Student explores Meadville relationship with French town

Fismes honors Meadville with this plaque. Photo courtesy of Wenonah Echelard.

Wenonah Echelard, ’12, recalled two press releases written about her in her life. One came out when she was voted “Mayor for a Day” of her hometown by her high school’s model legislature. The other was released by the city of Fismes, announcing the arrival of an American to the small town in northeastern France.
“Professor Wolfe told me that he had a friend in France, and that there was a special connection between Meadville and Fismes,” said Echelard.
But she didn’t realize the extent of that connection until, three days before she was set to leave, she stumbled upon the press release.
During World War I, 230 soldiers of the 112th Infantry of Meadville, Pa. liberated Fismes from a thousand German soldiers. Pennsylvania funds helped rebuild the town once the war was over. After World War II, Meadville helped Fismes rebuild again, sending three boxcars of food and supplies to the devastated town.
“No one in Meadville remembers this,” said French professor Phillip Wolfe. “But it is well-known in Fismes.”
It was Wolfe who helped secure Echelard’s internship. He had worked with a friend of his in Fismes’ town hall, Denis Quéva, to create an internship program for Allegheny students. When Echelard approached Wolfe looking to study abroad, she was chosen.
“I was almost an ambassador,” Echelard said. “It was my job to come and talk to people and tell them about my life in America, but also to reinforce the relationship that Meadville and Fismes have.”
Former mayors of both Meadville and Fismes have visited each others’ towns, but Echelard was the first Allegheny student to go. She made a bit of a splash.
“I would go to the market on Saturday and people would point,” she said.
According to Echelard, it’s not uncommon for French people to be interested in American culture. But in Fismes, that interest is a bit more pronounced.
One example? The American Show Champenois.
“It’s an American culture festival,” said Echelard. “They have rock bands. Like French Kiss tribute bands.”
Also at the American Show Champenois: an American car show. A mechanical bull. Pom-pom girls. Harley-Davidsons. Line dancing. Teepees.
Echelard knows all of this secondhand. She skipped the American Show Champenois, not wanting to get swarmed.
“I would have been embarrassed,” she said. “I would have been the American girl at the American festival.”
The American fascination in Fismes also manifests itself in less obvious ways. The Rue de Meadville runs to a memorial bridge to honor fallen Meadville soldiers. In Meadville, the walkway in Diamond Park has been commemorated as the Promenade de Fismes.
However, according to Echelard, while most people in Fismes know of the town’s connection to Meadville, most people in Meadville have no idea Fismes even exists.
That may change in the next few years. Part of Echelard’s job was to help make Fismes more accessible to tourists by translating their Web site into English. The city, hoping to expand its champagne vineyards, is trying to become an international attraction.
Back at Allegheny, Echelard hopes to raise awareness about the Meadville-Fismes connection during her final semester. She has considered everything from contacting the mayor’s office to starting up an exchange program, but the task is daunting.
“I don’t even know who to talk to,” she said. “I don’t even know where to start.”
Still, Echelard is determined to help the people of Fismes make a more concrete connection to modern-day Meadville.
“They love America,” she said. “They think we’re awesome.”