German Superstitions

After my last post, I started thinking about all the humorous superstitions that I have come across during my time in Germany. I would like to point out that I am no doctor and don’t actually know if any of these are valid or not. I just think they are funny. Also, I’m not trying to rip on Germans here. As an American, I can think of an equally long list of ridiculous superstitions and behaviors that are stereotypically American. This is meant to be funny.

1) A draft is detrimental to one’s health.

I’m not sure what the reasoning or background to this one is, but I see it all the time. If I am sitting in a train in the summer and the temperature is approaching 100 degrees Fahrenheit (see below for superstition about air conditioning), I might think it is a good idea to open the tiny little window that would allow a tiny bit of airflow into the passenger compartment. Every time I have attempted this or seen it attempted by some other unknowing tourist, the idea has been shot down either by a) an old lady that will give the evil eye, stand up, march over to the window, make a big fuss and slam the window closed as hard as possible and yell “ES ZIEHT!!!” (English: There’s a draft!), march back over to her seat, sit down and glare at the offender for about a half an hour to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. b) The conductor will come by and lock all the windows as soon as the train starts moving to make sure that we don’t ever get into situation a.

2) Stale air.

This one isn’t really so unreasonable, but it is still quite funny to witness. Every German has to open every window in every room of the house for at least 20 minutes per day. It makes sense of course to air out each room. It helps avoid mold problems and such and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a German use an air freshener because of this habit. What is hilarious is when this requirement somehow conflicts with the first superstition about a draft. The problem is that if you open two windows on opposite sides of an apartment, there will be a nice breeze that flows through the apartment. This may never happen. You must first open the windows on one side of the house and after closing them you can open windows on the other side of the house. You could also open them all at once, but you must make sure that every single door is closed to ensure that no air actually moves. If you plan on leaving the room you are in, you should close the window first before opening the door, otherwise you might create a temporary draft and the door will slam behind you. Every person has their own morning ritual about airing out the apartment. It is pretty standard and all windows and balcony doors in Germany have three modes: closed, swinging open and tilting open. The “tilting open” mode is usually the only one used for airing out a room as that minimizes the draft.

3) Air Conditioning is bad for you.

I’m not sure if it is because it is “artificial air”, or because the air is dry, or what the deal is with air conditioning, but Germans are deathly afraid of it. At a minimum it will give you a cold, but it could very easily disrupt your Kreislauf (English: blood circulation). I’ve never seen an apartment or house anywhere in Munich with air conditioning. I’ve seen fewer than 10% of businesses use air conditioning in the summer, and it seems that only in recent years is it becoming standard equipment on cars, although I’m pretty sure this also only applies to imports. In the US you can’t buy a BMW without air conditioning. Here, you have to pay extra for it, since only a fool would use it anyway. The few times I’ve seen air conditioning in use here, the temperature is just 2 or 3 degrees below the outside sweltering heat, so it is pretty much useless anyway. At my office, only the server room is air conditioned. I used to keep it at 16 degrees Celsius, and I enjoyed going in there during the summer. My boss told me it would be fine to raise the temperature up to 20 degrees. Yesterday I was showing the new sysadmin the server room and he was shocked that we are running at 20 degrees instead of 25, which would be plenty cool. I think mostly they are afraid of abrupt changes in temperature.

4) Abrupt changes in temperature.

I had a German ask my advice about traveling through Death Valley once. I told him not to worry too much, since all rental cars these days have air conditioning and Death Valley is pretty cool. You drive around comfortably, stop and get out for a bit while being amazed at how ridiculously hot it is, look around, get back in the car with the A/C on full blast and drive home. He said he was pretty sure that that would severely affect his Kreislauf and was considering skipping the trip altogether.  Recently it has been quite cold here in Munich. Way below freezing a couple of days. I’ve heard complaints that the regional trains use heaters in the passenger compartments, because while it is nice and comfortable during your hour long commute, once you get to your final destination, you are pretty much doomed to instant death as soon as you step off the train into the cold outside.

5) No swimming after eating.

