Sister city relationships are often based on trade opportunities. In the case of Quincy, Ill., and Herford, Germany, the principal import-export product is travel.
About 160 years ago, a group of German immigrants settled on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River, about 130 miles north of St. Louis. Over the next 30 years, about 200 families from the area of Herford would make their home in Quincy and its environs.
More than a century later, a young German woman met and married a U.S. serviceman and moved with him to Quincy. As she explored her new surroundings, Mechtild Kosin, known as Mecki, wondered about the many German names that marked the headstones in the local cemetery.
Her curiosity was further piqued in 1988, when she was working at the Chamber of Commerce. The local newspaper editor, a friend of her boss, had received a letter in German, and he asked her to translate it.
The letter was from an amateur historian who wanted to explore the familial links between Quincy and Herford, a city about 200 miles north of Frankfurt, where Kosin grew up.
Later that year, Kosin visited her family in Frankfurt and took a side trip to Herford. The city council had passed a resolution to seek a formal relationship with Quincy. Normally, sister cities are united by assignment by Sister Cities International, which seeks out cities and towns with similar characteristics. But Quincy and Herford petitioned SCI for sisterhood, and their wish was granted.
They are by no means twins: Herford has 60,000 people, while Quincy has 40,000; Herford has two rivers, Quincy has one. ("Ours is bigger than both theirs put together," Kosin said.) But both were sizable cities in the midst of agricultural areas.
Within a year, Quincians and Herfordites were crisscrossing the Atlantic.
Kosin put her first group together to visit Herford in 1989 on the occasion of its 1,200th birthday. "That's another difference," she said. "They're a little older than we are."
She used the services of a local travel agency that has since gone out of business. "I wasn't going to travel outside the U.S. without using a travel agent," she said.
No stranger to the travel industry herself, having worked as a travel agent in Germany, she arranged home stays for the group and a few side trips.
Travel was in her blood. Her father worked at Frankfurt Airport, and "the airport was my playground," she said.
In 1999, Kosin officially re-entered the travel industry by buying Travel House of Quincy along with a partner, and she continues the tradition of taking a group to Herford every other year.
In alternate years, she helps play host to visitors from Herford, setting up a reception by the mayor of Quincy and preparing sightseeing trips to Hannibal, Mo., the boyhood home of Mark Twain, or to St. Louis. And in between, she is involved in music group and soccer team exchanges.
Kosin's biennial group trips run about 15 days and include varying excursions outside Germany: One year the group might visit the Benelux countries in addition to Germany; another year, it might take in Poland and Hungary.
For her next trip in June, she is adding a seven-night Baltic Sea cruise aboard the Costa Magica.
The group size is generally 40 to 50 people. In October 2001, however, Kosin found herself with a group of 12 after the 9/11 attacks scared customers into canceling.
Those were dark days for the agency. "The bottom dropped out," Kosin said. Kosin bought out her partner and waited out the bad times. She now has spacious offices and a staff of eight.
She encourages her counselors to develop expertise through travel to various destinations, believing that "you need to taste the foods and smell the smells" to sell travel properly.
One of the rewards of the sister-city relationship that she has fostered is the knowledge that she has opened up the world for her friends and neighbors in Illinois.
"My brothers-in-law are farmers from southern Illinois," she said. "They never would have gone to Europe on their own. It has made a big change in their world view."
Cruising beyond the sister city
The following is the itinerary for the 2009 sister city trip from Quincy, Ill., to Herford, Germany, prepared by Mecki Kosin, owner of Travel House of Quincy.
Day 1: Arrival in Frankfurt, with a quick drive through the city before checking in at the Holiday Inn Frankfurt City South. There will be some time to relax and take a walk around the neighborhood. Dinner is at the hotel.
Day 2: Depart for the four-hour drive to Herford, sister city of Quincy, Ill.
Days 3 to 5: We are guests in Herford. Our friends in the sister city always plan an interesting, fun program. Accommodations are with host families; however, hotel rooms can be reserved, if preferred. The Hanseatic town is nestled in the Ravensburg hills, between the Teutoburg Forest and the Wiehengebirge uplands. Neuer Markt square in the center of town is noted for its medieval and Renaissance architecture. The cavernous halls of the old freight train station are a popular haunt for photographers.
Day 6: Travel north to Kiel. The Costa Magica leaves the port at 5 p.m. for a Baltic Sea cruise.
Day 7: The first day at sea, we cruise past Denmark and Sweden.
Day 8: Sail through the islands of the Stockholm archipelago and arrive in Stockholm, the Venice of the North. See where Stockholm got its start as a Viking fort in Gamla Stan, the Old Town. Visit the Golden Hall where Nobel laureates are honored or see Drottningholm Castle, a Unesco World Heritage Site. A visit to Absolut Vodka's Ice Bar will bring new meaning to the phrase "on the rocks." While shopping, be sure to check out Gray's American Foodstore on Odeng Street. Ship sets sail at 6 p.m.
Day 9: In Helsinki, the capital of Finland, visit the open marketplace and choose from among the delicacies for sale in the Old Market Hall. At the Arabia-Iittala outlet, see why Helsinki has become a hub for modern design. The Uspenski Cathedral is the largest Orthodox church in Scandinavia.
Day 10: Arrive early in the day and leave at midnight, leaving lots of time to explore the Hermitage, one of the world's most fabled art museums; the designer shops on Nevsky Prospekt; and St. Isaac's Cathedral, a massive edifice of gold and marble. Take in a performance at the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre.
Day 11: Spend the day in Tallinn, Estonia. Its medieval Old Town of pastel buildings, colorfully painted doors, cobblestone streets and picture-perfect side streets are wonderful for walking. Trace the city's history through its landmark churches, including the spectacular onion-domed Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built under czarist rule.
Day 12: Spend the day at sea.
Day 13: Dock in Kiel and meet the motorcoach drive for the return to Frankfurt. Arrive at the Holiday Inn Frankfurt City South.
Day 14: Departure for St. Louis via Atlanta.