In an age of instant messaging and social media, it’s easy to forget the dedication it once took to create a lasting cultural exchange between nations. Forming friendships between mountain towns on two different continents, and across a language divide, used to provide serious challenges.
Yet, some exchanges have continued for generations through an informal, open-door policy between communities that transcends the facile “tagging” and “friending” of online profiles in the computer age.
For 39 years, Ketchum has been visited by groups of students from its “sister city” of Tegernsee in the Bavarian Alps of Germany. Likewise, young people from Ketchum have traveled abroad to Tegernsee, where they are welcomed to a city not unlike their own. Tegernsee is a spa town that thrives on tourism and is surrounded by an alpine landscape, but was founded about 1,300 years ago.
Last week, former Ketchum Mayor Jerry Seiffert, who helped start the sister city exchange in 1981, and current Mayor Neil Bradshaw welcomed Tegernsee resident Alois Gonitianer to town.
“It was always about peace and friendship,” Seiffert said. “A cultural exchange allows people to get past misconceptions about one another.”
Sister Cities International is a U.S. State Department program founded in 1956 during President Dwight Eisenhower’s White House Summit on Citizen Diplomacy.
“Eisenhower’s vision for a network that fosters bonds between people from different communities around the world remains just as important in today’s interconnected world as it did 61 years ago,” the organization states on its website.
Gonitianer was dining at the Pioneer Saloon in Ketchum after skiing with family on Bald Mountain when he bumped into Seiffert, who visited Tegernsee during the 1980s.
“I always see people I know when I come to town,” Gonitianer said. “At the grocery store or the Sawtooth restaurant. I also make new friends every time we come here.”
Early local supporters of the sister city partnership included Blaine County residents Duffy Witmer, Lisa Vierling and Jim McLaughlin. Tegernsee Mayor Peter Rixner headed up the Bavarian connection.
“Lisa Vierling took our students to Redfish Lake and held dinner parties,” Gonitianer said. “A first visit to the United States is very special for our kids. It can be their first exposure to the English language.”
The town of Tegernsee will send about 15 students, ages 12-16, and their teachers, to Ketchum in June. Their trip will be funded by a municipal fund and donations from a utility company.
“We usually take them to Stanley and to Yellowstone,” Gonitianer said. ‘They return home and make presentations and show pictures and tell stories. This program started for kids, but now a lot of adults come over, too.”
In 2000, a group of students from the Wood River Valley, including a Girl Scout troop, went to Tegernsee for three and a half weeks. When Ketchum residents travel to Tegernsee they’re welcomed to town by a small sign that announces the sister city relationship they’re a part of.
Gonitianer said Idahoans often go to the Bräustüberl Gastropub for traditional sausage and sauerkraut. He said that despite the cultural and historical differences between the two towns, skiing is a common interest.
“But here it is much less crowded. You are lucky,” he said.