Now, I’ve heard this one in the US as well. I should probably submit it to Mythbusters for a final confirmation, but from what I understand, if you eat a full meal and then immediately go swimming afterward, your body will tend to cramp up, making swimming and breathing difficult and there is a possibility of drowning if you are in a deep area and unsupervised. That sounds perfectly reasonable and whether it is true or not, I can accept that and don’t plan on sneaking off to an abandoned pool right after eating a 7 course meal and jumping straight into a deep end. However the way I’ve seen German interpret this “guideline” about eating and swimming is along the lines of if you ingest anything regardless of how minute, and within precisely 30 minutes happen to submerge any part of your body in water deeper than a small puddle, not only will every muscle in your body cramp up immediately, your Kreislauf will go into shock and you’ll be dead within minutes. True story. I vividly remember when I was a child of about 11 years old, there was an outdoor swimming pool nearby and during summer vacation it was great to get a bunch of friends together and two or three of the moms would come along to supervise and we’d all go to the outdoor pool for an afternoon. The moms would usually just gossip and sunbathe and all of us kids would go swimming. There was a small water slide and a few diving boards. There was a big grassy area to just lounge around and sunbathe and hang out and there was even a small concession stand. Well, after swimming for a bit and just enjoying the afternoon, it was time for a break, so I headed back to where the moms and the towels were. Two of my friends were sitting there, one of them enjoying a popsicle and the other was eating a small basket of fries with ketchup. As is the social norm whenever you see your friend eating fries, I went ahead and reached over and grabbed one and popped it in my mouth. About 5 minutes later I decided that it was boring there and got up to go lounge with my feet in the pool in the shallow area where all the toddlers hung out. Well my foot almost got to the water when I was swept up by my friend’s mom, who was frantically screaming and rushing me back to where everyone else was and was yelling at me along the lines of “I can’t believe how foolish you are! Have your parents taught you nothing?!? You almost died just now!!!!”. Completely confused by this, I asked what miserable fate I had barely escaped thanks to her watchful eye over me. The response was “Don’t you know that you have to wait 30 minutes after eating?!? I saw you eat that french fry and I want you to sit down here for 30 minutes before you even think about going back to the pool!”.

6) Kreislauf

The German language has a neat way of turning concepts into neat little nouns that can be put into the singular very easily. In English it is more difficult to refer to ones blood circulation, because you aren’t talking about the blood itself, but rather the motion of it throughout your body through veins and arteries. Anyway in German this whole concept is known as “Kreislauf” and apparently this is the sole determinant of your current condition and you can feel the most minute changes. Now, I’m no doctor and just because I have never been able to actually *feel* the blood pumping through my body outside of my feeling my pulse, I can’t really say they are wrong about this. I just think it is funny that pretty much every German I’ve met has this at the top of their worry-list and I’ve never even heard of anything close from Americans. When conversing with Germans, it is normal to ask how things are going, how are the kids, how is the Kreislauf, etc. Pretty much everything in life can affect your Kreislauf and it is of utmost importance to not disturb it. For instance the reasoning for not eating a heavy meal in the evening is because it is bad for your Kreislauf. When a German has just returned from a trip abroad and had a long flight, you always have to ask how the flight was and the answer will almost always be “well, it was a good flight, but I can always feel it in my Kreislauf when I fly for so long”. Every aspect of a German’s life is to appease the Kreislauf. The only reason for working out, eating healthy, getting exercise, sleeping the proper amount of time each night and going to bed and getting up at the same time every day is for the Kreislauf. It is also the only reason that Germans have to have 6 weeks of vacation per year, and the only reason to go hiking in the mountains. It is to recover the Kreislauf. By law every German gets at least 4 weeks of vacation per year and most people get 5 or 6, and by law you have to use it all the year you get it, because if you don’t, your Kreislauf suffers from it. The way that Germans know when they’ve had enough to drink is because they can start to feel it in their Kreislauf. As consequence to drinking too much, Americans get hangovers. Germans get hangovers too, but don’t care about them. The real problem is the almost irreparable damage to the Kreislauf. It actually goes so far that you can go to any doctor in Germany and say that your Kreislauf just isn’t feeling like it should and he’ll immediately prescribe you two weeks off from work. You can call your boss any day and just tell him that something isn’t right with your Kreislauf and you will be sympathetically told to stay home with pay and try to relax so that you can recover.

