An expat muses on the virtues of fresh air


Before moving to Vienna in July 2001, I spent my final weeks in New York suffering through the withering heat and humidity typical of a Big Apple summer. Even on its deafening, top setting, the window-unit air conditioner struggled to keep my 30m2 apartment under 30°C. I packed like a man possessed. So what clothes would I need for those first weeks before my shipment arrived? I asked my Wienerin fiancée. Tennis clothes (check), bathing suit (check), oh, and don’t forget my fleece-lined jacket… Seriously?! No Schmäh, she had planned a weekend hiking tour on the Raxalpe (which we would eventually cancel due to a freak summer snowfall).

It was a blessing to arrive in Vienna’s cooler climate aft er so many soul-crushing summers in Manhattan and Washington DC (affectionately referred to as “the swamp,” and not just because of its political corruption. It was literally built on a swamp. Who says geography isn’t destiny?). Still, the Viennese (being Viennese) chronically complain about the weather. Temperatures above 25°C constitute a Hitzewelle (heatwave) that sets them pining for a Sommerfrische. They don’t know how lucky they are!

Americans make a cult of the great outdoors, but in truth, they sensibly balance their fetish for fresh air with an abject love of air conditioning. The Viennese want neither: This is a city of literal draft dodgers – the Zugluft phobia – where any open window is sure to bring a return of the bubonic plague. That first summer, I was amused to discover signs in the streetcars advising passengers not to open the windows, “um Zugluft zu vermeiden” – to avoid a draft.

So on a pleasant spring morning or even the steamiest summer days, those windows would remain resolutely shut. Ironically, now that the new Straßenbahnen have air conditioning, their narrow window vents are usually kept open, presumably to soften the blow. Now, after 17 years, I am almost an echter Wiener: When I visit the States I wear a scarf to the supermarket so my neck won’t stiffen. Here in Vienna, I open my windows at night (not in the bedroom, of course!) and close them during the day, keeping my Altbau apartment at a comfortable 25°C even in a heat wave. And, yes, I can whinge about the weather as well as any native Raunzer. Just keep that Zugluft up in the mountains where it belongs.