Coming from a family of a famous Slovak writer, Mrs. Elena Lajciakova has been into books since early childhood and later made them her profession. However, many years ago, she chose to leave her career and dedicate herself to family and has never felt sorry for this decision. In an interview, the spouse of the Slovak Ambassador tells the Azeri Observer how an exchange program in Moscow changed her life, how postings in Asia from China to South Korea shaped her personality, what impressed her in different countries, and what makes Azerbaijani people similar to Slovaks.
BY ELENA KOSOLAPOVA
AZERI OBSERVER STAFF WRITER
Question: Let’s start with your childhood. Where were you born? Who are your parents?
Answer: I was born in former Czechoslovakia, the city of Bratislava, which was the heart of the Slovakian part, to an intellectual and very loving family. My father is well-known Slovak writer Anton Hykisch, whose works have been translated into multiple languages. He is the author of many famous historical novels with true historical backgrounds that he studied in many Austrian, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak archives. To mention some of his novels – The Time of The Masters, Love The Queen, Trust The Emperor, Headless Time, Delights of Ancient Times etc. As to my mother, her family was into music, and my uncle Eugen Suchoň was the first Slovak opera composer. They made me learn to play the piano when I was a child, but I never had the patience for all the boring musical exercises. Sports seemed much more attractive to me. Later, I discovered literature. My father had huge bookshelves in his working room, but my brother and I were not allowed to disturb him while he was working. So it was like a holiday for us when we could enter his cabinet and see the variety of books. When I grew up enough – I mean when I was 12 to 14 years old – I started taking and reading books one after another from my father’s library – fiction novels, poetry, documentaries, history books, and even some novels by Emile Zola, which were not appropriate to teenagers due to their sexual content. I was reading books secretly almost every night with flashlight under the bedcover that made my mother very angry.
Q.: Where did you study? What degree do you have?
A.: When I finished high school, I wanted to study dramaturgy at our Academy of Arts. However, my father was labeled as “the enemy of communism,” and there was even a period of about 10 years when he was not allowed to publish. Actually, that was a reason he switched from journalism to writing historical novels; at least in this way he could send his readers some messages between the lines. Because of my father’s profile, they didn’t allow me to enter the academy. So, I decided to apply to Comenius University in Bratislava to study English and Russian languages. My application was not approved again, even though my test and interview results were perfect. Finally, I succeeded to be enrolled into university studies and graduated as translator and interpreter of Serbo-Croatian and Russian languages.
It is nice that, during our posting in Azerbaijan, me and my husband have an opportunity to recover our Russian, which we haven’t used for many years. I have a special feeling regarding the Russian language because, in some sense, it brought Milan [Ed. note: Slovak Ambassador Milan Lajciak] and me together. When I studied Russian and Serbo-Croatian at the University, I was chosen to be a part of a six-month exchange program between Slovakia and the USSR, which sent me to the Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow. That was the city where we met in 1981. Milan that time was studying Chinese language and Sinology at Russian MGIMO University in Moscow. It is funny that two Slovaks had to go to another country hundreds of kilometers away to find a life partner. It was love at the first sight, and we started to plan our life together from the very first day. We married when we were still attending our universities. So, I stayed with my parents in Bratislava, where I gave birth to our son, and my husband went back to Moscow to continue his studies. It was quite difficult, especially because, at that time, there was no Internet, no WhatsApp, no Skype. Our son didn’t even know his father till the age of three. I showed him photos, but of course, that was not enough.
Q.: How did your life evolve after graduation?
A.: When I graduated from the university, I got a job as an editor at publishing house TATRAN that I loved so much. A bit later, I also translated some shorter stories of Serbian and Russian authors. The longest novel I translated was over 350-pages book of Serbian novelist Ivan Ivanji. In the meantime, my husband also graduated, served in the Army for one year, and finally was employed by the Czechoslovakian Foreign Ministry, which sent him to work in China. It was our first diplomatic posting. At that time, China was still a very closed country to foreign tourists. Besides, coming from the Socialist Bloc, we were not allowed to communicate with Western diplomats. So, we lived there in our closed community of diplomats among socialist countries. However, it was a very happy time for me, and I have got very good memories about that period. It was in Beijing that my daughter was born, and she became the first Slovak child born in China. In the beginning, it was difficult to live so far from my friends and parents in a country that is so different from Slovakia. But I am a very positive oriented person and can find things that make me happy everywhere.
Q.: Have you ever had a cultural shock in another country?
A.: I can remember only positive shocks. For example, when we were posted in China, bicycles were the main transport there. It was like a river of cycling people on the roads! I used to take my small daughter on a bicycle with me and merged with bicycle army. I never saw before such huge parking places for bicycles. I also enjoyed a lot Chinese cuisine; it is fantastic, pleasing all human senses. Our children were always the center of attention because of their blond hair and blue eyes [laughs]. So, I have very positive memories. Since our posting in Indonesia, I have remembered how poor people were able to enjoy their lives and find happiness from small everyday things. For me, Indonesia is a country of smiling faces, where it was very easy to establish friendly contacts. For example, in South Korea, people were a little restrained, and it was more difficult to connect with them from a human point of view. However, Koreans are always very willing to help foreigners, and everything works perfectly in this country. I have a feeling that this is a country where it is important to keep face in front of others.
