Cozy? Let’s sabotage that by opening a window

cozy room

Listen to Brenda read this

“What are you doing?” my sister asks me, with a face that implied I was out of my mind.

“Trying to open the window,” I reply, lifting my chin just a tad.


“To air out.”

“We don’t air out. We have central air conditioning.”

I gave up. Their windows hadn’t been opened in years, and I was in danger of breaking the latch. My sister already thought I was slightly off my rocker.

Once again I was reminded of the only semi-voluntary process of Germanification that I was undergoing. The first thing a German will do when entering a room is open all the windows, regardless of the time of year. To a German, the air inside is always stuffy unless it is olfactorily indistinguishable from its outside counterpart. Or to quote my mother-in-law, “Es stinkt!”

I first learned about this phenomenon while living with my then-boyfriend (now husband) and his parents. It was January, and we had just finished dinner and were sitting around the table, basking in the warmth and satisfaction of a good meal. The streets were covered with snow and it was 10° below zero. I should remark that this was in Celsius since knowing this makes it instantly feel colder than Fahrenheit. Something about dipping below that zero sends a chill to your bones.

Just at the moment when I started to feel relaxed, content, and thinking that maybe life wasn’t so bad after all, my mother-in-law jumped up, alarmed.

“Lüften! Wir müssen lüften! Es stinkt!“ We have to air out! It stinks in here!

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She then proceeded to open all the windows. Within seconds, that wonderful, post-dinner cozy feeling was nothing but a distant memory. This was my initiation into the German tradition of airing out rooms.

Years later I learned that there is an actual scientific basis for this behavior. Modern German houses and apartments are built to last, with solid walls, floors, and ceilings. The floors don’t creak, the stairs don’t give way, no air seeps in around the window frames; they’re very nearly hermetically sealed. The neighborhood kid has to scream VERY loud for you to actually hear them. I guess after two world wars you tend to be cautious about the structural stability of your buildings. The result? If you don’t open the windows and air out regularly, your walls will mold, a common problem in apartments here.

A relocation agent here in Munich once told me how hard it is to convince Americans who have moved here that they have to air out regularly. They think she’s nuts.

Knowing the science behind the custom convinced me that at least my mother-in-law was not insane. But I still had to ask myself if it was really necessary to air out at precisely the moment when we were all sitting around the table, very gemütlich, that delightful German word that personifies exactly the opposite of the feeling engendered by airing out; namely cozy, comfy, warm, and fuzzy. The way you’d feel if you were sitting by a fire, staring at the flames.

After complaining about this mid-winter airing-out frenzy, my boyfriend quietly confided to me that his parents did tend to overdo it. They had even once killed an indoor plant this way. Somehow it was gratifying to hear about that accidental plant death. Never had I felt such solidarity with a piece of vegetation before, nor have I since.

This ventilation fascination isn’t confined to my in-laws. I once had a stand-off over it in the office with a colleague, Andrea. We had the good fortune to work in an office with air conditioning, which is not a given in Germany, where most buildings were constructed before global warming jacked up summer temperatures. On a hot summer day, Andrea used to open all the windows to let in what she claimed to be “fresh air” but which was in actual fact a sticky, viscous vapor that draped itself over all of us with a weight that immediately put a damper on our collective productivity. A bit too cozy for my taste.

“Andrea,” I would say, in my most neutral of voices. “What are you doing?”

“Airing out,” she’d reply, continuing to open windows with aplomb.

“But it’ll trigger the air conditioning to turn off,” I would continue in a forced casual tone.

“Just for a few minutes,” she’d reply breezily, opening the last remaining window.

My colleagues would regularly watch this standoff, their eyes peering over the tops of their monitors. They knew they could rely on me to keep Andrea in check, so the cowards never piped up themselves. I would watch the clock, and exactly 60 seconds later I would get up and proceed to close all the windows again, just in time before the hot air triggered the air conditioning sensor to turn the system off and flood the office with the outside heat.

The ventilation coup-de-grâce was delivered by my husband on a business trip to Oslo, Norway, which is generally known to occasionally have a slight nip in the air come February. Somehow my husband didn’t have this on his radar. The sidewalks were covered with a thick layer of ice and snow and all the Norwegians strolled around merrily on their spiked boots while he hobbled along, trying not to slip, supporting himself on anything available.

Arriving in his hotel room, he promptly opened all the windows to let in some of that balmy Scandinavian winter air and went into the bathroom to brush his teeth. When he came out, the room temperature had adjusted nicely to the outside air, namely minus -20°C.

He went to bed in two sweaters, jeans, his winter coat, gloves, and a hat. But the air! Oh, the air was so nice and fresh. It was totally worth it.

However, I feel obliged to make a confession here. After years of living in Germany, I, too, sleep with the window slightly tilted, even in the wintertime.

You know, for a bit of fresh air.

Brenda Arnold

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