The American Rostigraben

I have had the good fortune of living in both the Swiss French and Swiss German areas of Switzerland. It has afforded me great insight into Swiss culture. 

Moving from one to the other was not so easy.  In fact, many often warned me of the infamousRöstigraben” of Switzerland. 

Yes , you know, that make-believe border between the French and German cantons.

There are no customs officers to slow you down or to check your passport. 

Yet you know surely that some invisible border exists and has been passed.

It is familiarly referred to as the “Röstigraben”. 

To the north, live those who love to eat rösti (a close cousin of hash browns) and speak Swiss German. 

To the south, there are the French speakers of Switzerland who probably also like to eat rösti, but that’s really not the point – they are just different.

This “Röstigrabe” (as pronounced in Swiss German dialect) invisibly divides the country into two different language areas and perhaps more importantly, two different cultures and political stances.

Well, it was that exact reference I had in mind when my husband, Andrew, and I decided to spend our vacation time in the state of North Carolina.

When traveling on the Interstate Highway, I-95, which runs all along the eastern coastline: from Maine to Florida, we were in the search of “South of the Border” signs.

I have an emotional attachment to these South of the Border signs, as they represent for me the amazing road trip my family took way back in 1972 when with only a camping trailer and vehicle, our family of 7: 2 parents plus 5 children, ages 2 months to 12 years old, traveled from Massachusetts down to Florida, stopping at interesting American historical sites along the way.

Signs for “South of the Border” were indicated for hundreds of miles before the actual “border” appeared. 

For kids, it was a real treat and a fun way to be amused and entertained. Each sign was a bit special but always large and bold with a happy looking man wearing a large Mexican hat exclaiming how far it was until we would reach The South of the Border. (See photo.)  How simple life was!

When our family did finally arrive, it was monumentally disappointing

It was marked only by a touristy shop selling fireworks and souvenirs.

Not at all what we had expected or hoped for.  But nonetheless, all these signs seemed to mark an important fact.

Once we passed them, we were “somewhere else”.  Somewhere perhaps foreign and unknown but somehow still in the United States.

And, I dare to say, this is the same exact feeling you can have when traveling in Switzerland.

Take a train from Zurich to Geneva and you’ll see what I mean.  After just about 1 ½ hours, you will begin to hear your fellow passengers speak French instead of Swiss German.

The train is the same, you’re the same, but the people are not.

It is then you know you have passed the “Röstigraben”.

So when revisiting the Carolinas for the first time in many, many years, I started to see and hear things in a new light.

In fact, the South of the Border for me now has been unofficially renamed “the American Röstigraben”.

To the North: cold winters, lots of snow, beautiful autumn leaves and accents that are familiar and easy to understand and many Democrats.

To the South –  a haven of warm weather, friendly people, speaking with a southern drawl and who like to eat food that Northerners rarely touch: collard greens, grits, sweet tea, to mention only a few. And yes, many Republicans.

And unfortunately both sides have incredibly nasty names and stereotypes for each other, too, such as the uneducated, gun toting “rednecks” to describe those from the South.

And the snobby, arrogant, rude, brash, always in a hurry, money grabbing “Yankees” for those from the North.

Hmmm….Wouldn’t you say all that name calling is asking for trouble?

During our travels, we were lucky to have stumbled upon a significant historical site in Durham, North Carolina.   Its presence is simple and incredibly understated. Yet this made it all the more genuine.  (See photo and description below.)

Photo: Unity Monument erected in Durham, North Carolina in honor of a treaty and friendship which was formed at this location. 

In 1865, General Johnston surrendered his Confederate troops to the North’s General Sherman. They used a humble family home to conduct their negotiations, which still can be seen in the background of the photo.

General Sherman showed much respect for General Johnston and wished to make the surrender as dignified as possible for him. 

Although the first draft, which was signed by both men, was rejected by the new President Andrew Johnson, a final agreement that led to the ending of the American Civil War was signed by both Generals.

They became lifelong friends.  And the United States remained united.

So in ending, whenever a Northerner from the States asks me about going Down South to North Carolina in a doubtful tone of voice, I smile and say – yes – you should go.  It’s beautiful there!

Writing and photos by: Rose Nassif Travers

Interested in reading more about cultural differences in English?

