CRESTVIEW — It’s easy to find NO just about anywhere on the island of Noirmoutier. It’s not because Noirmoutrins are a negative people. “NO” is simply the island’s abbreviation and pops up on everything from boat registrations to shops, restaurants and T-shirts.
For members of the Crestview Area Sister City Program delegations that visited the island in 2019, NO is a positive symbol of a warm, hospitable, vibrant, fun-loving, historical, culturally enriching and magical sort of place.
Earlier this month, members of the most recent, 27-member delegation that visited the island in September gathered to reminisce and share tales of their adventures over a potluck dinner.
“It was so perfect,” said Deborah Bruning, a first-time visitor to Noirmoutier. “Our hosts were just amazing.”
This year, three groups from Northwest Florida discovered — if they didn’t already know from previous trips — that Noirmoutier endears itself to folks from its Sister City almost as soon as they step off the bus from “le continent” (as every place off the island is known).
To their hosts’ hospitality, the exceptional cuisine and diverse activities they experienced, and to the natural beauty and history of the island itself, visitors unanimously give NO a big yes.
The Sister City program’s cultural, educational, social and economic components benefit both communities, organizers said.
That resounds with James Du Vernay, U.S. consul for Western France.
“Promoting these sorts of people-to-people friendships is our mission,” De Vernay said during a visit with the Crestview contingent while they were in Noirmoutier. “Building these personal relationships is an important component of Franco-American relations.”
The September group, with participants ranging in age from 24 to retirees, followed in the footsteps of more than 50 student performers, faculty and administrators from Northwest Florida State College in May, and four local high school students in July.
The college’s show choir and classical choirs performed in multiple venues around the island, continuing a biennial tradition that began almost as soon as Crestview’s Sister City relationship with Noirmoutier was established in 1997.
Three Crestview High School students and one from Laurel Hill School spent two weeks in Noirmoutier, staying with friends whom they had hosted in October 2018 when 21 Noirmoutrin students came to town. Their trip was facilitated by $500 student travel fellowships presented by the Sister City Program.
For them, the experience was life changing.
“I had never thought about everyday life in other countries,” said Crestview High student Jenna Cyrus upon her return. “Now that I have experienced life in France, I will always cherish those memories. I developed a strong bond with my host family, one that I know will last forever.”
“The people of Noirmoutier were so welcoming and nice,” added Tatiyanna Mason, another Crestview High student who visited Noirmoutier.
France being France, many memories gravitate toward cuisine and different dining traditions.
“The food in France was always well prepared everywhere we went,” said Crestview High student Kennard Madden. “It was interesting that they would always pass around two or three big bottles of water at the dinner table.”
“My host Leila’s father made me the best crÍpes,” Tatiyanna said.
While group activities on Noirmoutier provide shared experiences, because Crestview visitors stay with host families — never in hotels — every participant’s experience is different, often including dinner parties, sightseeing, beach time and shopping on market days.
As do adult visitors, the college and high school students formed fast and lasting friendships with their hosts — and one another.
“It’s great to see how they all became friends and bonded over this shared experience,” said Carrie Fox Valdez, mother of Laurel Hill School student Caitlyn.