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German Obsession with Fresh Air

18 February, 2011

It seems that Germanic society has an obsession with fresh air. This in general isn’t such a bad thing. I grew up in a place where opening the windows meant either car fumes or air conditioner machine noise or simply tons of bugs. So it is nice to be able to air out the house in the summer. However it doesn’t end there, the windows are opened even in the winter.

A bit frosty for a walk

Sealed Buildings Mean Stale Air

If I take my own apartment as an example, German buildings are vastly different from the ones that I grew up with in the US. First off the walls are a foot thick and made of block or concrete not 5 inches of wood frame stuffed with fiberglass. I haven’t seen my walls open, but I know from peeking at construction sites that they are solid, meaning no drafts through the walls. The mortared block acts as great insulation and keeps the air from outside from seeping in. My windows as well are well sealed. When they are closed, I couldn’t feel even a chill through them during the coldest night we had in December. All of this means that the inside air of buildings can certainly become stale.

Heaters here are radiant not hot air. I have radiators that fill with centrally heated water to warm the room. This is the only kind of heater that I have seen in Germany. No forced air or heater vents in the floor, like our cat used to sit near when I was a kid to suck up the warmth from the air being blown out. Forced air means both more air circulation and air filters. Again two things that I have not seen here and mean air gets “used” and stale faster.

Open Windows in the Winter?

Ok, I get that building construction methods reduce drafts and a lack of air filters means that the air in a building doesn’t exchange so often. Yes, I understand that this is not really the healthiest thing to breath stale air. But really does this mean that every few hours we need to open ALL the windows for 10 minutes? Seriously? It is mid-February and 40 degrees F outside and the wind is blowing. Still every day at work someone opens several of our large windows in the open plan office that I work in.

In the US, the office buildings that I worked in all had sealed windows. The entire building was closed and kept climate controlled. You couldn’t open the windows even if you wanted to. But I imagine that if anyone had tried to open windows in the winter there, they would have been quite clearly yelled at. I can even hear the stereotypical mother voice from some TV series saying “Sheesh, close the window, we are not paying to heat the neighborhood”. Here though one or two people may squirm and reach to put on their jacket, but the need for having windows open even in the winter is somehow accepted.

A Cultural Obsession for Fresh Air

A nice day in the forest

“Germans need fresh air. Americans need air fresheners,” was the wonderfully pithy response from a colleague when I mentioned the open windows in the dead of winter. It does seem true at a culture wide level though.

A friend came to visit last winter. We spent a while in Freiburg going back and forth in town and talking English to each other. This drew a number people to talk to us. Two of which in the span of several days bemoaned the bad air quality of Freiburg. They mention how the valley holds the bad air and there is too much smoke. They both would rather live elsewhere, one out on the flat where the wind blows and one up in the hills out of the valley. They talk as if the air is so thick that you can’t see through it. From my perspective this is some of the cleanest air I have ever been in. Freiburg has very little industry, has trees all over the place and is next to the forest. So few people use cars here compared to the city that I remember driving 45 minutes with thousands of my closest friends to work every morning. I can’t imagine a city full of people having better air. The valley by the way always has wind going through it, so I have no clue what that one lady was talking about. But all of this makes me think about the cultural interest in clean air.

I remember reading somewhere that the German obsession with separating trash, recycling and organics didn’t arise until it was made clear that industry and trash were killing the forests. The German obsession with fresh air may be related to their kinship with the trees. Living where I do on the edge of the forest, every Sunday there are trains (clean electric ones) full of people heading up into the forested hills to hike and take in the air. Freiburg is well loved for this reason among others.

Nature or Nuture

I do notice that my house does need to get aired out every so often even in the winter, but I open the bathroom window where the gusts don’t get to me. In the summer, I leave most of the windows open all the time. There are very few bugs and without air conditioning when it gets hot, there isn’t another choice. So at that level I do have a different relationship with fresh air here due to the buildings and climate. Though I do wonder if it is a part of the cultural inheritance, a good expat friend of mine who has been here 18 years tells me that she opens a window in the dead of winter for fresh air despite a family that complains. So maybe we as expats do start to absorb the cultural habits of our hosts. Even still I think it is crazy and am looking forward to a warm spring where the wind in the office will be pleasant, because there is no way to stop the windows from being opened.

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38 Responses to German Obsession with Fresh Air

  1. Pingback: Fenster, Rauchen, Tür: German windows, smoking and doors | Jess in Mannheim

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  3. Anna says:

    Russians are just as bad. People open windows – at home and in the office – when it’s -30C outside. Even if just for a bit! Babies are regularly ‘walked’ in strollers in such weather. Good for the health, they say. And even rents are higher in some areas bc of better air quality according to the wind rose!

