’Une Nouvelle Sœur’: Belmont Reaches Out To French Town To Be First Sister City

Photos: Orsay, France’s Deputy Mayor Frederic Henriot and Belmont Select Board Chair Mark Paolillo pointing out the similarities between the two municipalities during the French official’s visit to Belmont.

Bonjour, Orcéens. Bienvenue à Belmont, ville de maisons!

It’s not everyday a foreign dignitary stops in Belmont to say hello. But 198 years since the Marquis de Lafayette was feted in what is now the Town of Homes during his grand tour of the United States in 1824, a second French official arrived bearing gifts with the goal of forging a friendship between the two communities.

Frederic Henriot, the deputy mayor of Orsay, France was welcomed to Belmont by the Select Board on Monday, July 20 as the towns are taking the initial steps to establishing a Sister City relationship, which would be a first for Belmont.

A national initiative begun by President Eisenhower in the 1950s, the Sister Cities movement was created ”to boast exchanges in arts and culture, business and trade, youth and education, and community development that not only bring them friendship, but help them to tackle the world’s most pressing issues at the local level,” according to Sister Cities International.

The lineup: (from left) Belmont Select Board’s Roy Epstein, Orsay, France’s Deputy Mayor Frederic Henriot; Select Board’s Adam Dash and
Chair Mark Paolillo.

Representing his fellow Orcéens, Henriot – who just so happened to be in Boston on holiday with his family – sees many similarities between the two communities. “I think we got some things in common because we are nearby big universities … and we also got our big high school like yours,” said Henriot.

Settled 860 years before Belmont was incorporated in 1859, Orsay (pop. 16,000) is a suburb of Paris on the commuter rail line 13 miles to the southwest of the City of Lights. It’s best know as home to the Université Paris-Saclay, one of Europe’s leading science research universities (rated first in Mathematics in world rankings), which has attracted high tech firms to its R&D infrastructure.

The genesis of a potential sister city partnership started with a connection between the two high schools. As both Henriot and Belmont school officials noted, over the years several families from Orsay resided in Belmont while in Boston on business or academic assignments. On their return to belle France, “the students say, ‘yes, they are doing the same thing [in education and the arts]. So perhaps we can start something between the town and the schools together and hope we can share something,” Henriot said.

One of the Belmont educators who is initiating a cultural swap is Allison Lacasse, the high school’s band director and Francophile. She met the representatives from Orsay early in the school year when they visited Belmont’s Director of Visual and Performing Arts Arto Asadoorian to discuss a future collaboration with the performing arts departments of Belmont High and Lycée Blaise Pascal d’Orsay, initially via Zoom and later a possible school-based arts exchange.

“Arto mentioned to them that I travel to France often, and that we should consider connecting the next time I was overseas,” said Lacasse. ”I booked a trip for April break in 2022, and then contacted the folks from Orsay to potentially set up a visit.”

“We worked out a day to meet, and they planned a beautiful itinerary for me to visit Université Paris-Saclay, cultural institutions within the town of Orsay, their public middle school, and the arts conservatory (Conservatoire à Rayonnement Départemental Paris-Saclay),” she said.

Allison Lacasse, Belmont High School’s Band Director, with Herve Dole, vice-president of arts, culture, science at Universite Paris-Saclay on her April 2022 visit to Orsay, France

After these initial interactions, Board Member Adam Dash and Town Administrator Patrice Garvin recently spoke with Orsay’s Mayor David Ros. ”[The meeting] went very well and we were talking about moving forward into more of a formal relationship,” said Dash.

Henriot came prepared for the function by putting on his official l’écharpe tricolore – the tricolor sash (red, white and blue, of course!) – with silver tassels (mayors have gold tassels) before an exchange of gift baskets and books with the board accepting a guide and history to Orsay (“Sorry that’s in French,” said Henriot) with an inscription from Ros while Henriot was given Richard Betts’ opus on the naming of Belmont’s streets (“That one is in English,” said Mark Paolillo, Board Chair.)

A video presentation of Orsay was viewed by board and public with members of Belmont’s Council of Aging noting how many activities seniors are involved in the town while others pointing out the good working order Orsay’s municipal facilities were in.

And Orsay’s connection with Belmont could go beyond just cultural. As he was leaving town hall, the high school rugby coaches – who with their players were recognized by the town for winning their state championships – button hold Henriot on possible introductions with the established CA Orsay Rugby Club.

“We hope to see you in France, yes?” asked Henriot at the end of his stay.

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