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From Bern to Berne for love

Deborah Tonini from Bern found her husband Andy Steiner in Berne Rita Emch

Deborah Tonini from Bern, Switzerland, cooks Italian and Swiss dishes for her guests in a restaurant in Berne, Indiana.

She left the Swiss capital in 2008 and met her husband, Andy Steiner, whose ancestors emigrated from the Emmental hills more than a century ago.

“Oh, it’s love. When I first saw him I was smitten,” recalls Deby with a broad smile at Andy who returns the tender look.

The 27-year woman grew up in the Bümpliz suburb of Bern, and trained and worked as a hotel manager in Switzerland. But a slipped disc put her out of action and she had to spend a lot of time in bed until she finally recovered.

At that time a colleague of hers was looking for a travel companion to go to New York and from there to visit Berne – a town Deby’s colleague knew from the year she spent as an exchange student in the United States.

Deby, who now works as a chef in the local Bella Tower Grill, had already made a name for herself with her home-made food. She used to sell Swiss braided butter bread, spaghetti sauces and pasta at the local market.

“Business was good,” she says.

Italian influence

Yet Deby did not hesitate when she was offered a position as chef at a restaurant in Berne.

The Bella Tower Grill menu includes typical Swiss dishes such as Rösti (fried potatoes) and Älpler Macaroni (pasta with potato, cheese, cream and bacon). And Deby still bakes bread every morning.

The customers appear to love her cooking, as a visit to the busy restaurant on a Sunday in August showed.

Deby grew up with three sisters and a brother. Her mother and grandmother gave her cooking tips when she was still little, which now serves her well overseas.

“We often had Italian food at home,” says Deby. The reason being that her father’s ancestors came from Italy. Her mother is a farmer’s daughter from a vegetable-growing area outside Bern.


Deby did not only find her husband in Berne. Here in the town of Mennonite settlers, she can practise her Christian faith without being teased or derided as she was in Switzerland, she says.

Religion has always been an important part in Deby’s family. Her father is a retired pastor.

“God has played a major role in my life,” she notes, adding that religion is more prominent in everyday life in the US compared with Europe.

Deby says she heard God’s voice when her eyes met those of her future husband Andy at a birthday party. And he insists it was the same for him.

But at first the couple had very little time to spend together and feel the mutual attraction as Deby’s flight to Europe had been booked for September.


Three months later she was back in Berne. “Andy opened the door to his house and said ‘Welcome home’. That’s exactly how it felt,” says Deby.

During their temporary separation they stayed in touch via email and phone. Deby says she often prayed and spoke to God.

It soon became clear how much the couple had in common, and how they wanted to share their faith as well as their interest in pastoral work. Andy is a co-founder of a mission society active in the body-building industry in the US.

We are made for each other and we were brought together, they say.

Andy proposed to Deby at Christmas 2008. They had their registry office wedding the following March. In summer Deby got her Green Card and on June 11, 2009 the church wedding took place, with members of both families in attendance.

Christmas visit

Deby says she has not been back to Switzerland for nearly two years. But the plan is to visit the heart of Europe this Christmas. For Andy it will be the first trip to the country of his ancestors.

Does she miss her home town?

“I do. I left behind a fair bit in Bern. Sometimes it would be nice to stroll through Bern’s arcades, drink a cup of coffee in the Bärenplatz town square and chat with friends.”

Although she has made many friends in Berne, Indiana, and she likes the quiet life there, she feels attached to Bern, Switzerland.

“Switzerland is my home and I always liked living in Bern,” says Deby.

Rita Emch in Berne, Indiana, (Adapted from German by Urs Geiser)

About 1.2 million Americans have Swiss roots. Most immigrants arrived in two major waves in the 19th century between 1830-1860 and 1870-1890.

Most Swiss expatriates settled in California, New York, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

About 5,000 cities, towns and settlements in the US have names of Swiss origin.

There were 74,944 registered Swiss in the US at the end of 2009, according to the foreign ministry. 54,351 of them had dual nationality.

In 1852 a group of 70 Mennonites from the Jura region in Switzerland arrived in the area.

In 1871 the community was registered as Berne and a train crossed it for the first time.

Berne today has around 4,150 inhabitants. Some 4,000 Amish have settled outside the town.

Berne is proud of its Swiss roots and the descendents of the settlers lay great value on the tradition of their forefathers’ home.

Swiss influence is everywhere: as conspicuous as the many Swiss names and coats of arms on shops and residential buildings is the floral decoration – geraniums line window boxes and roads.

Earlier this year the town inaugurated a replica of the Clock Tower in Bern, Switzerland. The carillon with 12 figures tells the settlement story of Berne.

Family names that give away their Swiss origins include Graber, Amstutz, Lehmann, Neuenschwander, Liechti and Sprunger.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR