The Expat: Nicolas Keglevich

Nicolas Keglevich
Age: 72
From: Buda, Hungary
Education: Secondary school completed in Brazil
Profession: President of Assist-Card Argentina
Last film: Kung-Fu Panda 2 with my grandson
Gadget: Anything electronic

When did you move to Argentina?
Talking definitively, it was in 1971. But I came here for the first time when I was seven, before going to Brazil. From there, I came to Argentina for two and a half years then worked in Switzerland and Spain.

Why did your family come here?
The reason was this: I’m from a noble Hungarian family and when the Russians entered the country in ‘45, we had to run away. The Russian army was whipping out noble families without any reason, same as they did in Russia to the Tzar.
But why Argentina? Back in those days, it was well-known as the best place to live in South America. In fact Argentina’s golden years were in the late 1930s and my parents knew about its opportunities.

Why did you leave Hungary?
I came here with my sister, who is two years older than me, and my mother. My father had moved two years earlier to Brazil. Leaving Hungary wasn’t easy as the border was closed and my parents were hiding wherever they could as the Russians were after them.
My sister and I had a Belgian nanny and she knew if the Russian authorities knew who we were, they would kill us regardless of how old we were. She went to a Red Cross camp outside Budapest and told the person in charge she had found us in the street. She said she was trying to leave the country as she had a Belgian passport and wanted to take us with us, to save us.

Did you know what was going?
Not really. But we knew after as our nanny told us what had happened. My mother wasn‘t with us at that time as she was volunteering in a public hospital as there were a lot of wounded people. Somehow, my father was in contact with our nanny, so we left the country but my parents remained in Hungary.

Do you remember that period?
I do. My family had owned seven castles in Hungary and after living in a castle, we ended up living in a roofless bombed house in a small Belgian town. It was a big change in my life. We didn’t have anything to eat, and I remember my sister and I went begging for charcoal. Our lives were turned upside down from one day to another.
We came to Argentina as my father knew it was a progressive country in those days with a lot of opportunities. Many noble Hungarian families who could flee the country came to Argentina, and one reason was they were used to hunting and this was a good destination for that.

What was your arrival like?
There’s one thing I will never forget. We came here by boat and one port of call was Montevideo. We went to the so-called beach to a kiosco and I had a banana milkshake. It was so, so good I will never forget it. After all those bad years, it was like caviar!
We had left Europe completely naked, practically. My mother worked, but she wasn’t making a lot of money. So she wrote to my father, who was working in Brazil, to say: “I can’t take care of both children,” which was how I ended up in Brazil.
It’s a long story, and I wrote about it in my autobiography but my parents found each other in Paris.

How did Brazil work out?
My father was working on a farm in Porto Alegre. He’d always had to look after the land in Hungary and it was the only thing he knew how to do. I went to boarding school there and started working aged 15 in the afternoon in an office. Slowly I became more involved in working than in studying — I was never a good student and on top of that my father didn’t pay the monthly school fees so I was thrown out for not paying! It was a rough beginning to life but it was a good life experience.

What did you learn?
That people can take everything away from you, but there’s one thing they can’t take and that’s your experience. That is how I learned to value things that other people don’t give any importance to.

What precisely do you value?
By learning small things every day you can learn what you want to be in life and I had that opportunity. The company I work for provides help to people away from home, from their “entourage”. And I went into that business because I went through being in a country where you don’t speak the language, where you don’t know where to go for help during my early years. My young experiences helped me to build what I have today, with regard to the firm, the experience I have, and myself.

Where did you go for help in the early days?
I needed help but they couldn’t give it to me as my mother worked all day. She got home when we were already asleep and we left early in the morning so I’d only see her at the weekend, and for a limited time. In the good old days in Hungary, noble families typically didn’t have close contact with their children.

Name a lost-in-translation moment.
When I went to school in Belgium it was tough as I didn’t speak the language. It was rough and the same thing happened when I came to Argentina. I was at a French school for a year then I went to Brazil. I went to a school three times in my life without knowing the language of the school. But it worked out.

