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

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Ditching AC for 'Hitzefrei': Taking on the German summer as a Californian
An office desk proclaims 'Hitzefrei!' with a note that the employee has left. Photo: a.basler
12:39 CEST+02:00
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.

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.

SEE ALSO: Is it ever legally too hot to go to work or school in Germany?

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. 

A Brit in Germany has also learned to embrace 'Hitzefrei'

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.

One employee tweets that it's Hitzefrei due to a current office temperature of 29.6C.

It used to be a rare phenomenon that temperatures in Germany would climb to high levels, but as the Bundesrepublik braces itself for a record fourth heat wave of the summer, the one time outlier is becoming the new normal.

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 perhaps time to take action on the Heisszeit - a climate change pun and German word of the year for 2018.

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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