6) Sore throat? Wear a scarf!

The only real reason to wear a scarf in Germany is to help heal a sore throat. I actually don’t see too many men wearing scarves in cold weather when they are healthy, but as soon as you start to get a cold or a sore throat, you put on a scarf and don’t take it off for a couple of weeks. Germans will wear a scarf in bed if they have a sore throat. I’ve confronted Germans about this before, like when walking into a friend’s house in mid-August and it is sweltering heat outside and inside and my friend comes to the door wearing shorts, t-shirt and a scarf. “What’s with the scarf?” – “Oh, I have a sore throat”. Perfectly logical. After asking what the scarf does for the sore throat, I just get a blank stare and something like “everybody knows that when you have a sore throat you have to wear a scarf. It is the only cure!” This is so deep in the culture and it is quite hilarious. It is so standard that all you have to do is start wearing a scarf indoors and the first person you see will offer you some tea and give you a “I hope you get well soon!” without even having to ask if you are sick. It is just a direct correlation. All people that have sore throats always wear scarves and all people wearing scarves indoors must have a sore throat. I’ll point out that there are also some gay and metrosexual men that will wear scarves indoors as a part of their outfit even when they don’t have a sore throat, but you can usually tell by the kind of scarf it is.

7) Others.

There are many other superstitions that come up from time to time, but I’ll stop here for now and I’ll update this post with more as I think of them. There are also some smaller ones, like “women who sit on concrete surfaces will become sterile” and “when riding on the subway, you have to sit facing the direction of travel”, but they aren’t universally accepted like the rest of them.


sartenadaFebruary 2nd, 2010 at 09:34

I am not a German, but the fact is when a person has his troat sure and at same kind feels that he is becoming sick, then using woollen scarf day and night helps. Sure! I know that our wold is full of unbelievers, but they have not tried. Normally during winter we of cource use scarfs when outside, not inside when we are not sick.

Me and wife have not been sick from flu during last 10 years. Many people are suffering from flu many times during winter. We get help from our woolen scarf, believe or not, it does not matter to me!!! So simple!!!

I do not have BMW, but Opel / Vauxhall and we have had our cars equipped with air conditioning since 1999. If You do not know that model, take a look at my About page. Here in my country it has been a natural device. No extras. Why there should be?

We are using it. Have You ever been driving in extreme cold weather when You need warm or when snow brough with Your shoes inside the car causes windows moist in winter? Then air conditioning helps clen windows in few seconds.

RogerFebruary 3rd, 2010 at 05:15

No, no, you dont understand… I am convinced that the scarf is to warn others to stay the hell away, as the wearer is infectious!

Remember, taking a day off work when you have an infectious illness is also taboo, it must be shared with your co-workers!

TauralMarch 11th, 2010 at 11:25

This one had me cracking up! All I can say is, for those of you not in Germany, this is the truth!

I’m always espcially fond of the Kreislaufsörungen that some of my office mates get. Whenever I hear this, I usually want to respond with “if you really had a disruption of your blood cirulation, there’s a good chance that you’ll die!” ….but I hold my tongue.

This one was fun, no I’m off to explore some more of your blog. It’s always nice to hear form other Expats in Germany, since it makes me feel less crazy :-)

[…] come across a funny (and, for the most part, true) blog post, in which an American makes fun of the German “superstition” that changes in […]

PatrickOctober 22nd, 2010 at 22:10

Your remarks are spot on, man. They pretty much mirror my observations living here. The old lady on the train story you tell also taps into a vein of authenticity, not just about Germans’ draft-phobia, but also their way of interacting with one another. But they are delightful people, really 😉

BrockSeptember 11th, 2012 at 20:54

Yeah this is so true, when I was ill my German flatmate forced me to wear a scarf while in my bed as that was all that could prevent my sore throat/cold from becoming terminal.

Other things that she does include wearing her own scarf ALL day long (so that she doesn’t catch my cold or the draft or to prevent dangerous falls in case her blood circulation stops)….and putting up a fake wall on front of her bedroom wall to stop some air getting in.

Also apparently spinach is deadlier than arsenic when reheated for culinary purposes.

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