Mary Ashley's eyes twinkled. Tall and athletic, with smooth white hair, she wiggled her hands beside her ears as she sang the Sma grodorna, Swedish for "The Little Frogs," a traditional dance and song performed midsummer around a maypole:
The little frogs, the little frogs are funny to observe.
The little frogs, the little frogs are funny to observe.
They have no ears, they have no ears, no tails do they possess
They have no ears, they have no ears, no tails do they possess
Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack,
kou ack ack ack ack kaa.
Kou ack ack ack, kou ack ack ack,
kou ack ack ack ack kaa."
Ashley learned the frog song while on a summer solstice trip to Linkoping, Sweden. It was arranged through Neighbors Abroad, Palo Alto's sister-city cultural-exchange program that is turning 50 this year.
Palo Altans and others will take part in a Swedish frog dance and other merriment on Feb. 9, at Neighbors Abroad's golden-anniversary festival. It will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. at Lucie Stern Community Center on Middlefield Road. The event will include exhibits, performances and traditional foods of Palo Alto's six sister cities: Palo, the Philippines; Oaxaca, Mexico; Linkoping, Sweden; Enschede, the Netherlands; Albi, France, and Tsuchiura, Japan. The free event is open to the public.
As Neighbors Abroad celebrates its milestone, the organization is also taking stock of how to maintain its relevance in the 21st century. Palo Alto has expanded from a small college town to an economic center with global reach. Times have changed. So too must Neighbors Abroad, some say.
Neighbors Abroad began during the heart of the Cold War as a volunteer program of cultural exchanges and humanitarian projects. It launched on Jan. 18, 1963, as a member of Sister Cities International, which was founded in 1956. President Dwight D. Eisenhower started his Town Affiliation Program to urge U.S. cities to establish ties with other towns throughout the world.
"Eisenhower said, 'People don't kill people they know,'" said Marion Mandell, Neighbors Abroad's liaison with sister city Oaxaca.
The first group to become a sister city with Palo Alto was a city that shared in part of the name: Palo, the Philippines. The adoption won kudos from Gen. Douglas MacArthur the day before it was formalized.
"The people of Palo are, indeed, worthy of this honor. They resisted even to the death the efforts of the Japanese invaders to subdue them during the late war and were of inestimable assistance as I landed with the forces of liberation to redeem their native soil," MacArthur wrote to City Councilwoman Frances Dias on Jan. 17, 1963.
Barbara Evans, Neighbors Abroad president, recalled the climate in which the program began:
"We started in an idealistic time. The Cold War was on. We were a little town, but we were very concerned with non-aligned powers," she said.
In the Bay Area, engineers and scientists were working for the government on projects, many of which were military in nature, and trying to find a way on a community level to address social and cultural issues outside of politics and governments, Evans said.
"It was part of the zeitgeist of the time."
Neighbors Abroad adopted Oaxaca as its second sister city in 1964. It was closer than the Philippines, making it easier for people to travel there. Like Palo Alto, it is also a university town, Mandell said.
Early on it became obvious that there was an unequal relationship, Ashley said. Less wealthy than Palo Alto, Oaxaca had social and educational needs. Palo Altans rallied to provide children with scholarships and build a children's library. They also constructed a planetarium and observatory. Among the most ambitious idea was an orphanage to care for children whose parents are imprisoned.
"There was no foster care, so the kids had to go into the prison with their parents," Mandell said.
The project even caused a social movement of sorts within Oaxaca, where upper-class women found they could leave behind their luncheons and teas and volunteer for a nonprofit organization, she said.
The transformation just five years later was astounding, according to Mandell.
"The first time I went there, there was this muddy field," she said.
Now 55 children live there. The older girls learn sewing skills by making clothing for the younger ones, she said.
Neighbors Abroad also funded the Nino-a-Nino (child-to-child) health program in rural villages, which teaches children to teach other kids about basic health care. The program has had far-reaching results, Mandell said.
Many parents adhere to traditional misconceptions regarding health care, such as the belief in withholding water from children with diarrhea because being drier would stop the discharge. But many children died from dehydration, Mandell said.
"You can't change adults' minds, but you can change a child's," she said.
Kids learned how to mix a rehydration drink of simple ingredients to give to a sick child. The children survived, the parents saw the benefits, and thereafter they incorporated the practice, she said.
