It’s a cold place, this earth of ours, and it gets ever colder as you go further north. I’m told it also gets cold as you go south, but I have never ventured that way myself.
Nowadays I live in a flat in modern residential tower with underfloor heating that keeps me snug. But it wasn’t always so. The first family residence I remember was at Kosel, then Germany though it has since been renamed Kozle and been incorporated into Poland. There we had tiled ovens, some six or seven feet tall, in our living room, our dining room and in at least one of the bedrooms. To keep them going throughout the winter was hard work.
The concierge brought up a load of brown coal briquettes every morning. On cold days he also brought a second load in the afternoon. Our maids – Frieda and Kaethe – kept the fires going throughout the day and emptied the ash can. Occasionally my father did it … and grumbled: “Central heating, that’s what we need.”
Eventually my father got a transfer to a larger city and there we found a modern flat with central hearing. The rent was high but I had by then reached the age when I no longer needed a nursemaid so that saved money. Conveniently, Kaethe, my nursemaid, had refused to come with us. She would not move to such a vast city – Breslau – population 660,000. “I’ll get run over! Cars, all those cars! And trams …they frighten me!”
I wept bitterly. I had felt closer to her than to my own mother.
We found we could manage with Frieda alone. And we remained warm – except when shooting down that hill just behind the house on a toboggan. That hill had been the town’s rubbish dump, but the year we arrived they brought in lorry loads of soil and an army of workers and turned it into a hill perfect for tobogganing. Of course gliding fast down the snow covered hill, often while snow was still falling, that was cold. But the fun of it was warming!
Double glazing, which keeps people warm these days, did not yet exist- at least not in its present form. However, at the beginning of winter, the concierge brought up a second lot of framed windows and slid them into hooks behind the summer windows. He next brought up long cotton-filled ‘sausages’. These he nailed between the two sets of windows. That stopped the draughts.
Moisture, which had been trapped between the two sets of windows, froze on the inside of the outer ones and formed ice flowers. They were often very beautiful.
Open fireplaces, such as are common in England, were unknown. They would have been considered inefficient. And, of course, they are.
And at the time no one knew – or told us – that the wood smoke was harmful.