    • Andrew says:

      That is crazy. The Germans often complain about air quality being bad in Freiburg city. I counter with stories from home. In North Carolina, windows don’t often open on office buildings because of all of the highway fumes or asphalt fumes or whatever.
      I guess everyone has their weird things. Maybe “leaning into it” helps deal with the cold.

  4. Justin says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Loved your explanation on why this is so in Germany. After being married to a German myself and having lived here for almost two years, I had my own theories as to why this was so, including the idea about construction methods here. But I hadn’t thought about the link to the heating systems…

    Here’s a link to a post containing my own thoughts:
    http://www.farfromnewyork.com/2013/02/10/differences-between-the-us-and-germany-iv-its-all-about-the-fresh-air/

    • Andrew says:

      Thanks for the comment and the link. I love your observations. :)
      The fresh air thing is a mixed bag for me. I am definitely more into fresh air now that before, but I still find it totally insane to open the window in the middle of winter. It is so cold in our office and it never gets warm with all the window opening and their desire to save energy by not turning on the heat either.

  5. helm says:

    Found this article because I was wanting to find out how these northern europeans air their apartments – quite funny to get this take! I remember the airing rituals when I was in Germany for a few years, but couldn’t exactly remember how it went! I’m Australian and am used to a more draughty house. I do feel like the apartment (here in Denmark) needs airing, mostly because the air is dry, but also stuffy (for all the reasons you state). I also wake up in the night now when the air in my bedroom is stuffy. I think it’s probably what you grow accustomed to, or people are simply different. I think I used to cope with stuffy sleeping conditions though. And I can also relate to the scarf thing – I think once you’re used to a cosy neck, you really notice when it’s bare. I even use light ones in OZ now in Summer to protect my neck from the sun : )

    • Andrew says:

      We always had forced air heating and cooling in the US. The air always moved and had a filter, so things didn’t get stuffy as often. I kind of wish we had something similar here, but alas no. Perhaps it takes tons more energy, what do I know.

      I would happily sleep with the windows open in the summer and late spring, but I very rarely feel it stuffy in the middle of the night.

      Thanks for dropping by and for the comment. How are you enjoying Denmark?

  6. Marion says:

    Thank you for this wunderful analysis – I laughed so loudly that I think my neighbours asked themselves….
    Being a German with some International experience, I always thought that I knew a lot about my own culture. But I really thought that this obsession for fresh air was an individual thing of me (and of most of my friends….but of course, friends habe often similar interests…)!
    While reading your text, I remembered a lot of situations in which I drove other people crazy with my “lüften”! Some of them were Germans, too.
    Yesterday I returned from a 3-weeks-stay in Istanbul, where I attended a language school. I counld’t believe that the other students (who were not German) WANTED to stay in the BAD air with the UNHEALTHY air condition instead of opening the window!
    And I thought that I could NEVER live in a country with air condition everywhere. And of course I was taken sick for a week BECAUSE OF THE AIR CONDITION! It is so interesting how our culture even influences the needs of the body, how we get sick and so on. Now I’ve learned that it is not an individual thing at all, thanx!

    • Andrew says:

      It really depends on the air. The air was so bad outside where I come from in the US, that it really was fresher inside. If it gets really hot and humid, the drier cooler AC is much nicer. I don’t ever think I get sick off the AC any more than being in the trams around a bunch of people.

      It is a testament to the power of the mind. I don’t think really anyone in the south would think of the AC making you sick directly. Maybe the idea of going from blasting hot to cold and back might, but not the air that the AC produces. Ideally you would just stay in the AC all day. When the air outside is 40+C and 100% humidity, you have to understand that.

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  8. Yvonne says:

    I really love all your pieces about German culture. It always gives me a new insight on stuff I’m so used to as a German I can’t see this is maybe weird for other people. And yes, I sleep with my window open. All year long.

    • Andrew says:

      I’m glad you enjoy them. It is nice to see that I am able to point out the quirky things even to the natives. :) It helps me to to be able to talk about such things, it helps them not be so annoying. I like the window open in the summer. I did that even in the US, but not in the winter. The issue in the South US is that in order to survive the high temperatures and humidity (40C and 95%-100% humidity for months) you need air conditioning. And AC runs better with the windows closed. So you can really only open them on some nights.

