Word of the Week: Hitzefrei

Jul 6, 2012

Every Friday, Germany.info and The Week in Germany highlight a different "Word of the Week" in the German language that may serve to surprise, delight or just plain perplex native English speakers.

Hitzefrei

Education Enlarge image (© flickr user Patrick H. Lauke)

Every kid in the world looks forward to their summer holidays. In Germany, school holidays are spread more evenly throughout the year than in the United States, with some classes still taking place in July and August. So if at high noon the temperature is above around 25 or 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade, the day is declared "hitzefrei" and pupils and teachers are sent home.

This may seem odd to North Americans, even to people from as far south as New Orleans, Atlanta or Miami, because many public buildings - including schools - tend to be air-conditioned in the United States.

Yet it is worth bearing in mind that in Germany air conditioning is still more the exception rather than the norm. Blasting AC units is hence (A) not always necessary during the summer months (as temperatures tend by and large to drop to bearable levels in the evening) and (B) considered a wasteful extravagance, not to mention an artificial way of cutting off natural air flow from open windows, a passtime popular among Germans known as "lüften", or "airing things out" (The noun Luft means air, so the verb lüften means airing out). In this vein, many Germans like to sleep with an open bedroom window - even during the wintertime!

(If these same folks lived anywhere south of Pennsylvania in the hot and humid southeastern United States, however, they would probably appreciate shutting the windows for a few weeks and allowing an air conditioning unit to work its cool magic!)

A quick glance at the globe of course underscores why AC is not always necessary in Germany - and why the traditional temperature at which schools declare "hitzefrei" (adjective), or "Hitzefrei" (noun), which literally translates to "heat free", might seem ludicrous to any Southerner in the United States.

If Rome lies on the same latitude as New York City - which it does - then Germany of course lies north of that. This naturally affects daylight hours (shorter in winter and longer in summer the further north you go) and climate. Summertime temperatures tend to be milder along Germany's northern coastal regions and port cities, and warmer in landlocked regions and cities with a more continental climate such as Berlin and Munich. Air conditioning for the most part however remains a rare luxury in Germany, where people suffer through heatwaves by airing out their homes (the perennial "lüften"), deploying rotating fans, or by cooling off at a public pool, lake or seaside shoreline.

© Germany.info

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