Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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FEBRUARY 17, 2012 12:36PM

Siberia in the City

Rate: 23 Flag

For Christmas this year, my in-laws gave me a book called Dans les fôrets de Sibérie (In the Forests of Siberia) by Sylvain Tesson.  While they may have chosen it because it won the 2011 Prix Medicis Essai, and is a well-written and enjoyable book, I couldn’t help but think it was a snarky attempt to convert me.

Made up of daily journal entries, the book tells the true story of Tesson’s several months spent mostly in isolation in a cabin in Siberia.  This wasn’t a forced thing – like Thoreau before him, Tesson’s temporary exile was self-imposed.  Though at first I thought the Thoreau connection would stop there, it didn't: Thoreau isn’t well-known among the French, but Tesson does know of him and Walden, and alludes to them a few times near the start of his own book, including a moment when he claims Thoreau’s listing expenses while at Walden makes him “too commercial”. Statements like that turned me off, at first.  Who the hell attacks Thoreau for something so petty? 



Or at all?  He even LOOKS like a nice person!


I mean, didn’t Thoreau include those lists in Walden as a guide for others who might want to leave civilization for a while? He wasn’t being “commercial” in telling them how much they might spend – he was just being helpful.  I found myself regarding Tesson’s book as an embodiment (if books have bodies) of what I hate in the French character: such bitterness and criticism, such an aversion to joy.

But still I kept on reading, because those lines about Thoreau weren’t all that the book had in it, of course.  On every page, Tesson evokes the beauty of what most of us (myself very much included) would think of only as a harsh land, full of danger and discomfort.  He muses on nature and solitude, animals and ice, solitude and company, books and windowgazing.  With IBS, my commute to work is a challenge, and I need something to take my mind off it. Though I always have a book with me, not all of them succeed, but whenever I opened this one, I found myself in the snow around Tesson’s small heated cabin, on the shores of Lake Baikal. I wandered at his side over small mountains and into remote villages (like Thoreau, Tesson wasn’t always alone during his six month sojourn).

The book offered escapism and a lot of food for thought.  In these ways, it was an excellent gift.  But it didn’t do what my in-laws might have wanted.

Since I’ve met them, they’ve made it plain that they think city life is full of danger and evil. What they want most for their son and future grandchildren is for them to live in the countryside somewhere. My mother-in-law is especially fervent about this, and has even gone to such lengths as dissuading my boyfriend from buying the apartment next door to ours, which could have given us a bigger living space, just so that we would hopefully one day feel too cramped here and choose to move to a house in some bucolic setting (a fact that was blurted out by my father-in-law during our vacation in Rome last year.  Yes, there is a way to ruin a delicious pizza in Rome.).  

Many of you reading this may also think that country life is far better, and richer, and simpler, and healthier, than life in the city (although I hope you’d never sabotage someone’s plans in an attempt to get them to relocate). But I really think it depends on who you are.

There are moments when I think I want to leave this life and the routine and all my obligations behind. I wouldn’t go to Siberia, or to a pond in the woods – but to an isolated beach.  

Let’s imagine me there: I’m alone in a small house that hopefully has air conditioning, though if I’m trying to be at one with nature, it won’t.  I spend hours staring at the ocean, something I do whenever I’m near it.  Its waves are hypnotic to me.  I feel inspiration and stories surge into my mind.  At night, I hear the rush of the waves, like breathing.  Maybe being alone in nature with few distractions would change me, make me see the world in a way I’ve never seen it before.  But there are also sand fleas, and the heat rash and reaction to suntan lotion that inevitably attack my sensitive skin.  And worst of all, there are spiders. 

I’m not just afraid of spiders in the conventional sense (at one point, Tesson himself writes, “I’m awakened by a mouse who got into my covers, which is less frightening than a spider…”); I have such a severe problem with them that I’ve had to go to therapy for it in the past.  Arachnophobia means, among many other things, that I will never fully be comfortable in any natural environment: there are even spiders on Mount Everest – and, I’ve learned, in Siberia.