  9. Rita says:

    I am a firm believer in open windows. It keeps the condensation down, the dust mites unhappy, the germs from getting cozy. In an office building or a school where all the windows are closed I worry all the time that I’m breathing someone’s germs.

    • Andrew says:

      I don’t ever feel that condensation is actually a problem. The air here feels so dry anyway.
      As to the schools and office buildings with closed windows, especially in the US they have forced air systems. So the air is always moving and getting filtered. And I feel I am going to get those germs anyway sitting in a room, and with all the cold air in the winter I’ll get sick from them more easily. The public transport is awful, especially with the hand holds and the gusts of air and oftenn so many people packed up against each other.
      Oh well, I like this topic as it seems so simple but is truly very bound with the culture. Thanks for the comment.

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  11. Rod says:

    lol! I am not out of my mind! Been here for five years and no, I don’t think I am getting used to it.

    My least favorite word in German is: “lüften”.

    My least favorite sentence: “es stinkt hier”.

    I understand why they don’t have ACs here. This year we’ve had 3 (three) really hot days and they all came right at the end of August. But the whole lüften thing just drives me (and my colleagues, who are foreigners too) NUTS!

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  13. Ah Andrew, you have not only pointed one of those classically Deutsch obsessions, but also opened up quite a conundrum. Maybe you can back me up on this…Ze Germans also have an equally large, if not larger, obsession with the draft. ‘Es Zieht’ they love to say, while pointing at their necks. You see, Germans are afraid, in general, of air hitting their necks…like ever. This is why you’ll see otherwise sane German people wearing scarves or sitting in a room with all windows closed, even in the heat of the summer. As a teacher in Germany, a normal school day would begin with my students walking into the room, with all the windows closed, and walking right over the windows and opening them while saying “It stinks in here”, meaning they need fresh air / the air is stale. 15 minutes later, without fail, the windows would then all be closed, because there is a draft. Now I’m dripping with sweat, practically cooking, but they are all attentive because at least there is no draft to give them a neck ache. Ah, how we love the Germans!

    • Andrew says:

      I had completely forgotten about the “es zieht” stuff. The scarves in anything but the deepest of winter is again something I won’t do. I do often get questions about how it must be in the US to live in air conditioning for months. Most seem to think THAT is unhealthy. I dunno, if it is 100% humidity and hot enough to fry eggs outside, not being outside seems healthyish to me.
      Thanks for reminding me about the drafts.

      • William says:

        The Austrians are the same – was working in the Canadian embassy years ago in the dead of a Viennese summer – 38C and 95% humidity – no air conditioning (we’d all have got sick instantly with *that* going!) – opened a window to extract a little air movement from the sticky summer, and immediately one of the secretaries came running in to slam it shut because “es zieht”! :-) Also managed to get bawled out on a train somewhere German for opening a window on the wrong side of the carriage – got pointed at a big sign said not to open left side windows, “um Zugluft zu vermeiden”! Rubbed off on me tho – now I teach in small town Germany and always have my collar up or a hoody to keep the back of my neck warm!

        • Andrew says:

          The anti AC thing makes no sense to me. Yeah it is recycled air, but so what? The same occurs on an airplane and people aren’t instantly sick. Without AC the entire south of the US wouldn’t be habitable.
          The summer window opening is fine for me. I actually would have done that more in the US if the air outside was actually clean enough to want inside. So many highways makes it not so much fun. And really having ones neck cool can’t be that bad! Just don’t tense up your shoulders in reaction to it, lean into the pleasant cool in the summer and it will be fine. :)

          I totally get the Zugluft thing though. If the exhaust of a diesel train was going, then that could be really dirty. If it was electric though, hmm no clue.

          What part of Germany do you teach in? What do you teach?

          • William says:

            It would be fun to learn where the cultural anti-AC, anti-breeze thing comes from! :-)

            The train was electric, high up in an Austrian alpine pass – the swift reaction of the outraged little old lady confirmed it was the breeze itself that was to be “vermeid”ed! :-D

            I live & teach bionics in Kleve, on the Dutch border not far from Arnhem. Great place – quiet, but everything there that’s needed – and lots of fresh air, in and out! B-)

  14. Lauren says:

    My lord, I would be freezing there. I get cold in Australian fall/winter!

    • Andrew says:

      We have awesome summers that aren’t so blasted hot. The winters though can be a bit blustery. Meh, you get used to it and beer is a reasonable compensation.

