01 March 2009

Why I live in France... confirmed

How was it at the age of 54 that I decided to move lock, stock, and barrel to France? And why the Loire Valley?

I'm sure I've written about this before. Here I am in North Carolina, a place I love and feel so comfortable in, remembering the reasons for my relocation.

Since yesterday morning, I've been living through a major allergy attack. My eyes feel as if somebody has dusted them with ground cayenne pepper. My nose too — it's either cayenne pepper or somebody is sticking hot needles into my nostrils. I can't see and I can't breathe.

But I can sneeze and cry. I must have sneezed violently at least 50 times yesterday as I drove the six hours back to the coast from the N.C. Piedmont town of Burlington, N.C. Today all the muscles in my chest, abdomen, and back are sore from all the violent sneezing.

It also rained steadily all day (it's still raining this morning) and we saw a terrible four-car pileup on I-40 on the south side a Raleigh yesterday around noontime. People drive like idiots on the freeways.

Allergies and traffic. Those were two of my immediate motivations for the move to France in 2003. I was trying to escape from both. And I did. There's no traffic around Saint-Aignan.

I had my first serious allergy attack in 1992. It was incapacitating. Between 1992 and 2002, I lived with sever allergy symptoms from February to May every year. I was in California.

In 2002, Walt and I decided, for various reasons, to take a vacation in April. We decided to go ... guess where ... to France. To Paris, more precisely. It was the height of the allergy season for me, and when we left California I was suffering badly.

We got on the plane at San Francisco and strapped ourselves in for the 11-hour flight. I was miserable all the way to France. At one point, Walt said: "I think you are going to die." I told him I just might.

When we finally got to Paris, we took the RER train into the city, where we had rented a little apartment for our two-week stay. As we rode the train into town, we saw that literally hundreds of trees growing along the train tracks were covered in either pink or white flowers. My eyes were red and teary, and I was sniffling and sneezing.

"If it's going to be like this," I told Walt, "I won't be able to stay here for two weeks." It was the first time I had been to Paris in the springtime in many years. We usually took vacations in fall or winter.

We got to our apartment, and the first order of business was to take showers after the long trip. Then we went out to get something to eat. It was late afternoon, and we were going to a concert in the evening.

And guess what? My allergy symptoms disappeared. It was exhausted from jet lag and all the sneezing and crying, but I was definitely feeling better.

We spent a fantastic two weeks in Paris and I had no allergy symptoms whatsoever. Flowers and flowering trees were blooming everywhere in the city. Still no symptoms for me. We went to Normandy for a couple of days and all the apple trees were in full bloom. No symptoms. I was ecstatic.

At the end of the vacation, we flew back to California. I was fine — until I got off the plane in San Francisco. Then it felt as if somebody had thrown a bucket of pollen in my face. My eyes started burning, my nostrils closed up tight, and I started sneezing again. Damn!

That was when I realized I was allergic to California. For years, my primary-care physician had been discouraging me from going to see an allergist. "The allergist will just tell you that you are allergic to pollen," he said, "and you already know that. You just have to live with it." Many doctors believe allergy treatments are a lot of hocus-pocus. I took mdeicines like Claritin, Zyrtec, and then Allegra for years. They had no real effect.

I realized then that I needed to go see an allergist despite my doctor's attitudes. A friend recommended an allergy specialist in San Francisco, and I made an appointment. There was a three-month wait to see him.

When the day came, I told the allergist my story. About Paris. About a trip to Seattle in springtime when my allergy symptoms had similarly disappeared within hours of arrival there.

The doctor told me he already knew what I was allergic to. "It's cypress-tree pollen," he said. "A lot of people here on the California coast are allergic to it. Your case is severe." Monterey cypress trees grow all up and down the California shoreline.

He did the scratch tests. Sure enough, I had a dramatic reaction when he scratched my skin with cypress tree pollen. I also reacted to olive tree pollen. That was about it.

"I can try to treat you," the allergy doctor said, "but here's my advice: Leave California. Don't go south to Arizona or Las Vegas. Don't go to Florida. All those places are covered in cypress trees. Move north. Seattle would be a good choice. And after what you've told me, I'd say Paris would be an excellent move for you. Don't go to the south of France — there are too many cypress and olive trees there."

Exactly a year later, Walt and I moved to Saint-Aignan. It's not Paris, but it's northern France, and we can afford it. We wanted to live in the country.

And I have been gloriously allergy-free ever since we moved to Saint-Aignan in 2003. When there is a strong wind from the south, I feel the old symptoms. But that's rare, and the allergies have never bothered me for more than a day at a time.

The Carolina coast, with all its swamps, is home to a lot of cypress trees. I've been here for two weeks now and I've been feeling the pollen for a week now. But the real attack started Friday afternoon, when a big rain front moved over North Carolina. Nearly 48 hours later, I feel no improvement, and I'm miserable.

The winds have been blowing from the northeast, off the Great Dismal Swamp in northeast North Carolina, south of Norfolk, Virginia. That's a swamp full of cypress trees. I can't wait for the wind to change and bring in some pollen-free air.

If you have allergies like mine, which are clearly seasonal, you need to go find out what you are allergic to. If you can leave the area where those plants grow and go settle in a different place, do it. I know it's not easy, but it's worth it.

If your allergies are not seasonal, you need to try to find a doctor who will treat you. Don't listen to medical doctors who dismiss your symptoms as something you just have to live with.

I'll be glad to get back to Saint-Aignan later this week, and to be able to breathe easy again.


  1. I hope the wind changes tonight, Ken, so that you will feel much better and I can show you Tryon Palace tomorrow.


  2. p.s. It's not the Loire valley, but it's not a bad palace, for North Carolina. :-)


  3. You're lucky that traffic is so light around St. Aignan. I've been in horrendous traffic on highways in the south of France, and seen some of the worst accident scenes I've ever seen. And I've never even been there in the summer. And French highway drivers at least rival those in the US.
    On the other hand, the food, wine, villages, scenery, etc. in France can't be beat.

  4. Oh my how terrible for you vacation. I used to have allergies when I was a young girl and woman and as an adult they have disappeared..thankfully. My husband never had allergies and now has them. It seems as though we have traded places. Curiously when he drinks California wines he is miserable with allergies and when he drinks french or italian wines no allergies. Alas all we drink is french and italian wines. Life is tough! Can't wait to hear more news from Saint Aignan.

  5. I know exactly how you feel. When we lived in Burbank (Ca), my son and I were allergic to elm trees, birch trees, rag weeds.. We were under the care of an allergist for 3 years. We had allergy shots twice a week, then once a week, then once every two weeks... When we moved on the coast, our allergies were almost gone.
    When my in-laws wanted to move to Kauai, they rented a house for a year before building their house. My advice is : rent first where you would want to move to before committing to the "big move". Now, because of your experience, I can also add, "you never know what you might be allergic to".

  6. Sounds a bit like my story....my allergies started in California. We moved north to Bellingham, WA where I was allergic to most of the grass and trees around here. I saw the most wonderful Allergist who had me on shots for years and years. Today I'm shot free and mostly allergy free.

    I for one am glad you moved to France....would there be such a wonderfully interesting blog for me to read everyday if you two would have stayed in California? Probably not.

    Victoria, Bellingham, WA

  7. We've had this conversation before, about allergies. But I can confirm that sometimes the only answer is to move away from all the stuff you grew up being allergic to. After growing up in Baltimore, my solution was to move to California. Clearly that didn't work for you. Luckily, St Aignan did. And much as I would love to have you within easy visiting distance again, it wonderful that you found a place where you can be allergy-free!


    PS: Confirmation word is repox.


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