"It's an informal designation signifying a special type of relationship," says someone, sounding like Bill Clinton circa 1999. "No, it's a formal recognition between the governments of both cities," tries another. "It's cities from two different countries that have a lot in common despite their different cultures." One of the French women bursts out laughing. "San Francisco and Paris have nothing in common!" she says. "Nothing!" An American takes mock umbrage at this. Our two friends go back and forth. It's playful teasing, yet after a while we can't help but notice a sharp undertone. Some excerpts:
Frenchie: "Paris has such a great sense of style. Gorgeous, gorgeous clothes. San Francisco is frumpy and disheveled. You've got only two fashions here, grunge and Polartec. God, you'd think Polartec was a religion."
American: "Parisians are totally overdone, like pretentious peacocks. The men and women are simply obsessed with their looks. They might appear beautiful, but inside it's a different story."
Frenchie: "You're so wrong. French men are incredibly sexy. Here, the men are so PC. Besides, they're all taken or gay."
American: "That's ridiculous! You're confusing sexy with sexist. French men expect you to sleep with them halfway through the first date. They're too skinny and always smoking. San Francisco guys are much more modern. And with better teeth."
The exchange continues. Meanwhile, the other five friends, feeling some tension in the room, hop on the computer and call up the SFGOV Web page (www.ci.sf.ca.us). Wouldn't you know it, Paris is indeed our sister city. In fact, we have not one, but 15 sister cities, including Osaka, Seoul, Sydney, Caracas, and Shanghai. Big family. How are these cities picked?, we wonder. Particularly Paris? Did some bureaucrat down at City Hall wake up one day and say, "I wish we were more like Paris. Hey, let's make Paris our sister city, and maybe we'll improve by association. It worked in high school"?
From the Sister Cities International (SCI) Web site (www.sister-cities.org), we learn how all this got started. President Eisenhower launched the program in response to the devastation of World War II. Eisenhower's intention was to involve regular people in worldwide diplomacy, with the hope that such relations would lessen the chance of future conflicts. SCI defines a sister-city relationship as a "broad-based, officially approved, long-term partnership between cities in two countries." OK, that's a summary of their definition. We're getting bored with all this diplomatic mumbo jumbo. Anyway, having a sister city is apparently a very hip thing to do. The site claims the sisterhood includes more than 2,100 communities in 121 countries.
In an effort to keep our conversation civil, we ponder the similarities between Fog City and Frog City. We both worship short, arrogant leaders (i.e., Willie Brown, Napoleon). We're both known for highly overrated bread products (i.e., sourdough, baguettes). And we both attract the most annoying tourists on the planet. Thinking this would make an interesting Dog Bite, we begin conjuring a plan to convince the mucky-mucks at SF Weekly to buy us tickets to Paris. Meanwhile, our friends' discussion has taken a turn for the worse. The hostile undertone is no longer an undertone. They seem ready to scratch each other's eyes out.
Frenchie: "Paris is beautiful in the winter, and San Francisco's miserable. Here, you've got these arctic winds, but there's no snow. If you're gonna freeze your ass off, it'd be nice to see some snow."
American: "The summers in Paris are hell; nobody wears deodorant over there! There's no AC, but that's not the problem. It's the BO!"
Frenchie: "It's better than all the crunchies over here! All this San Francisco crystal-sucking drives me crazy. Everyone's so tolerant, yet simultaneously so intolerant. God forbid a piece of meat should cross your lips. And also, Paris is infinitely more beautiful. San Francisco is kind of drab."
American: "What are you talking about? San Francisco's world-renowned for its beauty!"
Frenchie: "Please! The Transamerica Building's no Eiffel Tower, my dear!"
The fighting between these two is obviously silly and immature. Yet the fervor is spreading. A previously neutral American takes a jab at Jerry Lewis. A Frenchie counters with an attack on Tom Ammiano. In no time, our little skirmish turns into World War III. Threats are made, alliances forged, lines drawn in the sand. What started as a cute piece of trivia is turning into Armageddon.
By this time, only two of us have managed to stay out of it: Dog Bites and a shy, gap-toothed Parisienne. We're pretending not to hear the argument, trying to take interest in a Web site about croissants. But it's impossible to shut it out; it's like when you're a kid and your parents are fighting. We give each other a little nod, grab a bottle of wine, and slip out onto the roof. The night air is cool, and we can see the entire city from our perch. Dog Bites tries to light her cigarette but can't get it going. She has to do it herself. We forgot the wine opener. It's a little bit colder up here than we expected. There's some awkward silence. "Well, that was interesting," we mutter. "Yeah," she says, staring off at the skyline. "So much for Eisenhower's dream of world peace."