December 26 is celebrated as Independence and Unity Day in Slovenia. This national holiday is also the perfect opportunity for visiting the president of Slovenia.
The doors of the Presidential Palace in Ljubljana are open to the public as a way of celebrating the vote in 1990 for Slovenia to form an independent country. The actual referendum was held on December 23rd but the results weren’t announced until the day after Christmas, with nearly 95 percent of voters choosing to break away from Yugoslavia.
Open House at the Presidential Palace
The Open Houses started during the first term of Slovenian President Borut Pahor. He was still in office at the time of my visit in 2018. The crowd size is limited for security reasons. The invitation on the president’s website and social media said the first 200 people would be admitted to a ceremony and tour beginning at 11am.
Taking my place outside Slovenia’s equivalent of the White House at 10:15 was enough to get ticket #78. After passing through metal detectors, we moved up a grand staircase to the reception hall. The room was full by the time Mr. Pahor entered with his domestic partner, Tanja Pečar.
After the playing of the national anthem, the president made some brief remarks in Slovene about the meaning of this holiday. He asked the children seated on the floor in the front rows to carry on the desire for an independent Slovenia that began with their great-grandparents. He wished everyone a happy new year and then clapped along as singer Ina Shai entertained the crowd with songs in Slovene and English.
Photo Opportunity with President Borut Pahor
Then it was time for the tour. Breaking down the crowd into smaller groups of about 40, protocol staffers moved visitors through a series of rooms in the office wing of the palace. Mr. Pahor stood ready to great them from behind the working desk in his office, posing for pictures and inviting the crowd to ask him questions.
Slovenes are notoriously shy about speaking up in such situations. Pahor smiled warmly whenever a child would ask something; a few of the braver ones ventured behind the desk to sit in the president’s chair for a photo opportunity.
And then it was my turn. The security aide waved me forward for a photo with the President and Ms. Pečar. As I shook the president’s hand I told him in my halting Slovene, “Jaz sem iz Amerike.” His face lit up in surprise as he responded in Slovene, and I had to summon my son to translate. “I’m a journalist,” I said in my best basic Slovene. Without missing a beat Pahor responded in English, “Nobody’s perfect.” This drew polite laughter from the crowd.
“I couldn’t do this with the American president,” I said. Pahor went on to describe his cordial meetings with the President and Melania Trump, the Slovenia-born US First Lady. “He had the good sense to marry a Slovenian,” I said, again prompting some laughs. I handed off my camera to a nearby aide, who snapped some nice photos of the moment.
Pahor told me he had invited the Trumps to visit Slovenia and has also extended an invitation to Pope Francis. Then he asked if my son and I were visiting for the holidays. Andrew explained in Slovene that he lives in Ljubljana. Pahor asked which country he prefers and seemed surprised when Andrew declared that he prefers Slovenia to the United States
I mentioned that my grandparents had come from Slovenia but didn’t have time to add that we are dual citizens through our ancestry. Nor were we able to mention that Andrew is a writer who’s working on a historical fiction based in part upon what might have happened in the Presidential Palace during Slovenia’s 10-Day War for Independence.
Thanks, Mr. President
The tour wound through a few more working offices before reaching a ceremonial corridor where gifts from visiting dignitaries were on display. As we returned to the staircase, an aide invited each person to take an ice cream bar from a tray. For Andrew and me, the event was a pleasant two-hour experience.
According to the official headcount, more than 500 people took part in the event, which means Pahor was on duty much longer, with Ms. Pečar reacting and smiling alongside him the entire time.
This photogenic 55-year-old politician seems at ease with people and cameras. It’s not surprising to learn he did some modeling during his college years. Pahor is a former prime minister now serving his second term as president. He has embraced the largely ceremonial role with an active presence on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
This isn’t a time to attempt a deeper analysis of Slovenia’s complicated politics. I’ll simply thank the President and First Lady for making a couple of new citizens feel welcome.
Terry’s Travel Tips
Presidential open houses are announced on the official website of the President’s office in Slovene. The entire ceremony was conducted in Slovene and a tourist who doesn’t speak the language would have difficulty understanding what was going on. It’s an opportunity for Slovenes to take pride in their country’s independence, not a tourist attraction.
The entrance was on Erjačeva Cesta 17, not the official entrance on Prešernova Cesta where armed sentries stand guard. Simply join the crowd and you’ll be handed a ticket. There was no attempt to form a line and no one asked for my ID, although I would recommend bringing one just in case. I stay with my son in Ljubljana, but the Presidential Palace is an easy walk from Ljubljana’s pedestrian center, with many hotels to choose from.
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