In the course of my travels I have grown accustomed to meeting fellow Slovenians in the strangest of places, whether they were walking across the Gobi desert, wreck-diving in the Philippines or building ships in Sulawesi. For a country of only two million people we seem to have a great knack for travel and adventure.
I’ve also grown accustomed to the fact that most non-Europeans (and many Europeans) who thought they knew where Slovenia was were in fact thinking of Slovakia.
For better or worse, Melania Trump has suddenly made people outside of Europe aware of Slovenia’s existence, even if most still can’t find it on a map (hint: below Austria, to the right of Italy.)
Now I’m not here to bash on Mrs. Trump’s life choices, but with so much of the media attention suddenly focusing on her little plagiarism fiasco (oh, Melania…) Slovenia is far too often only mentioned in relation to the Trumps.
*Edit 9.11.2016: So I guess she’s the First Lady of the United States now… I literally have nothing to say on that.*
In the name of public education and our national bragging rights I have put together an alternative list of remarkable Slovenian adventurers, athletes, thinkers and entertainers, none of whom are married to Donald Drumpf.
While Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert might be the mainstream icons for solo female travellers, Benka Pulko makes their travels look like an all-inclusive tour package to the Maldives.
She spent five-and-a-half years riding her BMW F 650 motorbike around the world, collecting numerous Guiness world records along the way. She holds the record for the longest solo motorcycle ride ever undertaken by a woman, in both distance (111,856 miles/180,016 kilometers) and duration (2,000 days). She was the first person to travel by motorbike to all seven continents (including Antarctica!) while riding around the world.
Notably, she was also the first woman to ride alone through Saudi Arabia, a country that does not issue transit visas, does not allow women to drive and makes travel for women not accompanied by male relatives practically impossible.
In 2008 Playboy Slovenia ranked her among Slovenia’s most influential men for, well, “proving that she has more balls than most Slovenian men.”
Martin Strel, also nicknamed Big River Man, is a professional marathon swimmer who set four world records, by, you guessed it, swimming in really big rivers for a very very long time.
His most notable record is for the longest swim (5,268 km / 3273.38 miles), which he set by swimming the entire length of the Amazon River.
Last year Strel, now in his early 60s, announced his plan to swim around the world, swimming 40,000 km/25,000 miles in 450 days and passing through 107 countries.
Despite being a world-class endurance swimmer, he remains a horse-burger-eating, wine-loving Slovenian at heart, as illustrated beautifully by this exchange from an interview for Time magazine:
“Tell me about your diet.”
“I drink my wine every day. This is special wine made in Slovenia, you can’t buy it outside the country. Even though I drink a little more than usual, it has less alcohol and sugar, so it’s good for me. This is my idea, not my doctor’s idea.”
“I understand you also do this while you’re on a swim.”
“It helps me a lot, believe me. I could swim 10-12 hours every day like this. I tested many different sorts of wines, and I found this one in 2000. My feeling was, “Beautiful,” and we’ve been together ever since.”
“How much wine do you drink a day?”
“Max is two bottles.”
Matevž Lenarčič is an adventurer with a taste for mountain climbing, paragliding and, most importantly, aviation and aerial photography.
He flew around the world twice, first in 2012 and recently in 2016.
In 2012 he spent more than three months flying around the world in a Slovenian ultra-light aircraft (Pipistrel Virus SW 914 Turbo) in what was called “one of the most ambitious solo journeys ever attempted in aviation history.”
Formally known as the GreenLight WorldFlight, the journey proved that it is possible to circumnavigate the planet in an environmentally friendly aircraft. On his journey he landed on all seven continents and flew over 120 national parks and three oceans, circling around Mount Everest for good measure.
The project earned him the 2013 award for Aviator of the Year at the Flightglobal Achievement Awards, winning over the Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner.
In 2016 he went on a second GreenLight WorldFlight equipped with a new measuring instrument which provided accurate data on global black carbon concentration for the first time. After covering 42,000 km in fifteen stages he finished his round-the-world flight back in Slovenia on the 22nd of April 2016.
He was the first person to make a complete ski descent from the Seven Summits (the highest mountains on each of the seven continents), making the first ever complete descent of Mount Everest on October 7, 2000. Yes, that’s right – carrying a pair of goddamn skis up to the summit of Mt. Everest and then skiing down to base camp without taking off his skis and without ropes or rappels.
You can get a taste of his achievements in this trailer for the documentary “Skiing 7 Summits” (skip to 3:00 for terrifying footage of the descents.)
As someone put it so eloquently in the comment section: “He must gain a lot of momentum with such massive balls.” Indeed.
