When I travel, I try to learn something. So when I visited Slovenia recently, I went with an urge to better understand a presidential spouse about whom I have questions.
Melania Trump, born and raised in Slovenia, is the second foreign-born first lady, after Louisa Adams, born in London in 1775. I wondered: Is there anything recognizably Slovenian about Melania? What do Slovenes think of her? And most of all, what did she see in Donald Trump?
Factual information about Melania before she met Trump is sparse. Born Melanija Knavs, she had a sister and two parents, went to high school and college in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and worked as a model before and after moving to America.
Reminiscent of Melania’s confinement within the walls of Trump Tower and the White House, Slovenia lies tightly wedged within the space between Italy and Croatia, with alpine mountains in the north and a karst (a region of soluble rocks such as limestone) and cave-riddled south that features about 30 miles of Adriatic Sea coastline. Slovenia was under communist rule when Melania lived there, so she’s used to life under a repressive regime.
The Slovenian language is full of unpronounceable clusters of consonants, which was only a problem for me when it came to eating. I solved it by ordering dishes with a nice balance of vowels and consonants, such as Kremna Rezina (multi-layer cream pastry also known as Lake Bled Cake) and potica, a rich, nut-stuffed cake.
The deliciousness of potica inspired Pope Francis to ask Melania if she feeds it to Donald Trump, nearly sparking an international incident when she heard him say pizza, not po-teetz-a. Owing to the consonant-clustering problem, I never did get to taste the cheese and walnut stuffed delicacy called struklji.
When Melania said in an interview that she speaks “a few languages,” many Americans, including me, figured she was exaggerating her linguistic prowess. But in Slovenia I discovered that everyone speaks four languages, usually Slovenian, Italian, English and French.
I asked every waiter, bus driver, farmer and gas station attendant I met, and could not find one person who spoke fewer than three. Mostly their English was better than mine (I had jet lag). So yeah, I believe that she speaks a few languages. A better question is how come most Americans don’t?
Wi-Fi has achieved the same penetration in Slovene society as drinking water. At first, I asked for the Wi-Fi password in every café, until a bartender in a remote mountain village laughed at me. “Of course we have free Wi-Fi,” he said. “Everyone has free Wi-Fi. What do you think this is, North Korea?”
His English was very good.
Slovenia has an excellent highway system, talented drivers and an almost complete absence of speed limit signage. Slovenians don’t need signs, because the standard limits are common knowledge. Like Melania, I was aware of constant surveillance by cameras, albeit the traffic-enforcing kind. I am sorry to report that foreign visitors often receive speeding tickets by mail from Slovenian authorities weeks after returning home.
My constant companion during this trip was “Slovenology,” by the American writer Noah Charney. It’s a peculiar and delightful guidebook whose subject is as much the Slovene people as it is the country’s landmarks and scenery.
People even stopped me on the street to say how great it was — it’s available in Slovenian and English — and how Charney really “gets” Slovenians.
Charney identifies a fundamental Slovene characteristic, which is expressed in the common aphorism, “If you look at the stars, you’ll step in dung.” I think this tendency to avoid being a showoff is at the root of one of my questions about Melania: What do Slovenes think of her?
Aside from a few hoping to sell something related to her fame, they don’t think much.
When she was 23, Melania made a television commercial in Slovenia in which she played the president of the United States. Dressed in a tan raincoat with flowing brown hair, she waved from her limousine, issued orders, took important phone calls and, in the final scene, signed off on immigration papers.
Seeing her performance, it’s impossible not to think she had dreams of living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She looked presidential. I think when she met Donald Trump five years later, she already had the training and the desire, and saw in him the money and connections to put them on a path to the presidency before other people saw that possibility.
What did the daughter of Slovenia see in the son of real estate? I think she saw the White House. And as an immigrant, she may have a better appreciation of the possibilities of the United States than her husband.
I certainly hope so.