Gemellaggio, a Life Changing Experience

[Author’s note: Gemellagio is a beautiful Italian word that really has no English language equivalent word or phrase. Like “simpatico”, it doesn’t translate well into English. Clumsy interpretations like “twinning” or “twinship” fail to convey what a beautiful thing it is to be a sister city. Let’s just stick with “Gemellaggio”.]

To say that the ties between Alba and Medford are life changing is not an exaggeration. For more than fifty two years, the lives of the citizens of both cities have been changed in many ways and by many factors. Students returning from brief three week student exchanges are almost always different persons than they were before the experience. A student exchange veteran speaking to a group of parents at an orientation meeting told them that they should expect their son or daughter to return a different person.

International travel is a growth experience so it is not surprising that the students would return more mature and more self confident. It is, however, much more than the travel experience that changes the students. Making close new friends in a different culture on another continent gives these young people a new perspective of the world and their place in it. Living with a family that welcomes them as their own is an experience that most young travelers are not able to embrace and learn from. Spending time in a city that has special ties to their own gives them an opportunity to sense that they belong in place they have never even seen before.

Living in Alba or just visiting the city gives everyone an opportunity to experience a different culture and a different lifestyle. Very few return to Medford without bringing some of that into their own lives whether it is a healthier diet, an appreciation of Italian music or a love of fine wine. Many acquire new language skills that can influence the way they think and even how they relate to others.

Enjoying friendships in our sister city ties us emotionally to what is happening the other side of the globe. We share triumphs and tragedies, both personal and collective, with our sister city friends. We watch international news with an eye toward how our friends are impacted by world events. When a severe quake hits northern Italy we almost feel its effects and are soon in touch with our friends in Alba. When the horror of September 11, 2001 echoed around the world, hearing from our friends in Alba was comforting and fortifying. 

A book could be written about the all the personal stories of how lives have been changed by having been connected with Alba. Here are a few chapters that just one family could write.

John Snider was the mayor of Medford for six years. The accomplishment he was most proud of as Medford’s mayor was bringing Medford and Alba together. In 1962 he made history when he spoke with his Alba counterpart, Mayor Osvaldo Cagnasso, on the inaugural satellite telephone call via the newly launched Telstar satellite. For Mayor Snider the relationship was all about people and he established that fact by making many enduring friendships with the people of Alba. He visited Alba nine times before his untimely death in 1994. One of his early trips was to take part in the wedding ceremony of Alba’s first ambassador to Medford, Pino Dutto and his bride Lalla. When word his death reached Alba, a mass was said in his honor the city’s cathedral and the traditional death notices were posted all over the city. In 2010 the City of Alba named a beautiful and prominent street Via John Snider in his memory. 

In 1971 John Snider’s younger son Doug was a Naval Flight Officer serving in southeast Asia during the Vietnam war. He had been away from anything related to architecture during his naval service and was uncertain about entering his chosen profession after almost five years of unrelated military service. He had been connected with the sister city program since 1960 when his father helped get the relationship started. He already had dear friends in Alba including Pino Dutto who was more like a brother than a friend. Snider thought that breaking into architecture in Italy might be a way of starting his chosen career on a non-committal trial basis and an opportunity to see parts of the world the Navy hadn’t shown him.

While awaiting to return home from his final overseas deployment, Snider contacted Pino who made arrangements for him to have a work experience in Italy. Pino’s cousin Gianni Toppino and his wife Pina had a friend in Torino, Andrea Bruno, who was a very well know architect. He invited Doug to work in his studio for several months and housed him for several weeks until he found an apartment. Another good friend, architect Valerio Demaria, invited Doug to work in his studio in Alba. Valerio had visited Medford with a group in 1964 . His brother Enrico was Alba’s second ambassador to Medford and a very dear friend of the Snider family. The experience in both firms convinced him to pursue the profession he had studied. A few weeks after returning to Medford, Snider attended a picnic welcoming Gianni and Pina Toppino who were visiting Medford. He sat at a table with two complete strangers, Jeff Shute and Jerry Hunter, partners in a Medford architectural firm. They offered him a job on the spot and he has been working ever since. He has operated his own firm in Medford for over twenty years.

Ryan Snider, the older son of Doug and Carol Snider, made his connection with Alba before he was even supposed to be born. In June of 1979 Ryan arrived three months before he was due and spent the next fifty-two days in the neonatal intensive care unit. Since he was not expected until October, his parents had been looking forward to spending time with Enzo and Diva Agnelli and their daughter Anna who were heading to Medford for a vacation. Enzo was one of John Snider’s closest friends and Doug Snider had spent much time getting to know the Agnellis while he was in Alba. Because they were unable to hold the 1,200 gram “premie” separated from them by the windows of the NICU, Enzo and Diva asked to become his godparents. When Ryan was finally large enough for baptism, Enzo and Diva officially became his godparents. 

Ryan and his wife Jaime just celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary. In 1997 they were total strangers even though they lived only a half mile apart. Ryan attended St. Mary’s School and Jaime was a student at South Medford High School. They met while participating in the Medford-Alba student exchange and years later reconnected. Comparing their life experiences over an internet social network, they quickly realized that they had experienced Alba together several years before. Perhaps Alba cannot take full credit for the romance that followed but their experience in Alba was the life changing event that first brought them together.  Their sons Zack and Josh are already learning Italian and will no doubt someday have their lives changed in Alba.

Doug and Carol Snider’s youngest son Sean first visited Alba in 1994 with his family. Although he was only eight at the time, he embraced the experience. He knew only a few Italian words but didn’t let that stop him from striking up conversations with his peers in Alba. On one occasion, he approached the service counter in a coffee bar while his parents were visiting at a table with a friend. Sean confidently placed an order although he had no money nor enough Italian to make himself understood. In 2003 during his junior year of high school, he returned to Alba with the student exchange. His fellow student ambassadors relied on Sean to interpret for them when an Italian host student was not available.

Sean graduated from Santa Clara University with a degree in physics. He had hoped to find a teaching position and sought employment in Medford, Portland and San Francisco. While living in San Francisco, he had the opportunity to meet Piercarlo Rovera, the principal of the two Alba high schools who had just been in Medford on the student exchange and was on the return trip to Alba. He offered Sean an opportunity to teach in Alba which he readily accepted. Since the beginning of February, Sean has been living in Alba and teaching English, physics and mathematics at the science high school and the classics high school. In the five months he has been in Alba, Sean has become immersed in the community and very comfortable with the Italian language. He has truly fallen in love with Alba. In his free time he walks all over the ancient city and engages in conversations with the people he meets. What is truly amazing about this is that, after a brutal beating and robbery in San Francisco six weeks into his freshman year at Santa Clara left him paralyzed, Sean’s chances of ever walking again were considered very slim.  His story has gone from a life almost lost to a new life found in Alba.