Not long ago, while a few of the presidents of Buffalo’s collection of international Sister Cities got together to brainstorm, the head of the Kanazawa, Japan, group started to hum “La Vie en rose,” and suddenly it was settled. The song about how love makes life rosy would be the theme of next Friday’s 14th annual banquet tribute to Buffalo’s warm relationships with 18 municipal siblings from Dortmund, Germany, to Rzeszow, Poland, Changzhou, China, and Ocho Rios in St. Ann Parish, Jamaica.
“I jumped on it,” said Jean Gounard, the SUNY Buffalo State professor in charge of Lille, France. He figured people from all over the world know the old Edith Piaf tune that will be alluded to with roses arranged on Buffalo Yacht Club tables.
“There’s a worldwide feeling of the beauty of life,” he said, thinking of the connections between cultures. “I know I’m romantic … ”
More good reasons for the theme came to him as he thought. This year was the 50th anniversary of the “Élysée Treaty,” also called the Treaty of Friendship, between France and Germany. To prevent more wars, the agreement set up collaborations between the countries. U.S. Sister Cities International uses similar logic.
“People-to-people diplomacy is the best and most effective means of keeping the peace in world,” said Takako Michii, president of the Kanazawa Sister City committee, echoing the 1956 motive of President Dwight Eisenhower when he launched the city-to-city program of goodwill visits and student exchanges.
It took hold. The Sister Cities website now lists 600 U.S. member cities with 2,000 community partnerships in 136 countries. Buffalo’s 18 cities in 16 countries include Siena and Torremaggiore, Italy; Bursa, Turkey, and Muhanga, Rwanda. (The currently inactive Kiryat Gat, Israel, is in need of a leader.)
“By knowing people in other countries, it kind of opens up the world to us a little bit. It enables friendships back and forth,” said Joe Roetter, president of the Dortmund, Germany, Sister City committee, who has helped plan the $30 dinner that starts at 6 p.m. Friday. “I think people are much more understanding of each other. They seem to be a little more compassionate. It also makes the world a little bigger.”
Roetter, who retired 10 years ago from teaching social studies at City Honors School, still hears from the dozen Dortmund exchange students he, his wife and daughter hosted over the years.
“When my dog died two years ago, I got condolence cards from some of them,” he said.
Last Christmas, he got a telephone call from a few. His daughter Jolie, who leads the exchange program for the school of marketing at American University, was in Germany for the holiday.
When he picked up the phone at “some awful hour at night,” he heard a chorus of voices of the old student friends his daughter was visiting.
“It was great,” he said.
Exchange programs are one of the features of the sister city relationships, which can evolve out of interest abroad or here. A UB student from Germany arranged the Buffalo connection with Dortmund in 1974.
Sister Cities, Michii said, have the potential to do even more: One day they could help attract international business and tourism and “make Buffalo a more international place.”
Mayor Byron Brown agrees.
“It has helped our branding of Buffalo as an international city,” he said.
The Sister City connection with Ocho Rios, Jamaica, includes a link to Brown: The resort city is the capital of St. Ann Parish, a small state in northern Jamaica, where Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and Brown’s father were born, although Brown has never been there.
Brown, who has not visited any Sister Cities as mayor, said that the recent boon of economic development at the waterfront and medical corridor makes him think he can take a break and visit some.
“We will look to the possibility of doing some travel,” he said.
Rebecca Reilly was appointed to head the committee for the South Korean city of Yeongcheon at the request of the mayor’s Sister City liaison Emerson Barr, who heard she spoke Korean.
They met at a meeting that happened after she signed up to help with international projects at Buffalo Niagara Visitors Bureau thinking that would help her practice the language skills she learned in the Marines. Instead she began visiting local Korean churches to network and find a candidate for a sister city.
Asian cities are often big and dense and she wanted a smallish one to mesh with Buffalo’s size and personality. In November 2011 – “after a lot of research on this end and writing reports and translating them” – Yeongcheon, population 140,000, became Buffalo’s sister city, New York State’s first Korean Sister City.
People at the Yeongcheon mayor’s office visited Buffalo and came back “madly in love with Buffalo,” Reilly said.
“It’s really wonderful, actually,” said Reilly, who noticed pictures of Buffalo prominently displayed in the cubicles during a recent trip to Yeongcheon. “Wherever we went in City Hall, people just jumped up,” she said.
The Koreans told her a story about getting stuck in the snow in downtown Buffalo when no one seemed to be around. “Some random Buffalonians popped out of the woodwork and helped them out. They were absolutely floored,” she said.
Next week, another Yeongcheon delegation will be visiting, and Reilly is looking forward to taking them to the dinner for the Sister Cities, a program that she now says is the highlight of her life.
“I’m very fascinated with other cultures … You start seeing things in a totally different way,” she said. “This is one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done.”
To reserve and buy a $30 ticket for the Saturday 6 p.m. dinner with dancing and live music of the Auslanders at the Buffalo Yacht Club, 1 Porter Ave., call Emerson Barr at 851-5027.