Issaquah traveler hopes to thaw Sunndal sister city relationship

November 10, 2009

By Warren Kagarise


Joan Probala

Joan Probala

The dormant relationship between Issaquah and Sunndal, Norway — the first sister city partnership forged by Issaquah leaders — could be rekindled next week when longtime Issaquah resident Joan Probala travels to the far-flung corner of Scandinavia.

Issaquah and Sunndal became sister cities in 1991, but the relationship faded and the pact failed to produce more than a handful of visits between the cities’ residents. In the meantime, Issaquah established a second sister city relationship with Chefchaouen, Morocco, in early 2007.

Probala, a member of the Issaquah Sister Cities Commission, hopes her trip to Norway can reinvigorate the partnership with Sunndal. She departed Nov. 9 for Norway and the distant sister city. She plans to spend three weeks in Norway, where her daughter lives. The trip to Sunndal will be a high-profile side trip.

“Issaquah has benefited greatly from the relationship with Chefchaouen,” Probala said. But the time seemed right, she added, to re-establish ties with the other sister city.

Probala will pay for the adventure herself, and no city dollars will be used to facilitate her meeting with officials in the sister city. Her hosts speak English — a good thing, too, because Probala does not speak Norwegian.

Issaquah and Sunndal used to have a lot in common. Issaquah is known for the salmon hatchery, Sunndal for a fishery research station. When the relationship was established, both cities had fewer than 10,000 residents.

But Issaquah outgrew the sibling, and people in both cities neglected the partnership.

Former Issaquah Mayor Rowan Hinds said a successful sister-city relationship requires dedicated backers to foster the bond and organize cultural and economic exchanges between the sibling cities.

“Unfortunately, there was never any widespread interest,” he said.

Hinds took office in 1990, a year before Issaquah officials established the relationship with Sunndal. During the 1990s, Hinds visited Norway twice, first when the sister city relationship was established and, later, on a vacation to Europe.

Hinds recalled Sunndal — with about 7,000 residents — as a quaint city set amid barren, rocky terrain. Sunndal sits on a fjord with the same name as the city.

Norwegians are “very delightful people,” Hinds said. The former mayor said Sunndal residents were hospitable; he recalled eating boiled potatoes at every meal.

The last visitor from Sunndal to Issaquah was journalist Kjell Ove Holsgovag. He visited in November 2006 and discovered a city different from the Issaquah he remembered from the early 1990s.

Holsgovag had last ventured to the city in 1992, when Issaquah had fewer than 8,000 residents. When Holsgovag returned, the city claimed almost 20,000 residents, encompassed more land and the Issaquah Highlands and Talus were perched on hillsides that were covered by forest during his previous visit.

Issaquah City Council members laid the groundwork for a renewed relationship with Sunndal in April 2008, when they directed city staffers to promote the relationships with Sunndal and Chefchaouen.

The relationship between Issaquah and Chefchaouen is tight. The city sends artists to the Salmon Days Festival, and the new mayor of Chefchaouen, Mohamed Sefiani, was featured in the festival parade last month.

Chefchaouen also sent the Blue Door to commemorate its relationship with Issaquah. The arched doorway rests on City Hall grounds.

The last official contact between Issaquah and Sunndal came in September, when then-Sunndal Mayor Tove-Lise Torve replied to a letter from Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger. Torve told Frisinger the sister cities committee established by Sunndal a decade ago remained, and invited Probala to visit the city. Frisinger said the trip would be “kind of like catching up with a family member you haven’t seen in a long time.”

Frisinger had earlier sent a letter to her counterpart in Sunndal, but a response was held up after Torve was elected to the national parliament and by summer vacation — no small matter in a place where winter can mean near-uninterrupted darkness.

Probala plans to meet with new Sunndal Mayor Stale Refstie and other officials during the trip.

“I think we have a lot in common, and I think these talks might determine where we go from here,” said Issaquah Councilman Fred Butler, who serves alongside Probala on the Sister Cities Commission.

Hinds recalled a saying from his days as mayor to describe the importance of the sister city relationship.

“If you and I always think the same, then one of us is superfluous — and it’s not me,” he said. “We need those differences.”

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