I am sitting in a sort of international hipster clubhouse. It’s a makeshift lean-to made of corrugated plastic and 3×3 poles. On two walls there is the old brick garden wall; on a third wall there is fishing net. Wooden pallets covered in old mattresses and blankets in twelve shades of brown make for a common seating area. Pillows cast about on the couches include a red double decker bus set against London in black and white, an American flag, and a moustache pillow with the words “HELLO HELLO” screen printed in black.
There are also touches from past guests cast about here and there: a St. Lucia flag, a pretty good painting of a beach far away, a pair of pyjama bottoms, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and a motivational poster that says “Happiness is Not a Destination, It Is a Way of Life.” Just below is a sticker that says “piss off.” On a makeshift clothing line, next to a pair of stretchy teal men’s undies is a shirt that says, “Living Super Since 1906.”
Thinking about that t-shirt, owned by a Romanian nuclear plant worker, makes me realize that I am probably allergic to Britain.
When you hear that, you might think of hay fever. Yes, that has happened to me. After almost two weeks of tramping through ruined castles, peaking through dusty church towers, and hiking through stone-fenced grasslands, my senses had had enough. I sat for a few minutes in the long dry grass beside Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College, and my head exploded. Punting on the Thames is challenging: it looked so easy when Dick Van Dyke pretended to do it in Mary Poppins. Doing it while sneezing and blowing my nose in Tesco toilet paper made it a whole new kind of tourist experience.
That night I fell asleep to some pill my wife gave me, hugging a box of Kleenex and dreaming of Oxford’s dreaming spires dripping in dew.
It is actually quite unusual for me to have any kind of natural allergy. I can think of only two other times I’ve had hay fever. Even the “cotton trees” of the prairies seemed to work with my bodily ecosystem. Perhaps that comes with growing up on a farm where we piled loose hay in great mounds to break our fall from ever increasing heights.
Honestly, I think in my heart, I have always looked down upon asthmatics just a little bit. I suppose that’s a funny kind of bigotry, but I’m working on it.
My natural resistance to things that make others sneeze all changed a few years ago. At that time I was running a car detailing business. I spent my days surrounded by scent. I purchased waxes, polishes, and cleaners that worked the best—we were a high-end joint—and that made my work more pleasurable. I still enjoy the smell of citrus oil, Poorboy’s wax, and the cherry soap my cousin mixed up for me.
I had scent-free customers. One dropped off a car, but could not come into the shop. Another sent her husband to get the car detailed whenever she went on a two-week holiday. She was so allergic to smells that they could not purchase a new car. The “new car smell”—really the carpet glue gassing off—sent her into agonies. I would clean the car with natural products that didn’t work as well, then leave the car in a cold place for two weeks. Another couple of weeks in the fresh air and she could drive it again.
Then, one day, it happened to me.
It was not long after I sold the business. I was at the gym and they were giving out samples of Axe Body Spray, also known as Liquid Satan for Guys Stupid Enough to Think This Will Help. I walked into the change room and nearly passed out. My head started to pound, my eyes watered, and I found it hard to catch my breath. I changed as quickly as I could and found my way to fresh air.
We all know that Axe is on the extreme end of the artificial scent spectrum, so I didn’t think much of it. That experience, though, was near the beginning of a long period of high scent sensitivity for me. I think my friends all knew I struggled with it, but I’m not sure how public that struggle was.
Church was especially painful for me. Walking in the sanctuary was like walking into a wall of pain. It was especially hard in winter when the windows were closed and the heat was cranked up. I sat on the edges or volunteered for the kid’s program. Not infrequently I would head outside and greet people coming in and out so I could avoid the main hall. I still do these things.
The scent problem has meant some career limits. I can’t teach English to foreign students. Cultures that value perfume and smoking as signs of manliness or prosperity create an environment that is just too much for me. I haven’t taught ESL for a decade now.
Mostly, I can adapt pretty well. There are certain scents that are okay with me, like citrus-based smells (which are cheap to produce without artificial chemical add-ins). Anything floral or in the classic perfume family will send me out to check the oil level in the car. I announce to my students that there is someone with a scent allergy in the class and remind them about what they can do to adjust. And we have adapted our family perfumes to reduce smells as much as possible.
So what has this got to do with a hipster clubhouse in Great Britain? Actually, it’s the “super” t-shirt and the teal tighties. I can smell them from across the garden.
It’s the detergent he used to wash the shirt and the dandy teal undies that is the issue. It is probably called “Mountain Breeze” or “Seascape Pantomime” or something, an aroma to give the laundry that clean-fresh manufactured scent commercials tell us we love. It smells great to most people, but it makes my head swim.
Which is why I might be allergic to Britain. Sidewalks here swarm with cigarette smoke. Every shopping area has an import perfume bar, with happy tourists spritzing here and there. Instead of dealing with mould in a house, locals use scent to cover it up. And then there are the normal parts of life in a community: car fumes, shampoos and deodorants, dish soap, flower gardens, leather treatments, insense, rubber tires, and freshly cut lawns. Many of these are wonderful, evocative scents, but there is a group for whom daily life with them can be a struggle.
For the most part I have been pretty good. Three or four days ago I found the full day’s experience a bit much. I had to do some laundry, and went into the common area of my Oxford guest house to wash the clothes. The smell of the detergent, fries (chips) boiling in an open pot, the perfumes of the people gathered there, the close smell of garbage in a kitchen that needs windows … it was overwhelming. I grew dizzy, my head pounded, and I fled. A few hours later, in the dark and cool of my room, the ibuprofen started to work.
I’m pretty luck, actually. I can eat most anything while my friends are allergic to everything from grains to milk to fruit to any food that casts a shadow on the autumnal equinox. There are people allergic to hair or their own skin. Some get hay fever so awful that they go to sleep in March and wake up in late November.
So, I think I will deal with it the best I can. I may ask the macho man from Hungary in my room if he could body spray out in the hall. But I think I can tough it out. I’ll probably hang out here in the club house until the nuclear plant workers come out to smoke. The teal underpants are actually starting to grow on me.
That wasn’t an ideal way of putting it, was it?
Note: the photographs are just pictures of signs I took that I thought were interesting. Don’t read to much into them.