those at the luncheon who wished to talk with him. And this he did. Many came up to him, spoke their piece, had their photograph taken with him, and moved on.
I was most impressed indeed at his openness and good manner in which he took it all. I am sure he gave many who spoke with him a good listening to. Anyone who knows Hungarians, will know that they are not shy about speaking their mind, not matter whom they are speaking with! The point here was that he made himself accessible to any and all who wanted to have a few words with him. Good on him, I say! He may not seem that charismatic on television or other media, but in person he came across as a warm, caring man. Perhaps he is not quite Laci bácsi, but nonetheless he is clearly a good man.
I am glad to have been part of his visit, and glad that he visited our shores, the most distant of any from Hungary.
Back to post. 1 László is the same as Leslie in English. It is probably of Slavic origin because in Czech and Russian the equivalent is Vladislav. In Hungarian the diminutive, Laci or Les in English, is most commonly used for anyone called László. Bácsi means Uncle so Laci bácsi literally means Uncle Les, but somehow in Hungarian, it sounds and means something much more affectionate and avuncular.