Tell me about 1971.
I’d been working in a Swiss bank in Geneva, and I´d heard about this brand-new service-assistance company in Paris and I went to see them, and I realized what they were selling was what I wanted to do as I knew how important it would be for someone away from home.
They gave me a job as a sales person working on a commission basis. I told my boss in Geneva I was quitting. He wanted to know if I was going to earn more money. I told him I wasn’t going to have a salary, and he said: “I won’t let you go.” I said he couldn’t hold me back, to which he replied: “Well, if you want to go, you’ll have to sign a letter saying the bank will never, ever accept you back.” I was ready to sign it, and my boss said: “If you’re happy to sign it. then I’m glad you’re leaving because you’re so stupid that the bank won’t have you any more anyway.”
So I moved to Argentina.

With such a history, do you feel Argentine?
No, I feel Hungarian. It’s in my blood and I can’t explain it. If someone asks me what I am, that’s what I say. Although Argentina gave me what I have, and I must thank Argentina for it, my roots are Hungarian.

Have you been back to Hungary?
Oh yes, when the Iron Curtain fell, I went back. All the castles were mostly destroyed or used as schools or jails. The government said it could return the castles on condition I rebuild them as they were originally. It would have cost millions of dollars to restore them, so I said no.

What’s your most Argentine trait?
Friendship. You can have a true friendship here. There are working ones and family ones, but I can call a friend at 6pm and ask if I can come over for dinner later. And he’ll say sure, you bring the wine. You don’t see that elsewhere. I’ve travelled all over the world and it’s unique.

What do you do at the weekend?
I race classic cars all over Argentina which is great fun. I used to have old E-Type Jaguars but now I have a Corvette. These races last three or four days and a Jaguar isn’t comfortable to drive for that long.
I take part in the Argentine equivalent of Italy’s Mille Miglia in Bariloche and in the north. It’s great fun.

When did you last participate?
At the end of April. I usually have a co-pilot with my family, either my son or one of my daughters. It’s a family kind of a race.
Within the race, my group of friends has a separate race within a race called the Top Five Racing. Most recently I came last as I had a new co-pilot. We had a lot of fun, laughed a lot, but we came last! It’s all about the winning.

Noblesse oblige
To condense Nicolas Keglevich’s family history into one newspaper page is impossible, but of course, the aim of ‘The Expat’ is to simply offer up a tiny glimpse of someone’s life, dipping into it briefly.
However, an interview can often be a complete if brief experience and in this case, to be welcomed into the Assist-Card president’s family home by a boisterous white poodle was both surprising and a privilege.
Born into Hungarian nobility and forced to escape from his homeland aged seven, first to Belgium, then Argentina and Brazil, Keglevich’s home has various memories of his past and his childhood: a posed sepia portrait of his parents Marka Pejacsevich and Péter Keglevich marrying, the bride glowing in a veil that would give the Duchess of Cambridge, formerly known as Kate Middleton, a run for her money; the family coat of arms granted by Pope Clement VIII in 1603, as well as images of the seven castles the Keglevich family owned, which he later returned to visit after the Iron Curtain came down.
Despite living in Argentina for the past 40 years, Keglevich still feels Hungarian, and as a tribute to his past, and of course his future in the shape of children and grandchildren, he wrote Nobleza Obliga, an autobiography which is not for public sale.
“I was born with the war on the horizon on June 8, 1939,” he begins. “A few months later, Hitler would invade Poland, giving a beginning to the bloodiest war in humanity’s history.”
It was, of course, World War II which mapped out the future of the boy whose name in Hungarian is Miklós. His parents Marka and Péter eventually went into hiding, blue blood not acceptable during that time, while Belgian nanny Yvonne François took Nicolas and his sister to Belgium. The woman “whom we affectionately called Fifi” convinced authorities that she had found the sibling strays wandering alone in the street and offered to take them with her, as she had a passport and was headed to her motherland. Fifi saved Nicolas’ and Sissy’s lives.
Nobleza Obliga was published for the Keglevich family when its patriarch turned 70 two years ago. Covering his “trans-Atlantic odyssey”, Brazil, his family and starting up his business among other key moments in of his life, this private trip down Memory Lane includes dozens of photos from his private collection: a trip to Machu Pichu with Marka, road races with daughter Flavia and Maxi in Humahuaca and Bariloche respectively, and of his Argentine wife María.
Despite not living the life intended for him, regardless the Hungarian count has felt duty bound to his blood line and honour tradition: noblesse oblige.

First published in the Buenos Aires Herald on July 3, 2011.

Photo by Diego Kovacic.

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