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'Family' connections in sister city
Mike and Shawna Nevil pose for a photo in Switzerland with Patrick Zuger, center, who worked for the couple as a chef 26 years ago at the Chalet Landhaus in New Glarus. Zuger now owns a restaurant in Zuzwil, Switzerland, that the couple was able to visit on the trip. The fire department from the village greeted them as they arrived for lunch. (Photo supplied)
NEW GLARUS - Both a Swiss and American flag served as the backdrop as 35-year New Glarus firefighter Mike Nevil was made the honorary chief for the week in Glarus, Switzerland.

It was just one of the memorable moments on a trip organized by the New Glarus Fire Department at the end of March. The journey was planned by Nevil and his wife, Shawna Nevil, for the fourth time since 1997.

The names among the people are familiar and the camaraderie is effortless - the trip always ends with the feeling of a family vacation. Days are filled with sharing, laughing, eating and enjoying the company of extended family of so many from Green County, Shawna said.

"We get treated like kings and queens," Mike said. "The hospitality is incredible."

They meet up with what they refer to as their "sister department" and are welcomed with open arms. The group of 27 from New Glarus included six active firefighters, and many were named honorary members of the Glarus department for the week.

Mike now serves as the captain and treasurer for the New Glarus Fire Department. He started the trip several years ago after working in Switzerland for years as a chef to learn the food and culture. In 1995 Glarus, a sister city of New Glarus, opened up a new station and Mike went to see it with a friend for a low-key visit.

He made friends with the chief and assistant chief while there and thought taking a group of firefighters from New Glarus would be a special trip in the future.

In 1997, Mike spread the word to see if anyone on the department was interested in going - he was simply looking to broaden his relationship with the department in Glarus. They took 17 people the first year.

"I wanted to see how they work - just compare notes," Mike said.

Shawna takes on all of the planning, and people can easily branch off to explore their own family, heritage and interests. It's never been limited to firefighters - they often welcome retirees, family and friends to join in, she said.

Among the group of nearly 30 people this year was captain Doug Truttmann, a 23-year New Glarus firefighter. It was Doug's third trip to his native country, and this time he got to experience it with his 28-year-old daughter, Emily Truttmann. Emily serves as a firefighter in Waupun.

Although the two enjoyed the tours of fire departments, one of their favorite parts of the trip was visiting a local beef and dairy farm. Doug works on his brother's dairy farm where Emily worked during high school and college. Seeing how it operated in another country was fascinating, he said. Emily is a graduate of New Glarus High School and the University of Wisconsin-Platteville with a degree in animal nutrition.

"I hope to do it again some time," Doug said. "It was nice for us to have that time together and enjoy that time."

The trip, shortly after the department served around 700 people at its annual Kalberwurst Dinner fundraiser in New Glarus, included meet-ups with city officials. When their first official dinner in Switzerland was planned to be a surprise, Mike said they had to laugh - it was nothing they weren't eating in Wisconsin.

"It's a heritage thing," Mike said. "They were amazed we do it here. It was a great talking point."

The trip featured many things, and as firefighters often do, they held a picnic with their families. The unforgettable moment that combined both New Glarus and Glarus firefighters with those they love was special - the backdrop of mountains and green grass made the trip complete.

Through the days and visits, patches, T-shirts and other items were exchanged. Mike felt inspired by the younger generation's interest in those from New Glarus. Although the department there is larger and more specialized, they fight fires in a similar fashion and have similar equipment. Glarus has a population of around 6,000 people compared to New Glarus' just more than 2,000.

Many of the vacationers took the time to see other things while there. Duane Siegenthaler got to see his great-grandfather's farm, still in the family's name. Others from the group ventured off to see foreign exchange students or visited cemeteries, churches or familiar towns. They tasted cheese made at different levels in the Alps. At a fire station in Basel, they saw helmets from all over the world.

"The names always match up to people we know here," Mike said. "It's a good time for people to trace their roots."

The 10-day trip was made complete with several small stops, including to chocolate, alphorn and fire truck factories, along with several museums. Visiting the slate mines was a highlight for Mike this time. Mike and Shawna visited Unterwasser, where Hans Leutzinger was born - the man they worked for before owning the New Glarus Hotel.

"We're very into our heritage here," Mike said. "We love to see where we came from."

After Mike worked in Switzerland for a year and then several consecutive seasons in the 1980s and 1990s, he loves to return to the culture and food. His mother's maiden name was Gmur, from Canton, which provides a window into his ancestry.

"We had a really good time," Shawna said. Despite not being Swiss, she's taken the honorary reins. "We ended up with a lot of new connections."

The group also met with the local governor, mayor and "state representative" equivalent. The governor plans to visit New Glarus soon and Mike hopes to return the favor of kind generosity as a host.

New Glarus firefighter Bob Pernot also came with his firefighter son, Trevor, and daughter-in-law, Danielle. His wife, Monika, also came along and helped Shawna with the planning for this year's trip.

Because of the strong bonds formed, the Glarus firefighters are planning a trip to New Glarus for 2019. They have visited a few times previously.

"We hope to show them a good time just like they showed us," Mike said.

The group has made the trek to Switzerland with different people in 1997, 2001, 2007 and 2018. This year's group also included: Duane and Brenda Siegenthaler; Randy Ruchti and Connie Davalt; Darrel and Sandi Hustad and their daughters Angie Buetler and Michelle Arnett; Terry Tschudy; Tom and Carol Kubly and their daughters Katie Marti and Brenda Lawson; Duane and Eileen Bell; Kevin and Corrine Hendrickson; and David and JoEllen Mosher.