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Sister Pact: A Bostonian Living in Europe Goes to Padua

Today's post is from Jay Wexler, whose first book, Holy Hullabaloos: A Road Trip to the Battlegrounds of the Church-State Wars, will be published by Beacon Press in Spring 2009. Wexler is Professor of Law at Boston University, where he teaches first amendment and environmental law. His website is

We had been living in Krakow for three months when I started feeling homesick for Boston. It's not that I don't like Krakow. As everyone knows, Krakow is the new Prague. It is blessed with magnificent architecture, a vibrant student population, and more beets than you can shake a stick at. But it just isn't Boston. Nobody honks a horn just to hear how loud it is. You can't find a bowl of clam chowder anywhere. And while plenty of drunk guys roam the streets, they generally aren't chanting "Yankees Suck."

Citgosign_2 We didn't have time to cross the ocean, though, so we decided to seek out one of Boston's "sister cities" instead. The "sister city" concept was the brainchild of President Dwight Eisenhower, who wanted to encourage more Americans to travel abroad and cooperate with overseas friends. "The Sister Cities Program," according to the City of Boston website's sort-of incomprehensible description, "promotes world peace in an individual level and encourages citizens to better understand community." Cities can find "sisters" in all sorts of ways, including through a matchmaking service provided by an organization called Sister Cities International. Single, land-locked, authoritarian Central Asian capital seeks strategically located steel producing sister city for economic cooperation, militaristic conquest, and long walks on the beach.

Boston has eight official sister cities, including Kyoto, Melbourne, and Sekondi-Takoradi, which is the capital of the Western Region of Ghana. The two closest sisters to us, though, were Padua, Italy ("Padova" to Italians) and Strasbourg, France, so we decided to pick one of these. I'm sure Strasbourg is plenty nice, but how could a French city be anything like Boston? Padua, on the other hand, now that had potential. Sometimes, like when Italy won the World Cup in 2006, it seems like half of Boston is Italian-American. And what Bostonian could ever forget the commercial from the early seventies where Anthony Martignetti runs home through the streets of the North End for Prince Spaghetti night? Want to guess who the Patron Saint of Padua is? That's right: St. Anthony. I booked our tickets and looked up how to say "wicked pissah" in Italian.

Arriving in Padua, an ancient city of about 200,000 people in the north of Italy, I started brightening up. The place did seem to have a lot in common with Boston. We drove by a park in the middle of town that resembled the Public Gardens. Like the Boston area, Padua takes education pretty seriously. Its university, founded in 1222 and boasting such past faculty greats as Galileo, makes Harvard look like The University of Phoenix. And Padua is surrounded by great places for a weekend trip. Venice, for example, is only a half-hour train ride away. With its proximity to the city, delightful water views, and throngs of sunburned tourists, Venice has rightfully earned its international reputation as the "Cape Cod of Italy."

Padova_2 It turns out, though, that these similarities were mostly superficial. I quickly realized I wasn't going to be able to get my Boston fix in Padua. Though I found one seafood store with lobsters in the window, there wasn't any more creamy clam chowder in Padua than there is in Krakow. No matter how hard I looked, I couldn't find any multi-billion dollar construction projects that still weren't really done twenty years after they started. And even though I was in Padua during games six and seven of the Celtics-Hawks first round playoff series, I didn't spy any leprechauns, much less a bar which was showing the games.

I'm an only child, so I guess I had the wrong idea about siblings. As my wife pointed out, sisters aren't always the same. Of course! I thought about the many sisters I had watched on television over the years. Remember Sherry Stringfield's character from E.R.? Her deadbeat sister wasn't anything like her. What had I been thinking? Boston is Boston, and no sister city was going to compare.

Once I figured this out, I began to really appreciate Padua. For one thing, the people are incredibly friendly. The first day we were there, for example, the guy working at the Lava and Lava Laundromat gave my four-year old son a bunch of pictures he had drawn of futuristic cars, one of which had six wheels, even though just two minutes before we had busted the latch on one of his dryers. Wow. What Bostonian would ever forgive someone for breaking his dryer in only two minutes?

There are some incredible sights in Padua. Its top attraction is a series of frescoes of Biblical scenes painted by Giotto between 1303 and 1305. The paintings are so precious that only twenty-five people are allowed to see them at a time. Now, I know nothing about fourteenth century Italian art. I can't tell a fresco from a can of Fresca. I wouldn't know a Giotto from a cup of Gelato. But these works were truly magnificent. The gorgeously detailed scenes of heaven and hell were particularly outstanding, and not just because they helped me explain to my son why he has to start behaving at bedtime.

Padua is a quiet town, but with all of its students, it has a lively after-dark scene. I went out one night to see what it was like. After going to a student hangout for a couple of one Euro beers (a mere $17 each at the current exchange rate), I spent an hour at the famous Caffé Pedrocchi, Padua's answer to the Union Oyster House. Sandra, the charming head bartender, explained some of the bar's history while pouring me glasses of red wine and grappa. The place was opened in 1831, catered to luminaries like the French novelist Stendhal, and was bequeathed by the owner to the citizens of Padua. Sandra gave me directions to my last stop of the night, a tiny hip bar called Caligola where loud music was blaring, Dirty Dancing was playing on the plasma screen, and the drinks were served in squat, wide glasses that made me feel like I was drinking out of a cat's water bowl. When the spiky haired bartender told me that Boston makes him think of Ally McBeal, I knew the night couldn't get any better, and I headed home.

I didn't want to leave Padua without giving something back, so I worked with our delightful hotel host Marco at the Belludi 37 to invent a Padua-Boston "sister city handshake" that can forever link the two great cities. After a few false starts involving lots of hand-waving and awkward robot impersonations, we settled on a simple but symbolically powerful shake that proceeds in two steps: (1) grasp hands in traditional handshake fashion with arms fully extended, so as to symbolize great geographical distance; then (2) step toward each other, bending arms at the elbow and switching hand orientation to crossed-thumb position, to symbolize the power of friendship to overcome such distance.

I'm not sure whether anybody has already created an official sister-city handshake, so perhaps our effort was wasted, but I hope not. Marco and I devised the handshake for residents of Boston and Padua, but it would work just as well for any other sister city combination. So, if you find yourself in your hometown's sister city—whether you're a Bostonian in Padua, a citizen of Sacramento visiting Chisinau, Moldova, or an Albuquerquian is Ashgabat, Turkemistan, won't you consider teaching the handshake to everyone you meet? Ike would be so proud.

You may also want to read Jay Wexler's Beacon Broadside post on Clarence Thomas, his defense of the Toothbrush of the Month Club on McSweeney's, and John Hanson Mitchell's "Digging the Dig." Photo of Citgo Sign by wallyg. Photo of Padua Observatory by purplecthulhu. Used under Creative Commons.