ELTE People from Distant Lands – An interview with Dr. Aleksander Urkom

ELTE People from Distant Lands –  An interview with Dr. Aleksander Urkom
As part of our interview series, this time we interviewed Dr. Aleksander Urkom (Faculty of Humanities 2000, 2006), habilitated associate professor at the ELTE Faculty of Humanities, Institute of Slavonic Philology, head of the Department of Serbian Language and Literature, about his university experiences, his ties with ELTE, his professional life, and his relationship to Hungarian culture.

How did you arrive in Hungary? Why did you choose our university?

Life brought me to this land in the year of Our Lord 1992. :) A civil war was raging nearby: the Serbs attacked the Croats, the Croats attacked the Serbs, and then the Muslims were not spared, but neither did they fail to retaliate. Former Yugoslavia simply became hell. Thus, anyone who had the possibility fled from there. My family also decided to do so. We had to leave. Pest was not a good place in the 1990s, either. It was a melting pot not only for decent people who fled Yugoslavia, but also for many criminals coming from Ukraine, Russia, and Romania, as well as Arabs and people from many other countries. They all gathered in the same place. So, I just exchanged one hell for another. However, there was ELTE, too. This university was a bright star to me. It represented for me both the realm of knowledge and a refuge from the prosaic reality of everyday life. It meant so much to me that I could study and was not forced to sell drugs on the streets. Many of my friends were not as lucky as I was at that time. That's how I started Serbian Studies, even though I could not speak Hungarian back then.

Did you like university life at ELTE?

At that time, the Faculty of Humanities, including our department, was located in the Piarist building on Váci Street. Every inch of the campus gave the impression that great things were taking place there. Young people had heated debates in the corridors and discussed important topics in the cafeteria. The whole building was bustling with people. There was always a concert, a book presentation, or some other events somewhere. I also felt that I had become a part of something major. In the beginning, however, I wasn't able to participate in many things because I didn't speak the language, so I went to classes during the day and kept memorising Hungarian words and phrases throughout the evenings and nights. As I started to speak the language better and better, I went to more and more places. I started to get more actively involved in university life.

Were you satisfied with what you learnt at our university?

Since I came to ELTE as a native speaker of Serbian, I could focus primarily on broadening my professional knowledge rather than learning the Serbian language. Furthermore, learning the Hungarian language was a real challenge for me. It is common knowledge that this alien language is extremely difficult to learn, and a foreigner can probably never master it. So, while my classmates were learning the Serbian language, I had more time to get engaged in specialist topics, and my teachers shortly realised that. They always expected more from me and were stricter when marking my papers. I was often given a bad mark because of one or two misplaced commas. :) However, it meant a lot to me that my teachers did not spare me or favour me, but pushed me harder than my classmates and thus helped me to develop according to my potential.

Was any professor who has greatly contributed to your career?

I believe that in the life of every student, there are one or two special, particularly important teachers who leave them with a lasting impression with their personality, attitude, and inner energy, and who largely define the student’s later success. For me, this was an extraordinary person, our good old Uncle Micko. :) When I got into university, rumour already had it that Dimitrije Stefanović (Uncle Micko) was probably older than the University itself. However, I had the special honour of being also his direct colleague for a few years, until his retirement. He was the one who failed me because of one comma, and when I asked him to justify the evaluation of my paper, he only replied “Mr. Urkom, I expected more from you.” :) At the same time, he was also the one who trusted me all the way and encouraged me to continue my studies. He believed that I could have a position at such a great university.

Do you have any favourite university memory or experience from the time when you were an ELTE student?

Well, I wouldn’t go into detail about how many times I fell head over heels in love with one or another fellow student of mine, but in addition to love, perhaps the “Slavic Christmas”, a tradition that continues to this day, is part of my memories that I would never forget. I will always remember the clumsiness of the students trying to imitate difficult dance moves, as well as the teachers’ singing out of tune when they had to perform songs. We have held this event every year since then, in the same funny way, with blunders, and false notes, but I can see that these events also make the eyes of today’s students shine, and they too need such experiences, memories for their future selves.

What is your experience with the Hungarian language? What was the hardest thing for you to learn?

Are you kidding? Is there anything easy about this language at all? I think Hungarian is one of the most beautiful languages in the world. First of all, I've already learnt this, and a language that I don't know and don't speak will never be so nice for me. Secondly, for a foreigner, to learn this language is like climbing Mount Everest. Only when you get to the top can you really see how breathtaking the scenery is. The Hungarian language is just like that. It is incredibly difficult to climb this mountain, but if you succeed, you can’t help falling in love with it. This is exactly what happened to me. So, my advice to all my fellow language learners is this: Take courage! It is worth the effort!

Which major cultural difference was the hardest for you to get accustomed to?

