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ROSTIGRABEN

Röstigraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland

Perhaps the most prominent sign of Switzerland’s cultural, linguistic and gastronomical diversity, the Röstigraben is a well-known concept in Switzerland.

Röstigraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland
A map which showcases Switzerland's linguistic regions. Image: Swiss Statistical Office.

If you have lived in Switzerland for a while, you’ll know about the cultural divide between the German and French-speaking regions, called the Röstigraben.

The word “Rösti” refers to the Swiss German name for a potato dish which (somewhat) resembles hash browns. 

The dish is popular in German-speaking Switzerland but is almost non-existent in Romandie, the French-speaking part of Switzerland. 

Life on the Röstigraben: Five reasons to visit Biel/Bienne this summer

“Graben” means border, gap or rift – and thereby Röstigraben symbolises the rift between the two largest linguistic groups in Switzerland. 

This isn’t the only border of its type in Switzerland, although it is the best known. 

The border to Ticino, the Italian-speaking part of the country, is known as the “Polentagraben”, getting its name from the prevalence of the dish polenta in the Italian-speaking part of the country. 

But with less than ten percent of the country speaking Italian (8.2 percent) compared with 62.5 percent German and 23 percent French, the focus tends to be on the Röstigraben both internationally and nationally. 

What does Röstigraben actually refer to?

In reality, it means that although they are from the same country, culturally the Swiss-Germans and Romands could be from two different planets.

And it is not only because they speak different languages, have a different culture – and because Swiss-French men don’t wear socks with sandals like their Swiss-German counterparts.

But let’s focus on the people living in the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland, otherwise known as Romandie. 

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local

Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel speak only French, while Valais and Fribourg speak predominantly French but also German. 

Bern, the seat of the de facto capital, is also bilingual, but with more German than French speakers. 

Is it a serious border? 

Although the Röstigraben is taken seriously, generally speaking it only refers to cultural and linguistic divergences rather than any evidence of a real rift between the two. 

In football for instance, a game between Germany and France will likely be supported by the linguistic regions of Switzerland corresponding with the team. 

However whenever the Swiss national side is involved, everyone cheers for Switzerland no matter where they are from. 

‘We don’t like France, Germany or Italy’: How linguistic diversity unites Swiss football fans

The divide did become more serious however during the first two waves of the Covid pandemic, where the divergent linguistic regions saw huge differences between infection rates, hospitalisations and even deaths. 

In the lead up to Christmas in 2020, the number of cases was four times higher in French-speaking Switzerland than in areas where German was spoken. 

Also, as hospitals in the Suisse Romande became saturated in November, those in the Swiss-German part did not. 

In fact, several facilities in the most-impacted regions had to transfer some of their coronavirus patients to medical centres in Bern and Zurich. 

There was a similar imbalance in the first wave of the pandemic. 

During this time, experts sought to work out why the difference was so stark.

Coronavirus in Switzerland: Why have the French and Italian-speaking regions been so hard hit?

Plenty put the blame down to Latin Switzerland’s “warm” nature and culture of three kisses to say hello, while others pointed to the fact that the French and Italian-speaking parts of Switzerland shared borders with countries which were much harder hit than German-speaking Switzerland. 

There were also differences in the lockdown rules in place in different cantons, which may have played a role. 

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For members

UNDERSTANDING THE SWISS

Reader question: What is Switzerland’s ‘Bünzli’ and how do I spot one?

In Switzerland, you might hear the term 'Bünzli' to describe someone. What does it mean?

A person wearing socks with sandals
Socks with sandals are a part of the Bünzli uniform. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

One of many cultural curiosities, a Bünzli is someone who is simultaneously very Swiss – but whom the Swiss make significant fun of. 

The term has no direct English translation, which can make it a little confusing at first to understand. 

At least in part because it is relatively difficult to translate into English, the word Bünzli itself is often used among English speakers who live in Switzerland. 

Here’s what you need to know about Bünzli, a truly Swiss phenomenon. 

What is a Bünzli? 

The term Bünzli is a Swiss German insult to describe a particular type of person who is set in their ways, has narrow mind and view of things and tries desperately hard to hang onto tradition. It is almost always used as a criticism or in a negative context. 

While the internet gives up the translation ‘philistine’ in English, there are other elements which make a Bünzli a Bünzli. 

This insult – based on a real Swiss surname – applies to those boring people who follow all the rules and make sure everyone else does too.

Other English words like fussy, fastidious, stodgy and exact also describe a Bünzli. 

A Bünzli is the sort of person who would never cross the street when the light is red, who never stays out too late and never gets too drunk.

A Bünzli will have a perfectly manicured garden and will never want to split a bill evenly, instead demanding to pay exactly what he or she had – and nothing more. 

He is also the person most likely to complain to the building president when you dare to do your washing on Sunday, or to ring the police when he sees someone parked in front of a fire hydrant.

Some say Bünzli are particularly Swiss, like a distilled, concentrated form of pure Swiss-ness, although the fact that Bünzli are usually the target of ridicule from Swiss people indicates that foreigners are not the only ones who find the behaviour weird or out of line. 

The best English translation is probably a ‘goody two-shoes’, although in this case the more likely attire is socks paired with Adiletten. Yep, you get the idea.


Wearing Adiletten with socks doesn’t make you a Buenzli…but it helps. Photo: Christian H. Flickr

Still not sure what a Bünzli is? 

If you still don’t know what a Bünzli is, it might be helpful to see a few further examples. 

The following YouTube video goes through some specifics of the Bünzli is in Swiss German (although if you already speak Swiss German, you’ll likely know what a Bünzli is). 

Switzerland’s English forum often holds debates where expats look to discover the exact meaning of the term

Swiss news site Watson lists several reader examples of their Bünzli experiences, from having the police called for a noise complaint at 10:01pm, to telling tourists who asked for directions while holding a train door open to let go of the door so the train can leave. 

How do I spot one? 

For those who still don’t exactly know what a Bünzli is, don’t fret.

It’ll often happen the other way around, i.e. the Bünzli will discover you, when you haven’t done your recycling or when your doormat is the wrong way around in front of your apartment or when you cycle across the pedestrian crossing with no cars around. 

Keep the above in mind and trust us, you’ll know one when you see one. 

Have you had any Bünzli experiences? Please let us know in the comments below. 

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