TravelTraveler Magazine

Crossing the Röstigraben

I was traveling backward, the rain falling away from the final window on the train.

I was sitting in the last seat on the last car of the GoldenPass, facing backward at a panoramic window that showed me all the wet green landscape I was leaving behind, the whole of it measured out in miles of railroad track.

Frankly, I prefer facing forward when traveling, if possible. I like to see where I’m going rather than where I’ve been, but this time, I was personally playing the role of caboose. On that particular train and at that particular moment, I was the last thing to move.

The two Swiss towns of Rougemont and Saanen are less than three miles (5 km) apart and as the train left the former and rumbled towards the latter, I looked back out my window searching for some kind of line in the ground, or perhaps a head-jostling bump in the track—any sign of it: the boundary, the border, the great dividing line between one part and the other. But no, there is no bump in the track—this is Switzerland and so everything runs smoothly.

Only minutes before we had passed through a tunnel that market Switzerland’s own little continental divide, where water on one side flows into the Rhône and on to the Mediterranean, while water on the other side flows into the Rhine and on to the North Sea. All those raindrops were falling in this one country, but eventually they would end up on opposite sides of Europe—one French, one German.

After leaving Rougemont, the train attendant poked her head around the corner and asked me in French if wanted anything to drink. I ordered l’eau gazeuse and sipped at the bubbles in my glass as we pulled into Saanen.

And at that moment, everything changed. Suddenly all the streets looked straighter, the houses shared a uniform dark-stained wooden color, life became a little more predictable, and all the people walked in step—at least I think I wanted them to. The signs were definitely different: Gone were the accents aigus, replaced by a shower of umlauts and words with more syllables than the train had cars.

Once again, my French-speaking Swiss train attendant appeared, but this time to ask for a favor. She asked me to translate something into English for the new German-speaking train attendant who was boarding in Saanen.

Travel affords all of us these brief moments of hilarity: I, the foreigner at the back of the train, was serving as an interpreter between two Swiss people.

Switzerland has four official languages (French, German, Italian, and Romansch) but its first unofficial language is English. After just two weeks traveling in this wonderful and quirky country, I am convinced that English is the off-the-shelf lingua franca for the Swiss—and I’m a little surprised.

The invisible line between French-speaking Suisse and German-speaking Schweiz is as hard-edged as the swords of the invading French armies that pushed that line to Saanen a few centuries ago. Also, multilingual Switzerland is a tad less fluid than I once believed. For instance, in Gruyères I met a group of Swiss youth from Bern—less than an hour away—who spoke not a word of French. And in Interlaken, I have met native Swiss from less than one hour away who speak little-to-no German.

There are 26 cantons in Switzerland, each as unique and pronounced as some countries in Europe, but the French and Swiss form the two major teams in this country of countries within countries.

The French speakers refer to their corner of Switzerland as Suisse Romande, a kind of nostalgic nod to the Romance languages and the underappreciated Roman Empire. It’s a quaint toponym really, but in comparative historical terms, it’s not unlike the people of Atlanta referring to the Deep South as Cherokee Country.

Meanwhile, the Swiss-Germans call their land Schweiz, derived from a small town in the smallish canton of Schwyz. The name of this area is in fact where we get the “Switzer” in Switzerland—another quaint and nostalgic (and completely ethnocentric) toponym. In comparative terms, it would be like New Yorkers calling the whole of America New York (though that’s not too far off now, is it?).

That two citizens of the same country have entirely different names for their country is fascinating to me. In less than five minutes, my train jaunt from Rougemont to Saanen had carried me from Suisse to Schweiz, across that invisible but very real line the Swiss lovingly refer to as the Röstigraben.

Rösti is a plateful of hash brown potatoes and it’s about as Swiss as a cowbell, but you’re more likely to find the dish on menus in Schweiz than in Suisse. The graben or “ditch” is the illustrative term for this finite border between the two Switzerlands—like a decisive cut through a plate of hash browns. For close to a thousand years, these French- and German-speaking Swiss have lived as neighbors with backyards that border one another. Yet while Europe is busy erasing its borders, the Swiss are ever-conscious of their internal demarcations, linguistic and otherwise.

Crossing the röstigraben took me from one country into another—the only thing that remained the same was the square red flag with its imperative white cross. By riding a train across “a ditch,” I had crossed the line between “oui” and “ja,” from “non” to “nei.”  Suddenly the cows made less of a meux sound and more of a müü sound; suddenly everything I’ve learned and thought about Switzerland thus far no longer applies. It’s all rather puzzling.

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A Henniez menthe gommé, a drink you can order in Suisse, but not in Schweiz. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

That night in Interlaken, I ordered the same drink I’ve been ordering in Switzerland since I arrived: one Henniez gommé menthe, bitte schön. But the waitress had no clue what I was saying and claimed to have never heard of any such drink in her life. I settled on wasser mit kohlensäure, which is double the syllables it takes to say the same thing in French.

Also on my first night in Interlaken I ate my first rösti. The round cake of fried potatoes arrived as big as the face of a wall clock, with a heap of crispy, fatty bacon chunks and a sea of melted cheese thrown on top for good measure.

I am no longer in Geneva, I thought, then cut the rösti in two halves. I concentrated on my food, as one does in Switzerland, and I can honestly report that both halves were equally delicious.

And so . . . Grüezi und Willkommen in der Schweiz.