He is currently training to ski K2, which has the reputation of being the world’s most difficult mountain, in 2017.
Still going strong at 97 years of age, Peter Florjančič is a professional inventor with over 400 patents to his name. His most successful inventions have included the perfume atomiser, the plastic zipper and the plastic photographic slide frame. In 1957 he even had the first idea for a car airbag, though the invention was later perfected by others.
During the years he lived in Monte Carlo he rubbed shoulders with Marlene Dietrich, Coco Chanel, Salvador Dali and Frank Sinatra. He summarizes his life succinctly in his 2007 autobiography, Skok v Smetano: “I’ve had five citizenships and 43 cars. . . Because of my work I have spent 25 years in hotels, 4 years in cars, 3 years on trains, a year and a half on planes and a year on a ship.”
His other exploits include competing in the 1936 Olympic Games as part of the Yugoslavian skiing team at only 16 years of age and later faking his own death to avoid being conscripted into the German army during Nazi occupation of Slovenia.
Now I can’t claim that I entirely understand what he’s on about, but Slavoj Žižek is undoubtedly Slovenia’s biggest intellectual export. A Hegelian Marxist by persuasion, he is adored and reviled in equal measure, referred to as both the Elvis of cultural theory and the Borat of Philosophy, “the most dangerous philosopher in the West” and “the biggest box-office draw postmodernists have ever had.”
Love him or hate him, he is undeniably a prolific author and thinker, having written over 75 books and endless streams of articles, opinion pieces and more or less understandable rants on everything from Brexit and the refugee crisis to the hermeneutics of toilets.
His mad genius persona makes him bewilderingly hip among the younger crowd, despite often being infuriatingly indecipherable for anyone that doesn’t consider Hegel, Marx and Lacan to be his intellectual buddies. Somehow this middle-aged bearded philosopher became inextricably entwined with millennial culture, whether he’s lecturing at Occupy Wall street, hanging out with Julian Assange or stirring up rumours about himself and Lady Gaga.
(Yes, I know that’s technically four to six people, but bear with me.)
Another controversial Slovenian cultural export with a slightly obsessive following, Laibach is a… well, I suppose it’s a band, but it is also the musical part of NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst), a political art collective from 80’s Slovenia (then part of Yugoslavia). They created their own state, passports and all, put on countless exhibitions and multimedia events, were a strong influence on the music and aesthetics of Rammstein and love to court controversy with statements like “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.”
As an old-fashioned Rolling Stones girl I’m a bit out of my depth here as well, but this excerpt from the Telegraph summarizes Laibach pretty well:
“Laibach’s method is extremely simple, effective and horribly open to misinterpretation. First of all, they absorb the mannerisms of the enemy, adopting all the seductive trappings and symbols of state power, and then they exaggerate everything to the edge of parody.”
Laibach made news last year by being the first Western band to play a concert in North Korea to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Korean peninsula from Japanese control.
For a funny, if not entirely correct, take on the Laibach-in-Korea insanity, here’s John Oliver:
So here’s more or less how this works: ski jumpers climb up a really high jumping hill, then ski down the takeoff ramp as fast as possible and fling themselves headfirst into the air, relying on nothing but their aerodynamics and the laws of physics to FLY.
Peter Prevc is better at flinging himself off of jumping hills then just about anyone else – he is a former world record holder, being the first athlete in history to land a jump of 250 metres (820 ft) and the winner of the 2016 Ski Jumping World Cup. He generally specializes in ski flying (because jumping is for sissies) and has 33 jumps over 230 m (750 ft) and 12 jumps over 240 m (790 ft) to his name – by far the most of anyone in both categories.
With Tina Maze (below) currently taking a break from professional skiing, he is the nation’s darling of winter sports and my mother (along with many other Slovenian mothers, I would imagine) is still hoping that I end up marrying him.
That was one hell of a jump.
Ok, so we as a nation really like people that are good on skis, and you would not be the first person to mention that skiing competitions are about as much fun as watching paint dry. But this is Tina, and watching Tina ski is different.
One of the world’s leading figures in female skiing and a double winter Olympic champion, he’s our Serena Williams (only with more snow and fewer tennis rackets involved, obviously) – a fierce female athlete, unapologetically competitive and ambitious, and an absolute babe.
She became the world’s top skier in 2013, when she won the overall FIS crystal globe with a world record – both male and female – of 2,414 points in total. She followed that up with two golden medals at the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014.
Slakonja is Slovenian actor and comedian famous for his musical parodies. While his uncanny impersonations made him popular in Slovenia as long time ago, he went international in February of this year when he released the video “Putin, Putout” featuring Slakonja as Vladimir Putin performing a very catchy tune.