Q.: Where did you move after China?
A.: We were posted to China three times with one-year breaks in between – first Beijing, then Shanghai, and again Beijing. We spent about nine years in total there. I even learned some basic Chinese, though it is very difficult. Then, for a year, we were posted to London – a very cultural city with plenty of museums and theaters. But it is so expensive city that we spent there all the money that we earned in China! In fact, we didn’t worry about that, as life should be lived to the fullest instead of only saving. The best thing was that we could spend some time with our son, who had gone to a boarding school in England even earlier, when we lived in Beijing. After London we moved straight to Indonesia, which was going that time through quite a violent period, with many riots, clashes, and the fall of President Suharto. Anyway, I have got good memories of that country. Indonesian people taught me to smile! As I have already mentioned, even with so few material possessions, they were so open and happy. I learned from them to live for every moment of the day. They didn’t speak English or any other foreign language. So, I had to take lessons in Bahasa to be able to communicate with them. I made many local friends. Then, we moved to Malaysia, a multicultural country full of expats where everybody speaks English. It was a very comfortable place for foreigners to live and is supported by their quite attractive Second Home policy. Our last diplomatic posting before Azerbaijan was the South Korea, which has a very different lifestyle comparing to Indonesia and Malaysia. So many things were limiting my daily habits there; it is not allowed to smoke outside, to walk a dog in a park, in forests and parks you should follow and walk only on designated paths and so on. Though, it has advantages too, as it’s clean, safe, everything works perfectly there, and they have very good products, cosmetics. People are self-disciplined with the sense of responsibility for the society. But again, foreigners are rare there, and we lived de facto in our micro world.
Q.: What happened with your career? Were you able to continue it while living abroad?
A.: I was finishing my translation of Ivan Ivanji’s big novel, which I mentioned before, in China. I had to send it to Slovakia. They made some corrections and sent it back to me, then I mailed it to Slovakia again. It took so much time that I finally realized that it was impossible to work further this way. So, while living abroad, I dedicated myself to family, supporting my husband in his work and raising our kids. But, every time we returned to Slovakia, I resumed my work in the cultural field. Unfortunately, it grew increasingly difficult after every posting, as I was losing my connections in Bratislava, so finally I gave up. Now, I don’t feel sorry about leaving my career. Living in other countries and experiencing different cultures has filled me with a spiritual wealth that I would have never gotten staying back home. So I don’t regret my decision. Finally, I got a position at the human resources department of the Slovak Foreign Ministry, which means that I secured working place after each posting abroad when I returned back to Slovakia.
Q.: Which of your postings did you like the most?
A.: I cannot pick out one. All the countries where we lived are very beautiful, very different from each other and interesting. They all shaped my personality. Cherishing nice memories about all of them, I make notes about every posting and, when I am retired, I hope to transform my memories in a book.
Q.: How did diplomatic life influence your children?
A.: Our children were very much affected. I remember that my daughter was very unhappy whenever we would leave country, as she lost her friends. With the development of the Internet, it became easier to keep in touch, but at that time, it was a big disappointment. Additionally, they could not spend enough time with their grandparents, seeing once every two years. And their perception of home is quite different; for them, home is where their parents are. However, diplomatic life has advantages too: language, the opportunity to see the world… Now, both of our children are grown up. Our son followed in his father’s footsteps and has become a diplomat. He already served in Brussel, the Czech Republic and currently is posted in Berlin. Our daughter works for the American telecommunication company AT&T in Slovakia.
Q.: Let’s talk about your life in Azerbaijan. Have you ever been here before? What were your feelings when you got the news about your husband’s appointment to Baku?
A.: No, I have never been to Azerbaijan. However, when we lived in Korea, I made a friend with the spouse of the Azerbaijani Ambassador in Seoul. She told me a lot of things about your country, so I knew in advance that I would be happy here. From the very first day, I have been very excited to be in Baku, even despite arriving during COVID and staying mainly at home for the first year. Actually, I caught a very bad case of COVID here and even spent nearly two weeks at a hospital Yeni Klinika. I should express my great thanks to Azerbaijani doctors, who took very good care of me and saved my life.
Q.: Now that COVID is more or less over, have you had an opportunity to travel and visit different places in Azerbaijan? Which places impressed you the most?
