Neither language barriers nor fear of the unknown phased a group of Denison High School and Cognac, France students. They didn’t hesitate to hop a plane and spend two weeks in a different culture as part of the Denison’s Sister Cities program.

Neither language barriers nor fear of the unknown phased a group of Denison High School and Cognac, France students. They didn’t hesitate to hop a plane and spend two weeks in a different culture as part of the Denison’s Sister Cities program.

Four DHS female students and four of the five Cognac students were welcomed Wednesday as special guests of the Denison Lions Club. As club Vice President John Mabary began to lead the group in the Pledge of Allegiance, he joked with the French guests.

"Don’t worry. You don’t have to do this. We won’t make you switch sides," Mabary said with a hearty chuckle.

The Sister Cities program has been an ongoing friendship between Denison and Cognac since 1991, Susie Munson, of Denison, said. The Munson Foundation has funded much of the program since it officially began in 1992. The program got started after Texoma residents David Munson and Dr. Roy Renfro, former director of the viticulture program at Grayson College, visited Cognac.

Munson’s ancestor, Thomas Volney Munson, a horticulturalist of Denison, was credited with saving the European grape and wine industry in the late 1880s by developing a hybrid grape resistant to phylloxera, a disease that destroyed 6 million acres of vineyards in France, Germany and throughout grape-growing regions of Europe. Munson received numerous awards and honors from France and America for his efforts. During Renfro and Munson’s visit to Cognac they heard of the Sister Cities program.

"David and Ben Munson (Susie Munson’s husband) thought it was a great idea to do the Sister Cities program with Cognac because of the Thomas Volney Munson connection," Susie Munson said. "In 1992, the mayor of Cognac came to Denison and we signed a declaration of friendship. Then, in 1992, we went to Cognac and actually signed the Sister Cities declaration, so it’s been official since 1992."

Each summer since 1992, residents — usually high school students — from Denison spend several weeks in Cognac and vice versa. The Munson Foundation pays for half the trip and the participants must pay half.

"We have sent as many as 11 or 12 kids, I think, but we find it’s a little bit more manageable with a smaller group. We can concentrate on doing more things," Munson said.

This year’s Denison delegation consisted of four high school girls — Kaylee Green, Brianna Moran, Sara Shumaker and Alyson Edgette — and a chaperon, Denise Schnitker, a Denison High School teacher. The group spent the last two weeks of June visiting Cognac. Five Cognac students — Alexandra Quintard, Alison Jobic, Victor Burin des Roziers, Louna Ovieve and Morgan Gatebois — arrived in Texoma on July 10 and will be returning home this weekend. Their tour of North Texas has included a trip to the book depository and other Dallas locations, Hurricane Harbor and many Denison and other local sites including the Viticulture Center at Grayson College and Lake Texoma. A Frisco RoughRiders game and farewell dinner will be the final activities before they leave.

On Wednesday, they were welcomed at a Denison Lions Club luncheon. All noted that traveling to a different country has opened up new worlds. The local students and their Cognac friends laughed as they struggled to understand each other’s words while telling about their experiences.

Like all five French students, 16-year-old Alison of Cognac had never been to America.

"It’s really different from France," Alison said. "There is a lot of trucks and everything is bigger than in France. It (descriptions of America) is really cliché in what we show in the movies. I would tell my friends to come here, not expecting anything (based on the clichés) and just admire it.

Victor Burin-des-Rozier said America is what he expected.

"Everything is huge, modern, different. The most different is the food. The high school is huge," Victor said. "I wanted to come because I love to travel and many people say that the United States is a really cool country. I wanted to discover this country. Denison is the same size as Cognac, but different. The houses are not as close and the city is bigger because you drive to every activity."

Allyson, a Denison High School student, spoke to the Lions.

"We had a really good time (in Cognac). People over there are so gracious to have us and happy to see us. We saw lots of things we weren’t used to, but I kind of liked it," Allyson said. "They have a good perspective for history and like to keep it alive. There were buildings older than even America. I liked their old cultures, things they did that we didn’t necessarily do. It was really beautiful. It’s been lots of fun to show them how we do things — the Texas way."

Kaylee said the people and culture in Cognac were great.

"I really enjoyed the hospitality of everyone. They are the most genuine people, always make sure you have everything you need and if there’s anything they can do to make you happy," said Kaylee. "There are differences in living. I stayed in a house that was 209 years old! They don’t have any air conditioning.

"I thought I couldn’t live without it, but I did pretty well. Their culture is so beautiful. Cognac is just untouched. In school, I learned about other countries, but could never tell how it really was until I got to Cognac.

Sara said French food and eating habits were her favorite part of her Cognac visit.

"I think every day I had bread and cheese at least three times," Sara said. "They eat breakfast, brunch, lunch, something in between lunch and dinner, then dinner and then snacks, but they eat so many healthy things. I tried my first tomato. I know we have tomatoes here, but there was something about a French tomato. It was a great experience!"

Jackson Keese, 17, a Denison High School student who visited Cognac last year as an ambassador, was asked to host Victor during his stay. He was glad to oblige.

"I loved Cognac. It’s such a beautiful, relaxing place. It’s just so different," Jackson, who attended the Lions Club luncheon with Victor, said. "Their population is similar to ours, but they are much more condensed and we are spread out. … My favorite part were the days we did nothing in Cognac. We swam in the river winding through the city and then just sat there relaxing and day-dreaming. …

"I stayed with a family outside the town (of Cognac), so didn’t see much of the city, But there are rolling hills of grapevines and the food is amazing! They only have like three fast-food places there. …

"Cognac is one of my favorite places. It’s just so relaxed and has a feeling to it you can’t describe. Going there was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I want to thank Susie (Munson) and the Munson Foundation."

Applications to become an ambassador for next year will be available at Denison High School. Once the application is turned in, a Sister Cities committee goes over it and then interviews the student and his or her parents.