SEVNICA, Slovenia – “There she is. There’s Melania,” exclaimed my wife, Ludie, pointing to the statue that towers above a cornfield in this tiny Balkan nation in southeastern Europe.
Our search for the famous (or infamous) statue had finally come to an end near this sleepy village on the west bank of the Sava River that is the hometown of the Slovenian-born Melania Trump, the wife of President Donald Trump.
It is here on the Sava, which also flows through Croatia, Bosnia-Herzogovina and Serbia, where we discovered the statue carved by Ales Zupevc, better known as “Maxi.” A noted local sculptor who makes ends meet by also working as a pipe-layer, he told the media when the statue was unveiled in July that he was born in the same Slovenian hospital in the same month as Melania, who was born on April 26, 1970, and will turn 50 in in four months.
At the dedication ceremony, Maxi stated that although he and Melania came from the same humble roots, “Let’s face it. She and Donald Trump own half of America while I have nothing.” The statue was commissioned by Berlin-based Brad Downey, an American artist and entrepreneur, who said he wanted “to highlight Melania Trump’s status as an immigrant married to a president sworn to reduce immigration” and for statue visitors “to see her ancestral region through local eyes. You see this river that she would have seen as a child and you see the mountains.”
The nine-foot statue carved from the trunk of a linden tree that stands upon an ivy-covered seven-foot pedestal portrays Melania wearing a pale blue dress resembling the one she wore at her husband’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017. She is also depicted waving her left hand, mirroring the pose she struck when greeting inaugural attendees. The appearance of her face, however, is another matter. It is nearly unrecognizable. Her eyes, ears and nose are missing. Some Sevnica residents told me that following the statue’s unveiling, vandals shot off most of her face. Others said it had been disfigured by a sledgehammer, axe or carving tool. One lady said it may have been damaged by the damp weather.
In any case, most residents I spoke with in this Alpine nation bordering Austria, Italy, Hungary, Croatia and the Adriatic Sea, which has a population of only 2 million and is about 14 times smaller in size than the state of Nevada, have divergent views of the statue and the two Trumps.
On a recent trip through the Balkans, Ludie and I spent several days in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and largest city, where the statue was described by various people as “beautiful,” “ugly,” “a joke,” “laughable,” “and “just wonderful.” One man told me, “Donald Trump has a terrible reputation here, but Melania is beautiful, a wonderful wife and mother, and I like her statue.” Still another, a young female department store clerk, said, “Donald Trump is an anti-communist and so are we. We in Slovenia know about communist oppression as our country was once part of communist Yugoslavia. Most people I know also like Melania and her statue,” she said when I was buying a sweater at the downtown H and M store. Several people in line behind me nodded approval of her comments.
Later that day, as I was searching for our car in a downtown Ljubljana parking lot, a man approached me and in excellent English (most Slovenians speak some English, as it is taught in the schools) asked me if I was an American. When I replied “yes” and asked him what he thought of the statue and the Trumps, he went on a tirade, saying, “Donald Trump is a disaster. He is disgusting and he is a fascist. Melania is a good wife and mother, but she’s not come home to Slovenia since her husband became your president nearly three years ago. And she’s done really nothing to publicize our country and help us get more tourists. And the statue is awful,” he said.
The fellow, who like every Slovenian we met knows all about the life of Melania, said her father was a minor government official and that Melania had become a high fashion model in Slovenia beginning in her late teens. When Melania was in her middle 20s, he added, she moved permanently to the United States to continue her modeling career in New York City where, at a party, she met Donald Trump who was in the midst of a divorce from Marta Maples, his second wife. Melania and Donald began dating, became engaged in the early 2000s, and were married in an Episcopal ceremony (Melania was christened a Roman Catholic at birth) a year or so later. Guests at the ceremony and reception included Bill and Hillary Clinton. The Trumps’ son, Barron, was born in 2006.
Today, Donald and Melania Trump are objects of adulation or scorn in this pint-sized nation of beautiful forests, lakes, high peaks and Adriatic beaches Here in Melania’s hometown, shops sell Melania cakes, Melania salami, Melania honey, Melania slippers, miniature replicas of her statue minus the disfigurements and copies of her biography. One woman told me, “Melania is our hero. She is our daughter. The statue of her is beautiful.” Another said, “I have nothing good to say about the Trumps or the statue.”
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.