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Berlin grass, what a downer!

Does the city torment you with an explosion in seasonal allergies? Our long-suffering reporter feels your pain.

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Illustration by Dom Okah

Whenever my American friends visit Berlin, they ask me if I need anything from home. What delicacies would make my life abroad more comfortable? My answer is always the same: a large jar of peanut butter (preferably Skippy, and smooth, if you please) and as much over-the-counter allergy medication as they can fit in their cases. I’m talking Benadryl, Claritin, Zyrtec, Allegra; generic brands numbering in the dozens.

Over my 30-odd years as a seasonal allergy sufferer, I’ve probably ingested just about every antihistamine known to mankind. I’ve always thought of it as a fairly minor affliction, even though it’s one that has followed me for most of my life, from my sneeze-prone school days to adulthood crossing various countries and continents. I used to wake up feeling a little itchy and congested, swallow one of the many pills promising 24-hour relief, and go on with my day.

Then I moved to Berlin.

For people who suffer from seasonal allergies, Berlin’s warmer climes can be like waging an invisible war against evil. Your nose is your only weapon, and you’re losing. It’s like being part of the least sought after club – you’ll lock bloodshot eyes with someone in the herbal tea section of DM and think, “You too?” Since I have lived in the capital my symptoms have grown increasingly worse. Not only do I have the typical cement-filled nasal passages and red, itchy eyes, it also feels like ants are crawling in my ear canals and that I have swallowed a generous helping of sand with my morning granola.

And worst of all, my trusty medication is no longer cutting it. I’m now envious of people who only get their allergies in April and May. That used to be the case for me, back in the halcyon days when a hot towel to the face and simple tablets were all I needed to feel better. Now an attack can strike at any time, without warning, and last for days. In short, this sucks. I am desperate for answers and a treatment that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. So, like dealing with all modern woes, I first turn to the hivemind of Facebook. That’s how I meet Yeonjune Jung, a South Korean visual artist, who has resided in Berlin for the past few years and says he has solved his allergies with local honey. Being a regular fan of honey and yoghurt anyway, if all I need to do is suss out some Berliner bees, I’m game.

The day I meet Yeonjune at a café around the corner from my apartment, I’m still woozy and at the end of a three-day allergy attack.”For me it started when I moved to London. It was horrible,” he reveals over a latte. So perhaps Berlin isn’t only to blame. A bumble bee lazily buzzes around our table. I try staring it down. This is what it has come down to: I’m angry at an insect.

So, what about the honey? “It’s not perfect,” Yeonjune warns, “and the other important thing is pollen. It’s difficult to get pollen that’s from Berlin. You should take it regularly, once a day. I take it with yoghurt and fruit, and then the local honey – you have to take them together, that’s really important.” The thoughts of ingesting pollen do not appeal and Yeonjune seems to read my expression. “I was sceptical but I thought it was worth a try. Suddenly, it started working.

The symptoms really started decreasing. It’s amazing.” Does he take any medication or homeopathic remedies? “Just the honey,” he says. “It’s more of a preventive method though, so you have to take it before your allergies actually start.” Damn it! So I’m all out of luck when it comes to the honey trick as I’m already on my third or fourth major allergy attack of the year. I am defeated and watch as the bumble bee lifts its round body out of a nearby flower and finally buzzes away. “Sorry,” says Yeonjune, compassionately. “Maybe next year?”

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Although Yeonjune’s allergies seemed severe, I’m seeking to find someone with lifelong experience of debilitating symptoms. Enter Elisa, a 27-year-old biotechnology student from Berlin, whose struggle with allergies began at birth, and who by the age of 12 had tried everything from harsh pharmaceuticals to centrifuged blood, and various homeopathic remedies one of which contained arsenic. “I’ve had allergies since I was born, literally. It started with a milk allergy when I was a newborn,” she explains.

A lot of the time seasonal allergies can be connected with other types of allergies, which I didn’t know until recently but really makes me wonder what other things my body has been trying to reject this whole time. And it turned out the answer to her troubles was in her stomach. “Finally I went to a new doctor, and she suggested I improve my intestinal health, the bacterial flora of my digestive tract. So I started taking bacteria, like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria – the ones you find in yoghurt, for example. And it worked! You can take them in capsules or in a powder. Then I reduced sugar and gluten, I only eat wholegrains and oats, and so on. Suddenly I didn’t take any pills and my allergies were gone.” Even though Elisa’s symptoms were much more severe than my own, I experience a slight pang of envy at her newly allergy-free life. “It was amazing. Your gut is really connected to your immune system, and that’s where allergies come from. If it’s not healthy, then your whole immune system goes crazy,” she says.