In an apartment, I get to experience nature with some remove.  I don’t see a pristine pond or unspoiled taiga outside my window, but there are trees, and on those trees are pigeons, whose lives I follow almost as passionately as my cat does.  Besides my cat, within these walls, there are bugs and even spiders, of course, who sometimes make themselves visible (though I’d prefer they didn’t).  Outside our front windows, we regularly watch two crows lording over the neighborhood from the rooftop of the building across the street.  I’ve written about it before: no matter where you are, nature finds a way to bring itself to you.  

I don’t know that isolation in nature is the answer for everything.  It’s not as though Thoreau or Tesson came out of their experiences with all of their problems neatly wrapped up, all of their hang-ups…hung up. It’s not as though they would never go on to experience disappointment or heartbreak.  And of course, the fact that their time in nature ended, shows that they did ultimately choose to come back to civilization.

“Civilization” isn’t necessarily the opposite of isolation, anyway.  Tesson himself points out in his book that there are many city-dwellers who retreat from society and stay in their apartments, surrounded (as he is in his cabin) by books or other means of cerebral and spiritual stimulus.  Great thoughts and art and deeds have originated in just about any environment we can think of.  Our soul and mind are with us wherever we go, like a candle held out into the night.  It just depends on what keeps yours alight.  

I’m a city girl.  I’ve known it since I was a kid.  The Atlanta suburbs were too remote and uncomfortable for me. I was so allergic to the omnipresent pine trees that I mostly stayed inside.  I hated that it took twenty minutes to get to a movie theater, fifteen to reach the nearest library.  Since the age of 18, I’ve made sure to live in places where I can easily get to both.  Walking, with humankind and canines all around me, and birds in the air, and trees I’m not allergic to blowing in the breeze.  Or in the Metro, with mice and rats living their lives in holes beside the tracks.


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I've been away from OS for a few days - mainly because I had to prepare for, and go to, my dreaded annual visa renewal meeting. I'm happy to say it went well, and I can legally stay in France another year - Woo-hoo! I'm sorry if I haven't commented on posts, etc - I'm working on getting caught up now.
I love the country but by golly I love people. I am just like you.
Ohhhhh vos bel-parents. Ils sont des cadeaux n'est ce pas??

I realize that expression is Quebecquoise but I know you will get it hahha
Oh no my dear. I'm sure your mother-in-law means well, but you must live where passion dictates. Life is way to short to do anything else. I will say however, people do change their minds when it comes to the city/country question. I would love to live in the city because I've spent my entire life in the suburbs. My husband lived in Manhattan for 25 years and grew tired of the cramped space, lack of privacy, noise, and expense. He once swore he would never leave the city. As far as the future youngsters. Truth be told, I think city bred kids turn out more interesting...just because they've had a broader range of experiences and influences.
Having such similar musings, Alysa. Dreaming of a desert island, but knowing that I too am a city girl. Loved loved that last paragraph . I miss New York so much. L.A does not provide what you describe.

