Le courant d’air

French windows

I had no idea my mother was French because wherever she sat in a restaurant or – well, anywhere – no mater what the season, there was invariably a courant d’air, or a draft. For all the years I lived in San Francisco, I never really though about winds, drafts, or too much air movement nowadays. Especially since, as anyone who’s lived in a San Francisco Victorian house knows, if you don’t want to sit in a drafty house, you’ll have to move to another city. One that isn’t essentially an ongoing, ever-present, courant d’air.

It’s quite a contrast to the city where I now live, Paris, where doors and windows are closed most of the year due to the weather. But come summer, when the temperatures rise to sometimes hazardous conditions, the outdoors is an enemy and windows are kept closed to protect ourselves from – well, I haven’t quite figured out what. But in a curious paradox, people flock to the outdoors, especially to the café terraces – and not just because they can smoke there – but to soak up any precious bit of sunshine that we’ve been missing for the past 10 months. And probably because their apartments are so hot because all the windows are closed.

Belleville cafe

All of this is relatively new to me. But since living in a top-floor chambre de bonne for many years, right under a zinc roof that was hotter than en enfer, I’ve learned that during periods of intense sunshine bearing down, closing the windows can keep the inside of a building cooler. But when the sun isn’t bearing down and there is a cooling breeze flowing? Open ‘em up, folks! I went into a shop that I like during the heat wave last week and the owner was sitting behind his desk in the sweltering heat, with a smoldering sheen of perspiration on his brow.

The place was hotter than a smoldering inferno, and frankly, I don’t know how he was able to sit there because I was in there no more than 12 seconds and nearly stopped being able to breathe. The door and windows were tightly closed and before I left, I suggested maybe crack a window or leave the door open. (Which might actually lead to more customers coming in, and him selling something. But that’s a subject for a whole other post…) “Non, non! That will let the hot air in!” I didn’t mean to contradict him, but I mentioned that the hot air had – indeed – already gotten in.

closed windows

Visitors not used to the closed-door and window policies are often sweltering in restaurants, in stores, on public transit, and in buildings, which aren’t ventilated. Maybe that’s how the French allegedly stay so thin – because they are constantly sweating it off? But I have a backlog of shopping to do, which I’m holding off on ’til October, or perhaps November.

The fear of fresh air could be the result of ancient fears of air-born diseases. Malaria, which is probably derived from mal (bad) air (air) is just one example of its dangers, even though it’s caused by mosquitos. But old habits die hard and plagues and so forth had been passed around by air, so there’s likely a certain amount of holdover from the Middle Ages. Which, arguably, happened ages ago.

close the window

And as smart people now know, diseases are passed around by people sneezing into their hands then grabbing the bars on the métro. To mitigate the dangers of les courants d’air, even though we live in a society ruled by égalité, priority treatment is given to people who like the windows shut: On the buses, there are notices that the windows can be opened. But if someone complains, they take priority, and they must be closed.

The other night I was at a dinner party. The temperature was a lovely 82ºF (27ºC) and there was just a gentle breeze in the air, a truly welcome relief after the intense heat during the day. In other words, it was the perfect summer night. As we sat down to eat, the hostess, who was dressed in long sleeves and wearing a scarf, went over to close the windows which overlooked the tree-lined boulevard.

A few minutes later, I started to realize that I couldn’t breath. I don’t smoke, nor do I have any respiratory problems. But I could feel myself about to pass out. I don’t know how the others were able to sit and continue through dinner, but I politely excused myself, went into the other room, and leaned out the open window to take a few deep breaths, which made me feel better. Paradoxically, I was getting sick from a lack of air.

French windows

But in spite of the official reluctance, I think I’m on my way to becoming my French mother’s son. After a yoga class, it was time to lie down after the workout, and time to pat myself on the back for a job well-done. (Well, I would if I could. But since I’m hardly flexible enough to touch my toes, patting myself on the back is kind of out of the question.)

It was then that I felt a coolish breeze come over me, courtesy of a nearby open window, and I found myself waving my hand in space, looking for the source of the courant d’air. I was going to say something to the teacher, but I couldn’t bring myself to mouth the words. So I stayed there, lying in stillness, worrying about what maladies I was being exposed to. Which was the only thing keeping me from drifting off into bliss.

123 comments

  • Wow. This is valuable and curious information. I will be visiting Paris for the first time in early November so the closed windows will probably be appropriate. I’ll be certain to note the difference in the heat tolerance between myself and the Parisians.
    Cultural differences – fascinating.

