Serving Iceland for 27 years
Ferenc Utassy, The Honorary Consul General of Iceland to Hungary
Ferenc Utassy has been the Honorary Consul General of Iceland for 14 years but his love for the country and his relationship with it is dating back to a much earlier time. He lived in Iceland for many years as a music teacher and he was one of the first people who took part in the development of the Icelandic music culture. It is no coincidence that years later he was asked by the Icelandic Ministry of Foreign Affairs to be the Honorary Consul General of Iceland to Hungary.
My answer might be surprising but I was asked by Iceland. Let’s go back in time a bit. In the 90s, bilateral relations started between the two countries. In Iceland, Hungary suddenly became a tourist destination on the map. Iceland is a small country, with its own pre-defined ways. People were quite scared about the eastern block, only the brave ones dared to come here. After the change of regime, that is after the big changes, a new world and a new tourist destination opened up to Iceland. After the first charters started, I was a guide for hundreds and thousands of tourists from Iceland. As this worked out well, the question arose that if so many people come to Hungary from Iceland, sooner or later problems might arise as well. Therefore, a reliable person would be needed who could sort out the problems on the spot.
The idea arose after this that Iceland wanted to have a consular representation in our country. First of all I was assigned the task to try to find a suitable person for the job. I had a careful look around who I could find for this job but I had to realize that with all the commitments, costs and other liabilities associated with this position, there was nobody who would have taken this voluntary job.
I had a tourist group from Iceland that time. Among others, I explained them as well this situation. There were some potentate persons in this group who had a smile at it. They did not say a word but a week later I was called by the Foreign Office in Reykjavík, from the highest level, and I was informed that they received a recommendation based on which they would like me to accept the honorary consular appointment.
You were very young when you got to Iceland and lived a significant part of your life there.
If we look at the members of the honorary consulate, there are people with unbreakable ties to certain countries. And there are others who are appointed based on the judgement of the appointing country. In other words, the person is believed to have such important positions in society which may be necessary for the further development of bilateral relations.
What memories do you have from Iceland?
I lived 8 years in Iceland. I went there right after receiving my second diploma and I tried everything I could possibly try in the cross- section of the Icelandic society and I have almost been to all fronts. As a contractor, I worked as a music teacher, a church musician and a cantor. I was an organist at churches at different places with different titles. I lived both in a fishing village of 300 souls for 3 years and in the capital. I have a lot of memories from these over than twenty years; it is rather difficult to pick only a few of them. What I think is very important is that I managed to nationalize some of the main characteristics of the Icelanders; such as independence, gritty attitude and the retention of their values.
What marks did you make in the cultural and music life of Iceland?
It’s probably not my place to talk about that, but rather Icelanders should be asked. However, I can say that I took part in establishing the thriving music culture. Music education in Iceland was initiated by the Hungarian and a lot of people worked on it. I must have been among the first ones.
One of your students made a remark asking how you would like to teach without speaking their language.
That is right. There were various anecdotes about this story. An 11-13-year-old girl said that if we are in Iceland, we have to speak this language and not in English. Maybe the extremity of the whole situation is best indicated by the story that I got to my position on 15th October, and at the very beginning of November, local radio reporters appeared to make an interview with me in Icelandic. Barely three weeks after hearing the first authentic Icelandic word, I was asked to speak Icelandic. I still have these radio recordings. It was a great success, the villagers were incredibly proud of me that we are already in the radio as well.
Are the Icelanders a very proud nation?
Definitely! And they really do have something to be proud of. It must be appreciated that they could survive such rough conditions, the number of weather-related natural difficulties, and they did all this behind the beyond. Very few people in Europe know such lonely, northern region in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean where it is all about surviving. And they managed to do it in a way that by the end of the 20th century they became the richest and most developed country in the civilized world.
Is there anything you are missing from Iceland?
I don’t terribly miss anything because I am going back again tomorrow and I have already been there this month. I have an intense daily relationship with this country. In 2007, a year before the recession, I was there 10 times. What I would still mention among the first things, is tap water. When I arrive, my very first thing is always to open the tap in the kitchen and a have a big glass of water. Icelandic water is a great treasure! It is perfectly clean, cool and delicious. You cannot have enough of it. It is free of charge to anyone at their home and people can use or drink as much as they want to.