Great writing. I relate to the French character on one hand, and on the other-- I'm an idealistic idiotic optimist who is obsessed with not losing her joy.
As for Tresson and Thoreau-- I too think that, in this instance, Thoreau was being helpful. Geez.
I found this really absorbing and interesting. Besides now wishing I read French fluently so I could read the book your in-laws gave you--that's a fascinating self-imposed exile, to Siberia, and I'm intrigued--It's giving me a lot to think about in terms of the relationship between 'city' and 'civilization.' I also identify myself as a city person (though I live in a town and have for 10 years, and I enjoy it) because what I most want is to be able to experience where I live on foot and to feel (and maybe feed into) the energy of those around me. I think--and I don't think I've articulated this before--I like to be surrounded by things (art and artifacts and architecture, etc) that help me make sense of the human experience, and though I enjoy nature (from a spectator's distance--don't enjoy bugs or sweating), I actually get very anxious when I'm in the country too long. But anyway, great post! :)
I'm a city girl too, must live near the symphony etc., but I do like to go hiking in the country too. great story. r
I hear you, Alysa. Did your in-laws always live in the country, or did they move away from the city in their older age? Sometimes people prefer the solitude and space as they get older and retire. whic is far in your future. I love the city life too, but also love leaving the noise and the crowd behind where I can find peace in my home. Luckily I live only 15 minutes of driving distance from downtown and have the best of both worlds. Just keep in mind that one never knows how one will change - it's a possibility. Thank you for sharing your perspectives - thoughtful as always.
Your writing meanders so personably (and intentionally self-aware, I think) and always makes more than one point in its travels. Always such a delight, and gives the reader much food for thought. I am now back to being a "small town" girl, after being a diehard city girl for so many years. I too have thought about isolating myself, and the last book I read before joining OS was "A Book of Silence" by Sara Maitland. You can see that idea didn't quite take! I still wonder...
Yeah. The countryside. Yeah. Our dear friends/extended family live in various small towns in Picardie, in the area between Beauvais and Creil. The countryside. Wonderful, wonderful people, our friends. If I lived in those towns, I'd shrivel and die.
Do you realize, dead Alysa, that the Brown Recluse spider, the deadliest of them all, like to hang out in shoes and toilet paper rolls and other small enclosures and are frequently found in CITIES?? My apologies for startling you, but it's important. They're relatively tiny and innocuous looking (Google them) and their reclusiveness keeps them hidden during daylight. It's at night when they come out to cruise around looking for insects. They'll run from you then. Just don't disturb them while they're asleep. Maybe we should be call then Vampire Spiders. I've found one occasionally in the kitchen sink in the morning. She went there for a quick drink of water during her nighttime prowling and couldn't climb back out. I catch them in a jar and put them outside to help keep the tick and mosquito population of its toes.
Yegads, that was supposed to be "dear Alysa!" Wasn't Freudian, either. Just me still trying to get the hang of my new laptop.
Of those who envy you, Alysa, their numbers I'm sure are legion. Walden is sacred ground to me.
Wow, saw some more egregious typos, but not as bad as the first one. Was trying to say "maybe we should call them Vampire Spiders."
Love both. Ideal would be a city apartment and a country cottage. But suburbs, no.
Linda – Oh, yes, that expression needs no translation! : - )

BSB – You bring up a very good point: maybe one day I will change my mind. There is already a part of me that wants to retire to a beach house…. But I think I would never be able to live somewhere COMPLETELY remote! Then again, life is full of surprises! As for city kids, I’m not sure where I stand on them. Some I agree are quite interesting and open-minded, but I’ve also met some who are so jaded because everything is available to them. Maybe country/suburb kids have to use their imaginations more and appreciate things more. Ultimately, I think it depends on the kid. I just hope mine won’t be blasé about everything!

fernsy – I know, right! Tesson really needed to lay off Thoreau – and that right there is why you will probably never be French, which is really a good thing, because they can be sooo critical!

Sally – I was surprised when I looked up the book that it hasn’t been translated into English, nor have any of Tesson’s other books – I hope this one will one day. It’s worth a read, though it’s no “Walden”. I also feel totally the same way as you do about preferring to have things around you, rather than just nature!

Rw – Unfortunately, according to my research, the book hasn’t been translated into English yet – but hopefully it will be one day. As for your questions about the French countryside being affordable, I personally don’t know much about the cost of living in France anywhere besides Paris, since I’ve only lived here in the city, but I think it’s like any country: there are some areas that are less expensive than others. Of course, the problem is that when you live away from a city, you have to pay more for goods that might be far easier to find in urban areas. You also have to pay for gas for your car, maintenance for the car, etc, as opposed to being able to just use the Metro/walk/bike. I hope you get to take your dream trip one day!

Christine – I like how you enjoy the best of both worlds! Hiking for me usually results in itchy skin and/or sweating, which I do not like!

Fusun – Good point: My mother-in-law grew up in a poor family in an industrial city that isn’t very pretty. My father-in-law grew up in rural areas but moved to said city with his family as a teenager. So maybe their current love of country life is due to that? Also, you are absolutely right: I have no idea how I’ll feel about city vs country life in the years to come. As I wrote to BSB, I wouldn’t be shocked if I retired to somewhere with a beach!

dirndl – Thank you – and I am still trying to decide if my writing is intentionally self-aware…. Hmm…. I haven’t heard of the book you mentioned but am going to check it out – after reading a few other books that take place in the city, first : - ).

Stim – Amen. Amen.

Matt – Well played, good sir. However, from what I remember, brown recluses are not found in Paris. I can’t verify this because I am so arachnophobic that I can’t even look at articles that might possibly include pictures of them! As for the typos…including the spooky “dead Alysa” one – no problem; I am so exhausted after the week I’ve had (which included having to go to a dreaded annual visa renewal meeting) that I didn’t even notice!

