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Heatwave For Members

Ditching AC for 'Hitzefrei': Taking on the German summer as a Californian

Rachel Stern
Rachel Stern - [email protected]
Ditching AC for 'Hitzefrei': Taking on the German summer as a Californian
A sign at a shop in Geilenkirchen says that it is closing due to the heat (hitzefrei). The tradition of shops closing amid the heat also exists in Germany. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Caroline SeidSeidel-Dißmannel

Hitzefrei is a very German term for what happens at work or school when it gets 'too hot' - and a very strange concept for some foreigners.

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The first time I heard the term hitzefrei, I was working - or at least attempting to - in a sunlit German office that magnified the summer warmth.

I first thought of the very literal translation - Heat free - and that my sweltering surroundings were anything but. Yet the term was not used by my colleague as a form of irony, but rather to describe his wish that we all head home, as it was becoming too hot to concentrate, even with the fan on full blast.

Hitzefrei, I would learn over that summer and the ones that followed, is a very German term to describe when it becomes unbearable to go to work or school, and time off (or clocking in time at home) is called for as a result. It’s like a snow day but applied to the heat.

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Students in Dresden rush off as 'Hitzefrei' is declared at one school in 2015. Photo: DPA

Culture shock

As a Californian, I was not used to any weather preventing me from going to school or work. Even when there were pleasant sunny temperatures, as was the case 95 percent of the year, the air conditioning would be cranked up to the point that I always carried an extra sweater, even in August. 

Working in an office on the humid East Coast of the US later on, I often felt like I was typing inside a refrigerator, even as temperatures outside simmered and mosquitoes conspired against their next victim. 

This made hitzefrei a distinctly German phenomenon for me, only possible in a place where there is no air conditioning - and a lack of desire to have it. 

Many of my German friends and acquaintances also prefer it that way, happy to avoid unnatural air currents - and the potential illness they bring - in favour of a fan or just an open window. 

SEE ALSO: Durchzug is not harmful!: Red Cross tells Germans to leave fans on and windows open

A heated reminder

The temperature limit for declaring hitzefrei for most German states tends to vary between 25 and 27C. While productivity declines, business booms at open-air pools and ice cream shops, with many advertisements capitalizing on the word ‘hitzefrei’ next to images of sun-soaked young people cheerily chugging an ice-cold beverage whilst floating in a pool. 

Some businesses, such as cafes, might use the term themselves as a reason to close shop for the day, especially factoring in the added heat of a baking oven.

It used to be a rare phenomenon that temperatures in Germany would climb to high levels. But as the Bundesrepublik will likely see more extreme weather events due to climate change, it could become more common. 

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But unlike parts of the world where air conditioning is the norm, I find it harder to be shielded from the uncomfortable truth about the changing climate.

Students at a Fridays for Future demo in Magdeburg in March, one with a sign reading "No desire to have 'Hitzefrei' a January." Photo: DPA

Hitzefrei reminds us of the consequences of the heat and that it’s time to take action.

Examples:

Wir sollten heute Hitzefrei haben.

We should take time off work because of the heat.

Wann gibt es Hitzefrei in Schulen? 

When will schools be closed because of the heat?

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Comments (1)

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Anonymous 2022/07/20 14:17
I'm also from California and grew up where it is regularly 35 plus degrees every day for 3-4 months. Of course living without air-conditioning would be unthinkable. I am dumbstruck that people think sitting in a boiling restaurant is acceptable in anyway, or other businesses. It shocks me there is no air conditioning here. It's awful. My poor kids come hope every day from school sick from the heat with headaches. It's bordering on child abuse that they don't cancel class or put in A/C. Likewise I was shocked to learn my own rental has no air conditioning. It's been a nightmare these last few weeks. It's not enjoyable at all. As soon as my contract expires, I'm headed home. This place is awful.

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