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

Fitting in and integrating into Swiss life is not easy, especially understanding the complex differences between how the locals tick in various linguistic regions. This is what you should know if live in or visit la Suisse Romande — i.e. French-speaking Switzerland.

French-speaking Switzerland: Seven life hacks that will make you feel like a local
Le bisou. Photo by Tony Mucci on Unsplash

As you know if you have lived in Switzerland for a while (and this is possibly new information for you if you are a new arrival), there is a cultural divide between the German and French speaking regions, called the Röstigraben (for Ticino, the applicable word is “Polentagraben”).

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 the French-speaking part. 

“Graben” means border, gap or rift. 

Röstigraben: What is Switzerland’s invisible language and culture barrier?

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. 

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. 

Here are seven life hacks to make your Swiss-French experience smoother. 

Don’t tell the locals that they are “French”

This is the worst thing you can tell a Romand, or, in French – and is a complete faux-pas. They may be speaking French but they are first and foremost Swiss, and most Swiss look down on foreigners.

Genevans, for instance, don’t much care for their French neighbours, even though without them, the canton’s economy would be in shambles.

If you are really French, don’t volunteer this information.

Tell the Romands you are Belgian. Or better yet, French-Canadian.

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

Speak French (even poorly) but never German

While the Romands tolerate their Swiss-German neighbours (certainly more than they tolerate the French), they will not want to speak their language.

One reason is that they don’t like the sound of it and another that, while they all learned it in school (though under duress), they didn’t learn it well.

You will have to look far and wide to find a Romand who speaks Swiss-German fluently, without an accent and enjoys it. Even President Guy Parmelin and Health Minister Alain Berset, the two Romands on the Federal Council, speak it with a French accent.

They speak it because their job demands it. For other Romands, it is an unnecessary burden.

However, speaking English with a Romand is fine (although they might speak back to you in French).

READ MORE: Eight ways you might be annoying your neighbours (and not realising it) in Switzerland

Remember that the Swiss attitude to punctuality is universal

Newcomers to Switzerland might assume that the Swiss fascination with punctuality is a Swiss German phenomenon.

While the attitude to lateness in a personal context might be slightly more relaxed in Romandie – unlike in German-speaking Switzerland you’re unlikely to get a text from a friend if you’re three minutes late asking where you are – Swiss people all over the country are proud of their country’s strong record on punctuality. 

‘The pleasure of punctuality’: Why are the Swiss so obsessed with being on time?

While the Röstigraben definitely exists, Swiss trains will be punctual on both sides of the border.

So if you’re visiting Romandie, try to do the same. 

Be on time wherever you are in Switzerland. Photo: JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP

Master the three-cheek kiss

You will never fit in if you don’t master the art of a three-cheek-kiss.

It’s true that other cultures have some variation of this custom, but in the Suisse Romande it is taken to the extreme.

It doesn’t matter whether you know someone for a long time or for five minutes — you will not fit in if you don’t practice the right cheek-left cheek-right cheek ritual with everyone you meet.

It is not so bad if you are meeting only one person, but if you attend a large event and have to three-kiss many cheeks you haven’t been properly introduced to when you arrive and then again when you leave, that can take hours.

Thankfully, this custom has fallen victim to the pandemic and nobody can predict whether it will ever re-emerge but, at least for now, there is a reprieve.

Small talk (especially about the weather)

New arrivals to Switzerland are often told to avoid small talk.

This is something that can be particularly difficult, especially for arrivals from English-speaking countries where the compulsion to fill up uncomfortable silences outweighs the desire to actually talk about something interesting. 

While avoiding small talk in German-speaking Switzerland is good practice (unless you want to be treated like an undercover cop), the French-speaking Swiss have a more relaxed attitude to small talk. 

Of course, French-speaking Swiss are still Swiss and some topics will be off limits for small talk – particularly if they are too personal – but if you want to fill those uncomfortable silences, you can always talk about the weather. 

Eat (and enjoy) local specialties

Okay, this may not be easy, as some foods might not be to your taste.

But if you learn to prepare (and stomach) la saucisse aux choux (pork sausage stuffed with cabbage),  le papet (pork sausage served with boiled potatoes and leeks), or Malakoff (a fried cheese ball, NOT to be confused with a molotov cocktail) you are probably good to go.

Le papet vaudois. Photo by Vaud Tourisme

Drink (and converse about) local wines

Food is good but knowledge of wines is even better.

