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.