After Charlie Hebdo, Chamonix-Aspen Sister Cities exchange program takes on more meaning |

After Charlie Hebdo, Chamonix-Aspen Sister Cities exchange program takes on more meaning

Catherine Lutz
Special to The Aspen Times
Seventeen middle school students from Collège Roger Frison-Roche in Chamonix are in Aspen this week on a Sister Cities exchange, staying with host families and getting to know Aspen. Later this winter, 15 local kids from the host families will travel to Chamonix for the second part of the exchange.
Catherine Lutz/The Aspen Times |

CHAMONIX, France — This week, 17 French middle school students arrive in Aspen as part of the annual Sister Cities school exchange with Chamonix. They bring with them their preconceived notions of the United States: “Everything is bigger — the roads, the sidewalks, the houses,” and they have in their young minds many of the familiar stereotypes about Aspen: “Everyone is very rich.” “There’s lots of celebrities.” “The mountains are big.” “It’s a ski resort with a worldwide reputation.”

But these 13- and 14-year-olds have a bit more insight into Aspen than most of their peers, thanks to a Sister Cities relationship that’s nearly three decades old and that’s touched hundreds of other students, teachers and families.

“Aspen makes me think of a place that’s super big, but not big at the same time,” Zian Forte said.

“The locals have a collective spirit,” Emma Tahir said, referencing the recent fundraising effort for a new Aspen Community School.

During the eight-day program, the students, all from College Roger Frison-Roche in Chamonix, will be housed with host families, whose same-age children will do the same when they travel to Chamonix this spring for the second part of the exchange. They’ll attend school for half the day and explore Aspen through various activities, such as skiing and visiting the Aspen Historical Society.

Because it’s Chamonix’ only student-travel program that uses host families, it allows the teenagers — and by extension the families involved — to get to know another culture, another way of living and another society in an in-depth and personal way that they wouldn’t get from other exchanges or if they were to travel to Aspen on their own.

“It doesn’t last just one week,” is how Alexandre Beaufour sees it. He pointed out that after his Aspen counterpart comes to Chamonix, their families will have spent some time together and most likely will form a long-term relationship.

“It’s about creating ties,” Clara Choupin agreed.

And that’s one of the main goals of the Sister Cities program, said Jacques Tomei, who has directed the exchange for Chamonix since its beginnings. At the urging of Roby Albouy, a native Chamoniard who had moved to Aspen, Tomei brought a group of students to Aspen in 1987. The idea of creating some sort of official, lasting ties sprung from the commonalities the two mountain valleys shared — many skiers, climbers and mountaineers lived or spent time in both, and they faced similar issues as resorts. Two years later, Tomei led another group to Aspen, and the Sister Cities relationship became formalized.

The school exchange, the foundation of the program, has grown to include high school students in recent years. And for about 20 years, the two mountain towns have exchanged ski patrollers, who stay and work the entire ski season. That exchange has in many cases allowed entire families to experience the other town, Tomei points out — including babies being born during the exchange and children spending a good part of the school year in the other’s education system.

The program “opens another civilization” to those who participate, Tomei said, and especially for the young people involved, it “opens up their lives.”

After many years and numerous exchanges, hundreds of people in the Aspen and Chamonix communities have been touched by the program, Tomei pointed out, including family members, the volunteer committees that coordinate and execute the programming, and businesses and organizations that participate. Beyond that, many participants return to their sister city for work or other reasons. One member of the first group of students in 1987, now a teacher, recently brought his students to Aspen on an exchange.

On the Aspen side, Francesca MacPherson, longtime chairwoman of the Chamonix-Aspen committee and a former concierge, works tirelessly to ensure that everyone connected to the exchanges feels welcome when they land in their new town. This often includes relentless cajoling for free or reduced cost meals, affordable housing and jobs.

But the students’ responsibilities are bigger than their own experiences.

Tomei said he always reminds the students at their orientation session before leaving for Aspen the importance of their role.

“They are ambassadors for Chamonix and for France,” Tomei said. “There are no political considerations; it’s about international friendship.”

This year, that responsibility weighs on the students more than usual. It’s been less than three weeks since the attack on Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris and the killings that ensued — an event that impacted the country like 9/11 did for Americans. And while the Chamonix students are quick to laugh about their impressions of the United States and Aspen, they pause thoughtfully when asked how they would talk about the French tragedy.

“It was horrible … Je suis Charlie!” said Elisa Cottet after a lengthy silence, repeating the catchphrase of solidarity that has become ubiquitously displayed here and throughout France.

“It was an attack on our freedom of expression, but it hurt the whole world,” Emma Tahir said.

“It showed that our country could come together in solidarity,” said Anastasia Matillat, referring to the massive demonstrations in Paris and other cities. “There have been other attacks, but we didn’t really talk about them — maybe we will now.”

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