My family’s house in Old San Juan was built (probably around 1850) to admit as much breeze and as little sunlight as possible. Only one of the three thick double doors across the front opened to the street. The other two were blocked by decorative wooden bars, so they could safely be left ajar to allow air to flow between the street and the enclosed patio at the back of the house. An open fanlight topped each bedroom door, so when you closed it for privacy, a breeze still flowed in. There were no windows, only small glass skylights; no rugs, only cool tile floors. Heat rises, so the ceilings were eighteen feet (six meters) high, and an electric fan hung from each one. I never remember a night when it was too hot to sleep, despite year-round temperatures in the eighties (26-32° C).
Flash forward twenty years. Peter and I married on a hot July day in North Carolina, and a week later I moved permanently to Bern. In those days we had a one-bedroom attic apartment in a four-story walk-up a block from Aare River. I’d already lived there the year before for three winter months, and I loved the place. But when I arrived in August, although that day was pleasantly cool, I had a flash of real concern. My God, I thought, I’m going to be sleeping just under the roof of this old house during August and September. Or rather, I imagined, trying to sleep as I sweated into the sheets. The next day, still jet-lagged but determined, I persuaded a bemused Peter to take me to a store where we could buy a large electric table fan.
I guess it’s clear by now that our apartment had no air-conditioning; I don’t think I’ve ever been in a home in Switzerland that does have AC. And anyone reading this who has ever been in an attic in most parts of the United States between May 1 and September 30 knows just how hot I expected our apartment to get. But I was wrong. In those days, the city of Bern never got hot enough for us to use that fan I insisted on buying for more than a few nights a year.
Fast forward again to the summer of 2022, when there’s a standing fan blowing on me during the day while I’m at my desk and another by our bed at night. Nothing very interesting about that, is there, when heat records are being set all over Europe and the UK? What is worth mentioning, though, is that this heat wave—and the usefulness of electric fans to combat it—has confronted Swiss friends with a dilemma: should they risk exposing themselves to drafts, even to keep cool?
I can understand someone who worried about badly installed windows letting icy drafts into the apartment in the middle of the winter. But many Swiss—and I think I can also safely add Germans—are obsessed with drafts year-round. No matter how hot it is outside, an open window on the bus or train is a danger to passengers’ health, because having air blow onto your body is likely to give you a cold, the flu, or even pneumonia. At the very least, you’ll get a stiff neck.
I’m not the only foreigner who is mystified by this Swiss and German fear of drafts, and I’ve found articles on the internet in German and French written by health professionals trying to convince readers that it’s okay to leave a window open when a summer breeze is blowing—or even to open two windows and create a cross-draft.
I imagine that the generation clinging to the myth of the dangerous draft (in Bernese German, a Düürzug) is probably dying out, and, as Europe grows hotter, Germans and Swiss will seek cooling breezes exactly as North Americans do. In the meantime, though, I wish I could convince my mother-in-law to get an electric fan for her bedroom.
In this post, I’ve used great photos I found on the Internet, and I couldn’t find a credit for any of them. I’d especially like the provide the name of whoever drew the wonderful set of electric fans, but I don’t have it. At least I can point out that the drawing comes from a very interesting online article: https://learnmetrics.com/how-much-electricity-does-a-fan-use/