A Breeze by Any Other Name?

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).

Calle San Sebastian in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The first door on the left is covered with wooden railings and doesn’t open.

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/

11 thoughts on “A Breeze by Any Other Name?

  1. My mother was a firm believer in avoiding drafts definitely would come
    down with all kinds of bad things. Enjoy reading your notes. Betsy


    1. Hi, Betsy, so glad you wrote. Since I’m guessing your mother was a Southerner, that just goes to show that a dislike of drafts doesn’t have to do with being raised in a cold climate. It must be a person thing that I wasn’t brought to have.


  2. Oh those fears of draughts. I remember road trips with my Swiss-German grandmother, the kids squished at the back and begging to open the window a tiny bit, requests always denied and then we’d just roll it quietly down 1cm, and within 3 minutes the wailing of “es ziehet” started and we’d quickly shut them again and be back to square one.

    My neighbours have air-conditioning, and we all roll our eyes at that thought, whilst secretly envying them and the cool night temperatures they’re enjoying.

    We’ll all regret the heat once we hit some rainy, cool August days, we always do and then we’ll fondly look back on Summer 2020, forgetting the sleepless nights and scorched fields.


    1. Thank you for giving me a personal example of this Swiss/German phobia, Melina. And so your neighbors have air-conditioning, huh? I knew there MUST Swiss that have had it put in, but I guess it’s considered so politically incorrect and un-Green by my crowd that it’s kept secret! I really am fine with all my electric fans, but that’s my San Juan upbringing, I think.


  3. Thanks, Kim, you made me smile…this week here in MN we are having lovely, cool breezes (mornings start in the low 60’s) and good Canadian air…to think that Germans and Swiss fear drafts! How funny! We sit on our deck in gratitude for the air moving across our faces…Be well, dear!

    Sent from my iPhone >


    1. Nice to hear from you, Julia–and glad your weather isn’t scorching at the moment. As for enjoying breezes, I can remember our father from Louisiana telling Natasha and me about the sleeping porches of his childhood, three sides screened, so that as much breeze as possible could pass through during the night. Sounds pleasant to me!


  4. I found this utterly fascinating! How do these folks handle a stiff breeze/wind when they are outside? Are they to be feared as well?

    We are in a seemingly endless pattern of very hot weather in northern New Hampshire right now and I can’t imagine life without a housefull of fans, open windows, etc.


    1. That’s a good question. Maybe draft-dodgers (in my sense of draft!) like a stiff, invigorating wind out of doors, as long as they are dressed for it, and only fear moving air that assaults them in cars, trains, and houses.


  5. As a doctor, I’ve had to explain for years and years that being cold doesn’t cause you to get a cold. Many North Americans still believe that–and still don’t even after I’ve explained it! Old wives’ tales die hard. Washington State is very fortunate to be generally getting little of the hot weather, although this particular week, it will be in the mid-90’s a few days. It is supposed to go back to normal the next week.


  6. Yes, I’m sure this business with the drafts is part of that same “getting cold leads to getting a cold” syndrome. But for me it still doesn’t quite explain the fear of a warm breeze in dead of summer. If I ever find exactly the right old wives’ tale, I let all of you know.


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