5 Feb 2018

Need to vent

If there's not a word for it, there is probably not a need for it. And if there is not a need for something in one culture, it makes you wonder: Why is it so important in another culture?

Or so I thought one night, as I once again dodged her bewildered looks and opened the bedroom window, letting in the icy winter air. As any Swiss, I wanted to lüften the room before going to sleep. And as any Canadian, she considered that sheer madness. I tried to explain, but I was quite literally lost for words.

"To air out" or "to ventilate" are the translations the dictionary lists when I look up the German term. But while that may correctly describe the technical process of exchanging the air in an enclosed space, it falls far short of capturing the cultural importance lüften has to the Swiss.

In Switzerland, lüften happens everywhere, and all the time. Those who don't sleep with their bedroom windows ajar will at the very least open them before going to bed and after getting up. Kitchen windows open after cooking. In school, one student per class is inevitably put in charge of opening and closing the windows, just like someone has to clean the blackboard. In the army, we received detailed orders on the proper lüften of our barracks on day one of boot camp (diagonally across the hall, at least three times a day, no less than 5 and no more than 10 minutes). Until the recent advent of air conditioned train sets, even train windows could be opened to ensure adequate ventilation.

And in Canada? Complete incomprehension prevails. In the summer months, windows are cranked open and left that way for weeks on end. And in the winter they are kept shut. "We are paying to heat up the air in our house" she said sternly. "I do not want to contribute to global warming outside!"

Don't they understand? How can they not be concerned about the stale air inside a home, and want to exchange it for the crisp and pure variety outside? Aren't they afraid of.... well, what exactly?

Unsettled, I turned to the handy Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss for a neutral perspective. And sure enough, a section in the chapter on Obsessions reads
The Swiss are subject to numerous obsessions. One of the strongest is their preoccupation with air. Inside Swiss homes the uncontrolled movement of air in the form of draughts is detested. The Swiss believe that exposure for even a few seconds to a draught will bring on every ill known to mankind. Thus rigorous efforts are made during the construction of Swiss houses and apartments to eliminate the slightest possibility of a draught ever being allowed in. Yet each morning, they seem to put aside their phobia when they fling open their windows to air their bedclothes out.
And suddenly, it all made sense. The Swiss are so fixated on lüften because they are so opposed to any naturally occurring flow of air. Whereas they build their air raid-proof houses with eternity in mind, Canadians take a more relaxed approach to construction: When I sit in our kitchen behind the (closed!) balcony door, I can still feel the cold seeping in. And while we have replaced all the windows recently, the wind blows right through the cracks between their frames and the crooked walls.

I can relax now. There really is no need for a translation of lüften. In Canada, even the oldest buildings do it all by themselves.

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