Hot Summers

To those acclimated to Swiss summers, temperatures pushing 85°F (29.5°C) feels scorching. Usually, we reach such temperatures around mid-July, suffering for a maximum of three weeks. Even at their peak days, they’ll drop significantly at night. And we sleep restfully in such a respite.

North of the Alps, Swiss houses aren’t equipped with air conditioning. At worst, we suffer. At best, we cope with floor fans. The stay-at-home Swiss (-German) generally close their windows and shutters against the heat, opening them when the air starts to cool.  They’ll complain bitterly about being stuck all day in a dark and stuffy house.

I used to argue with former work colleagues about how to respond to summer heat. Our office building had no air conditioning. In the mornings, we’d open the windows to air out the place. I’d insist on keeping some open all day to encourage air circulation, which I considered critical to staying comfortable. Sure, we’d sweat, but at least we wouldn’t suffocate. I also advocated for the purchase of fans. To zero effect. My coworkers—and everyone else in the company—shut the windows and shutters around ten o’clock to “keep in the cool air.” Miserable. When I bought myself a desk fan, my coworkers complained of the draft it caused.

When I was growing up in the US and elsewhere—in places like Texas, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Taiwan—my parents didn’t consider the day hot until the mercury broke 100°F (37.7°C). I recall Mom claiming we’d catch cold if we went swimming before it reached 100°. They’d grown up in Central and West Texas. During a summer day—the heat lasting months rather than weeks—fans circulated the air around our house. In fact, the rumbling of fans felt as summery to me as bare feet, swimming lessons, and a fat watermelon chilling in a tub of ice.

While driving through the southwest deserts of the US, I introduced the kids to what travels had been like in the early 60s. No air conditioning: windows open. In the dry heat, we weren’t miserable until the mercury broke 107°F (41°C).

One summer in Switzerland, the temperatures weren’t dropping at night, and I longed for that childhood rumble and sweep of moving air. I bought a table fan and set it up in our room at bedtime. Markus said, “What’s this? That thing can’t run all night long.” On one hand, I can count the times he’s conceded that the fan’s hum and drift is easier to endure at night than any summer heat.

Nowadays, when I work alone in the house, two fans operate. One in the cellar pushes cool air up the stairwell, and an upstairs one keeps that cool air circulating. The temperatures broke 100° (37.7°C) this year. I cracked open a roof window, intending to create a chute to encourage the hot air to leave the house.

Did it work? Maybe.

But the buzzing fans readily returned me to a childhood sense of wellbeing. A great comfort.