World War Window

11 July 2019

Marion’s desk is behind me, so I notice immediately whenever she moves. Just a moment ago, she got up and is now walking over to the window. My hearing sharpens and the hairs on the back of my neck start to prickle. I steel myself as my pulse quickens slightly and sweat breaks out on my palms.

Is she going to do it again?

Slowly, I swivel my chair sideways to better observe her, trying to look nonchalant. She first walks to the table next to her desk and fiddles with her plant, glancing idly out into the courtyard. She pulls off a few dead leaves and tips a bit of water into the pot. I wait for her to sit back down.

She doesn’t.

Instead, she does exactly what I had most feared: She opens the window.

It’s 35° C (95° F) outside. My colleague Marion and I belong to the fortunate few at our company who have air-conditioned offices. In Germany this is a rare luxury, as just a few decades ago summers were seldom so hot as to warrant the expense. Now, however, people are sweltering in loft apartments, rooms with south-facing giant picture windows and pretty much anywhere that isn’t a basement or garage.

Don’t even think about it

Despite belonging to the air-conditioned elite, however, my colleagues and I still have problems in hot weather. It’s not that the Germans haven’t figured out how to use the system. It has more to do with the fact that my colleagues don’t understand the principle behind it. They still haven’t wrapped their heads around the fact that air conditioning only works when the windows are closed. Opening them activates a sensor that turns off the system and voilà! Before you know it, you’re right back where you started: in a sweltering office.

It’s not just Marion. This window-opening behavior stems from a deep-seated, ongoing love affair with fresh air in Germany. There is almost a spiritual reverence for it. Anything can and will be used as an excuse to get more.

There is no greater good than fresh air – and it’s yours for the taking.

Did someone just bake something? Do I smell a cake?

You or I might think “Mmm, that smells delicious! Do I detect a hint of cinnamon?”

A German would say: “Open the window.”

At the scent of a pot roast you might think: “Oh yes, it’s Sunday. Maybe they’re having guests…”

A German would say: “It stinks. Open the window.”

“Hey, my Icelandic friend just made some of his favorite food from home!”

“Open the window!”

OK, I do get that one.

First thing in the morning, office workers open all the windows to air out. At conservative companies, the kind where the assistants still bring coffee to the desks of their superiors, they also pre-air their bosses’ office before they arrive. Getting coffee for someone else is bad enough, but airing out for them? I would say that takes the cake – but that would only require even more airing out – so I won’t.

In case you were feeling sympathetic toward this airing-out trend, visualizing trees outside the window, their leaves swaying in the wind in the sunshine, allow me to disabuse you of your endearing naïveté. For this is by no means a fair-weather phenomenon. It happens just as often in the dead of winter. Why should subzero temperatures be a barrier to throwing open the windows to welcome in Arctic blasts of wind and snow? Heating is for wimps.

After a meal, just as you’re snuggling down into an overstuffed chair to relax your equally overstuffed stomach, someone will jump up and open the windows. My in-laws have such a deep-seated penchant for this that they once killed a houseplant this way. They had just finished dinner and the air was full of the scents of roast pork and baked potatoes.

But what just a few hours before had been tantalizing aromas were now an unwelcome foul stench that had to be whisked outside quickly before it permeated the drapes and furniture. “Lüften! Lüften!” my mother-in-law cried out. “Open the window!” Fifteen minutes were sufficient for the icy gusts of January to polish off their ficus tree. Oops.

Paradoxically, as desirable as this fresh air is in an office, it is considered borderline poisonous when it comes through the window of a car. The memories of my youth in the Midwest are filled with summer drives in the car with all windows down, long teenage locks flapping happily in the wind, dog snouts savoring the passing breeze. None of us had air conditioning in the car, so it was natural to roll down all the windows and take advantage of the natural breeze.

The Germans have a different take on this.

“Es zieht!” you hear all the time in the car. “There’s a draft!”

Well, yeah, isn’t that the point? Isn’t that kind of like complaining that you’ve gotten wet after jumping into the pool? That’s why the window is down – to let the air in.

I have since learned that the air is a bad thing in the car. That errant breeze will give you a stiff neck, a cold or possibly even a migraine. Germany is full of cars in the summertime with their windows rolled up, their passengers slowly being baked alive behind the glass pheasants under glass. But they’re not getting sick, no sirree.

Back at the office, I turn back to my desk to mount a counterattack on Marion’s window-opening obsession. It can’t go on like this. I can’t go on like this. We need AC and I refuse to buckle under the fresh air fetishes of my colleagues.

My office mates have already endured my air conditioning lecture many times: If the system detects an open window, it shuts down the system. All of it – meaning the entire open plan office which we all inhabit loses its AC. We all roast together. Which brings me back to my chicken simile.

Once again I saunter over to Marion’s desk. I decide to try the scientifically proven chat method.  

“How’s it going there, Marion?”

“Fine.”

“Feelin’ OK today?”

“Yup.”

She smiles and looks at me expectantly.

“Read any good books lately?”

“Well, I thought Fifty Shades of Grey was pretty interesting.”

“Seriously?”

“No.”

Pause. This wasn’t going very well. Did she suspect I had ulterior motives?

“Aren’t you going to ask me how I’m doing?”

“OK, sure. How are you doing, Brenda?”

“Well, I was fine until about five minutes ago until YOU OPENED THE WINDOW. Now the air conditioning is OFF and I’m being ROASTED ALIVE. Pretty soon my laptop will have a meltdown and so will I! How many times do I have to explain to you about how air conditioning works, you IDIOT!”

But I didn’t say that.

Instead I said: “Hey, Marion, I know you love fresh air and all…but it’s starting to get a little muggy in here and, uh, the window’s been open for approximately two minutes and thirteen seconds…”

“OK, OK, I was just about to close it.”

“Great, thanks!”

I force a strained smile and turn away, take a deep breath, and return to my desk. Another successful deployment. But I keep an eye out for the next transgressor, as it’s just a matter of time.

The higher the temperature, the more often I have to play Window Woman (Wonder Woman’s anal German cousin). My boss doesn’t understand why my productivity is inversely proportionate to the heat, but she is able to observe this from the cool, climate-controlled comfort of her private office – so how could she?

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Expat chatter

An American from the Midwest, I landed in Bavaria many years ago. It's been an adventure from day one!

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