“Remember, remember the fifth of November“– not so much gunpowder, treason and plot this year down in the Rhine Valley, but more a day of unseasonable warmth, tee-shirts and shorts. Temperatures measured over 20°C during the day, and it was still around 15°C at 10.30 pm. In fact, following the usual “golden October” it looks as if whoever is in charge of switching over to misty November has fallen asleep at the helm. Meanwhile, we are still sunbathing!
The immediate and obvious reason for this warm, sunny weather is the Fohn, a strong, dry wind from the south that rushes down the leeward side of the mountains and, lacking moisture to cloud up the atmosphere, makes everything look clear and distinct: perfect for taking postcard-type photos of beautiful scenery.
My first encounter with this phenomenon was many, many years ago when I first arrived in Bavaria. “Are you all right, do you have a headache?” I was asked solicitously at breakfast on my third day. Perplexed, I replied no, I was feeling fine. “Well, it’s the Fohn,” was the equally mystifying reply.
My German at that time was minimal, but I had learnt that the word Fön applied to a hairdryer and I had just quickly dried my hair after my morning shower. It was already clear to me that Germany was a very different country to any I had experienced up to then, but I was at a loss to explain why the hairdryer should have given me a headache. Eventually, the misunderstanding was cleared up and I understood that it was the Föhn wind with its blast of hot air that had given its name to the electrical appliance.
As for having a headache because of a mere wind, I dismissed that as fanciful autosuggestion. How could anyone develop a headache or any other physical symptoms just through being exposed to a warm wind? With true British phlegm I classed German Wetterfühligkeit (sensitivity to weather conditions) along with the French crise de foie as an excuse devised by foreigners for over-indulging in rich foods or alcohol.
I didn’t stay long enough in Bavaria to have any personal experience of the effects of the Föhn. But then ten years later I returned to the Alps, and suddenly discovered that some days I was very tired and unable to concentrate on what I was doing, even though I hadn’t been under any greater stress or pressure than usual. “Oh, it’s the Föhn!” someone said one day and I realised that it couldn’t be autosuggestion because I hadn’t even noticed the warm south wind raging all around. No headache, but an overwhelming lethargy was and still is my usual reaction to the Föhn.
“Oh, it’s the Föhn, where are the smelling salts?” exclaims my sceptical friend in England in a melodramatic tone, presumably raising a limp hand to her brow, if I happen to mention it when she phones. But the Föhn provokes more than the vapours. Some people I know become super-energised on Föhny days, whilst others become irritable and bad-tempered. Headaches and migraines are indeed very common. Statistics apparently show a rise in traffic accidents and suicides when the Föhn is blowing.
No gentle zephyr, the Föhn can reach gale force, uprooting trees and whipping tiles off roofs, as well as melting several feet of snow in a matter of a few hours, which accounts for its nickname of “snow-eater”. The snow hasn’t had a chance yet this year, the Föhn got here first. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.