The second thing I would mention is food. They have a lot of extremely good quality fish: clean, healthy and top quality all over the world!
Here, at home I miss a kind of social life I got used to there. As I graduated from the Music Academy I support all kinds of cultural events here at home as well. I try to go to all major concerts in Reykjavik where almost everyone knows everyone. Together we can have such a great and everlasting experience. I meet a lot of acquaintances and friends and we can share our music experiences. In contrast, in Hungary only very few people have the opportunity to participate similar events. These events in Hungary are mostly supported and visited by foreign tourism.
In Iceland, there is a kind of national unity where society does not even tolerate the lowest layers of society to be away.
Is corporate social responsibility deep-rooted or has it evolved with the welfare society?
It is deep-rooted, because survival was only possible together. It is important to know, however, where the Icelanders come from. They were the Norwegian Vikings who could not tolerate in the 9th century that the king wanted to centralize their country and become their ruler. They had no such request, therefore, this group of people left Norway. This feeling is still present in the genes. An Icelandic party never recognizes anyone superior; they are not even familiar with this concept.
How can foreigners be attracted to Iceland?
Iceland attracts foreigners by itself. There is a rather high price level which functions as a kind of selection regarding its visitors. Iceland is full of incredible rich natural attractions, natural wonders and there’s incredible wealth there. It is unique in the world. Everything can be found there which has not been ruined by the humans.
How has Iceland changed since you left and what do you think the country will be like in 10 years time?
There is an Icelandic proverb, which translates something like this: ‘if the question is big, the answer is silence’. I’ve had my own relationship with Iceland for 27 years. There are positive and negative changes. There’s a lot to regret, for example, the degree of public safety, in which I also used to live there. In a fishing village, you could leave your car keys in your car. Nowadays all cars and homes are locked. Security firms operate against thieves and burglars. Some form of globalization has invaded. There are a lot of foreigners in Iceland. On the one hand, the world is complaining about global warming. Iceland, however, is one of the beneficiaries of global warming. The melting of glaciers is not only a negative thing for them, unlike the sinking of Venice (if they are not careful). In Iceland, above Russia for example, northern seas will become navigable, which means that the global trade will take place in the Northern Waters. From the Far East, China, and Japan the transport of any goods will take a few days less than today if ships come from above Russia. Iceland has been preparing for this; they are already building ports and major logistics centres. Iceland is an energy superpower where almost 75% of their total needs are now covered with renewable resources. Iceland is able to produce energy on site, much more energy than they can actually use. Currently a large number of aluminium smelters are being established. Iceland is full of possibilities. Icelanders have a rather very good fishing and they pay attention that certain types of fish are not placed at risk. Only certain amount can be fished, so as the balance in seas are provided. There are several opportunities and unexploited potential in tourism: for example, the creative mind, and the high level of the higher education. There are 8 universities for the 320,000 people. The essence of living here is that half of the people who go to university in Iceland will surely continue their studies at some the largest universities in the world. There are very good local capacities from all point of view. If I just have a look at my profession, I can come across several surprises. Some have wonderful voices here. There are so many excellent opera singers in the world from Iceland. Icelanders show wonderful and exemplary solidarity all over the world. If Icelanders can hear their mother tongue anywhere in the world, their eyes immediately brighten up and they immediately have something common to talk about.
How can they keep the balance between strong industrial development and environmental conservation?
Strict control operates in Iceland and there are a number of protests. There is also a counter-example, a kind of interference with the nature: for example, the huge hydroelectric plant in the eastern part of the country which is deep inside the earth. Not much of this is visible on the surface. However, in order to make the energy come out from deep inside the earth, a river had to be blocked and it had to be diverted 100 km away. It was serious interference with nature.
It is mainly the intellectuals in Reykjavik who are against this type of structures. The local unemployed, however, welcome such opportunities which provide them work and living. It is in fact a moral question how far you can go.
What is the Icelanders’ attitude like with immigrants?
Living conditions are not extremely friendly. There are certain times when immigrants are reluctant to stay. The most important element of affiliation is language. But if someone is trying to learn the language, they will not encounter any barriers.
There are some demanded professions, such as information technology and engineering. The Poles arrive at the largest numbers since they have already had their water connections for long.