They are both medical doctors. Their two oldest daughters have already appeared in a movie even though they are only 8 and 10 years old. He is also a first-time ambassador and she is eager to serve in a city that many still regard as the top diplomatic posting in the world.
“Hungary is strong in filmmaking,” said Hungarian Ambassador Laszló Szabó, who had just lit a fire in the fireplace as he joined us for the interview with his wife, Dr. Ivonn Szeverényi. “Hungary is the second country in the world after the U.K. in movie production.”
This particular film though was shot in Hollywood and Budapest and is being edited in Rome. Their two older girls, Laura and Sylvia, along with their 3-year-old sister Sophia, attend the British School of Washington, where a movie producer came looking for young actors for the film “A Rose in Winter.”
“Ten-year old Laura was chosen for her English but had to learn to talk with a German accent,” Szabó said. “The film’s in postproduction now and we’re not sure when it will be ready or where it will be shown.”
“The girls are in an after-school club, musical theater. I talked with them [when they got the offer] and told them it might be fun to try it but not to have high expectations,” Szeverényi told us, noting that the girls are also learning to play the piano on a Yamaha. She said that music and performing run in the family. “My husband plays the guitar, both electric and acoustic, and the sitar. He’s already talked with former Hungarian Ambassador András Simonyi, who lives and works here and continues to play guitar in the rock band The Coalition of The Willing.”
Medicine also runs in her family. Szeverényi’s father and brother are OB-GYN specialists and her mother is a dentist. “Our medical school is six years long but when my mother finished medical school, she decided to go on to dental school, which is another five years.”
Both Szeverényi and her husband went to the University of Debrecen Medical School, 15 years apart. It was Central Europe’s first medical school campus, opening in 1918. Debrecen is the second-largest city in Hungary after Budapest. “A lot of Hungarian-Americans return to Hungary to go to medical school there and come back to practice here. We also get many medical students from Norway and China,” Szeverényi said.
“It is difficult to be a doctor and a mother,” she added. “Plus, if you have two 24-hour careers in one family, you have to decide who will work full time and who will work part time. Two full careers is a bit much.
“I stayed home three years with the children,” she explained. “In Hungary, your employer has to keep your place [job] for you…. If your child is less than 3, you get a pension for staying home and your regular paycheck too. You don’t have to choose between staying home with your child or making money. Hungarian society appreciates you staying home with your children.”
Currently, Szeverényi is working part time as a professional leader with the European Healthcare Projects at the Government Healthcare Financing Center in Budapest. Instead of choosing private practice, she has always picked public health or pharmaceutical work. When the family spent several years in Indianapolis, she became a medical writer for Eli Lilly and Co. Between 2005 and 2008, she worked as a clinical research associate for AstraZeneca in their Central and Eastern European Regional Clinical Center. During her last years of medical school, she taught certified good clinical practices organized by the National Drug Institute of Hungary. This training is necessary for clinical trials and lab research.
When her husband left medical school, he went into private practice in the early 1990s. Then he left medicine and joined several pharmaceutical companies, including Eli Lilly in Indianapolis, where he served, among other things, as team leader for the United Kingdom; country manager for New Zealand and the South Pacific; general manager for Hungary; and vice president of China human relations. From 2010 to 2014, he was CEO of Teva Hungary in Budapest before switching gears to work in diplomacy. He previously served as state secretary for foreign affairs and trade, as well as parliamentary state secretary deputy minister before being appointed ambassador to the U.S. in July 2017.
“When I told the girls we were coming to Washington and why, they wanted to know where we would live. I told them it was a new house with a swimming pool. They were already planning their sleepovers,” Szeverényi quipped. “It is a cozy life.”
But they do miss Budapest and are very proud of how their Hungarian capital, now a popular tourist destination, has transformed itself. “There is a new visitor’s center, a gastronomical explosion with five Michelin-star restaurants and live music everywhere. We have a famous rock festival, Sziget, lots of movies, jazz and more people speaking English. It’s a high cultural life,” she said.
“Budapest has the world’s fastest mobile phone network, high-speed internet all over town by the end of the year, and we are testing self-driving cars this coming year,” the ambassador added. “We have the most [Summer] Olympic medals per capita, the most Nobel Literature and Science awards per capita and two Oscar winners.”
“Hungary’s quality of workforce is well known,” his wife chimed in. “Everyone has one or two foreign languages, usually English and German — and a view of the whole world.”
When I asked the ambassador if he will continue in foreign service or return to pharmaceuticals and medicine, his response was quick. “I will go back to private business where my salary is 10 times higher. This is not a charity job. I am doing it out of an act of patriotism. This was not a financial decision.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.