As you’re constantly reminded every holiday, you can’t choose your siblings—unless you’re a municipality. Then you can seek out a sister city (or “twin town,” as they’re called in Europe) that won’t steal food off your plate or tell you you’re adopted. One that really gets you. There are thousands of such partnerships between cities, towns, and counties all over the world, nowadays mostly to encourage cultural exchange and foster “mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation,” according to the Sister Cities International Web site. Here are some of the more unexpected match-ups out there.
1. Paderborn, Germany / Le Mans, France
Unusual not so much for its nature as for its longevity, the twinning of Le Mans and Paderborn is considered the oldest city partnership in the world, dating to the 9th century. The 4th-century bishop and patron saint of Paderborn, St. Liborius, was a Le Mans native, and in 836 his remains were carried from his hometown to Paderborn in a ceremonial procession over a distance of more than 800 kilometers. A friendship was born between the two locales that survives to this day, and they signed an official sister-city agreement in 1967.
2. Mbabane, Swaziland / Fort Worth, Texas
One is the capital of a tiny mountain kingdom ruled by an absolute monarch. The other holds the world’s largest indoor rodeo, in a vast state ruled by Rick Perry. What could they have in common except cattle raising (and barbecue)? Fort Worth already had six sister cities and wanted to add one in Africa; its search committee settled on Mbabane in 2004, in part because “it was a very traditional African country, with an old-world culture,” explains Mae Ferguson, the president and CEO of Fort Worth Sister Cities. The organization has built a health clinic in Mbabane with a grant from the Gates Foundation and sends a group to Swaziland every summer to work on other humanitarian-assistance projects and bask in the country’s laid-back, friendly vibe.
3. Rapid City, South Dakota / Nikko City, Japan
The Western Village amusement park near Imaichi, Japan, a Wild West–themed attraction complete with a shooting gallery and an animatronic John Wayne, has been shuttered since 2007. But it was still going strong in the early ‘90s, when the owner, Oominami Kenichi (apparently quite the Americana buff), saw Dances with Wolves and was moved to travel to the site of its filming—near Rapid City, South Dakota. The partnership, launched in 1994, continued after Imaichi was incorporated into Nikko City in 2006, and the two cities celebrate their sisterhood by organizing exchange trips for kids and adults.
4. Mascara, Algeria / Elkader, Iowa
When Timothy Davis helped establish a small community in northeast Iowa in 1846, he named it for Emir Abd al-Qādir, an Algerian military leader and statesman admired worldwide for his 1830 campaign to liberate his country from French colonialism. Davis Americanized al-Qādir’s family name to become “Elkader,” and thus the town was christened. More than a century later, an employee of the American embassy in Algiers discovered the connection, paid a visit to Iowa, and forged the bonds between Elkader and its namesake’s hometown of Mascara. Although travel to Algeria has occasionally been restricted during periods of social unrest, Elkader’s sister-city representatives continue to entertain visiting Algerian ambassadors, scholars, and artists—the town even has an Algerian-American restaurant.
5. Dull, Scotland / Boring, Oregon
In 2012, the teeny Scottish hamlet of Dull found an obvious soulmate in the northern Oregon town of Boring. They teamed up after a resident of Aberfeldy, not far from Dull, passed through Boring on a U.S. cycling tour and saw a natural opportunity to promote tourism. Named after an early settler and Civil War vet, Boring has no grocery stores or movie theaters but takes a lighthearted approach to its identity, describing itself as “an exciting place to call home.” The two locales declared August 9 to be Boring & Dull Day, which the Oregon half of the partnership celebrated this year with an ice cream social and bagpipe performance. Dull has reported a few more tourists stopping by, and a new restaurant and a brewery have opened up in Boring – perhaps signifying, ironically, that things are getting a little more interesting in both places. Not surprisingly, the community of Bland Shire in New South Wales, Australia, is now hoping to join in on the tedium.
6. Horseheads, New York / Nakagawa, Japan
Lots of cities find sisters through a shared name (Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo, Spain, for instance); some are more creative than others. A Japanese man from the town of Bato-machi, while traveling to the States on business, was looking at a U.S. map and noticed the small village of Horseheads in central New York. He excitedly reported his find to the local government in his hometown: bato literally means “horse head” in Japanese. The town authorities in Japan corresponded with those in New York, and on little more than an accident of translation, the sisters were united. Bato-machi became part of Nakagawa in 2005, but the larger city carries on the relationship, sending a batch of guests to Horseheads each year to experience maple syruping and other local amusements, and receiving a group of Horseheads residents in return.