Just yesterday he released a new video, in which he plays none other than Slovenia’s least favourite son-in-law, Donald Trump. I guess we’ve come full circle!
Do you have any more suggestions?
Whoa, this post got a lot more attention than I had anticipated – looks like we’re all eager to set the record straight! 😉
I originally wrote this list as a bit of a joke, a rebuttal to my American friends who keep teasing me about the existence of Melania Trump as though we’ve elected her to be our national representative to the rest of the world.
Since this is primarily a travel blog I started with the adventurers that inspired me growing up (Martin Strel is my spirit animal!) and then more or less free-associated my way to number ten. But as the many comments you have left so far show, we have many more to be proud of!
It’s been great fun researching all these remarkable people, many of whom I was not very, or at all, familiar with.
Below is the honour roll:
SPORTS AND GENERAL BADASSERY
A cross-country skier who won 24 World Cup races. She was widely expected to win gold at the 2010 Winter Olympics, but got severely injured during the warm-up race, breaking four ribs. Despite excruciating pain she made it to the semifinals, where one of the broken ribs pierced her lung. Enough to put anyone in hospital, right? Not Majdič. With four broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a pheumothorax she still managed to win a bronze Olympic medal and life-long membership in the Hardcore Ladies Club.
Kopitar was probably the best-known Slovenian in the States in the pre-Trump era. He’s a hockey player with the LA Kings, and while I don’t know the first thing about hockey I have it on good authority that he’s kind of a big deal. He was named captain of the LA Kings in June 2016.
Robič was a soldier and endurance cyclist who made the Tour de France lot look like a bunch of grannies. He won the bat-shit insane Race Across America (cycling from the west to the east coast of the States in one go) five times. Robič lost his life in an accident in 2010, but you can hear excerpts from one of his races and an interview with him in this amazing Radiolab episode.
A peace activist and humanitarian worker best known for his work with the Nuba of Sudan. In his student years he travelled through Asia and Africa on a bicycle.
A world-class alpine climber with over 1200 ascents and numerous mountaineering awards to his name. Humar lost his life during 2009 solo ascent of Langtang Lirung in the Nepal Himalaya, but he is still revered in the climbing scene and his picture hangs in many bars around Kathmandu and Pokhara.
GORAN DRAGIĆ – A basketball player for the Miami Heat (NBA). Before that he played for the Phoenix Suns and the Houston Rockets. For more info click on his name and let Wikipedia inform you… I can’t even begin to understand any of the sports talk.
JAN OBLAK – Professional Football player who plays for Atlético Madrid.
DEJAN ZAVEC – Nicknamed Mr. Sympathicus, he is a (former) professional boxer who held the IBF welterweight title.
Štukelj was an athlete, gymnast and winner of six Olympic medals (three of those gold).
I remember watching a news report on him when I was a kid. He was in his mid-nineties back then, and what I remember most vividly is my amazement at seeing this ancient man doing one-armed pushups in the park. He maintained a workout routine until the end of his life and died four days short of his 101st birthday.
Another successful Slovenian gymnast is MIROSLAV CERAR who won two golden Olympic medals and one bronze. His son is the current prime minister of Slovenia (but I don’t think he’ll make it on this list unless he turns out to be really good at either skiing or climbing mountains as well).
Some of our other Olympic darlings are rowers LUKA ŠPIK and IZTOK ČOP and the shooter RAJMOND DEBEVEC, who won three Olymip medals (one gold and two bronze) and holds the world record for the 50 metre rifle three positions event.
One of our most accomplished writers, Pahor is internationally best known for his book Necropolis, an autobiographical novel that details his Holocaust experience and has been translated into 13 languages. He has received the French Order of the Legion of Honour, the Cross of Honour for Science and Art and has been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature – honestly I’m quite mortified that I didn’t think of him myself!
Jančar is one of the best-known contemporary Slovenian writers, with his various works having been translated into 21 languages.
Some other influential Slovenian authors whose work can be read in English are FERI LAINŠČEK, the wonderful satirist and children’s author FRAN MILČINSKI JEŽEK, the Slovenian-American journalist ALOJZ ADAMIČ (a.k.a. Louis Adamic) and of course the classics like FRANCE PREŠEREN (19th century poet and author of the Slovenian anthem) and IVAN CANKAR.
AVSENIKI (Ansambel Bratov Avsenik)
Avseniki were a folk-music quintet that practically invented the Oberkrain music style and have a huge fan base especially in central Europe. With over 32 million records sold, they are the best-selling Slovenian music artists and their hit Na Golici (Trompeten-echo in German) is the most often played piece of Polka music in history.