"Before this program, 36 percent of children died in the first year. After this, it was 1 to 2 percent," Mandell said.
Other than Oaxaca and Palo, the four remaining sister-city relationships have remained culture- rather than service-oriented, Evans said. Adult and student exchanges have included visits by artists, lawyers, musicians, hikers and chefs, said Betty Gerard, a Neighbors Abroad board member. There have been cross-cultural bicycle tours organized by the local Western Wheelers club and joint concerts between the local Aurora Singers and Albi's Assou-Lezert. The first concert took place at Stanford University's Memorial Auditorium to a standing-room-only audience, Gerard said.
"Albi-based Compagnie Evelyne Remazeilhes has performed here several times, recreating the dances of the Moulin Rouge in Paris as depicted in the paintings of native son Toulouse-Lautrec. Palo Alto musical groups that have performed in Albi include the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra, the Palo Alto High School Jazz Band and the Paly Madrigal Singers," she said.
But sometimes even seemingly innocuous cultural exchanges have tested the relationship between sisters.
Foreign Friends, perhaps the most infamous example of non-sisterly relations, was an 11-foot-tall, traditional Swedish plank sculpture of a man and woman sitting on a bench with their dog. A gift from Linkoping in 1989, the sculpture sat at the corner of Waverley Street and Embarcadero Road. At first, it was a novelty. The sculpture was dressed up for the city's Black and White Ball and became a destination for photographs, with visitors sitting alongside the sculptures.
But Foreign Friends became the target of multiple assaults. Once it was doused with gasoline and set ablaze; at other times it was defaced with spray paint, according to Palo Alto Weekly reports. There are pictures of the Friends each with a black eye. And the sculptures were decapitated twice.
In 1993, someone removed the heads on Halloween night and left them in the statues' laps. By February 1994, just two months after being restored by a local sculptor at a cost of $3,000, youths allegedly unbolted the heads after getting around motion sensors. The wooden noggins were never found, according to the Weekly.
New heads of redwood were fashioned but seemed incongruous.
Ralph White, chair of the Neighbors Abroad Linkoping Committee, said in a 1997 Weekly article that the sculpture was conceived as traditional Swedish folk art to be climbed and played on. But Palo Altans, who viewed it as high art, objected to the new heads.
The unwanted sculpture bounced from one place to another. By January 2000, its wood rotting, Foreign Friends was unceremoniously carted off to the city landfill, where it was finally put to rest and composted.
Foreign Friends "was like something from the Twilight Zone," said Palo Alto muralist Greg Brown, who traveled to Linkoping in 1991 to paint one of his famous, quirky murals on a concert hall as part of a cultural exchange.
"It was a picture of a fellow coming out of a small doorway on the balcony of the second floor. He was a black-tie character dangling from the balcony holding a violin. The strings were all that was holding him up from the balcony," he recalled. "I was quite pleased to be 'inflicted' on Linkoping, to be known as the guy who paid them back for 'Foreign Friends.'"
The Linkopingers' view of the value of plank sculptures surprised Brown, he said.
He found out that similar works of art had been crafted for 500 years. At a large festival, the sculptures were all over town. But after the festival, nearly all were removed and dumped in a field behind the university to decompose, he said.
"A professor drove me out there to see these things dying in the field," Brown said. "Palo Alto -- put away your guilt."
Student exchanges have become a large part of forwarding the Neighbors Abroad agenda, with most of the sister cities participating. The travel goes both ways, with students coming to Palo Alto from abroad, said Keiko Nakajima, a Japanese-language teacher at Jane Lathrop Stanford and Jordan middle schools.
Sixteen students are coming from Tsuchiura, Japan, on March 9 and will stay with host families for one week. There will be a welcoming party and picnic at Mitchell Park, two days of shadowing their host students at school, a visit to Palo Alto City Hall and attendance of a City Council meeting with a commemoration of their visit by the mayor. Palo Alto police will take the students on a tour of the department, and they will visit Stanford and sample American college cuisine in the cafeteria, Nakajima said.
The Japanese students will also cook family recipes for their host families, and they will travel to Yosemite, she said.
Emily Hwang, a Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School eighth-grader, said she hosted a Tsuchiura student in March 2012.
