At first, people in both towns were skeptical. But this initial doubt has given way to a valued partnership between the French Hauteville and the German Ronneburg, a friendship that has been nurtured for 20 years.
Thomas Laich has a warm recollection of his first visit to France and the town of Hauteville-Lompnes, but one memory in particular stands out.
"No harried housewives," raves the church music director, sitting in the rehearsal room of a local music group, the Ronneburger Turmbläser. Thinking back to that trip 20 years ago, he remembers being impressed by the French art of living, the "savoir-vivre."
That was in 1992. Since then, residents of Hauteville, as it's known locally, and the town of Ronneburg in the eastern German state of Thuringia have developed a friendship. Ten years ago that friendship was officially made a partnership.
Learning from friends
The road to Hauteville, which lies about an hour east of the French city of Lyon, first takes travelers through rolling hills. The curving road eventually gives way to deep gorges and thundering waterfalls, leading up to a plateau about 900 meters (2,950 feet) above sea level and a quarry famous for its yellow-beige limestone, a stone similar to that used in such famous structures as New York's Empire State Building.
Houses in Hauteville, home to around 4,000 residents, are scattered across the landscape, surrounded by a group of about 30 loosely grouped larger buildings that resemble grand old hotels.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Hauteville was a popular mountain resort for tuberculosis patients. But today, at least half of these buildings - former sanatoriums - look deserted.
Today, a number of these buildings are used as rehabilitation centers for accident victims, but the rest stand empty or are undergoing renovation as insurance companies and municipalities combine treatment centers to save money - a bitter pill to swallow for Mayor Bernard Maclet.
Maclet has therefore been happy with the Ronneburg partnership, as it's allowed him to see how the Germans have dealt with a changing economy. Thanks to the partnership, Hauteville has since learned a thing or two.
Closer to France than West Germany
The people of Ronneburg agree that the warmth and congeniality of their Hauteville friends have made the geographic distance between the towns seem inconsequential.
"I found France so lovely, because in terms of community and development, it was a step between East and West Germany," says Regina Born, a nurse and former Ronneburger who moved to Hauteville shortly after reunification. She says she found a sort of humanity there, something that reminded her of home and that she had been unable to find in West Germany.
"The mentality was a bit like in the former East Germany," remembers music director Laich, who was also among the first Ronneburgers to visit Hauteville.
But not all the Hauteville residents were so pleased when they first found out their town was going to be partnered with, of all places, a German town. Some people were even shocked, says Marie-Helene Oucherfi, chairwoman of the Twinning Association in Hauteville.
During World War II, the area around Hauteville was the refuge of the French Resistance, and the infamous Nazi Klaus Barbie, who would later be convicted of multiple war crimes, was carrying out his torture of French Jews in nearby Lyon.
But two members of the club who lived through the war are strong advocates of the exchange with their German friends, says Oucherfi. For Mayor Maclet, the friendship is important because in getting to know each other, people from both towns have been able to leave the past behind.
Ronneburg visitors an everyday occurrence
"People speak with us in supermarkets," says Krimhild Leutloff, the mayor of Ronneburg, of her visits to Hauteville. Many people are interested in learning more about us, and they ask "when we arrived and how long we're staying," she adds.
Communication is possible, even when both parties aren't expert linguists like Leutloff, who speaks both French and German perfectly. With a slight grin, her Hauteville counterpart says the biggest problem for the French is that they're only able to speak French. "But it's not a real problem," he adds. "With a dictionary, hands and gestures, it all works out somehow."
Most of residents of the two towns stay in touch between visits, with letters, telephone chats or on the web. "I try in German, and no doubt make many mistakes," says Oucherfi. "Our German friends try it the other way around, in French."
Her German counterpart, Brigitte Kühn, studied French in school and was inspired by the contact with Hauteville to brush up and maintain her language skills. Both residents of Ronneburg and Hauteville think the Internet is an excellent way to keep in touch, but agree that it in no way replaces a proper visit.
Members of the French punk rock band PVC are also fans of their sister city; they don't see the twinning as a relic of the past. Sitting between instruments and speakers during a rehearsal break, they tell of the good times they had in Ronneburg when they visited in the summer of 2012.
"Sure, with the Internet it's possible to chat with anyone. But personal contact, that's something else entirely," says band member Valentin Scion. He adds that partnership between towns provides the opportunity to meet new people.
His friend Valentin Leroy agrees. "The Internet can't do everything. With this partnership we're able to have truly enjoyable encounters."
A year of anticipation
The next meeting, in Hauteville, is scheduled for the autumn of this year. Until then, people will regularly view the videos and carefully prepared photo albums of past visits.
In Ronneburg, excitement is already in the air. "What awaits us in Hauteville?" asks Leutloff. One thing is clear - the luggage will once again be full of German beer and several hundred Thuringian sausages. Both are quite well received in Hauteville.
Ariane Stölzner, the butcher's wife, is pleased that Thuringian specialties are gaining exposure across national boundaries. "It does make me a little proud to take our products out into the wide world," she says.
During the festivities, the sausages will be grilled in the small square in the center of Hauteville. And once again, the French will let loose with their toast - "Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit" - said in a unique French accent.
"When I open the shutters early in the morning in Hauteville, see the mist rising through the trees and hear the roosters crowing, then it will be clear why I came all this way," says Leutloff.
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