A Global Community
On a recent afternoon, 14 middle school students from Chamonix, France, gathered at the Aspen Historical Society for a presentation on the history of Native Americans in the Roaring Fork Valley. The Historical Society’s Nina Gabianelli told the French audience the creation story of the Utes — the tribe native to Aspen and western Colorado — and of early encounters between Utes and whites. The stories touched on themes of miscommunication: how different belief systems around natural resources led to division, fighting and, ultimately, the Utes’ banishment to reservations.
Then Skyler Lomahaftewa, a Ute tribal member and valley resident, spoke to the students about his tribe and culture. He told them a story about meeting French people in Brittany whose dance and customs were similar to his people’s — and how their found commonalities helped them form a bond. The French students, who had most likely never met a Native American before, peppered Lomahaftewa with questions about his traditional dress, the song he’d sung for them, and how he felt about the whites taking his tribes’ land.
“It’s cool — you can’t do anything to change the past,” replied Lomahaftewa, adding that while some Native Americans still harbor resentment for their people’s unfair treatment, it’s more important to find ways to live together today.
For the Chamonix students, who were visiting for 10 days as part of an Aspen Sister Cities exchange with the ski town in the French Alps, it was one of several unique, memorable American experiences. But excursions like this one and the format of the exchange — the French students were hosted by the families of Aspen eighth-graders whom they, in turn, hosted in Chamonix in March — all seek to fulfill the Sister Cities mission: promoting mutual respect and understanding through international people-to-people relationships.
In a nutshell, “It’s promoting world peace, one student at a time,” Aspen Sister Cities committee member Jill Sheeley said. Though Sheeley was invoking the words of her late husband, Don Sheeley, who served as president of the committee for about two decades, all of those involved with the organization seem to share what sounds like quite a lofty goal.
Especially these days, “We can’t expect the initiative of world peace to come from government — it’s up to us citizens,” said current Aspen Sister Cities President Danno Lahr, who got involved on the committee after his “transformative” experience on a ski patrol exchange to Chamonix during the 2015-16 winter. “If you have friends all over the world, you’re less likely to go to war.”
Aspen’s Family Tree
The concept of pairing up with another city or town has its roots in the post-World War II era of international reconciliation, to try to head off such devastating wars in the future. In the United States, it gained steam when President Dwight Eisenhower backed a citizen diplomacy movement in the 1950s that evolved into Sister Cities International — the umbrella organization of which most local sister cities committees, including Aspen’s, are members.
Aspen has seven sister cities, more than any other Colorado town or city except Denver. Its first, the German ski-resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, was established in 1966 by then-Mayor Bugsy Barnard, at the urging of Gretl Uhl, a Garmisch transplant who ran the on-mountain restaurant now called Bonnie’s and introduced Aspen to her native culture through her strudel.
It wasn’t until some 20 years later that Aspen adopted its second and third sister cities: Chamonix and Davos, Switzerland. The idea of having a consortium of sister cities and giving Aspen kids opportunities to connect with communities around the world interested then-mayor Bill Stirling, who ended up establishing four of the seven sister city relationships during his tenure. As for how they were chosen, it made sense to have some things in common, so, according to Stirling, they used the FIS ski-racing schedule as a reference point.
Stirling convinced Aspen City Council to fund an exploratory visit to Chamonix, Davos and two towns in Italy. On the recommendation of his wife Margaret, Roby Albouy, a Chamoniard-turned-Aspenite who had been part of the French resistance in World War II, was chosen as Aspen’s emissary. The trip was a success in terms of recruiting Chamonix and Davos as sister cities (the two Italian towns didn’t pan out), and in 1987 Chamonix sent a group of students to Aspen.
Leading that group of students was Jacques Tomei, a teacher (now principal of a school in the Chamonix valley) who has facilitated some 15 exchanges over the past 30 years as the lead for the French city’s Aspen relationship. Tomei, too, is firm in his belief that the student exchanges are key to the program — the experiences often open the young people’s minds and lives to other cultures, he said.
“It’s important because it’s a direct exchange — family to family — for a complete immersion,” Tomei said.
Next under Stirling’s watch was Shimukappu, a village with a nearby ski area on Hokkaido, Japan, and then Queenstown, New Zealand, a four-season resort that, like Aspen, was born as a mining camp. Both also have well-established student exchanges with Aspen.
In the early 2000s, shortly after Aspen established its sixth sister city relationship with the Argentinian resort of Bariloche, Argentina entered into a period of economic crisis, during which the government drastically reduced funding of, among other things, Bariloche’s hospitals. Aspen and Bariloche medical professionals took the bull by the horns and, in partnership with Aspen Valley Hospital, Aspen Valley Medical Foundation and Aspen Sister Cities, sent shipments of medical supplies to the Andes. That was the seed of the annual Aspen-Bariloche Medical Exchange Program, which to this day has seen 15 exchanges of doctors and other medical personnel who help improve patient care in both communities through the exchange of knowledge. Bariloche is Aspen’s most active exchange, with regular student, ski patrol and medical exchanges, as well as a fledgling artist exchange through The Art Base in Basalt.