  15. Laurel says:

    It’s true! No matter what the temperature is outside, everyday during the break of our German class our German instructor opens the window and we’re all freezing. As soon as she’s gone, we immediately shut the window. I’ve also noticed that German have an aversion to fans, they think they make you sick.

    • Andrew says:

      I haven’t noticed the aversion to fans. They are the only way our office is habitable in the summer. But I do notice that the Germans think a lot of things make you sick. The weirdest one is Air Conditioning. I can’t imagine that the American South would be livable at all without that invention. I don’t notice being any more sick there than here.

  16. Interesting. I’ve heard the Germans are into hiking… seems they love the great outdoors (even in the dead of winter)!

  17. Jeremy B says:

    There are a lot of beautiful places in Germany to get outdoors. So that I can appreciate. However, I get cold very easily and just couldn’t deal with windows open during the winter. I totally understand this is a cultural thing and a bit of an adjustment but I am not sure I could do it. During the summer, it sounds awesome and I would love to be outdoors more. Living in Europe, you are outdoors more because you don’t spend all your time going to places in a car. I like that about being over there. But “fresh air” in the winter? No thanks!

    • Andrew says:

      Thankfully the windows just get opened for a few minutes at a time, I just wish I didn’t have to sit in the gusts. Indeed summer I go the other direction and moan if the windows ever get closed. No A/C here so breezes is what we got to cool off. I get enough fresh air on my bike. I was teasing a friend on Friday “why build nice solid buildings and then open the windows. We build buildings to keep the fresh air OUT.”. :)

  18. Sabina says:

    I’m half German, and now I see that perhaps my lineage is responsible for my obsession with fresh air. I’ve aways appreciated fresh air, but it is only now, as I spend great gobs of time in the Mid East and SE Asia, that I long every day for the clear, clean air of home.

    When I was living in Sharjah, UAE, the air was just simply rancid. I mean it was not only brown but it stank too! One morning, when the temperature finally dropped below 40, I opened my bedroom window to enjoy the air. It was like someone threw a bucket of shit in my face. The smell of that morning air is something I unfortunately will never forget. I’ve always, always been very into having my windows open whereever in the US (and Germany) I’ve lived. I just love having the fresh air floating around my home. In the Mid East, I have to make sure the windows aren’t even cracked.

    Right now I’m in Vietnam for a month, staying on a beach, which is of course covered in smog. I sleep with the window open just because the room is too hot without it. This morning I woke up with a little cold. I think it must be because of the smoggy air I sucked into my lungs all night long. I really cannot, cannot wait to get back in the fresh air. I’m heading back to the Mid East after Vietnam, though, so it’s going to be a while :(

    • Andrew says:

      Wow. I don’t ever really think of those places as having bad air. The beaches especially *should* be fresh and clean in my mind. That kid of sucks that they aren’t. I guess the heat has something to do with it, given your examples. (I assume you mean 40C not 40F?) Germany is not known for being the hottest place in Europe. Maybe the heat and lack of movement of air just lets all the shit accumulate.
      Thanks for sharing the story and all the best luck in getting back to fresh air. Deep breath (err maybe that isn’t such a good idea after all). Actually I wonder that the Germans don’t catch more colds in the winter due to the frigid air, but maybe the fresh air balances out the cool somehow. Here is a wish to get better soon.

  19. Liv says:

    There’s nothing nicer than a burst of fresh air (salty sea air is my favourite) but I’m Not keen on arctic gales!

  20. charles says:

    I remember keeping open wind’s somewhere in the house year-round in both Stuttgart and Heidelberg. We didn’t keep windows open in Virginia summers, but did in the other three seasons (unless it was very cold). I really distinctly remember we kept the window open in the WC just about always (kipped, not swung). I hadn’t realized that this may be where I get keeping a window cracked as long as possible in spring and fall.

    • Andrew says:

      Yeah, it most likely is where you get that habit. I’m ok with having A window somewhere open, especially if you can close that door and keep the direct wind out. The thing at work bugs me because the windows are fully open and let in the wind. Kipped is better, but still lets in an icy wind. Right, and I had forgotten the other season at home. All the windows are shut tight in the summer in the (southern) US to keep the A/C in and the heat out.
      I do actually remember leaving the window open in my dorm room all winter at Tech, but that is because the boiler ran at full steam and it broiled in the room if there wasn’t a balancing cold from outside.

  21. Laura says:

    I love fresh air and open windows but NOT in the winter!!

    • Andrew says:

      This seems to be the attitude that I get from most of my American friends, and mine as well. Fresh air is all well and good, but does not mean we should freeze for it. Thanks for the comment.

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