Sarah – Thank you but I’m not that enviable – certainly not compared to Thoreau! Have you visited Walden Pond? I’ve always dreamt of seeing it in real life!

Lea – It’s interesting that you wouldn’t want to live in the suburbs, but are rather attracted to the two extremes.
UPDATE: The boyfriend, like most French people, isn't familiar with Thoreau and "Walden". He asked me about them, so I took my cherished copy of "Walden" from the bookshelf and told him to read the summary on the back. He started to, then looked up and said, "This guy was a p_ _ _ _ !* He only lived in the woods?! Tesson was in fricking Siberia!" (*Blame HBO shows...or maybe "Jersey Shore"...) . Sigh. I don't think Transcendentalism will catch on here anytime soon.
hmmm...I think I meant UNintentionally self-aware. I think you realize it after you write it, or if someone points it out. Anyhow--it's the alchemy of your intelligence and charm :)
I, too, love the beach, but have always worried that I would get bored with it if I lived too near. In cities the scenery seems always to be changing, from block to block and neighborhood to neighborhood. My guess is that the intensity of your writing comes from some of the vibrancy of the city. I'd hate to see you lose that in the calmness of the countryside.
Beautiful piece. Stay put for now.
This is great. And I absolutely love the last paragraph. Brings it all together so well.
My approach has been to live in town and enjoy more rural and wilderness pleasures on my own time. I would love it if I had relatives to visit somewhere rural. You might be able to enjoy the best of both worlds. That is "un cadeau" in the more literal sense. (I do wonder that most Quebecois slang I have heard is pretty sarcastic)

When I want to experience the outdoors I go hiking or even occasionally camping. Then I drive back home, stop at a nearby grocery on the way, take a shower and enjoy my urban/suburban life. You can have it all in this case.
Alysa ~ interesting to read that there are suggestions that you move to the country! I am hoping that the end result is that you live where you are the happiest, which sounds like it's in the city! I think far too many of us are pushed into doing things we really don't want to do and those with the "big ideas" should restrain themselves.
I'm in agreement with you about cities. Lady Lucia dreams of living in the country some day. My thought is that the only true solution is for us to get rich so we can have a city home and a country home (I like the country too but only to visit).
Cities are the best places for children. Learning a city is an education in itself, and children who grow up in cities become versatile,adventurous and tolerant. But that's just us...
I hope your in-laws get their heads on straight one of these days.
Thoreau nice? Uh, hm…Emerson, whom I prefer, knew him…
An account says,
Emerson continually deferred to Thoreau…, “and seemed to anticipate his views, preparing himself obviously for a quiet laugh at Thoreau's negative and biting criticism“
of just about everything ‘civilized’…

I call these types ‘nature boys’…
My opinion is: we came Up from nature..tis well & good to revisit Mother Nature, but not cling unto her.that is escapism…much is to be learned from the doings of fellow creatures, and trees, and ponds and etc, but we are human..
endlessly complicated..NOT bound by instinct or drive or gosh we have conquered Mother's harsh
restrictions..Mother should be proud of us...

these inlaws, arg.It's all from love, but...dont let them judge you
First a little damage control: the brown recluse is native to North America. (So take THAT, Kim Gamble, with your impressive list of poisonous snakes!)

I agree with Stim: I'd shrivel up and die. Matter of fact, I nearly did. It was without question a factor in my marriage (#2) crumbling. Just sayin'.

As for the frozen north - I took my mom to Paris the year my dad died, just to get her away for a little while. We went to the Picasso museum, which was doing a show of paintings that Monet did in Scandinavia. They were achingly beautiful.
I work in a large city a few days a week and come back to my little house in the woods the rest of the time. I really like both and don't think I could pick, but I love your reasonings here and the way you are so sure of who you are.
Idyllic country life, eh? Send them a DVD of "Jean de Florette". That would be damn funny!
these french. puzzling people. i have learned so much about them.
they intimidate me, when they show up .
i gotta get my cynic intellect up.
maybe bash my country, the USA.
they are mercurial.....
arrogance i love...
something is missing in the males...
i dunno what...

damn propriety? ah, that is what i seek to overcome.
and yet preserve..