Things have changed a lot by now. When I arrived here, the Hungarians were a weary, depressed, reserved nation. It was very difficult to make friends with them. They were rather distant with foreigners. They were mainly driving Trabants and Ladas, and almost everyone was dressed in grey. The world has changed a lot by now and today's Hungarians are so much different. That's why it's so hard to tell. What once annoyed me may no longer exist, and vice versa, what I used to be fond of may have completely disappeared by now. But let me give you one example. :) The whisper!!! Compared to people living in the Balkans, today’s Hungarians still whisper. They never shout. They don’t even speak loudly. It’s such a huge cultural difference that I still cannot understand. Moreover, since I need to communicate in both Hungarian and Serbian, my daughters often tell me that I tend to shout when I call a Serbian acquaintance and whisper when I call a Hungarian one. Isn't it weird? However, that may be gradually changing, as well. Today's Hungarians are getting louder. :)

What is the image of Hungary in your home country? / To what extent are the Serbs familiar with the Hungarian language and culture?

This is a very interesting question, and also a complex one. The two nations have lived side by side for more than a thousand years. There was war. There was love. There were good and a lot of bad things. We have sad memories that can never be forgotten, but fantastic events took place, as well. So, we share many things. Moreover, many Hungarians live in Serbia, and there are some Serbs in Hungary, too. So they can (or could) also have an impact on the relationship between the two nations. The truth is that in Serbia only those learn the Hungarian language who really have to or who are threatened with a whip. This is easy to understand though. Hungarian is a difficult language. As a result, the Serbs generally encounter the Hungarian culture indirectly, either through the Hungarian minority or mediated by a third nation. I can’t tell which is worse. :) However, there are also some – the adventure-seekers – who experience the world themselves, and then they carry the reputation of Hungarians back to Serbia. Nearly everyone has read the novel “Dečaci Pavlove Ulice”, but people are usually surprised when I say that Ferenc Molnár was a Hungarian writer. At the same time, there are also works authored by Hungarian writers that are mainly read in Serbian translation, and overlooked in Hungary for some reason. In general, the impression of Hungarians is largely positive. However, the relationship between Hungarians and Serbs must be nurtured continuously. We live too close to each other to forget how important this friendship is. :)

How often do you visit your home country?

A part of my family still lives in Serbia. They are rather relatives, but we try to maintain good relations. Therefore, I often go to Serbia to visit relatives. In addition, of course, I often go there on official trips, either to attend a conference or to give a lecture. My tasks also include maintaining contact with Serbian universities, starting joint projects, inviting researchers to give lectures and attend conferences, as well as helping students to come from Serbia to Hungary, and the other way round.

What do you miss about your home country the most?

Perhaps, that you can make lifelong friendships there in about five minutes, and this can only happen in the Balkans. I also miss, of course, all the delicacies that not only Serbia is widely known for but the entire region, too.

According to your experience, are there more university students interested in your country/culture/language these days?

I think we are slowly reaching the end of a period when the bad boys in Hollywood movies are necessarily Russians, Ukrainians, or Serbs. Additionally, more and more Hungarians dare to travel to Serbia. They experience that the Serbs don’t eat people and that there are also beautiful girls and handsome boys there. The country also offers sights to see and fantastic food to enjoy. This is why I think that there is an increasing interest in the country. Many people are starting to learn the Serbian language, and play the music and cook the food of the Serbs. Of course, it takes time for people to leave historical stereotypes behind. This requires the work of many people, such as teachers, journalists, actors, and cooks. Everyone should strengthen the relationship between these two nations and cultures in their own fields. What we are experiencing here at the university is that there is an incessant interest in Serbian Studies, for which we are very grateful. We are doing our best to offer high-standard education and adequate knowledge to the students coming here. We are also encouraging them to take the first step towards the other language and culture.

What would be your advice to university students who hesitate to go and study abroad?

Well, I could use big words here, but the point is that it really is a now-or-never situation. During the years spent at university, one has time to discover a new world. That will never be available for free. Once the students finish university, believe me, they will have to focus on many other things in life, and the opportunity to experience the unknown carefree, young, and on their own will never return. If you ask me, I would also make it mandatory for students to spend at least one semester somewhere else in the world before obtaining a degree. The study abroad period can of course be shorter or longer, but it is definitely worth it. I always tell my students to travel to Serbia, because only there will they truly understand the things they hear from me.

Since 2007, you have been teaching at the ELTE Institute of Slavonic Philology, and you are today a habilitated associate professor. After graduating from ELTE, did you have a straight path to your current position?

I am a typical “ELTE child”. I graduated from this university and also earned my doctorate here. Soon after that, I was offered a job, and I’ve been walking the corridors of this university ever since. :) It’s up to everyone to decide for themselves how straight this path is. To tell the truth, it is a profession to be a university lecturer. You must own it. You need to respect the opportunity and the trade, and last but not least, complete the tasks at the university with complete humility and dedication. Needless to say, financial reward is not the driving force for university lecturers. We are motivated by other things.

