When someone mentions Hungary, what exactly comes to mind?
For those with some knowledge of the country, the word can suggest several different things: those who have travelled there might mention the luxurious spas and frenetic nightlife of its beautiful capital, Budapest; classical music aficionados will probably cite the wonderful classical melodies of the country’s most famous composer, Franz Liszt; history buffs will likely allude to the country’s frequently tragic, occasionally fraught, and invariably complicated past; and followers of contemporary politics might well use similar adjectives to describe the country’s present.
In short, for those of you who, like me, would probably have answered the above question with a curt “not much”, there is a significant amount to learn – and a lot to love – about a country of which so many Western citizens know so lamentably little.
Fortunately for us Brussels-dwellers, however, there is an institute located in the Belgian capital whose chief mandate is to address (at least of some of) this ignorance. It’s called the Balassi Institute – named after the Hungarian Renaissance poet, Bálint Balassi – and last week I was fortunate enough to meet with its Director, Zsófia Villegas-Vitézy, on its stylishly-designed premises near the centre of town, just off the Rue de la Loi.
Among other things, we discussed the history, nature and current activities of the Institute, and we also touched upon the upcoming annual flagship event, “HUNGAstRY”, which is scheduled to take place on June 29th-30th this year.
Thomas Moller-Nielsen: What is the purpose of the Balassi Institute?
Zsófia Villegas-Vitézy: Our goal is to promote general awareness and appreciation of Hungarian culture, including the Hungarian language, as well as Hungarian literature, music, and art. In short, our purpose is to engage in what is sometimes called ‘cultural diplomacy’ on behalf of the Hungarian people. We also frequently collaborate with EUNIC, the European Union National Institutes for Culture, an organisation of which the Balassi Institute is a member. EUNIC’s objective is to promote European culture in general around the world. Currently, I hold EUNIC Brussels’ rotating presidency, in addition to my present role as Director of the Balassi Institute.
TMN: How long has the Balassi Institute been in Brussels for?
ZVV: The institute has been around since 2004, and I joined it in 2013.
TMN: Interesting: the Institute opened in the same year that Hungary joined the European Union. Are the two events linked, by any chance?
ZVV: Yes. Belgium, and particularly Brussels, became strategically important to Hungary when we joined the European Union in 2004. Most countries of a similar size to Belgium, like the Netherlands or Switzerland, don’t have any such institutes. Well, actually there is one in Finland, but that’s because of the long-standing cultural ties between the two countries, particularly linguistic ties.
TMN: Where are the other Balassi Institutes located?
ZVV: There are several institutes in the countries bordering Hungary, including in Slovakia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia. The institutes aren’t there just because it is important for Hungary to foster genuine intercultural understanding between its close neighbours; they’re there because a lot of these countries have significant Hungarian minorities. However, our aim is not to cater solely to them; our goal is to promote Hungarian culture among all of the citizens in the countries where we are based.
In total, there are 24 Balassi Institutes around the world, located in 22 different counties in and outside the EU. There’s one in New York, one in New Delhi, one in Beijing, one in Cairo, one in Istanbul, and many others besides. It’s an old network: more than 100 years old, in fact. Originally, the institutes were usually focussed in major European cities, like Berlin, Vienna, and Rome. But after the end of the Cold War the scope of the institutes began to expand.
TMN: Who is it funded by?
ZVV: We are funded by the Hungarian government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, but we foster international cooperation and search for Hungarian and multilateral financial sources.
TMN: How does each institute decide what events or activities to offer?
ZVV: Every year, we get a list of performances or potential projects offered to us by the Headquarters in Budapest. But they’re really just recommendations. We try to tailor our programs to the specific environments and cultures that we happen to be located in; to adapt our programs to our local environments. In short, we have a huge amount of autonomy in terms of what we decide to do.
TMN: What kinds of activities or events does the Balassi Institute organise?
ZVV: Music events, art exhibitions, lectures and discussions, basically everything related Hungarian culture, history or traditions. We also offer language classes.
TMN: Who attends these activities and events?
ZVV: A lot of different kinds of people attend our events: Hungarians, friends of Hungarians, or just people who are generally interested in learning a bit more about Hungarian culture or are interested in the topics we offer.
For our language classes, we often get offspring of Hungarian parents whose Hungarian is not quite up to scratch, who want to become better at speaking the language. We also get quite a few people who have Hungarian spouses, as well as some Belgians who have bought a summer house in Hungary, and who are keen to learn some of the language so that when they return to Hungary they’re able to communicate. Finally, quite a few ‘language-collectors’ come to our classes: these are people who simply want to learn a Finno-Ugric language of some kind, to add to the ‘collection’ of languages they already know. I should emphasise, though, that absolutely anyone is welcome to attend our classes and events, regardless of their background or motivation.
TMN: When some people in the West think of Hungary today, they think Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, and his current political difficulties and differences with the EU. Is this something that has proved to be a problem for you?
ZVV: We’re not a political institution, but a cultural one. We want to show people what Hungarian culture has to offer, in a broad sense, regardless of one’s political beliefs. As you don’t go to the opera to see political debates, you don’t visit a foreign cultural institute to dispute about the actual government or certain politicians of the respective country. There are many other places where you can do this – we are in Brussels after all.
TMN: Can you tell us a little bit about HUNGAstRY?
ZVV: It’s an annual festival, now in its fourth year, jointly organised by us and by the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the EU. This year it will take place on the weekend of the 29th-30th of June, in Cinquantenaire Park. The year of the festival’s launch, 2016, was a particularly special year for Hungarians, as it was the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against Soviet control of the country. However, I should emphasise that HUNGAstRY’s purpose is not political; it’s designed specifically to promote Hungarian culture, including gastronomical culture. Goulash, lángos, but other less well-known examples of Hungarian cuisine will be readily available, as well as excellent Hungarian wines. It will also feature music of all genres from folk to electric and even folk dancing lessons, for those who are keen to learn.
TMN: How popular has the festival proved to be over the years?
ZVV: Very popular. More than 5,000 people turned up to the inaugural HUNGAstRY back in 2016, and last year we had more than 10,000 people attend.
TMN: Why the focus on food, though? I mean, Hungary is also well-known for many other things: its spas, its history, its music, its literature.
ZVV: Well, you will have a chance to enjoy our music at the festival, and to take part in activities celebrating Hungarian culture and history. The founder is the Hungarian Ambassador to the EU, and the programs and the structure of the festival are based upon his ideas. But no doubt, food and wine are things that everyone tend to enjoy – and by sharing them people usually end up liking each other a lot more.
For further details about the Balassi Institute and its upcoming events and activities, please go to its website.
For more information about HUNGAstRY, click here.