A bumble bee lazily buzzes around our table. I try staring it down. This is what it has come down to: I’m angry at an insect.”

So far, I’ve spoken to people who have helped their allergies with honey and yoghurt – a few scoops of granola and perhaps I could concoct an antihistamine breakfast bowl? However, this is already my usual breakfast diet and doesn’t seem to have helped my case much.

Just as my desperation peaks, I discover by chance when dropping by Exberliner HQ that the magazine’s ad sales director, Ori Behr, is a recovered allergic. It turns out that he’s made it through his Berlin-induced allergy episode thanks to … immunotherapy! “Hyposensibilisierungstherapie” clarifies Ori, who revels in stretching the syllables of one of German’s most ridiculously long words. “My dermatologist ran a full allergy test, like the skin patch test. Based on the results of that, she was able to concoct a cocktail that comes in the form of a shot that I would get at four-to-six week intervals. It’s basically introducing histamines into my body, so that it learns to cope with these histamines in a natural way. The idea is that you kind of permanently build up an immunity.

You know that week in May where Berlin just like, snows pollen? It must have been 2011 or 2012, I’d already been here for a couple of years, but in that week I literally just could not open my eyes, it was unbearable.” Ori took the shots regularly for about two years, and the effects have lasted since. “Allegedly, the results last your whole life. But you know, allergies are fickle. They can reappear or disappear at will. Also, not all allergies can be treated this way. For example, I also have cat allergies, and there is no hyposensitivity therapy for that.” He recommends having your health insurance in order before pursuing this treatment as it can prove expensive otherwise.

I’m getting myself geared up to explore Ori’s treatment further when I finally mange to get in touch with the person who can shine a light on the causes of seasonal allergies in Berlin. Dr. Torsten Zuberbier, spokesman for the Comprehensive Allergy Center at Charité in Berlin, as well as chairman of the board for the European Centre for Allergy Research Foundation (ECARF), speaks over the phone on his way to work with the pace of someone who has a lot to do and not enough time to squeeze it all in.

With little fanfare, he instructs me to get on with my questions. So what on God’s green Earth is going on in this city? He chuckles. “Berlin is somewhat special in regards to urban areas, as there is a much bigger pollen load. It is a very green city and in its broad streets there are often little centre areas where grass grows, and nobody comes with a lawn mower every week to keep it cut. Thus, it fully flowers.” Of course! It’s the grass. There has to be a price to pay for Berlin’s shabbychic urban spaces, and it’s that the city isn’t taming the wild green stuff that grows through the concrete.

It’s the grass. Photo: freestocks

“Grass pollen is the most frequent allergenic pollen all over Europe,” the doctor explains. “Allergy season starts with hazel pollen in January, and then goes on through spring, mainly with birch pollen – which is very common in Berlin – in March and April, followed by grass pollen in May. Bees carry flower pollen but grass pollen is carried by the wind so it’s the prime irritant when it comes to seasonal allergies.” So all this time I had directed my wrath towards the poor bees, when really, wild grass is my enemy.

Speaking of our friends the bees, what about Yeonjune’s honey remedy? Before I can even finish my question, the idea is shot down with all the zeal of the modern doctor. “Don’t waste your time, or your money; the reliable method is to stay with typical modern drugs, always remembering that histamine is released in allergic reactions, which is a chemical that damages body tissues.” This might be the first time a German doctor has recommended I take actual, real pharmaceuticals! He warns that leaving allergies unchecked can prove dangerous, saying that histamines can run rampant in your body, messing up nasal tissue and the respiratory system.

“There’s a 40 percent chance of developing asthma in untreated hay fever and we also see more and more people in old age getting allergies for the first time. Most important to mention is, however, the effect on cognitive function learning and work performance. Airway allergies have a high socio-economic negative impact. It’s even been shown that children that suffer from allergies tend to lag a full grade behind their classmates.”

I think back to all those days I spent in the nurse’s office at school, staring up at the off-white stucco ceiling, eyes glued shut with gummy tears waiting for my mom to pick me up early because my constant sneezing, coughing and nose-blowing was disrupting my class… “Allergies are an overreaction of the immune system, so people with allergies actually have a lower risk for illnesses like cancer, because their immune system is so strong,” says Dr. Zuberbier, delivering perhaps the only piece of good news I’ve heard all week..

Image for Berlin grass, what a downer!

As I type this now, I feel more or less okay. Eyes are a little itchy, but my nasal passages are clear. I don’t have a headache or any light sensitivity, my throat isn’t sore and I’m not incessantly blowing my nose. But even as I try to enjoy these unusual sensations, I know deep down that the reprieve is not going to last. For me, the most pressing question now is: who do I need to speak to to get someone to cut the goddamn grass?