A cellist and one half of the duo 2Cellos who perform in sold-out shows worldwide and have also appeared on shows like Glee, the Ellen DeGeneres Show and the Tonight Show with Jay Leno. (this cello interpretation of Michael Jackson is great)
Speaking of Glee, PERPETUUM JAZZILE is an a capella choir that rocked Youtube with their amazing cover of “Africa” back in 2009, before Glee and Pitch Perfect even made it a thing. They have performed all over the world, in Europe, the States and even China.
SCIENTISTS,THINKERS AND VISIONARIES
JURIJ VEGA (1754 – 1802)
A mathematician, physicist and a pioneer of ballistics. His biggest contribution were his logarithm tables that were calculated to ten decimal places and remained in use around the world until the advent of calculators and computers. He was also the first person to calculate Pi to an accuracy of 1450 decimal places, a record that remained unbroken for 50 years. A crater on the moon has been named after him, as well as an asteroid.
JOŽEF STEFAN (1835 – 1893)
Stefan was an incredibly prolific physicist who made many seminal contributions to the therman sciences and is the namesake of an important scientific constant, a physical law, and a series of dimensionless variables. He was the first to accurately measure the thermal conductivity of gases.
HERMAN POTOČNIK (1892 – 1929)
A Slovenian rocket engineer and pioneer od cosmonautics who worked under the pseudonym Hermann Noordung. His 1928 book The Problem of Space Travel discussed the practicalities of human habitation in space, including detailed designs for a space station considered to be the first example of space architecture. He was the first to recognize the significance of the geostationary orbit (used by many contemporary communication and weather satellites).
JOSIP PLEMELJ – A mathematician whose main contributions where to the theory of analytic functions and the application of integral equations to potential theory (er… no wonder he wasn’t on my list, I don’t understand any of these words).
ANDREJ DETELA – A theoretical physicist globally acknowledged for his work in innovation of robotics and electric motors. Academically his main interest lies in the concept of synthropy, the self-organizing ability of nature.
IGOR AKRAPOVIČ – Ex car racer and founder of the eponymous company for motorcycle exhaust systems. Akrapovič exhaust systems have been used in over 40 world championships across the world.
JANA KOLAR – Chemist, currently the executive director of CERIC-ERIC (European Research Infreastructure Consortium)
PETRA ROTER – An influential researcher and professor in the fields of political science and international relations focusing on minority protection, ethnic diversity management and international conflict management.
ARTISTS AND OTHER CREATIVE TYPES
Every tourist that marvels at the beauty of Ljubljana’s old city centre is, often unknowingly, a fan of the architect Jože Plečnik. In addition to designing many of the iconic buildings and landmarks in Ljubljana he also worked in Vienna, Bergrade and Prague and influenced avant-garde Czech Cubism.
Artist and architect who was ranked among the 10 most important contemporary artists by Newsweek in 2011. Her work has been exhibited throughout Europe and the States and she has developed numerous sustainable solutions to problems faced in various parts of the world, from dry toilets in Venezuelan slums to water jugs in Africa that can also absorb the force of land mines.
TOMAŽ PANDUR – A visionary theatre director with a signature aesthetic who worked in theatres in Slovenia, New York, Paris, Berlin, Zagreb and Madrid. For a visual treat click here to see the photographs of Pandur’s work taken by Slovenian photographer Aljoša Rebolj.
LARA BOHINC – A London-based jewellery designer whose work is worn by the likes of Madonna, Cameron Diaz, Maria Sharapova and Kate Moss and who has collaborated with companies like Gucci, Lanvin and Laroche.
NIKA ZUPANC – Internationally acclaimed product and interior designer who has worked with companies like Moooi, Sé and Dior.
ŽELJKO IVANEK – Slovenian-American actor who has appeared in movies like Argo, Donnie Brasco, In Bruges and The Bourne Legacy, and series like Heroes, True Blood and Suits.
ANA ROŠ – A chef who is starring in the Netflix documentary series “Chef’s Table”, which focuses on a different world-renowned chef in each episode.
MATJAŽ KRIVIC – The acclaimed photographer who won second prize (category singles) in the World Press Photo 2016 contest.
MARKO POGAČNIK – Artist and sculpturor who designed the official coat of arms of Slovenia and is the 2016 UNESCO artist for peace.
Thanks for all your contributions!!
P.s.: I will not be expanding the list again, because I think I filled my googling/linking quota for this year 😉