Established during Dwight D. Eisenhowers presidency to promote cultural understanding, economic growth, and peace starting at the civilian level, the Sister Cities International program has flourished across the United States throughout its 52-year history, building partnerships between U.S. cities, counties, and states with international sister or twin cities in any number of foreign locales.
Yes, its true - while politicians were still making enemies, people around the world had decided to make friends instead.
UP NORTH IN RUSSIA
Traverse City and Petoskey both have sisters in Japan (Tsuchiyama and Takashima, respectively), but it was to the sister city of Michigans own capital, Lansing, that I recently made a wintertime journey - St. Petersburg, Russia.
Situated in the frosty Russian north, on the eastern edge of the Gulf of Finland, St. Petersburg has been called the Venice of the North, as the Neva River flows through the heart of St. Petes, separating the main borough from the other northern islands comprising the city. The famed Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul lies on its own island, while Vasilyevskiy Island is home to the world-famous University of St. Petersburg, and Petersburgsky Island houses yet a further arm of the city.
Canals can be crossed everywhere in the central city, under which the water of the Nevas smaller counterparts, tributaries, and adjoining canals spent the week that I was there freezing themselves into their yearly seasonal icy state.
COLD AND SUBDUED
Winters in St. Petersburg are like Northern Michigan winters in the days before the recent soothing effects of global warming chillingly frigid, wind-blown and shocking to the system, with woolly accessories in high demand. Ten degree temps the entire time I was visiting cut down a bit on outdoor activities, but there was still a lot to see.
In this northland, the Russians dont mind admitting their obsession with fur: fur hats, fur boots, fur coats, all in extravagant fashion line the streets as Petersburgers walk arm-in-arm down the bustling Nevsky Prospekt (one of the main thoroughfares), which itself is decked out in lights and festive garb for the holidays.
The wintertime mystique gives way to a chilling quiet throughout the city, providing a strange contrast to the busy crowds: while people still carry on with their lives, they do it in muted separation from their neighbors, which somehow only seems natural here.
But its not that the Russians arent friendly; its just that they have inside faces, voices, and personalities that remain separate from their public, outside demeanors.
ROCKIN WITH THE RUSSIANS
Luckily I didnt have to undertake the task of bringing Russians out of their shells; I was on the receiving end of all the Russian hospitality one might expect from the residents of a far-away sister city.
My Russian host, who manages an office space planning company that sells office designs and furniture to U.S. companies, introduced myself and my fellow American counterpart to all of his Russian friends, who graciously shared their New Years traditions: sparklers, champagne, caviar, and five-and-ten-cent store animal masks.
And boy, was I in for some longstanding party stamina. The Russians stayed up drinking and talking until 7 a.m., prolonging the festivities well into 2008 - and in fact, the party continued for nigh unto a week, as most professionals (including my host) had the entire week off of work.
Because the state Russian Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas by the Eastern Orthodox calendar, Christmas Eve is not observed until January 6, at which time the cathedrals come alive with singing and chanting; and thus New Years Eve marks the beginning of the holiday, celebrated as a secular festival, and Christmas marks the end, as the religious counterpart. All of this celebration made for one very festive time.
But while Petersburgers do know how to party, they also know how to work. Gone are the days of Soviet control and mass poverty: capitalism is alive and well in the upmarket shops where Hugo Boss reigns supreme and the younger set tosses about prices in dollars and euros instead of the lower-valued national ruble.
The economic prosperity many enjoy today is incredibly new to this city though, and the remaining reminders of the recent past haunt the corners and alleyways where Soviet-style food stalls and communal-living apartment blocks still recall the days of Leningrad, the citys former alias.
But nowadays, these city dwellers would rather recall their even more distant, artistic, and romantic past: the royal balls in the great Winter Palace, the unparalleled collection of art in the state Hermitage Museum, magnificent ballet and opera houses, and the visual splendor of a city lined with palaces and cathedrals designed by the greatest Russian and Italian architects of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And when it comes to all of this, the people of the city certainly do have plenty to
be proud of.
They will be the first to tell you that St. Petersburg far outstrips Moscow in culture and class and that you really havent seen Russia until youve been to their northern outpost, which is, incidentally, much the same way we feel about Michigan: that you havent really experienced the beauty of the state until youve made it up to the Grand and Little Traverse Bays.
BE AN INTERNATIONAL SIBLING
It is true that visiting a place can dispel many myths one has about its people, its politics, or its reputation and this seems to be exactly what President Eisenhower had in mind when he developed the Sister Cities program.
Even if it doesnt mean directly visiting a foreign sister although if you can manage it, thats one cool way to identify your Michigan homeland with its foreign counterpart there are still plenty of opportunities to get involved: by linking up with a foreign pen-pal, celebrating Sister City educational and cultural exchanges, and learning about a Sister City to the town or city near you.
For more information, you can go to the Sister Cities International website (http://www.sister-cities.org) or contact your chamber of commerce.
Who knows? You may find yourself on a trip to the Japanese countryside, the gingerbread houses of Bavaria or the chilly cities of Russia. Or you might even find yourself hosting an international student or traveller, such as myself, and introducing them to the great lands of Michigans Up North - a great way to help build communities worldwide.