'There are more Europes within this continent'

10. May 2018. 11:20
How a Colombian student has perceived European culture during his Master’s Degree in Miskolc

 

Written by Alina Girnet, 1st year SH fellow student, alina.girnet(at)gmail.com

 

History could be different depending on who is telling the story, and most of the time, on which part of the globe one lives. Rodolfo Vergara comes from Colombia, and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Central European Studies at the University of Miskolc. Back in his country, he used to see Europe as a whole, but only here did he get a deeper understanding of how different the paths of various European nations are, even though they passed through the same historical events. Approaching the end of a two-year Master’s program, Rodolfo thinks this experience has taught him a lot, especially about overcoming communication barriers: “If you want people to smile at you, you should be the first one smiling at them”, he says.

 

In Colombia, Rodolfo pursued two Bachelor’s Degrees. Although the second one, History, is closer to the degree he is currently pursuing, the first one, Chemical Engineering, was developing for Rodolfo a completely different career perspective. “I was never happy to work in that field, and even though it took me some time to realize, I ended up studying History eventually”, he told me. Rodolfo studied History from a very broad approach with a special emphasis on Colombian history. “That is when I realized that the place you live is very much influencing the historical perspective you get on some events.

 

Studying Central Europe in situ

”When people from Latin America talk about Europe, they mainly think about Spain or Portugal because of the historical events. They could know something about France, England, Italy or Germany too, but when they are asked about the Eastern side of the continent, many people do not know much about it. It tends to be perceived as a different reality. Usually, Latin American countries focus more on the „big brother” from the North, which is USA.

When I learned about being selected for pursuing a Master’s Degree in Central European Studies, I was very happy about it, mostly because I had been planning for so long to study this particular field in Europe, and because I was so excited to discover this region’s history in situ.”

“Hungarians are cool people”

Rodolfo has had a nice experience of interacting with Hungarians. “It is true that it could be hard to earn their trust, as they are not so open from the very beginning, but I discovered them as cool people. The barrier is the language of course. On one hand, because you will not find many people to speak to you in English, and on the other, because English is not our native language either. We do not feel in English, reason for which there is this hard-to-cross bridge between internationals and Hungarians.”

“Nevertheless, that is part of the experience”, Rodolfo thinks. “I have learned to manage these kind of situations though. There is always a way to communicate. You just have to embrace the challenge of facing the unknown.”

 

What does Central Europe mean?

Regarding the academic program, Rodolfo says that in contrast with the Colombian style of teaching, Hungarian teachers are more indulgent and students do not feel as having a second role in the hierarchy. The program itself is very comprehensive, which is both an advantage and a disadvantage. “It has a bit of everything, reason for which you don’t get to go deeper into some subjects. There are multiple social sciences to be studied in a short period, which is not enough to get a closer approach of each. That is understandable though. People who are pursuing this Master’s Degree are coming from very different backgrounds, and offering them an extensive program broadens their range of opportunities.” Rodolfo says he got a special interest on Literature, Philosophy and Jewish History, subjects that he found extremely stimulating.

Central Europe? The name itself poses difficulties, Rodolfo believes. “It is a Europe in between. Between what? Between the West that had a very clear historical and political development, and the East, which is mostly represented by Russia. I usually refer to the lands between Germany and Russia when I think of Central Europe, and that’s because countries from this region have a common historical background.”

“It is very hard to define the frontiers though. The current political borders do not always fit the historical origins or development. One simpler way to define this region is taking the Visegrád countries as an example, although they also had very specific development.”

 

The challenge for these countries is to find a way to suit the EU landscape

“After the fall of USSR, many things have changed on the continent. The EU arose as a referent of what Europe means and became a model for all the European countries. It is true that the EU has indeed been a success from many points of view, but with the economic crises that followed, many vulnerabilities have been revealed. It is also true that the EU has been a very positive experience for many countries, especially for the Visegrád group. Nonetheless, they are still considered second-class countries inside the EU, and I think the challenge for them is to find a way to match their Western counterparts. The landscape is complex, the economic situation is not at its best and populism is thriving. Some past echoes seem to have returned, and even though the context is different, there are some warnings to consider”, Rodolfo things.

He also sees the immigration issue as a challenge, which is not something new for Europe. “The actual issue has to do with existing prejudices, with the current economic situation and with a lot of fears that Europeans have towards immigrants from Africa or Middle East. I think the problem should be looked at from the point of view of helping those countries solve their problems at home. Most of the immigrants are not coming to Europe because they want to; they are coming because they need to.”

 

“What I have learned”

This experience has taught Rodolfo that Central Europe has a very rich cultural heritage. “This multiethnic area has changed a lot; it has always been a region of transit from East to West, being dominated by empires for centuries. Throughout history, people from this region did not have the opportunity to decide their destiny, being forced to accept decisions that were made by others. Given these circumstances, we can understand why these countries are reacting negatively towards some EU policies. They do not want to be treated from the perspective of obeying to some rules. They have had enough of that in the past. Nevertheless, they should find a way to consolidate their position on the continent while striving to suit the EU landscape at the same time.”