American and British forces have failed to find any WMD in Iraq, but our reporter has stumbled across a nightmare cache of biological weapons right on his Brussels' doorstep. He risks life and limb to stop and smell the flowers.
Before any neo-conservative warrior rushes to call for regime change in Brussels, let me be clear that the biological weapons I have uncovered are nothing more sinister than common-or-garden pollen. But, when the weather's right, hay fever sufferers like myself live on a constant bio-alert triggered by this invisible menace.
Well, spring is finally here. The sun is out. Flowers are blooming. Birds are singing. Pigeons drink at fountains and chase each other playfully. The ice caps have thawed to give way to open vistas of bare flesh. People have shed their drab winter coats and flock to the parks to parade their bright plumage, while doting lovers emerge two by two from their hibernation.
Against medical advice, I sit in one of Brussels' many parks beside my partner. I wonder what could possibly be a more pleasant picture to strike a warm chord of romance in the spirit and get the heartstrings dancing? But living in a green city has its drawbacks.
Behind that glossy veneer of cheer, there lurks an ominous and irresistible energy – tantalising and titillating – that builds up in every pore. My eyes well up with tears and start streaming and my nose gets the sniffles. Then, the tranquillity and romance of this beautiful illusion are rudely shattered by a side-splitting sneeze that measures 7.2 on the Rupture Scale, bringing forth a series of devastating after tremors.
For a hay fever sufferer, a trip to the country is no simple walk in the park, and parks turn into houses of unbelievable horror: each blade of grass tickles with the gentleness of a sword and pastures are minefields of live ammo. On bad days, it is not inconceivable to consider self-mutilation.
An allergy to pollen is not a very glamorous ailment and will, of course, get you little in the sympathy stakes – no Hollywood tear-jerker has yet been made about the travails of the hayfeverish. Many people find it funny that something as apparently unthreatening as pollen can cause so much havoc. However, our suffering is very real and you should resist the temptation to dismiss us as wimps just because we are brought to our knees by a daisy.
The pollen count on the weather forecast is like our Geiger Counter detecting the millions of microscopic discharges of depleted geraniums, roses, grass, and so on that make our lives a living hell. According to a certain medical website, “the body's immune system overreacts to the presence of external substances, as if they were something toxic”.
Medical science has so far failed to provide a cure for our ills. Allergy tests, anti-histamines, eye and nose drops, steroids and air purifiers provide little more than temporary reprieve. Every season, my mother, who is a worse sufferer than myself, tries out new approaches. This year's treatment is natural and it involves inhaling mint oil extracts. Being the prodigal son that I am, I have not yet tried it out.
If you think these treatments sound fairly ineffectual, the same learned medical website advises hay fever sufferers to suffocate indoors, with windows firmly shut, particularly between 5 and 7pm and when sleeping. It also recommends that they avoid areas of high pollen concentration, such as gardens and parks. “If you need to work in these environments consider wearing a mask and goggles,” it concludes.
But I don't want to live in self-imposed solitary confinement or venture outdoors dressed like someone rehearsing for nuclear Armageddon. I am green with envy at those who can enjoy the great outdoors in peace. I, too, long to wander lonely as a cloud and chill out with a gang of daffodils.
But, under the bough of a tree, before a newly sprung thought in June can travel from my mind to pollinate the ear of my lover, it is invariably nipped in the bud by nasal dyslexia. The sublime, in a frustrating comedy of errors, plunges into the slimy cesspit of my hanky.
Despite my suffering, I am determined to enjoy Mother Nature's gifts, especially in this generally grey, but green, corner of the world. Otherwise, I may just have to become a nomad and flee the lethal pastures of spring to roam the gentle flowing sands of the desert.
This article first appeared on Expatica on 11 June 2003.