A few years ago, Valeria Chambers, clerk of Lynchburg City Council, told a coworker she’d like to travel abroad someday.
As it turns out, the coworker was a member of Lynchburg Sister City–Plus, a local nonprofit that promotes cultural exchange and general goodwill between people in Lynchburg and its sister cities, Rueil-Malmaison, France, and Glauchau, Germany.
“She said, ‘I belong to this group called Sister Cities,’” Chambers recalled. “I’d heard of it, and she said, ‘We’re having a picnic. You can come with me and be my guest and find out more.’”
Chambers went to the picnic and then joined Lynchburg Sister City–Plus. The group is part of Sister Cities International, an organization created in 1956 by President Dwight Eisenhower. Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, thought future wars might be prevented if people from other countries just got to know each other better.
Since 1956, 545 U.S. communities have been paired with sister cities in 145 countries—2,121 total partnerships. Some cities, like Lynchburg, have more than one sister city. Lynchburg partnered with Rueil-Malmaison in 1996 and Glauchau in 2007.
This year, Lynchburg celebrates the 20th anniversary of its relationship with Rueil-Malmaison. In the spring, a delegation from the French city, including Mayor Patrick Ollier, will travel to Lynchburg to celebrate.
“We decided to have it [in 2017] with the new city manager and new mayor and vice mayor,” Bert Dodson, president of Lynchburg Sister City–Plus, said, adding, “We’re looking forward to that event.”
In addition to special events like the French mayor’s visit, Lynchburg Sister City–Plus hosts social gatherings and fundraisers throughout the year. Lynchburgers also have traveled to both Rueil-Malmaison and Glauchau, and people from the sister cities have visited the Hill City, too.
In 2013, for example, a choir from Glauchau performed three concerts in Lynchburg. The concerts included songs in German and English, including gospel music. “That was really fun, hearing Germans singing gospel,” said Angelia Mibus, who with husband Manfred serves as Lynchburg’s liaison with Glauchau. “That was fun. They were really terrific.”
There also have been exchanges of firefighters, police officers and students; in October, four firefighters from Glauchau will visit Lynchburg.
Lynchburg Fire Chief Brad Ferguson visited Rueil-Malmaison several years ago with a group of Lynchburg firefighters.
“I certainly enjoyed it,” he said. “Sightseeing [at] different places around Paris. We took a bus trip to Normandy and really enjoyed that. We had some free time to do what you like. It was a really good trip.”
In times of crisis, Lynchburg and its sister cities have reached out to each other. After the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015, for instance, Lynchburg Sister City–Plus held a vigil at Monument Terrace. It was filmed, and the video was made available to the people of Rueil-Malmaison, which is a suburb of Paris.
“That’s one of the reasons Mayor Ollier is coming to see us, because they were just taken aback by the vigil we had,” Dodson said, adding, “It showed how we felt about what went on in relation to the attacks that happened, since a number of us have been to Rueil in the past and made many friends over the years.”
Soon after she joined Lynchburg Sister City–Plus, Chambers learned the group was planning a trip to Rueil-Malmaison. She wanted to go and asked longtime friend Pat Gentry if she’d like to join her. Gentry, who had recently moved back home to Lynchburg, had heard about Sister City from Chambers.
“She was telling me about belonging to Sister City, and she was talking about going to Paris and all, and I was telling her, ‘I think I’d like to go. That would be a nice trip,’” Gentry said. “So one day, she just called me and said, ‘Pat, are you ready to go to Paris?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ and she said, ‘I’m going, and I need a companion to go with me,’ so I volunteered and I went.”
Chambers, Gentry, Dodson and about a dozen others from Lynchburg traveled to Rueil-Malmaison in October 2012. While there, they toured many sights, among them the local history museum, Saint-Pierre Saint-Paul Church, and Chateau de Malmaison, home of Napoleon Bonaparte’s wife Josephine.
“It’s a very attractive place to visit, and it’s on the road of the impressionist painters,” Francoise Watts, Lynchburg’s liaison with Rueil-Malmaison, said of the chateau, adding the empress was known for “importing plants and trees from the new world” and for her “elegant lifestyle.”
The group also traveled to Normandy, where U.S. military forces landed on D-Day. Gentry, who retired from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said visiting Omaha Beach was “so emotional.” She said she’d read about the “Bedford Boys,” but “once you visit, it was just heartbreaking.”
In Central Virginia, Watts said, the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford is a must-see for those visiting from Rueil-Malmaison. “The people of Rueil-Malmaison love the relationship with Lynchburg because of the proximity of the memorial in Bedford,” she said.
“When they come … they will ask to go and reflect at the memorial. They are very thankful to Americans for the role they played in the liberation of France and the liberation of Paris, and somehow Lynchburg is a symbol of that relationship.”
During the week-long trip in 2012, the Lynchburg delegation stayed with host families, which is a big part of Sister City.
“The idea of Sister City is for people to get to know people from other countries in their family environment,” Watts said. “The idea is not to stay in a hotel [but] to get to know the families.”
Chambers and Gentry stayed with a couple and their children. Having never traveled out of the U.S. before, Gentry said spending time with the host family was “pretty interesting.” From how the two women described it, the cultural differences were also interesting, sometimes humorous.
For example, Chambers said, if you bought a chicken at the market in Lynchburg, it would be wrapped in plastic wrap. In France, it’s in a brown paper bag. And bread goes directly on the table, no bread plate. “What they said about the Americans was we’re too clean,” she said.
Before traveling to France, members of the Lynchburg delegation were instructed about customs and etiquette. One tip was, “Meals last for a long time and are typically served in a sequence of courses; so do not fill up too fast: there is more to come!”
For Gentry, this was a new experience. “It just took so long to eat dinner,” she said. “I thought we’d never finish dinner because they would bring one thing, and you’d sit there and eat that and drink wine and talk, and then it seemed 15 minutes later they’d bring you something else and you’d eat that and sit there.
“I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, do these people ever stop drinking wine
Staying with host families not only helps travelers better experience another culture, it also keeps costs down. “Traveling does not have to be expensive,” Watts said. “When you travel with Sister City, you stay with families. You don’t pay for hotels. … It’s not the same expenses as if you were a tourist, living in hotels and having to go to a restaurant all the time.”
Watts said traveling with Sister City can be “very affordable,” particularly if you have airline miles and are able to travel at times of the year when flights are cheaper, such as early fall and early spring.
“There are a lot of creative ways to travel, and you just have to understand that when you are there, you have friends,” she said. “You have friends to take care of you for an extended period of time. So that’s a very generous way of traveling, a very creative way of traveling.”
As for Chambers, who is now the secretary for Lynchburg Sister City–Plus, she’s looking forward to traveling abroad again. “Now, I’m trying to go to Germany,” she said.
Lynchburg Sister City–Plus membership is open to everyone. Annual dues range from $25 for students to $100 for patrons.
Funds are primarily used to cover expenses related to visitors from the sister cities and with student exchanges. For more information, visit www.lynchburgsistercity.org.
By Suzanne Ramsey