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article imagePopcorn, salami — and bemusement — in Melania Trump's hometown

By Rene Gomolj (AFP)     Jan 20, 2017 in World

Sevnica is a small town in a small country but on Friday that didn't stop local dignitaries making the most of its most famous daughter -- US First Lady Melania Trump.

"We are very proud, the people of Sevnica are very proud," Mayor Srecko Ocvirk told AFP in the picturesque riverside town in central Slovenia.

Melanija Knavs, as she was known, was born in 1970, when Slovenia was part of communist Yugoslavia, the daughter of a local entrepreneur.

The grander scale of her current life -- Slovenia is not even the size of New Jersey, across the Hudson River from Manhattan in New York where she lives -- is not lost on those she left behind.

Her next stop is the White House, in Washington DC.

"When somebody from a small place like this succeeds in such a way, it represents a strong motivation for the place and its people," Ocvirk said. "Today Melania is putting us on the world map."

Slovenian chef Jozef Oseli watches the inauguration of the US president live on January 20  2017 in ...
Slovenian chef Jozef Oseli watches the inauguration of the US president live on January 20, 2017 in Sevnica, Slovenia, the hometown of the first lady

Her modelling career took off in her late teens, after being noticed by a fashion photographer in Slovenia's capital Ljubljana, 100 kilometres (60 miles) away.

Soon she was jetting around the world, settling in New York where she met and was bowled over by her future husband, property tycoon Donald Trump, 24 years her senior, in 1998.

By now known as Melania, she became Trump's third wife in 2005 and in 2006 took US citizenship. Their son Barron was born a year later, the new US president's fifth child.

"Many of us like her, she was born here although she has been in the US for many years," Matej, an engineer from Sevnica, told AFP.

- More tourists -

Before Melania became famous, Sevnica and its 5,000 inhabitants were better known for lingerie and furniture factories and the town's 900-year-old castle.

Salami and wine bottles bearing the brand "First Lady"  in reference to incoming US First ...
Salami and wine bottles bearing the brand "First Lady", in reference to incoming US First Lady Melania Trump, are displayed in Sevnica, Slovenia

But once Trump's run for president started looking serious, the mayor and the tourist office sought to make the most of it, trying to put Sevnica on the tourist map.

The number of American visitors jumped by 11 percent, albeit from a low base, to 80,000 between January and October last year compared to 12 months earlier. Locals hope for even more now.

But efforts by businesses to cash in with "Melania" cakes and "White House" slippers were dealt a setback when a Trump lawyer warned them to be careful about trademarks.

Sevnica's council promptly took down an advertising billboard that had featured Melania's image. A honey producer also removed jars that claimed the product came from "Melania's home garden".

Others changed the name of their products, including the local Rondo pizzeria whose "Trump" burger became the more generic "Presidential" burger.

- Tito's chef -

Events on Friday, however, reflected how far away Melania now is from her homeland -- and, perhaps, the lives of its everyday, non-elected citizens.

"Nothing's going to change here, probably it will be a good add for Sevnica, but I don't think that will bring any mayor changes," said Stanko, a radiologist.

There were no Stars and Stripes flags or banners on the streets.

People watch the inauguration of the US president live on a screen on January 20  2017 in Sevnica  S...
People watch the inauguration of the US president live on a screen on January 20, 2017 in Sevnica, Slovenia, the hometown of the first lady

The main event, other than a tour for half a dozen TV crews, was a charity dinner with 80-100 people out of town at a restaurant where Melania's parents reportedly used to be regulars.

Watching the powder-blue suited Melania and the Washington ceremony live, attendees included the mayor and representatives from Slovenia's US Chamber of Commerce. Proceeds were going to a local hospital.

The chef was Jozef Oseli, one of Slovenia's most experienced, who used to cook for Yugoslavia's late dictator Josip Broz "Tito" when he visited the area.

The starter, restaurant owner Martin Dolinsek said before, was to be a "crazy" combination of popcorn with Sevnica's salami, served with a wine named in honour of the first lady.

But Sevnica's link to Melania Trump and the inauguration seemed tenuous and far away in more ways than one to some.

"She is an ordinary woman, nothing special, I can say that her mother was much prettier than she is," said Jelka, a pensioner who used to be neighbours with her family.

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