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Alice Day discovered an international delegation welcoming her to the annual “Holidays Around the World” celebration, hosted by the Sonoma Sister Cities Association. Without leaving town, Day visited seven cities on four continents — all fostering goodwill and holiday cheer.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Day said, as she sampled homemade sweets and appetizers at the Tokaj, Hungary, booth. “It’s a nice way to introduce people to different kinds of foods. It’s really fun.”

Day, whose maiden name is Sowinski, chatted about kolache — nut roll — recipes with Ibolya Ligotti, a hostess at the Tokaj table.

“My mother used to make this and she was Polish,” Day told Ligotti, who grew up in Transylvania and is the Sonoma-Tokaj Sister Cities Committee secretary.

Gathering for food and conversation is at the very heart of the Sonoma Sister Cities Association. From there, friendships develop between people from around the world.

“Food is a great unifier,” said Diana Short, who co-chaired the holiday party with Sylvia Toth. “You’re sharing yourself with others around the table.”

The Dec. 7 celebration highlighted Sonoma’s seven sister cities, including Chambolle-Musigny, France, its first sister city. The relationship was established in 1959 by Sonoma resident Annick Bouldt, a few years after President Dwight Eisenhower proposed a people-to-people citizen diplomacy initiative during the Cold War era.

Today the nonprofit Sister Cities International has a membership of more than 2,000 partners in 140-plus countries promoting cultural understanding, economic development and global cooperation at the municipal level. Sonoma, with a population of 11,000, has more sister cities than any other community in Sonoma County.

The Sonoma Sister Cities Association was established in 1986 and has worked on business, trade, educational, humanitarian, social and cultural exchanges and efforts with its sister cities.

“People in Sonoma are very open and very interested,” said Jack Ding, the association’s compliance officer and member of the Sonoma-Penglai (China) Sister City Committee.

In addition to China, France and Hungary, Sonoma also has sister cities in Aswan, Egypt; Kaniv, Ukraine; Pátzcuaro, Mexico; and Greve in Chianti, Italy.

Association President George McKale, an archaeologist and former honorary Sonoma city historian, serves as chairman of the Aswan sister city. While Sonoma’s sister cities typically are developed by local residents with connections to the partnering countries (often with links to winemaking), the Egyptian relationship is unique.

“It’s very different from any of the others,” McKale said, noting Aswan is an ancient city of 250,000 residents on the east bank of the Nile River. “There’s not a wine connection. It’s an Arab country.”

The sister city bond was developed in 2008 when Egyptian consul general in San Francisco contacted Sonoma city officials about making a visit to the historic town.

“He thought the two towns would mesh,”McKale said. “I believe he’s right.”

McKale and the Aswan committee offered holiday partygoers pita bread and hummus, curried chicken, olives, couscous, dolmas and karkaday, a hibiscus sweet tea. In Egypt, Christmas Day is celebrated Jan. 7 and the Advent features 43 days of a vegan diet.

Short, the party planner, is the association’s secretary and serves as chairwoman of Sonoma’s Italian sister city, located in the province of Tuscany. Short’s parents were from Italy; she didn’t hesitate to join the Greve in Chianti committee after retiring from a career in nonprofit administration.

The committee’s holiday booth was a festive selection of traditional Italian favorites, including a knotted “fried ribbon” cookie sprinkled with powdered sugar and known by several names throughout Italy, including “cenci” in Tuscany.

Guests also sampled bite-sized mild Italian sausage and treats, including panettone holiday sweet bread, amaretti and biscotti cookies and torrone, a traditional Italian nougat candy popular at Christmas.

Founded in 1983, the Greve in Chianti committee displayed a “Buon Natale” sign wishing visitors a Merry Christmas, and featured a tabletop Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus. Living nativities, portrayed by townspeople, are a popular tradition throughout Italy, Short said.

She enjoys the opportunity to honor her heritage and share the Italian culture with fellow Sonomans. Ding, a first-generation Chinese-American immigrant, is a federally authorized tax representative who became an active volunteer in Sonoma shortly after moving to the community in 2008.

