For German exchange students being hosted by Verona Area High School students, the answer is clear: Cheese curds are the best thing about Wisconsin.

Coming in at a close second is all the other cuisine the state has to offer, and the niceness of the people, German exchange students told the Press last week.

Oh, and that a lot of people in Verona have iPhones.

Twenty-two German exchange students were in Verona from Sunday, Sept. 22 to Sunday, Oct. 6. The program, led by German teacher Karen Diemer-Toney and German national Frau Just, will provide VAHS students a chance to visit Germany at their exchange partners’ school next spring.

Students were also surprised at the “hugeness” of everything, with roads being wider and the city being more spread out than their own, and the niceness of the people.

For 10 years, students have been noticing these differences in culture. The program was created after Diemer-Toney and Just were on a teacher exchange and got to know one another.

Neither of their high schools had a German-American exchange program partnership, so they decided to pursue one, Diemer-Toney said.

VAHS and German students celebrated two events last week – Homecoming, which doesn’t always line up with the students’ fall visit, and German Unity Day, which commemorates German Reunification. The Berlin Wall, which separated East and West Germany after World War II, came down in November 1989.

The German students had never experienced Homecoming in their country, Diemer-Toney said, as the event doesn’t exist in their schools.

For German Unity Day, VAHS and German students had an ice cream social and listened to the experiences of the teachers who had experienced a divided Germany to understand the significance of the holiday.

The two German national teachers who chaperoned the trip each lived on opposite sides of the wall, and Diemer-Toney had visited both sides as a young adult.

Just lived on the other side of the wall from her grandparents. Because she was on the eastern side, she couldn’t go over to West Germany, and her grandparents could only come visit her and her parents once a year.

“Today I sometimes think what it must have been like for my mother and my grandmother … they couldn’t see each other,” she tearfully told the students last week.

The exchange program allows Diemer-Toney’s students to better understand the history and culture of the county, and test out their German language outside of the classroom in a way they don’t get to at home, she said.

It’s more than getting on a bus and touring the German countryside, Diemer-Toney added.

“My students don’t hear German often (outside) of the classroom, that’s about it,” she said. “For me, it’s to be able to live and experience the culture, but even more importantly, because this partnership is a home-stay, many of my students form life-long friendships and they are able to go back more than once.”

The German students are going home also having improved their English skills, and find the words coming more naturally to them.

“Our English is better than we thought, I think,” one student said. “Before this, we always (said) ‘uh, uh, uh,’ but now we can talk a bit easier.”

Email reporter Kimberly Wethal at kimberly.wethal@wcinet.com and follow her on Twitter @kimberly_wethal.