B1/B2 Movie Review of Red Army – Directed by Gabe Polsky

5 minute general English exercise for free

Red Army: Ice Cold or Lovingly Warm?

[Gabe Polsky Zurich Film Festival 

Saying goodbye to Gabe Polsky who leaves Zurich.


Red Army” – when someone says these two words to a Westerner, it could immediately conjure up stereotypical thoughts of the Cold War and Communism.  Would it really be a movie you would expect to touch you deeply, no matter where in the world you are from?  Well, ladies and gentlemen, you should expect that because it does exactly that and much, much more.

“Red Army” recounts the history of the Soviet Union’s famous ice hockey team and some of its individual players from the years of the Cold War in the 1980’s to the Perestroika era of the 1990’s, through the viewpoint of the team captain and ice hockey hero, “Slava” Fetisov.  We learn how these historical changes personally affected his life, career and friendships in both favorable and unfavorable ways.

The film director and writer, Gabe Polsky, a passionate fan of the genius passing style of Russian ice hockey, digs deep into the story of his favorite team to learn more about them.  On the way, he discovers and reveals to the audience, a very powerful story of a man who stands by his convictions and who we come to respect and admire.

Ice cold or lovingly warm? There’s definitely ice in ice hockey. However, it certainly also has the power to have a profound effect on your understanding of the Russian people and the Russian soul.

(All hyperlinks set to: to support German speakers in their English language learning.)

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C1 Reading No Debate: No Creative Solution

General English video grammar exercise
c1 Reading Exercise Piers Morgan at CES 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) ESL Reading Level: C1  (with German translation links provided through

Piers Morgan at CES 2011.

I was aghast! And at the same time, I knew I had to confess that the way Alex Jones Piers “flew off the handle” at Piers Morgan on gun control matters reminded me how I could allow my emotions to interfere with proper debate, too. Well, maybe never that vehemently – but still…

It was also ironic that Alex actually implied that Swiss and America’s gun control laws were similar since Switzerland, too, has a well-armed population.

Unfortunately, they just shouldn’t be put in the same basket.  Using statistics without cultural context is dangerous and can even be offensive if you don’t know what you’re talking about.

So what does make Switzerland different from America in this context?

Let’s see why and how this peaceful, neutral European country has such a high number of gun owners per capita but has been compared improperly in the televised “debate”. 

At least, in my point of view.  Swiss readers – please help me in correcting or adding facts to support or oppose my argument.

Let’s first turn to its history. Switzerland ‘s strategy for forming an armed militia back in the 180o’s, was to make sure that all able-bodied young men (Today: 20-34 years of age for non-officers) were militarily trained and allowed to keep a gun at their home for protection against foreign invasion. 

Please note the word: “foreign”. And to this day, this law is still in place.

Guns at home, you say? That sounds similar to the American policy. Yes, but – every year, when the off-duty militia reported to their 2-week army service, prior to 2007, they were not allowed to keep these guns at home loaded.

To enforce this, they were required to bring in their guns along with their ammunition every year when reporting to their army unit and have all bullets accounted for

If you had lost a bullet, I’m not sure what would have happened but surely at least a hefty fine would have been collected.  That is the Swiss way, if I may be so bold to say so.

Later, in 2007, a law in favor of stricter gun control was passed. Incidents of home/family killings and suicides had been on the rise and the public called for change.

After all, it was no longer the 19th or 20th century.  Laws can be amended to fit our changing world.

The new law required that all distributed army ammunition had to be returned to their army unit headquarters and relinquished. 

To date, 99% of all army ammunition has been returned and accounted for. And knowing how detail-oriented the Swiss are, I can trust this figure.

So what conclusion does this lead me to? Perhaps the USA could work on a Bullet Control Bill instead of changing the current Gun Control laws or Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights

Wouldn’t that somehow be an acceptable compromise?  The right to bear arms would be respected, gun manufacturers could continue making their money but somehow local authorities could be responsible for limiting the number and types of bullets in use?

I think without people calmly discussing both sides of a matter, a creative compromise can never come about.  Americans are great in finding win-win solutions, I have always thought, in business. 

Why not in politics?

There is so much more to be said about this topic.

But I leave this to you – my readers. Any comments to share?

Any creative solutions to propose?

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