Being involved with the sister city association is a way for Ding — and others — to bridge cultures and foster understanding.

“We have preconceptions about different cultures; then when we interact we find common bonds,” he said. “We look different, we use different languages and have different cultures, but love is all the same.”

Ding was serving barbecued pork, spring rolls, fortune cookies and chewy White Rabbit candies covered with edible rice paper, “the most favorite candy for decades” in his homeland.

He was joined by fellow Penglai committee member and hostess Penny Holbrook.

“I love Chinese everything. Everything,” declared Holbrook, who became familiar with the Chinese culture while working as a kindergarten teacher in Hawaii.

The international fare also included borscht (beet soup) and bite-sized Chicken Kiev from Kaniv; empanadas and quesadillas from Pátzcuaro; and sponge, cake-like Madeleine cookies from Chambolle-Musigny.

The event brought people together to share global holiday traditions and celebrate Sonoma’s dedication to fostering goodwill among all nationalities.

“It’s fascinating that there’s so much spirit here, that they can do this,” John Myers said. “We’re very strong in community spirit.”

His wife, Joan Toth, is of Hungarian descent and co-chairs the Tokaj committee with Sylvia Toth (no relation). “It’s a lot for a small town,” she said, emphasizing Sonoma’s willingness to welcome so many sister city relationships.

Only one sister city program is currently inactive. Though represented by volunteers at the holiday party, the Kaniv relationship “kind of went dormant,” said Farrel Beddome, the association’s president emeritus. “It’s because of political turmoil.”

She’s hopeful the committee will be revitalized. “The best way to open up relationships is through sister cities,” Beddome said.

The association has brought considerable global awareness to Sonoma Valley. It hosted Sonoma’s inaugural film festival in 1997, with 15 films from around the world.

Today the annual Sonoma International Film Festival screens more than 130 independent feature films, shorts, documentaries and world cinema from dozens of countries.

Bocce Sonoma, with 500 members, operates under the umbrella of the Sonoma Sister Cities Association, providing team play daily from April to October. The Italian sister city committee originated the bocce project, with four courts now featured for games and socializing.

Numerous delegations have traveled to and from Sonoma’s sister cities. The Sonoma-Tokaj Sister City Committee hosts a wine intern exchange for viticulture students, for example, and Buena Vista Winery and committee members welcomed Hungarian diplomats. Buena Vista’s Hungarian-born founder, Count Agoston Haraszthy, is regarded as the father of California viticulture.

Haraszthy employed Chinese workers in the mid-1800s to help develop Buena Vista, California’s first premium winery.

Through the Wine Country Chinese Legacy Project, the Sonoma-Penglai Sister City Committee is working on constructing a ting, a Chinese-style pavilion, in Sonoma’s Depot Park. It wants to honor the many contributions of Chinese immigrants who dug wine caves and served as vineyard and cellar workers in the 19th century.

Local schoolchildren are developing friendships with peers in Penglai through a pen-pal program.

The Sonoma-Pátzcuaro Sister City Committee teamed with Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue Authority a few years ago to donate a 1987 fire engine to a town without a firetruck some 100 miles outside Pátzcuaro — one of many efforts by Sonoma’s sister cities to aid those in need.

McKale has visited Egypt to promote humanitarian efforts in the Aswan region, including the development of a sanitation system.

His four sons accompanied him on various trips, meeting Egyptian friends their father has made through his sister city affiliations.

McKale was thrilled his sons, from middle school to age 22, could see beyond discriminatory beliefs held by some Americans against Muslims. “They meet these friends I’ve grown to love and they can’t understand the anti-Muslim sentiment,” McKale said.

Friendships developed through sister city relationships open doors to understanding, awareness, cooperation and mutual respect, McKale said. Whether celebrating a shared heritage, promoting tourism or business relations, or helping people in need, the person-to-person interactions are key among all Sonoma’s sister cities.

“We’d have peace around the world,” Short said, “if just people knew one another.”

For more information, visit sonomasistercitiesassociation.org.

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