7. Olney, U.K. / Liberal, Kansas
The link between Liberal and Olney was formed over pancakes and a healthy sense of competition. Since 1445, Olney has put on an annual race on the Tuesday before Lent, also known as Pancake Day; participants—all women—are required to wear a headscarf and carry a frying pan as they run the 380 meters from the town’s marketplace to the Church of St. Peter and Paul. In 1950, the Liberal Jaycees Club president, R.J. Leete, saw a photo from a magazine article about the Olney race and decided to issue a challenge: our women against yours. Today, each town holds its own race every Pancake Day, with the runners vying for the best time on both sides of the Atlantic. In Liberal, the event has expanded into a four-day-long series of festivities, including pancake eating and flipping contests.
8. Walt Disney World / Swindon, U.K.
It’s lonely at the top of family entertainment and relentless merchandising, so in 2009, Mickey Mouse went to the U.K. in search of a sister. Disney World sponsored a contest to find the British city that would best complement its magical might, and surprised everyone with the winner: Swindon, an uninspiring railway town west of London, called “the Peoria of England” by the Orlando Sentinel and a “depressing concrete metropolis” by the Daily Mail. Swindon’s primary booster was Rebecca Warren, who created a promotional video and a poem extolling her city’s virtues. Warren and the mayor were flown to Florida to witness the unveiling of a commemorative plaque at Epcot, and various Disney-related activities were put on across the pond. The Mail, unwilling to join in on the fun, drily summarized the newfound partnership: “One is a magical place where dreams come true. The other, is Swindon.”
9. Decatur, Georgia / Boussé, Burkina Faso
The connection between the Atlanta suburb of Decatur and Boussé, a village in one of the poorest countries in West Africa, began in the late 1980s as the result of a hands-on interest in Burkina Faso as a whole. A team of Decatur locals and University of Georgia students had begun work in the country to eradicate the guinea worm, a dangerous waterborne parasite, and produce a drought-resistant species of corn. Upon their return, they convinced the mayor to set up a volunteer committee and begin facilitating a sister-city relationship, one that spread beyond developmental aid into a cultural exchange. For the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Decatur played host to 35 Burkinabe (that’s what you call them!) athletes, and was treated to the performance of a traditional fertility dance in the town square, an event chronicled with shock and awe by Roy Blount, Jr. in Sports Illustrated. After losing a few key members, however, the sister-city committee entered a period of inactivity and has yet to be fully revived.
10. Boulder, Colorado / Yateras, Cuba
Even in famously liberal Boulder, it isn’t easy to set up a lively exchange program with a partner in Castro’s Cuba. In 2000, Spenser Havlick was teaching through Semester at Sea, a program that allows students to study while traveling the world by ship. His charges, displaying the kind of pluck unique to college students, expressed a desire to meet with Fidel Castro in order to attempt problem solving through discussion. Though the idea first struck him as “hare-brained,” Havlick relented and the students wrote a letter to Castro, who agreed to meet all 800 of them for a four-hour Q & A about the role of youth in working for peace. Havlick, then a member of the Boulder City Council, called upon his fellow council members to pursue a more formal relationship, and in 2002, Boulder joined up with Yateras, in Guantánamo Province. It took nine months for the Boulder–Cuba Sister City Organization to obtain a license to arrange travel to Cuba, but the group has now led 14 trips there, welcomed visiting Cuban artists, and raised money for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The city council was less enthused recently about an effort toward another partnership, with the city of Nablus in the West Bank; the proposal was rejected amid much controversy in June of this year.
11. Wincanton, U.K. / Ankh-Morpork
There aren’t too many rules governing who can enter into sister-city agreements, but the town of Wincanton in Somerset, England, raised a bit of a stir after forming one with a place that isn’t real. In 2002, the mayor of Wincanton signed a deed of twinning with Ankh-Morpork, a fictional city from author Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The U.K. government squashed residents’ plans to advertise their new sister on official signs, arguing that twin towns had to actually exist. But the setback hasn’t stopped Wincanton from setting up an Ankh-Morpork consulate, borrowing street names like Peach Pie Street and Treacle Mine Road from Pratchett’s mythical creation, and selling fan gear through the Discworld Emporium. An ambassadorial visit to Ankh-Morpork has yet to be organized.