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Polentagraben: The invisible barrier separating Switzerland

Though not as well-known as its counterpart Röstigraben, the Polentagraben is one of the most prominent signs of Switzerland’s cultural, linguistic, and gastronomical diversity.

The city of Lugano
The border to Ticino (the city of Lugano is pictured here), the Italian-speaking part of the country, is known as the “Polentagraben”. Image by Andreas from Pixabay

Chances are that even if you’ve lived in Switzerland for a while, the existence of the so-called Polentagraben may be news to you.

The term ‘Polentagraben’ was termed only a few years ago to describe the cultural border between the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland south of the Gotthard pass and the rest of the country – though with little success compared to its predecessor Röstigraben. The latter defines the cultural divide between the German and French-speaking regions.

The Polentagraben takes its name from the word ‘Polenta’ – a corn flour meal considered almost a national dish in the Ticino region – and ‘Graben’, which means border, gap, or rift.

READ ALSO: Röstigraben – the invisible barrier separating Switzerland

What does Polentagraben actually refer to?

In reality, it means that although they are from the same country, culturally the Swiss from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and those living in other parts of the country aren’t quite as alike as one may think.

And that is not only because they speak different languages, have different political attitudes, lifestyles, and mentality – or because Swiss-Italians have a completely different approach when it comes to handing out pocket money (Ticino parents are said to be stingier than their Swiss-German counterparts).

People living in Ticino and the southern part of the canton Grigioni call Italian their mother tongue, while people from the remaining parts of the canton Grigioni (or Graubünden, Grischun) speak either German, Romansh and/or Italian growing up.

Though Italian is taught in some parts of Grigioni as well as Switzerland outside of Ticino and southern Grigioni, the cultural divide is still present and the Swiss living in Switzerland’s German and French parts are on the whole unfamiliar with the Swiss-Italian way of life.

READ ALSO: Swiss Italian vs standard Italian: What are the key differences?

Ticino, in particular, differs from the rest of Switzerland, not only due to being located on the other side of the Alps, but also in terms of its political and economic climate. It is a historical fact that the position between the federal government in Switzerland and the canton of Ticino has had its fair share of ups and downs.

In the 19th century, for instance, it was the simultaneous establishment of state structures in Ticino and the transformation of the confederation of states into a modern nation state that led to conflicts.

The rather reserved attitude of the people of Ticino towards national unification and the centralisation of languages and cultures in Ticino led to the opinion that Ticino places local interests above those of the state – and this is still true in some part to this day.

Lavertezzo in Ticino, Switzerland, where Swiss Italian is spoken.

Lavertezzo in Ticino, Switzerland, where Swiss Italian is spoken. Photo by Radek Kozák on Unsplash

And not only that, but since the 1970s, Ticino has had a school system that differs from many Swiss-German models. Children must attend primary school for five years and middle school for three years.

In the Deutschschweiz (German-speaking Switzerland) children attend primary school for six years, compared to an eight-year attendance in the Romandie – whereas nearly all cantons state that children must attend middle school for 3 years, rather than the five mandatory in Ticino.

So, is it a serious border?

The short answer is, no. However, though the term Polentagraben has never quite garnered a fanbase as large as the Röstigraben – neither domestically or internationally – its existence can’t be denied.

Just last year, the people of Switzerland accepted the proposed increase in women’s retirement age from 64 to 65 years. Unlike the Deutschschweiz, the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland backed the many women of the country in voting against the proposal – and this is nothing new.

The Swiss from the German part of Switzerland tend to have different views on public service compared to those in the Italian part. The latter tend to be more open to supporting a strong welfare state for the people.

Similarly, though the consensus across Switzerland is that all four national languages should be promoted more in schools to bring the country’s different language areas and its people closer, the reality looks somewhat different.

In fact, when discussing the promotion of teaching languages in schools and at universities in the Deutschschweiz and Romandie, many understand this to mean German, French and even English – the former being Switzerland’s two chief languages. Italian, which around 8.2 percent of the population speak either as a first language or second, is hardly ever a topic of discussion.

However, this is by no means due to a lack of interest in the language. In the summer, Ticino – Switzerland’s only fully Italian-speaking canton – is a very popular weekend destination for many Swiss, with some very lucky ones buying up second homes in top-rated tourist towns such as Ascona, Lugano and Locarno.

Similarly, the Swiss are also very fond of their neighbour to the south, frequenting Italy through much of the summer months.

So, there is hope for the Polentagraben to cease to exist yet.

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For members


Unwritten rules: 10 things you shouldn’t do in Switzerland

In Switzerland, there are many unwritten rules that the Swiss follow in their daily lives. Knowing these 10 can help save you time, money, and stress, writes Swiss national Sandra Sparrowhawk.

Unwritten rules: 10 things you shouldn't do in Switzerland

Assume that every Swiss is a multi-lingual

While Switzerland has four official languages – German (Swiss German), French, Italian and Romansh – the Swiss are not required to be proficient in all four, and are far more likely to be conversational in one additional national language as well as English.