A.: Yes, I have. Azerbaijan is a very beautiful country. Baku is amazing – vivid, pulsing. I was impressed by how developed and alluring it is. We also visited Baku’s surroundings, such as the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape, mud vulcanos, Ateshgah Fire Temple, Yanar Dagh Burning Mountain, and Diri Baba Mausoleum, which are definitely must-visit places. Then, we continued to beautiful Shamakhi, Lankaran, Sheki, Gakh, Shamkir and Zaqatala. Zaqatala is my favorite; if it wasn’t so far, I would go there every weekend. It is such a relaxing place, with beautiful natural views that remind me of spa resorts. Lahij – with its street market offering local herbs, hand-made copper cookware, and souvenirs – also attracts me a lot. Basqal, where traditional kelagayi [Ed. note: silk scarf in Azerbaijan] are produced, is very authentic. I am happy to live by the sea, as I love it very much. Azerbaijan is a wonderful country with very nice, welcoming, smiling, and open-hearted people. They are ready to give you everything they have just to make you feel good. It reminds me of people in Slovakia.
Q.: Besides traveling, how do you spend your time in Baku? Do you have hobbies? Are you involved in any activities here?
A.: Of course. We have our Head of Missions Spouses (HOMS) club, which is engaged in many activities. We organize different events to support people in need, like disabled children or elderly people. In addition to this, we have here EU Family spouses club with another bunch of meetings and activities. As to my hobby, I love cooking. For me, it is a kind of art. I like to look for new recipes on YouTube or create new ones myself. From Indonesia I have discovered the beauty of stones and when I have a free time, I try to make some jewelry for myself. With regard to Baku, the city has a very developed and vibrant cultural life. In my free time, I often visit museums, concerts and exhibitions. I also read a lot of literature and like listening to my husband playing his own music compositions on the piano. And I should not forget to mention long strolls with my husband on our favorite seaside boulevard with stopovers for drinking Azerbaijani tea in small cafes and tea rooms there.
Q.: What do you think about Azerbaijani cuisine?
A.: To tell you the truth, good food is my weakness, and Azerbaijan is a perfect place for gourmets. You know what I like here the most? Fresh herbs! I have never seen people in other countries eating them like here – just eating them on a plate without anything else. I love it! Vegetables and meat are very delicious here too. I think they are more natural than in other countries. And the dishes are mouthwatering. My favorite one is Sheki piti. I also adore Azerbaijani soups – arista with lamb, dovga with herbs. As for my husband, he prefers kebab.
Q.: From your answers, I can tell that you are a very positive person. You see good in everything and everywhere. Does diplomatic life have no disadvantages for you?
A.: For me, it hasn’t, especially since the Internet and Skype were invented. Now, I don’t even miss my family, because we easily communicate every day. Thank goodness my parents still can manage by themselves despite their old age. It is a bit of a pity that my grandson is far away, and I cannot influence him enough, but maybe they are even glad that the grandmother is not supervising them all the time [laughs]. Yes, I am a positive person. Why spend life on anger, disappointment, and feeling sorry?
There was a bad period in my life, though. Several years ago, I was diagnosed with cancer, and it was very difficult. Thank God, I overcame the disease. My love for life won, and I am cured now. Since that time, my way of thinking has become even more positive. I am grateful for every day, every minute, every moment! Every morning, when I wake up, raise my hands and say to myself, “I am happy, I am alive, and I have a beautiful day ahead of me.” Every evening, I thank God for the wonderful day I had.
Q.: You mentioned that you like books. Do you have a favorite? Could you recommend anything to our readers?
A.: I prefer long books. The last one I read was The Century by British author Ken Follett. It is a trilogy of about 1,800 pages that tells a story of interrelated families from different continents. The book shows how they move through momentous dramas of the 20th century like the First World War and Second World War and how different their experiences and feelings are. However, my favorite book is Heaven Has No Favorites by Erich Maria Remarque, which I have read many times. The main character is an automobile racer who goes to a sanatorium to visit his friend. There, he meets a young woman suffering from tuberculosis in the final stage with no chance of a cure. They fall in love. The young woman decides to enjoy her last months travelling with him rather than wait for death. However, by the will of fate, he suddenly dies in a hospital due to a racing accident. So, she decided to return back to the sanatorium to spend lasts days of her life there … It is quite a sad book, but it is so deep and shows so much love for life! Every time I feel bad or not satisfied with something, I start reading this book and become grateful for everything I have.
Q.: To finalize the interview, we have the same question for all ambassadors’ spouses. There is a saying that behind every successful man, there is a woman. How does that manifest in your life?
A.: I agree with this saying. If a man has the support of his family, he can develop fully and freely his career. My husband and I have been together for 42 years, and I always try to support him as much as I can. One of secrets of our long-term marriage is mutual respect of our personalities, interests, freedom and the sense of compromise. Sometimes, I am even able to help him in diplomacy, as some information and contacts go through women. Meanwhile, I like nomadic style of life moving from one place to another, knowing new cultures and people. It is like a drug for me. That is why it is so much easier for me to support and accompany my husband in our diplomatic life. And in addition to this, we are both more creators than victims of our destiny.