All the French-speaking regions grow their own grapes and produce wines, and they are mighty proud of them.

Depending on the canton or even a commune where you are, learn all you can about these local wines and share your knowledge with the people you meet.

Wines are a huge social connector in this part of  Switzerland and will help you fit in like a local —unless, of course, you start talking about the virtue of French wines, which is the ultimate faux pas. 

Just remember not to assume that all French-speaking Swiss are drunks, as Italian-speaking Swiss consume far more wine per capita (a fun fact to bust out whenever you find yourself on the other side of the alps). 

Voilà, now you are ready to conquer La Suisse Romande. Bonne chance!

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LIVING IN SWITZERLAND

‘The right decision’: Why foreign residents are moving from Swiss cities to the country

For some international residents surveyed by The Local, moving away from Switzerland’s urban centres is the right move — literally and figuratively. Here’s why.

‘The right decision’: Why foreign residents are moving from Swiss cities to the country

The transition from town to country  is not a new phenomenon but it has grown significantly since the start of the Covid pandemic, when many people — Swiss and foreigners alike —  moved from cramped cities to smaller towns and villages.

To many people, this kind of relocation made even more sense given the work-from-home requirement that had been in place off and on during the pandemic.

“There was a Covid effect on a desire for the countryside. We can say that the coronavirus worked as a kind of trigger”, Joëlle Salomon-Cavin, lecturer at the Institute of Geography and Sustainability at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), said in an interview with RTS public broadcaster.

The pandemic, however, has not been the only catalyst at play. A study carried out jointly by UNIL and the Federal Polytechnic Institute of Lausanne found three major reasons for the move: the search for a better balance in life, the desire for a less urban and more ecological way of life, and the quest for personal well-being.

Foreign residents are no exception when it comes to a desire for a simpler, greener, and less stressful life — at least this is what emerges from the answers to The Local survey.

On January 25th, we asked our readers to share their experiences of moving from cities to countryside, including their reasons for doing so, and whether they are happy with the choice they made.

READ MORE: Have your say: What to expect when you move to the Swiss countryside

This is what they told us

Most respondents had mostly positive things to say about the move.

Stephen Farmer moved from Basel to Büsserbach in canton Solothurn because he wanted to buy a house with a garden “and get more peace and quiet”.

In hindsight, “it was absolutely the right decision and I’ve never been happier”.

Before he moved, “several people told me that rural Swiss don’t like foreigners and it would be difficult for me to be accepted. But the people in my village are friendly and I found it easier to make Swiss friends here than in Basel”.

Many foreigners prefer living in Swiss countryside. Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

Steve Fors relocated from Zurich to Remigen in Aargau “for more space and slower pace”.

“It was the best decision”, he said. “We love our flat and village. We’ve found great friends in our neighbours and I work remotely three days a week”.

No regrets either for another reader who moved from Zurich to Walensee in St. Gallen “in order to be closer to nature and enjoy three to four times more space for the same rent”.

Since making the move, he “found more time to read and focus on things I was passionate about”.

His conclusion: “I would never move back to a large city, especially after the past two years”.

Yet another reader relocated from Basel to Lenzerheide in Graubünden but rented out the Basel apartment “in case we want to move back one day”.

So far, however, there are no regrets or desire to go back. “Quality of life is much better here and taxes are lower. I can also ski for an hour at lunchtime or go for a hike”.

Das moved from Bern to Frauenkappellen. While he was surprised by the lack of non-Europeans in the village, “it was a good decision otherwise, both in terms of people and space”.

Sometimes, the readers are brave enough to move from one linguistic region to another, as was the case for John Aran, who relocated from Swiss-German Schaffhausen to Valais in the French-speaking part.

He found the people in his new home “much more friendly”.

“I hope I won’t regret it”

While most of the responses to our poll were positive, some readers were less enthused about their move away from larger cities.

Filip, who moved from Zurich to Wädenswil to be closer to his son’s school, said their new small town “feels lonely somehow. There is hardly anyone around during the day”.

Another transplant, Sandra Shibata, who left Geneva for Valais, found it harder to make friends in her new town. “I hope I won’t regret this decision”, she said.

One reader who also made the move from Geneva to Valais offered a more scathing review of her new home:  “Valais is super backward, sexist, and xenophobic, and job hunting is a nightmare here”.

READ MORE: Where do Switzerland’s foreigners all live?

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