Take it from me, as a native of German-speaking Aargau, French was the mandatory ‘foreign’ language I was taught in secondary school and if you were to approach me in Italian, I’d have to say non parlo molto bene l’italiano.

And what little Italian I do know, I learned in Italy – not Ticino. Scusa.

READ MORE: Swiss Italian vs standard Italian: What are the key differences?

Underestimate nature

One of the first things my foreign friends told me upon landing in Switzerland was that they cannot wait to go hiking in the Swiss Alps.

But while Switzerland is a perfect place to go hiking with its thousands of marked trails, every year, hundreds of people get into accidents while trekking, and some even die.

So, my advice to you if you do want to explore Swiss nature is to stick to hiking trails at all times, make sure you wear appropriate clothing (specifically shoes), pack enough water, and download the Meteo Swiss App to stay informed on severe weather forecasts and other natural hazards.

READ MORE: How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

Shop on a Saturday

For many Swiss people, Saturday is hailed as the perfect weekday to stock up on all your food supplies to avoid running out of food on a Sunday, despite the store Avec being a perfectly reasonable (and open) plan B.

But while shopping on Saturdays spares you from having to hit the shelves right after work, Swiss food stores are notoriously packed with shoppers on the weekend – one of the few times a week you should really prioritise winding down.

In general, when out shopping in Switzerland, be sure to greet shopkeepers when entering a store and paying for goods. However, don’t expect fellow shoppers to queue up. The Swiss, while polite, do not have a queuing culture and will absolutely step in front of you if you let them.

Take a long time to order at the bakery

If you happen to be a morning person who enjoys a yummy pastry in the morning, remember that hitting the bakery in Switzerland will require you to make up your mind about your order fast – and ideally before you get there.

Unlike in some European countries, the Swiss like to get on with their day’s work and prolonged chats paired with indecisiveness are generally not encouraged. That said, always feel free to ask for recommendations.

Sit in a (train) seat without asking

You may look at the empty seat before you and ask: “But there’s no one sat here?”

And yet, even if a passenger is occupying a four-seater on a train all by themselves, in Switzerland, it is common courtesy to ask if the seemingly empty seat(s) is still available before you get comfortable – and not just because their friend(s) may be using the toilet.

If you are invited to take a seat, remember to keep quiet on Swiss trains so as not to disturb other travellers.

Attend a dinner without bringing a small gift

If you have been invited to a party or home-cooked dinner by a friend, colleague, or acquaintance, the etiquette is to bring a small gift as a thank you. In Switzerland, most people choose to bring a bottle of wine or a seasonal bouquet of flowers. In a business setting, it is not necessary to bring or exchange a gift.

And while on the topic of dinner, never ring a Swiss person at dinnertime as we consider that time sacred, especially in today’s busy world. You’re welcome.

READ MORE: The dos and don’ts of Swiss social etiquette

Spend a small fortune on water

Switzerland is repeatedly recognised as a country with the best quality tap water in the world, according to the United Nations. In fact, eighty percent of the water comes from natural springs and groundwater, the rest is taken from the lakes.

The same (usually) goes for fountain water.

Except for the winter months when the water is prone to freezing, drinking fountains can be found practically everywhere in Switzerland.

The quality of water in the fountains is inspected by each municipality to ensure that it is clean and safe to drink.

If this is not the case, a label with the note “no drinking water” must be visibly attached.

In the summer, I would recommend carrying a reusable drinking bottle wherever you go. This will not only keep you hydrated, but also save you money.

Hold a feast on a Sunday

While you are perfectly allowed to activate your weekend mode on Saturdays (though extreme noise is never welcome, because this is Switzerland), come Sunday the Swiss expect everyone – with the exception of newborns – to switch to silent-mode for the entire day. But what exactly counts as a disturbance of one’s peace? Luckily, that’s a bit of a grey zone and largely relies on a person’s common sense to decide just what is an appropriate level of noise.

On a wider scale, unwanted noise can include anything from playing instruments, slamming doors during arguments, using a drill for home improvements, or emulating Heidi Klum in some fancy high heels.

Small tip: If you’re set on hosting a party on a Sunday, notify your neighbours first, and good luck – you’ll need it.

Don’t push in

While the Swiss may not have a queuing culture when waiting on a train, they do consider it good form to pay attention to your surroundings and give way to whomever arrived first – be it when entering a lift or when trying to snag the last available parking space.

Expect public transport to wait for you

The Swiss public transport system is known for its reliable punctuality and the latter is actually a big part of local culture.

With that being said, if you happen to arrive at the platform ‘just a tad late’ for your train and make a run for it hoping the train operator will spot you and show you mercy, know that in Switzerland this will not be the case.

Since Switzerland’s rail network is very busy, even a small delay in a waiting train can cause a chain reaction and lead to many more delays.

The same (usually) goes for buses, though they are known to occasionally turn a blind eye if traffic and schedules allow.