German Lessons: Cultural Differences: Allergic to Air Conditioners

Posted on 03.07.2012


Years and years ago (pre-MS diagnosis/pre-understanding what heat does to MS patients), I was a super-green person who refused to use AC units, due to their effect on the environment. I happily sweated through the nights with only a fan and maybe an open window, knowing I was helping the environment by NOT using AC, which c/would have made me far more comfortable.

Fast forward to NOW, here in Germany: I may have mentioned this before (and I know I’ve mentioned it recently in another post)… Germany doesn’t believe in AC. Sure, there are offices with climate control and some stores are air-conditioned, but not to the extent that I am used to.

This is something a student and I discussed last night in class, and I felt like it should be shared.

My experience growing up on the mid-Atlantic coast was one in which every home, store and restaurant had AC. 86 degrees was a mild summer day, and once the thermometer hit 90, it was time to go swimming. I refused to get into my pool unless the water was 82 degrees or warmer (true story), and we only ever left the air-conditioned spaces to visit theme parks or to get into our air-conditioned cars.

I didn’t realize for a few years post-MS diagnosis that heat was an issue for me that caused fatigue, and possible relapse. It wasn’t something I was aware of. I just thought the MS was making me tired in the summer months. I never noticed the correlation, at all, until I moved here.

When I moved to Germany, I noticed that the windows were different. They couldn’t fit an AC unit in them. When asked about AC in houses, my boyfriend told me ‘we don’t have AC’. I thought he meant US, in our apartment. I asked why not, and he told me that NO ONE has AC in their houses, because ‘it doesn’t get hot enough here for us to need it’ (maybe for the Germans, it doesn’t. For me, it certainly DOES). So unlike everything I grew up knowing, there were absolutely NO homes in the area with an AC unit outside, and I have yet to see an AC unit in any windows. It’s been three years.

Now, some people have floor or office fans, and ceiling fans are utilized, but not the norm. Whenever people come to my house, they comment on the ceiling fan we’ve got in the bedroom (which I would have died without in recent weeks). Like it’s an oddity. We’ve got a floor fan in the living room that I have to work out in front of on the warm days, which doesn’t even help on the hot days.

The average temperature here in the past few weeks has been in the upper 20’s, which makes it about 83 F. I’m DYING.

At first, I was under the impression that my heat tolerance had diminished since moving to Germany. I was absolutely certain that the MS had gotten SO bad, that I couldn’t possibly visit Baltimore in the summer. I’ve often wondered how I managed to survive the Baltimore summers when they topped out at 105 on the hottest days, and 85 on the lowest. HOW DID I GET THROUGH ALL OF THAT?

The answer came to me randomly one day in another class.

I left my cool, darkened house feeling fine. But the temp was about 86, and by the time I got to the company, I was getting tired. I got into our fan-less classroom and asked the students if we could move to another classroom, since I was already tired and could literally feel myself wilting in the heat. They said yes, that the other meeting room (with AC) was open, we could go there.

AC. One of my students turned to me and said, ‘in that case, I have to leave now’. I asked her why. She told me that she was ‘allergic to the air conditioning’. A few of the other students agreed, and told me about how they all have friends and family members who are allergic to AC in offices and have a cold all summer.

I realized then that I survived in Baltimore thanks to the AC in every building. I could make it through a summer day as long as I was in my office, with AC, or in my house, with AC, or in a restaurant or mall, also with AC. Here I am in Germany with NO AC, and I can’t take it. Sure, we have nice days in the 60’s and 70’s in the middle of summer. But those hot days are what’s killing me. And the answer might not even be to move north, it might be to go to a place where I can have air conditioning, and it’s the rule, not an exception.

It was interesting to hear so many of my students (because you know I went around and asked everyone after this in all of my other classes) say that they were allergic to AC units or knew a few people who were, because of the type of air they spit out and what’s in it (dust, particles, etc). I grew up with AC and seem to have acquired an immunity, like everyone else I know in the USA. Sure, some people I know back home have allergies to window units that they don’t seem to have in centrally cooled spaces, but it’s interesting to think that a lifetime of exposure to that dust and the particles has made me NOT allergic to it.

This is like evolution. I’m reminded of all of those species on the Galapagos Islands that evolved separately of their cousins on nearby islands due to their special surroundings. Everyone I know from the US evolved to be ok breathing the dust and particles from the AC units, because of constant exposure. Our German cousins, not so much.

How interesting.

Posted in: German Lessons, life