An invitation to a child’s birthday party in France changed everything for our family.
In 2014, my husband and I had decided to spend the upcoming winter in Chamonix. Because of our French connections—I am French by birth; my husband has a lot of extended family in France on his mother’s side—we wanted to immerse our two young children, Merric and Caleah (then 1 and 4 ), in a culture and language that we had mostly lost. Living in a French ski town for a season was a highly appealing way to do it, and through the Aspen Sister Cities program, I was able to make a few connections in Chamonix to ease the daunting process of organizing lodging, schooling, transportation, and more.
But the more personal aspects of living abroad—new friendships, a sense of belonging—cannot be so tidily arranged. We were living in Argentière, an utterly charming village 4 miles upvalley from Chamonix, for more than two months, yet had little more than superficial interactions with the other residents.
Then came the invitation. The mother of a little girl with whom our daughter attended école maternelle (preschool) was hosting a fourth birthday party, and would Caleah like to join? I nearly leapt with joy—we were in!
For days, I looked forward to getting to know other local parents as our kids bonded through the universal rituals of a birthday celebration. In reality, the other parents quickly dropped off their little ones for the allotted two hours, while the children spent much of the time sitting politely around a table eating lasagna and cake. Nonetheless, we had made inroads into what I perceived to be a tight-knit, though very international, community. Two weeks later, when I invited a handful of local families to our son’s second birthday party, they came—and stayed.
From that point on, our life in Argentière took on an extra layer of meaning. We made small talk with other parents during drop-off and pickup at the village school, and began to arrange playdates. Our family made lasting friendships—Caleah found her soul sister, and the mother of Merric’s playmate at the daycare he attended just over the border in Switzerland (Chamonix has the same childcare crunch as Aspen) took us under her wing like family.
We became so comfortably ensconced that we extended our stay by a month and have returned every winter since. Our kids, though they initially grumble at leaving their Aspen friends and routines, slip into the French school rhythm, and Caleah speaks French without an American accent. For my husband and me, it’s about reuniting with Chamonix’s fascinating characters (the ski bum spirit is alive and well there), skiing the area’s endless terrain, and relaxing into the less-hectic pace—the joie de vivre—of the French lifestyle.
We’ve also discovered how many people in the Roaring Fork Valley have Chamonix connections, many formed through Aspen Sister Cities. The local nonprofit, which fosters relationships with seven cities (more than any other Colorado municipality except Denver), focuses on student exchanges. These short-term visits between Aspen middle-school students and their counterparts include homestays with each other’s families and attending school. Aspen and Chamonix, liaised since 1987, have had 15 such exchanges.
Aspen also has ski patrol exchanges with three of its sister cities, including Chamonix. Patrollers usually swap jobs for an entire season—an immersive experience that Danno Lahr, a Snowmass patroller who spent the 2015–16 season in France, calls “transformative.” After his exchange, Lahr served a term as president of Aspen Sister Cities, and he continues to push for more exchanges, and between people in various professions, to further the Sister Cities mission of promoting world peace through international, people-to-people relationships.
Aspen and Chamonix became sister cities because they’re similar mountain towns, but it happened via personal bonds between locals. People who’ve spent time in both places agree that they share a certain familiar esprit and that the adventurous spirits living in Aspen and Chamonix feed off the mountains’ special energy. The two areas also share a similar geography—a valley dotted with towns and villages that serve the main resort economy—and locals grapple with many of the same issues: affordable housing, growth, traffic, and natural resource maintenance.
But the differences are what make living in the other place exciting. For Aspenites, Chamonix’s food (heavy on cheese-based dishes like tartiflette and raclette, but with plenty of national and international influences such as crêpes, pizza, and seafood), wine, and Old World charm are enhanced by the near-vertical mountainscape that promises more extreme adventures than can be found at home. Chamoniards have been impressed with American hospitality and with Aspen’s cozy and calm ambience.
Though our annual sojourn may be coming to an end, the experiences we’ve had, the relationships we’ve made, and the lessons we’ve learned are apt to stay with us for a lifetime. In our hearts, Chamonix is now our second home, thanks to an invitation that arrived at just the right time.