"She was very shy, but it was fun to get to know her a little bit while she was there. Since we were both a little bit embarrassed to speak in the other's native language, there were some awkward silences, but we got over that eventually because we taught each other some stuff. I enjoyed showing her around places in Palo Alto and school and doing a bunch of things that I love with her. I'm glad I met her before I went to Japan. Otherwise, it would have been even more of a culture shock to me," she said in an email to the Weekly.
Hwang's 11-day trip to Tsuchiura with a group of students took place last July. She said she wanted to participate after learning of the program from her older brother, who was studying Japanese.
"My experience as an exchange student was incredible and life-changing. Exposure to such a drastically different culture was shocking but equally exciting. I've made lasting friendships and seen and done things I will remember forever. I feel like participating in an exchange program gave me insight into Japanese life that I will never have the opportunity to experience again, so I am very grateful for that," she said.
The most surprising thing was how nice the people were and how clean the city was, she said.
"I'd heard some things about how polite the Japanese were, but it's actually pretty ridiculous how helpful they are. Everyone there did so much to make sure we felt welcome and had a positive experience.
"My Japanese teacher had told us various things about Japan throughout the year, and my grandma is familiar with Japan, so I thought I had a faint idea of what it was like there in terms of food and culture. However, I learned that you can never compare what people say about something and the actual thing," she said.
Nakajima said the Palo Alto students go to the Atomic Bomb Museum in Hiroshima and visit Kyoto. They attend the school in Tsuchiura, where students routinely take off their shoes and clean the classrooms. The weather, unlike Palo Alto's, is very hot and muggy.
Perhaps the most valuable lesson students learn? Tolerance.
Nakajima said if the students don't like aspects of Japanese culture, she tells them: "Too bad."
"It's their culture," she says.
Japanese students were about to travel to Palo Alto in 2011 when an earthquake and tsunami hit. The airport was closed, so their trip was canceled, Nakajima said.
But that did not stop Palo Alto from springing into action.
"Neighbors Abroad and host families had to do something. They met that Sunday at Jordan Middle School and established a fundraising effort that collected $14,000. The students sold cookies and wrist bands, and $10,000 was collected in a month," Nakajima said.
Exchange students aren't limited to high school kids.
Johan Lindell, a computer-science student from Linkoping who is an exchange student through Neighbors Abroad, said graduate students at Stanford are so diverse that he also meets many people from around the globe.
"The biggest thing is definitely the passive broadening of my horizons just from being around people with different backgrounds," he said in an email.
Lindell arrived at Stanford last September and will return to Sweden in June. American culture is not unfamiliar in Sweden because U.S. media is imported, and Swedes in general are interested in most things from the United States, he said.
Stanford students' drive to excel has had an impact on Lindell.
"I think most of my surprises come from meeting Stanford people rather than other Americans. Having a population base of 300 million tends to lead to the ... people of the top schools to be very driven. The whole 'aura of ambition' that can be found at Stanford is probably the biggest shift from back home," he said.
Like many organizations founded five decades ago, Neighbors Abroad is struggling for ways to attract younger members.
"It's getting harder and harder," Ashley said. "People are just so busy with their families and working full-time jobs. I look at my own daughter, who was an exchange student in Enschede."
Evans and Mandell said the job of a sister-city liaison is time consuming and requires fundraising and reaching out to people. For now, they don't plan to take on any more sister cities.
But some cities are knocking on the door. One person wanted Palo Alto to adopt a sister city in India, Evans said.
"There have to be a lot of people involved if we are going to add another city. We need to reach out to the broader community."
Palo Alto City Councilman Larry Klein said perhaps the business model of Neighbors Abroad will need to change to attract more people.
"There is a lot of competition and so many different opportunities for young people to travel. When I was growing up there wasn't anybody who went to a foreign country," he said.
Technology has made exposure to cultural ideas and everything else instantaneous.
But Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd, a strong proponent of building business relationships with cities around the world -- most recently the city's Smart City Partnership with Yangpu, Shanghai, China -- said the relevance of cultural exchanges such as Neighbors Abroad has not diminished. Social networking has its place, but people still want to meet face to face, she said.
Nakajima said that cultural literacy will always be relevant, and that won't diminish in the global business climate.
But more importantly, she said, Neighbors Abroad still affects students on a basic human level. And it harks back to the core reason the organization was founded.
"It might change their lives. Half of the students say they don't want to go home -- they want to go back. They are never going to hate the Japanese.
"They can come home and tell their stories, and it might change the world," she said.