In 2015, Aspen officially signed on its seventh sister city — Abetone, a ski resort in Italy’s Tuscany region — after three years of trial student exchanges. This past winter, the resorts swapped ski patrollers for the first time for an abbreviated (two-week) version of the season-long patrol exchange Aspen has with Chamonix and Bariloche. Lahr, who patrols at Snowmass, enthused about how cool it was to have four mountain ranges — the Rockies, Alps, Andes, and Italian Appenines — represented in the Snowmass locker room at one point. (Although Highlands was hosting the Chamonix pisteur this season, a patroller who had done the exchange a few years ago had managed to return with a job at Snowmass.)
Although he’s pleased with Aspen’s thriving sister cities relationships, Lahr would like to expand the exchanges, as well as participation in them and their visibility in the community. On a recent trip back to Europe, he looked into the possibility of exchanging librarians and supermarket checkout people — essentially broadening the exchanges’ scope to include people who, due to financial or time constraints, may not otherwise be able to do it. Lahr would like to see more citizen-driven, shorter-term exchanges — like the Abetone patrol swap — that do not have to go through the often-strangling levels of bureaucracy that season-long exchanges do (think international work visas, insurance considerations, and other HR hurdles). And in this day and age, Lahr would like to leverage technology — such as creating a home-exchange database and other peer-to-peer systems — to further the programs.
Stirling also sees the continued benefit of sister cities relationships. His 30-year perspective includes several success stories: a patroller who still talks of the influence of his 1990s exchange, and one of the first teachers to exchange to Shimakappu who is now teaching on a reservation in Arizona. On a recent trip through Bariloche, Stirling visited with a doctor who had participated in a medical exchange, and who had taken some ideas about affordable housing back to his community along with medical knowledge.
“I think every opportunity we have to find the positive side of globalization — finding the similarities between people and appreciating our differences — in the long term is good for peace in the world,” Stirling said. “And today, there’s not enough of that going on.”
During their Aspen visit, the Chamonix students were invited to their American counterparts’ classrooms and schools (both the Aspen public schools and Aspen Country Day were represented in this exchange), and they spent plenty of free time with their Aspen host families. While their itinerary included several uniquely Colorado experiences — Ashcroft ghost town, Smuggler Mine and camping in Colorado National Monument, among others — what struck them most were the little difference in day-to-day life.
“The school is very free here,” said Liam Burnet, 14, who was one of several Chamonix students to compare their middle school (called a collège in French) to a jail. In fact, the Chamonix school does have bars on the windows and lots of locked doors, which, as one chaperone explained, is not only for safety but simply from the ingrained French habit of always locking up.
Besides the physical differences, French students were taken aback at how informally their American counterparts relate to their teachers and school administrators — calling them by their first names, for example — while the Aspen kids, conversely, were surprised at how formal that relationship seems in France.
Aspen Middle School student Jack Fox, 14, recalled being in a Chamonix classroom when the school principal came in. All the French students stood up. “We didn’t stand up, and he got mad,” Fox said. The Aspen group also noticed that French students always addressed school officials with honorifics and are not allowed to wear hats in school.
True to what they’d heard before they came, the French students commented on how much bigger things are in America: streets, cars, refrigerators, food portions. Yet they were pleased to see the stereotype of fat Americans busted in Aspen. One was beyond excited to see a bear. And both commented heavily on the other culture’s food — the French kids thrilled with egg and pancake breakfasts but grossed out by peanut butter and jelly, and the Americans raving about croissants, the raw bacon-like bits that season many dishes (lardons), and hourlong, three-course school lunches.
Yet for all the little differences — in geography, food and customs — the student pairs in general developed strong friendships with each other and their families during the two exchange trips, and they readily expressed those sentiments along with their gratitude at an Aspen Sister Cities committee meeting during which they shared their experiences.
“You are the greatest family and I don’t want to leave,” Margot Compois said to Aspen’s Isabella Haneman and her family at the meeting, at which plenty of “I love you’s” were heard. “You must come back to my house.”
Jake Morgan, 13, of Aspen Middle School said that what he would remember most is hanging out with his French family, the Burnets. “And it really works on your people skills, because you walk right into a family that you didn’t know before,” he added.
Both sides acknowledged that the exchanges are vastly different than a vacation to a new country.
“You’re not on the outside looking in, you’re inside. It’s a whole different perspective,” said Aspen-Chamonix chair John Armstrong, who had done a ski patrol exchange in the early 1990s and still keeps in touch with the friends he made there. His now-adult daughter, who was born in Chamonix, also developed and maintains friendships from that time.
Aspen Elementary French and Spanish teacher Jenny Beltman, a chaperone and co-chair of the Chamonix exchange, noticed that there’s a ripple effect from the exchanged pairs. Siblings, parents and schoolmates often develop relationships with the exchangees, as well.
“It’s a one-on-one exchange, but it affects the whole community,” Beltman said.
Several of the chaperones and organizers agreed that this is a particularly important moment in history to have such programs as the sister cities exchanges. Referring to the Trump administration’s America-first foreign policy, Catherine Menagere, an English teacher at the Chamonix school who has chaperoned a half-dozen exchanges over the years, argued emphatically against this idea.
“It’s really important to fight against this building of walls,” she said. “In Europe, we got rid of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago — we don’t want walls anywhere in the world. And I think language is a way to prevent these walls to be built.”
World peace may not be top of mind for the exchange students, but by making friends in another country and having a window into another culture, it’s definitely planting the seed.