  • Hi David, It is not uncommon to see people in Colorado running around in shorts and flip flops in the middle of Winter in the midst of air currents laden with snow! The French would disapprove on many levels! :).

  • Fresh air is always welcome on a Summer evening in New Mexico. We also close windows mid-day from the intense heat, but everything is open at sundown. Interesting and surprising to learn the French do not take advantage, when a cool breeze blows their way.

  • There were six of us renting an apartment in the Marais district for two weeks in October. The first thing I did upon entering the apartment was to open the windows. I just wanted to feel the fresh air and bring it into the apartment.

  • It is 104℉(41℃) in Dallas today and humid. I would die without a/c. On the other hand, when the winter temp here is 45℉ and I walk outside with wet hair people tell me I am going to get sick. I don’t.

  • Ok true story about my French in laws. My MIL and her sister were eating outside at the country house and a breeze blew in. Both complained about the courant d’air so the uncle ( a very funny man) gets up and closes the gate ..”There he says, no more courant d’air.

  • Oh I just got this!
    At the pool this morning they opened the doors to the garden and suddenly a woman is hugging herself and announcing ‘l’aire frais’ and making a face and the tempeture was perfect!?

  • I grew up in South Carolina; in those days there was no air-conditioning. We had an “attic fan” in the hallway that circulated air throughout the bedrooms. Our parents made us take afternoon naps during the summer with the attic fan on, as these were also the days of polio. Room ceiling fans have become available but many people don’t like them if they blow directly on the body. After the initial cool-down which feels great, the breeze then becomes irritating, and you often end up with a stiff neck. There must be a medical explanation.

  • Your post brings back the picture of the years I spent in Europe. I am very fortunate that here where I live now, everybody keeps the house open. More than just opening windows and doors, most houses here do not even have doors and windows, especially on communal spaces like living areas, dining ares, and kitchen. As of bedrooms, all the walls are floor-to-ceiling windows which we widely open most of the time. We close them only when we are away.

  • This was very fun to read! My french grandmother has been living in Venezuela for more than 60 years and she keeps her windows shut no matter what, under the tropical sun… I remember horrible lunches, sweating like pigs because of the heat and the red wine, while she was wearing a shawl to prevent a courant d’air…

    Anyway, I think I’ve inherited the fear, I keep closing my doors and windows, my boyfriend is not very happy about it…

  • I’m an Oklahoman and if we don’t have a breeze I feel like I’m suffocating. I frequently drive with my windows rolled down with the air conditioner going in the summer and with the heat going in the winter. I love fresh air and we consider it cleansing not contaminating!

  • Your blog reminded me of my beloved Papi Paul, who passed away from liver cancer a few years ago. Every year, during the Tour de France, he would always do the same thing: every afternoon, he’d close the shutters of the sitting room window (to keep the heat out ;) ) and he’d sit down on his sofa and would watch the étape of the day on TV xx

  • @Mary Lynn, Last summer in Seville, Spain there were misters at nearly every cafe that had outdoor seating. We would always walk close to those places for a little mist. So nice on a hot day. They also had canvas sun shades hanging over all the pedestrian streets – those Southern Spanish people have beating the heat figured out.

    I was also going to add that Ukrainians fear the draft as well, but someone else beat me to it.

    Such a strange thing for me – a Louisiana girl raised on AC, fans, swinging on the porch when there’s a breeze, and open windows and doors (with a screen, though, to keep out the mosquitoes).

  • I remember sitting in a stiffling classroom on a very hot afternoon in June one year. When someone went to open the windows our teacher exclaimed “mais non, il y aura des courants d’air, on va tous etre malades!”

  • I wanted to chime in as I experienced this in Italy as well. I was traveling from Florence to Venice on a train-and it was hot. I kept opening the window. A lady who sat across from me kept closing the window and glaring at me. This went on for the whole ride. My Italian friends assured me that the lady was right and she was protecting us all from a draft that would have made us sick. I don’t know- I think the draft would have been preferrable to heat stroke. I am a new reader of your blog and I love it. Thanks,

  • And here I thought it was a German thing! Sitting in a minibus in the midday summer sun, we couldn’t open the windows (only the driver and front seat passenger had opening windows) because of the inevitable draft that would ensue, that would immediately cause respiratory ailments. Nor could we try to turn on the A/C – as every German knows that you will be immediately inflicted with all forms of respiratory ailments – I mean IMMEDIATELY! So what does a sweating, barely breathing German person do in this “pat”, they just sit there and practice the national pastime – complain, complain, complain.