Air on the Side of Caution

This is an article I wrote for the Alien Corner column of the Kulturjournal Regensburg. I have the publisher’s permission to publish it here on our blog as well.

Alternate Title: Draft Dodging

Autumn is well and truly here, and Winter won’t be far behind. Some people like watching the leaves change as the trees prepare for the coming season. I like watching the natives’ internal conflict unfold: Lüften oder Hexenschuss riskieren?

Despite living among them for nearly nine years, I am still fascinated by the cognitive dissonance from two prevailing concepts embedded deep in their culture.

ca. 1490 (dank an Wikipedia)
Hexenschuss by Johann Zainer
ca. 1490
(dank an Wikipedia)

The first: “Moving air is as bad for you as getting cursed by a witch.” Deutsche Bahn fires up the heaters to sauna-worthy temperatures in their compartments from now until the Schafskälte has come and gone. This leads to sweaty, stinky passengers, and you know why: the windows open, but they’d rather suffer an olfactory offense than risk a cramp from a magical crone.

Moving air is bad enough, but combined with moisture, it can render one positively immobile. If you don’t change out of those trunks/bikini immediately after splashing about at the beach/pool, you’re risking serious witch wrath. Fortunately, the dangerous months of July and August are behind us now, and we can start to prepare ourselves for next year’s outbreaks of swimsuit-itis.

The second concept: “Moving air is absolutely necessary to prevent a stagnant office/living environment and mold accumulation through moisture build-up.” Never mind how bad for you all that moving air is (see above), at several points during the day, your colleagues will proclaim the air in the office schlecht and fling open all doors and windows on site for as long as they can stand the inner turmoil. Struggling to hear everyone on a conference call? Distracted by street traffic?

This is not our living room!   Thanks Wikipedia!
This is not our living room! Thanks Wikipedia!
None of that matters. If you don’t dramatically exchange the air in the room for stuff outside, no one can work and everyone will get figurative malaria: literally “die schlechte Luft.” The mold thing might be a real concern. I’m used to forced-air heating systems which guarantee circulation (and, apparently, muscular malaise).

Watching the Germans haggle with themselves about the air movement, or lack thereof, I know it won’t be long until we can all disagree again about when it’s finally time to leave the windows permanent gekippt.

8 thoughts on “Air on the Side of Caution”

  1. Julie

    I tell people here in the UK about the Germans’ fear of moving air and they think it’s hysterical (which is the appropriate reaction, obviously). Apparently it’s only German (and Swiss) air that contains witches.

    Please write your next column about kidney warmers.

    1. Sarah

      Re: kidney warmers

      I believe Snooker is the authority on this topic.

  2. shoreacres

    This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. Was there a time when wind and witches were conflated? Is the wind associated with the draft from the old gal’s broomstick?

    Well, all I know is that when autumn comes on the Gulf coast, it’s informally celebrated as Open The Windows! season. Who doesn’t like moving air? Germans, I guess.

    Now. About that kidney warmer business….

    1. cliff1976

      shoreacres, it’s not so much about blaming witches for wind. Let’s take a step or two back.

      Presumably, at the time of the origin of the term “Hexenschuss,” if your back hurt suddenly for no obvious reason, the most common response was “lo, it is a witch!

      Nowadays, the people of Germany are much less quick to attribute the inexplicable sources of bodily pain to silly stuff like witchcraft.

      Now they blame it on the wind, but that witchy name was apparently too good to pass up.

  3. CN Heidelberg

    I love this post.
    Never leave it permanently gekippt, we were told. That makes moisture build up at the window and mold grow. (I never felt we could do anything right on the mold front, though.)
    I fear that season is approaching here, too…it is DAMP and opening the windows changes nothing because it’s so damp out there too! Time for some dehumidifer shopping (can anyone recommend a model?).

    1. cliff1976

      Never leave it permanently gekippt, we were told.

      Obviously those advice-givers did not read the Ursachen section on the German Wikipedia page ab0ut Schimmelpilz.

      1. Older windows sealed poorly and allowed for unintentionally constant airflow, thereby lowering the relative humidity of a room.
      2. Newer windows seal much better and prevent that constant airflow.
      3. Therefore, permanently kipping — weather permitting — is a way to simulate the lousy seal of older windows, thereby reducing the relative humidity and keeping the conditions unfriendly to the mold.


      My takeaway from that Wikipedia article was that it’s not only bathing and cooking that contributes to indoor humidity, but also the breath of the occupants. So basically, don’t live in your apartment and you won’t have any problems with moisture and therefore mold.

  4. Sarah Stäbler

    Ugh. Exactly this. It’s my biggest source of frustration here in Germany.

    The minute I walk into class with a cold, a sore throat, or a crick in my neck, my students blame it on the damn air! And then the next bunch of students come in and complain about “bad air”. The only thing that’s bad about the air is that it doesn’t smell great because there’s no air circulation in the room in which 8 people have been sitting for the last 90 minutes.

    It really is superstitious. I had a student move once because he could feel a draft. I can understand if you’re uncomfortable that air is blowing on you and therefore maybe making you feel a little cold. But it’s another thing to then say “MY NECK IS STIFFENING UP!” because of AIR and move across the room to get away from it. Because that’s what they’ve been told. Air is bad. But it’s good when you’re lüften. Jesus.

    I absolutely loathe letting fresh air in during winter.

    1. Sarah

      I absolutely loathe letting fresh air in during winter.

      Me, too. But then I see condensation in the corners of my windows and relent. Plus, I do find it dry and uncomfortable when I’m in the US during cold weather. But I’ve never been struck ill by moving air, whether a forced air system or an outdoor breeze. I’m not that eingedeutscht.

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