In April, the Slovenian town of Sevnica appeared to be ready to split from the rest of the country — and it was all thanks to Melania Trump.
Sevnica, right in the center of Slovenia and with a population of 5,000, is her hometown. When the mayor announced on television he would turn the local castle into an American embassy and erect a sculpture of Melania Trump should her husband become U.S. president, some residents were so excited and proud of her that they might not have realized it was an April Fools' Day joke.
Although the proposal to build a U.S. embassy was in jest, there is an unmistakable divide between Sevnica and the rest of Slovenia, where concern about Melania Trump's impact on the country's reputation is growing.
When she delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention that borrowed from an address given eight years ago by Michelle Obama, people across Slovenia reacted with anger and ridicule. "I doubt Slovenia can be proud of her," said Katja Kobentar, 34, a corporal in the Slovenian army. But the exception was Sevnica, where residents continue to express admiration.
Like Melania Trump, Natasa Pinoza was born in the town. She was named Miss Universe Slovenia in 2006 and it was then that she met Melania Trump for the first time. When asked about allegations that parts of Trump's speech were plagiarized, Pinoza said: "I might be a little bit disappointed, but I can't comment." Hours later, Pinoza called back to make sure those comments had been understood "in a positive way."
"Donald Trump is a master of self-promotion, and Melania's speech was definitely positive for him. Now everyone is talking about him again," Pinoza said.
As foreign reporters have started to come to Sevnica and ask questions, its residents want to make sure they give the right answers — mostly the ones that will keep the Trump family happy.
The first milestone in the town's modern history was when it was connected to the country's railway network in the 19th century. For much of the following 150 years, Sevnica was primarily known for red wine and dry sausages, a local delicacy. A former Yugoslav production center, it attracted visitors to its medieval center, which is encircled by wooded hills. But now some residents believe a new era has begun. The second milestone could become the fact that Melania Trump was born here. "Melania Trump put the name of our town on the map of the world," said Mayor Srecko Ocvirk.
Fashion photographer Stane Jerko, 79, discovered her in the country's capital, Ljubljana, in 1987. He believes the criticism of her speech has been disproportionate: "I think that Melania would be criticized regardless of what she would have said in that speech. It comes along with the job."
Vesna Mikolic, a professor of linguistics in the coastal city of Koper, said she felt sorry for Melania Trump amid the plagiarism allegations. "On the other hand, this is a great promotion for Trump — who knows, maybe the campaign staff did this on purpose."
Following the speech, Donald Trump himself had suggested this, when he tweeted, "Good news is Melania's speech got more publicity than any in the history of politics especially if you believe that all press is good press!"
That might be especially true in Slovenia, where researchers say that people, regardless of their political convictions, are unlikely to condemn plagiarism as harshly as many Americans do. "For decades, plagiarism has been a common practice in Slovenia as well as in other Eastern European countries, where the educational system has been focused on students memorizing the material from the textbooks rather than developing their own critical thinking about the material," said Tanja Porcnik, the president of Slovenia's policy-focused Visio Institute.
Despite this and the fact that a campaign staffer has since acknowledged she had a role in writing the controversial part of the speech, some Slovenians interviewed this week said they were increasingly angry at Melania.
"I think Melania is a very ambitious woman, full of herself, who used the opportunity that was presented to her with both hands," said Dusan Trusnovec, 58, a social activist.
"I've read that one writer from the U.S. said that it must have been pretty bad in Slovenia if she found it better being with Trump. Statements like that may make people from the U.S. think Slovenia is a very bad country," Trusnovec said, reflecting concerns that recent news reports could hurt the country's international reputation.
Magda Pasarit, a 58-year-old retiree, agreed: "I would much appreciate it if she would be with someone else, someone more presentable, not Trump."
But Samanta Krpan, 46, a kindergarten teacher, said she considered the U.S. election campaign a welcome change in news, given Europe's own troubles at the moment. "A little bit of comedy in the news doesn't do any harm among all the tragedies that we get to hear about in the media lately," Krpan said.
Nejc Trusnovec contributed to this report.