Living in Switzerland for 8.5 years now, I would like to take this particular opportunity to write about something quite interesting and astonishing: the “Röstigraben”. As you might know, there are 4 main languages spoken in Switzerland and the so-called “Röstigraben”, which is a rather informal term, actually defines the divide between the Swiss German speakers and the French speakers.
I myself was lucky enough to have experienced these two different sides of Switzerland, having lived in Zurich as well as in the Romandy in Lausanne. If you speak French and if you have a couple of spare moments, you should listen to Marie-Thérèse Porchet’s geography lesson . Not only is it hilarious, but it will also give you a better feel and understanding of what it is like to live in Switzerland and where the differences lie.
At first, when I arrived in Switzerland I thought it was funny to give a name to something rather fictive such as the imagined “border” between cultural differences. Especially for me, who grew up in Belgium with its three official languages and where to my knowledge no such terminology exists, it had never occurred that this phenomenon could actually have a name and that it would be considered very distinct. The truth is that you learn quite quickly that there really is a “Graben” (or a trench, a ditch in English). You just have to search the Internet to find many different articles on the subject.
If you are living in Switzerland, you can also hop on the train in any French-speaking town, like Lausanne for example, and travel towards Bern (or the other way round, of course). Whereas you will see French newspapers on the seats and overhear mostly French in all the wagons, suddenly and subtly this will change. Newspapers left over are now German and people speak Swiss German. Every time I take the train this strikes me, maybe because I speak the different languages but maybe also because it kind of happens all of a sudden – there is no real mix of languages and people, as it would be like in Belgium, before one or the other language dominates the atmosphere. It simply goes from French to German or from German to French.
In my professional life, I have even heard people say that they did a “semester abroad” while studying. What they really meant here was that they simply went to the other side of Switzerland to study. How interesting is that?
I personally think that these differences are very enriching and I see a great benefit in being able to switch from one language to another and from one culture to another in the same country. Maybe this also gives a good idea of what it is like to live in Europe, where all of the cultures and languages co-exist on a rather small continent (compared to others) without borders and mainly with a common currency. Food for thought!
Jenny Ebermann grew up in Brussels, is of German nationality and is currently living in Switzerland. She is an international Consultant, Mindful Leader and seasoned Coach/Trainer. Jenny speaks and works in Dutch, German, English, French, Spanish and has a good knowledge of Italian/Arabic. www.diversitynu.com, www.jennyebermann.com