Don't Call Us Slovaks
Here are some of the things that my current home, Slovenia, has been confused with: Slovakia, Transylvania, Siberia, Slavonia, Yugoslavia, and Sepultura. Well, maybe not the last one, but definitely the others -- especially Slovakia. You can't really blame people. Slovenia and Slovakia have nearly identical flags, are both Slavic, both Eastern European, both small, and both appeared on European maps about 15 years ago. In 1993, Slovakia quietly and amicably divorced the Czech Republic; in 1991, Slovenia walked out of a violent polygamous relationship with Croatia, Serbia, and the other members of Yugoslavia.
I arrived in Slovenia in 2001. Before that I was in New York City, where I studied journalism at NYU and did brief stints at Bloomberg and the online edition of the Wall Street Journal. I moved over here to be with my then girlfriend and now wife, Katarina. The whole "separated by the Atlantic Ocean" thing was always tiresome, but eventually it grew unbearable. We decided to finally do something about it. In truth, it wasn't too difficult for me to make the jump. I'm from one of those restless families that move every few years. My father worked for a German shipping company that regularly dispatched him from port to port, first across the American South (Savannah, New Orleans, Houston) and then up to New York and later on to such far-flung places as Singapore and Hamburg. I never really got a taste for stability and roots. I couldn't even hold still when I got to college; I spent my undergraduate years at three different universities, where I also went through majors the way most people flip through Sunday-afternoon television.
Nevertheless, my friends were still a bit surprised that I would even consider leaving a bustling metropolis like New York for an obscure patch of mountainous Europe like Slovenia. Many of them probably weren't sure how to picture the place, but guessed it might have something to do with the word "slovenly." (It doesn't.) Or that it was some bleak, post-socialist nightmare, with lots of rundown coal factories and long bread lines. (It's not.) Or that it was the Republic of Slovakia. (It ain't.)
It really isn't. And yet: The Slovenia/Slovakia conundrum has managed to confuse just about everyone and their hard-to-fool sister. In the United States, almost every major media outlet has jumbled the two at one point, including heavyweights like the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and USA Today. It's also claimed high-profile victims like President George W. Bush, who famously mistook a Slovenian politician for a Slovak.
There are also practical consequences. Last year, for example, Slovakia got about 1,300 pounds of mail intended for Slovenia -- the equivalent of a full-sized West Indian manatee. (I'm pretty sure that a few ounces of that were intended for me.)
When I arrived here, I assumed that the mixup was only a problem outside of Europe. But in fact, even Slovenia's neighbors seem to have trouble with it. I've met people in the borderlands of both Austria and Italy who not only didn't know where Slovenia was, but had never even heard of it before. It's like telling a Californian you're from Oregon and hearing: "Ore-what? Ore-where? You mean oregano? Isn't that an herb? Get out of here! Really? Oregon?"
To satisfy some of my friends' curiosity, I started writing long e-mails explaining what I was seeing and what it was like here. (Imagine Italian, Austrian and Slavic influences all swirled up together, then shrunk down to a place the size of New Jersey. With mountains.) But I noticed that I was often repeating myself. Regularly.
After a while, I decided to put up all my observations on a single source: a blog. I started The Glory of Carniola (Carniola is the Latin name for an old Slovenian region) in January 2004. When I started, I could find one other blogger in the entire country. Since then, blogging has boomed. There are now upwards of 165 Slovenian bloggers, plus an additional 72 writing in foreign languages. (Mostly in English, but also in languages like Spanish and German.) More appear every week.
It's double-plus good, in that it's hard enough to find any kind of information about this country. There are places like the official tourism agency or some news sources that will tell you about local political developments, but I think it's increasingly bloggers who are taking their place (for better or for worse) as the country's representatives abroad.
Just please don't call us Slovaks.