What raised your interest in lexicography, translation studies, and identity research?

Translation, lexicography, and identity research are my main fields of research. I am also engaged in the methodology of language teaching. I think that all of these stem from my identity. Throughout my professional career, I had to translate thousands of pages from one language to another, using countless dictionaries and searching for myself (that is, my identity). Therefore, it’s no wonder that I have been particularly interested in these topics. I could and wanted to rely on my personal struggles and solutions in these fields. I consider myself to be particularly fortunate for having been the editor-in-chief of a large Hungarian-Serbian digital dictionary, and for currently leading a translation workshop at the Department of Serbian Language and Literature, working together with lots of excellent young translators.

You are placing special emphasis on the training of future Slavists, and you have also initiated the first Hungarian student conference on Slavonic Studies (Budapest International Conference of Young Slavists, 2010–2018). How do you see the current situation of students interested in your discipline?

When I talked about the necessity and possibility of such a conference with the current director of the institute, I didn’t expect myself that we would start a tradition with it. I believed back then – and I still do today – that young people needed encouragement and support – and they always will. If we raise expectations towards them, namely that they must be engaged in scientific work and must publish their findings, we also need to establish the circumstances for these. In the past, if a university student wanted to publish their research results in our discipline, or to present it at a conference, they could only do so in the Czech Republic or even more distant countries. By launching a Slavist conference in Budapest, we have created the setting and framework for our students, and even for foreign students, where young researchers and students could meet and present their work, and also enabled them to have their research results published. It is a great pleasure for me that more and more of our students are applying for this conference, so the message got through. Moreover, it generates content and further development by itself. Students apply with more and more interesting topics and their work is of increasing quality.

In addition to numerous independent scientific books and articles, you also authored a literary work entitled “Pest, the Centre of the World”. Where did the inspiration come from to try your hand in this genre, too?

“Pest, the Centre of the World” is an artistic experiment. It contains the extract of a novel that has not yet been written, my poems written during my “critical period” (in the 1990s), and my musical works written at the same time. With this, I wanted to close a phase of my life, but I realised that I opened Pandora’s Box. In other words, I placed a burden on myself to understand all the transformations that I went through when, at the age of 15, I left my country, my language, and my identity for another one. My scientific self seems to have constantly coexisted with my artistic self, since I am still writing poems and songs, too. I even have a band, where I keep bothering my fellow musicians with my feelings and doubts.

If I asked you to recommend one or two volumes by renowned Serbian authors that can also be read in Hungarian, which ones would you mention?

If you asked me about the great classic writers, then Ivo Andrić, Miloš Crnjanski, Meša Selimović, Desanka Maksimović, Borisav Pekić, Momo Kapor, Danilo Kiš, and many others would definitely be on the list. These authors certainly have some works that are also available in Hungarian.

If you asked me about contemporary writers, then Goran Petrović, Vladan Matijević, Aleksandar Gatalica, Dragan Velikić, David Albahari, Jelena Lengold, Svetislav Basara would be on the list. In addition, I would also mention László Végel, a fantastic writer, who writes in Hungarian but he is also associated with Serbian literature because he lives and creates in Serbia, and his topics are closely related to the region.

Here I would only mention a few titles that could be interesting and even exotic for Hungarian (and other) readers: Belgrádi csajok (Belgrade Women) by Igor Marojević, A merénylet angyala (Angel of Assassination) by Svetislav Basara, Hogyan veszejtsük el a vámpírt (How to Quiet a Vampire) by Borislav Pekić, Az ágyú forró volt (The Cannon was Red Hot) by Vladimir Kecmanović, and Neoplanta, avagy az Ígéret Földje (Neoplanta, or the Promised Land) by László Végel.

You have visited many universities in Serbia, Bosnia, the Czech Republic, and Poland, also as a guest lecturer. What do you think about the strength of ELTE in terms of language teaching?

The greatest advantage of ELTE is its diversity. I hope our maintainer also realises this and will do everything to ensure that this beautiful “form and content” can keep developing in the future. Very few people know that, for example, ELTE offers one of the most diverse Slavic education programmes in the world as a university in a non-Slavic country. And this is an extraordinary benefit. Students visiting us can study a significant part of the known world in one place. No such opportunity is offered by any university in Vienna, Paris, or the USA. ELTE is also outstanding in one more aspect: its teaching faculty is world-class, its courses are of a high standard, and last but not least, its students are eager to learn. All this makes ELTE what it is – a real winning university.

What are you engaged in at the moment?

I am currently focusing on a minor project. I am investigating the possible forms of digitisation in language teaching in order to work out a teaching methodology available to a wider public at a reasonable cost. The aim is to develop a product and implement that product in the education system. I have recently finished the Hungarian-Serbian dictionary project, as well. Its goal was also a product – namely a digital dictionary – that can be enhanced and made widely available in the future.

Image courtesy of Dr. Aleksander Urkom