In July, 2000, two mayors – one from Thonon les Bains, France and the other from Mercer Island – signed a proclamation declaring that their cities would be “sister cities,” pledging mutual friendship, respect and commitment to forging a long and productive sister city relationship.
It was a leap of faith. No one knew if the “twinning” would last.
But 20 years later, Mercer Island and Thonon les Bains, France, remain strong sisters, and the relationship is deep and enduring.
In February, a delegation of 16 adults from Mercer Island traveled to Thonon les Bains to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the “jumelage” (sister city twinning) between the two cities, and to lay the groundwork for the next 20 years.
During a five-day stay in Thonon, the group toured the city, visited the Chateau de Ripaille and the Thursday market, and visited the new cultural center and city library created in a former convent from the 17th century. They toured Thonon’s water treatment plant, as well as the nearby Evian water factory. They toured Switzerland’s last operating salt mine and spent a day in the mountains in the resort of Les Gets. One evening a troupe of singers and dancers in vintage costumes performed to the traditional music of the Haute Savoie region. On another evening, the group was entertained by a talented jazz trio.
“The people of Thonon were wonderfully welcoming,” said Roberta Lewandowski, president of the Mercer Island Sister city Association. “And we learned a lot about their cultural history as well as current government systems. It was a very educational trip.”
There were informal opportunities to ask questions and discuss similarities and differences between the two cities, and to talk about possible future exchanges. It was, by all accounts, also a very fun trip – with lots of food and wine and cheese. It should be noted that all participants, including Mayor Benson Wong, paid their own expenses.
One moving event was visiting a knoll in the mountains above Thonon, where in 1944 an American B-17 shot down by Germans managed to crash-land with only one engine. All nine crew members survived and were taken by members of the French Resistance to safety in nearby Switzerland. There’s a tiny chapel at the site, with plaques commemorating the event, symbols of the gratitude of the French for the role of the U.S. in World War II.
The highlight of the delegation was a ceremony in Thonon’s Hotel de Ville, during which Thonon mayor Jean Denais and Mercer Island’s Mayor Benson Wong signed official documents rededicating their cities to the continuing Sister City relationship. In an exchange of gifts, the Mercer Island Sister City Association gave to Thonon a piece of custom glass art depicting mountains, a lake and bridge, engraved to mark the anniversary. The City of Thonon gave to Mercer Island a large original painting of three sailboats on a lake, which likely will be displayed in City Hall.
Jane Meyer Brahm handles publicity and communication for the Mercer Island Sister City Association.