The S-Bahn commuter trains in Berlin this time of year are emptier than usual, since most everyone’s on vacation. Actually getting a seat is a big relief on a warm day. One recent morning I sat in a free seat and pulled out a small hand fan to dry the sweat on my face.
The German women next to me said: “Could you fan away from me please? The air is hitting me.” I said yes, and switched my fan to my other hand to fan more gently. The windows in the train car were shut, the temperatures outside already at 75 F (24 C) in the early hours of the morning. She complained to the woman on the other side of her, who also felt personally insulted by my gale force winds. “I have asthma!” she said, before leaving for another part of the train where she would not be subjected to my torture.
As temperatures rise across Germany, there’s a heated battle brewing on the trains: It’s a war of the drafts.
Many Germans, especially older ones, will do anything they can to avoid Durchzug, the word for a draft of air moving through a closed space. Air movement gives you a cold or the flu or a stiff neck, they believe. So they keep the windows on the train closed even as temperatures reach egg-cooking levels.
Many reasonable people know that colds are caused by viruses, the movement of air on an overheated body cools it, and that opening windows is the only way to not be boiled alive. And yet, the Durchzug believers are in control, closing all the windows and forcing the rest of the passengers to stew in their own sweat.
Public transportation here in Germany is mostly without air conditioning — there hasn’t been much of a need for it until recently. But climate change is real, and the unusually warm summer we’re having will become quite common.
It’s become apparent to me as I’ve lived here off and on for four years that Germans’ ideal temperature is higher than Americans’, who would opt for Antarctic conditions if at all possible. (My logic: You can put on more clothes if you’re cold, but you can only take off so many if you’re hot before the police get involved.)
But in Germany, the fear of Durchzug is real. Der Spiegel in 2014 published an interview with a public health professor who specializes in medical climatology and saltwater therapy and believes cold air causes colds and strains the circulatory system. “Are drafts harmful?” Der Spiegel asked Angela Schuh. “Yes,” she replied. “With a gentle breeze you must be very careful… You have to expect to catch a cold.”
Jörg Kachelmann, a Swiss meteorologist and journalist, recently railed against the myth of Durchzug, which he believes German immigrants imported to his country. People who have no issue with the gusting trade winds on the coast of Fuerteventura are improbably concerned for their health with a light breeze from a cracked window in the office. “When you encounter Germans who cry Durchzug, discuss deportation with them, as this superstition threatens the health of many people in our country,” he wrote.
A German friend of mine is afraid to open windows on a train, lest he get a scolding from the Durchzug patrol. Another friend said she has seen Germans repeatedly close and reopen windows on the trains in silent passive-aggressive standoffs. It’s going to be a long, hot summer. I’ve got my fan, and I’m ready to fight for air.
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