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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JULY 26, 2011 10:38AM


Rate: 33 Flag

As we strolled down the sunny street, I saw something on my boyfriend’s neck.  I reached up and put my finger in front of the spot.  The ladybug climbed atop and flew away before I could say “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home…”



Our bathtub is surrounded by tiles.  A very small hole appeared in the grout between two of them, near the top of the tub, without our noticing.  Last weekend, I did notice something – a spider’s taken up residence in the hole.  I have severe arachnophobia, and can’t even look at pictures of spiders.  But our life lends itself to them coming here: shelves and shelves of books, some of them centuries old. Piles of accumulated objects.  A dislike of killing moths or flies.  Pretty soon we’re going to completely change every aspect of our apartment, and I hope that will mean it will become less of an attraction for spiders.  But for now, there’s this one crouched in that hole by the bathtub. 


We can’t use our bug gun ** to get him out, because the hole goes deep, and he just squeezes himself into it every time we try.  My boyfriend figured he’d be too afraid of us to come out while we’re in there – but two times now he’s crawled out while I was in the tub.  Luckily, he seems not to like my screams, and goes right back into the hole.  (The neighbors probably don’t like my screams, either.)  I’m terrified, but I have to admire the spider’s moxie. I guess he must hate all the banging as I clumsily and predictably knock shampoo bottles off the ledge with the shower head’s cord, or pull up on the knob just over his hole (after shaking myself out of fright-induced paralysis) to make the water come out of the shower nozzle.  I want him the hell away from my tub.  At the same time, I wish we could understand each other and set up boundaries and say hi.




Last week, I was changing when I noticed something on the floor.  It was a large spider, curled and dead.  I froze and couldn’t move for a while.  I couldn’t get myself to touch it or remove it, not even with a broom. So I closed the bedroom door so that our cat Ali wouldn’t eat the body, in case it was poisonous, and waited for the boyfriend to come home.  He isn’t particularly at ease around spiders, either, but he’s better than me.  When it comes to spiders, we’re like an old couple stumbling down the sidewalk: He can still move without help, but I need a walker, or his steady arm to lean on.  My boyfriend went into the room and carefully nudged the body with a tissue to be sure the spider wasn’t playing dead.  Then, he rolled it up and put it deep into the garbage can, so I wouldn’t be able to see it. 


“It looks like she must have been in pain when she died,” he said.  “Her legs were curled up.”  In French, all spiders are female, since the word for them has this gender.  For me, a linguistic outsider, it seems at once silly – obviously lots of spiders are male – and a reminder that they're living beings. I told him I thought every spider looked like that when it died, but he told me how growing up in the countryside he’d often seen them hanging dead in their webs, limp as we’d expect a lifeless body to be.  I was still doubtful, but I couldn’t look it up, since there might be illustrations. We felt sorry for this little body, and I hoped it hadn’t suffered at all – or, at the very least – not long.




I love our cat Ali’s fur.  He has a beautiful, glossy black coat, but it’s not just that; his fur is medium-length, and when you kiss his head, you feel a slight soft cushion beneath your lips.




When we first heard about the massacre in Norway, people thought it was Al Qaida or another Islamic terrorist group.  But I told my boyfriend, “That’s strange – that’s not usually how Islamic terrorists operate: they don’t specifically go to a place where young adults are gathered, and pick them off. That’s a Columbine-style thing to do, a vigilante move.”  A few hours later, we learned that I was right. I’d somehow trusted the nature of these terrorists enough to feel they wouldn’t commit an act like what happened at Utoya Island.  They have done equally awful – even worse – things – but this isn’t their type of work.  Odd to think that for a moment, I felt that in some ways these men have a certain sense of honor.  It will never erase or lessen the atrocities they do commit, but it was strange to feel that there were certain lines they wouldn’t cross.  For now, at least. Just like trying to anticipate the habits of a spider, knowing what to expect from an enemy helps to make their presence more bearable.  And just as I always hope a spider in our apartment will remain predictable in its movements, I hope that these terrorists will never think to turn to this different kind of evil. 




I may have seen a dead human body before, without knowing it.  I realize a lot of us probably have.


Going out this weekend, we noticed a group of people gathered in the square near our apartment.  As we got closer, we saw there were medics there as well, trying to revive a homeless man who was lying motionless on the ground.  We didn’t stay to see what happened, but it did make me wonder: This isn’t an uncommon city sight -- how many of these people have already left life behind, as our paths and eyes come across them? 


It’s heartbreaking, and yet beautiful to die in such a way, cradled in the city whose streets you lived on.  Like a pigeon.  I’ve seen many pigeons dead or dying.  They just sit down on a corner, unperturbed by the humans walking all around them. They seem very calm and very tired.  Sometimes you can think a pigeon is dying, and really it’s only resting.  As you draw closer, it rises at the sight of your feet and flies away.




In the city, “nature” isn’t the same thing as it is when you live in the countryside.  We don’t necessarily know when different crops are growing.  We’ve probably never milked a cow or slaughtered a pig.  The birds we see are of a much more limited variety – unless we go to a zoo or a museum stocked with stuffed specimens.  But there is nature here.  It fights through stone and brick, through cables and telephone lines, a weed growing in a sidewalk crack.


**bug gun - A water-pistol-shaped device that's actually a sort of vacuum.  It sucks bugs (small to medium sized) up without harming them and they are stored in a small plastic compartment.  You unscrew said compartment to release them - outside.  This is a device that's changed my life, and I'd recommend it to anyone and everyone. The link I included with this term in my post, will take you to a post of mine with a more detailed description, as well as a link for one you can buy online.  And there's a picture of mine at the end of the post. 

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Wow - Alysa, this is food for thought. I love how you bring so many aspects of nature - the animal, the insect, and the human together, all living, all dying, none ever completely understood. Bravo.
What a wander through nature. As Jaime said, food for thought.
I love this, Alysa, although I am very sorry for you that you cannot watch a spider spin its web.
They are truly amazing creatures.
I get it though-- Husband shrieks, actually shrieks, around spiders.

You are so correct, that Nature will work its way anywhere-- cities are built on her, try to smother her, people poison her, but she will make her presence known and I believe, win in the end, unless we learn to live in peace with her.
You captured in words all the little things I feel too. Thank you. I have shared a tub with spiders and it is unnerving. They are sooo smart and aware. I try to be kind in this world but sometimes you have to smash something or someone.
I am so sorry for the deaths in Norway. The man who did it is still alive and maybe they can study him to learn more about his kind of mind. I just read that his stepmother said he seemed normal in every way growing up.
This is a beautiful, thoughtful post. You bear many talents. -R-
This was such a lovely contemplative piece. I share my home with spider roommates as well. I was going to say that your bathroom friend was probably a she. Boy spiders tend to be very small. The girls make many babies and when there are no natural predators, you end up with many new roommates the following season.

I could wish to pass away lying on a Parisian rue, perhaps near Sennelier, or inside, next to the rolls of French papier, sniffing them with my last breath.
This reads like looking at a fine tapestry. Many elements but a coherent whole. The worst of our nature is when we forget we are of nature.
Nice musings on nature. I felt as tho we were having a conversation and musing on life.
The more I am in nature
the more it is in me
Your words are inspiring
to look around at the nature
it is everywhere out here in the country
you would not like it here
spiders, spiders, everywhere
new webs full of the strangest looking bounty
skeletons of bugs I have never seen alive
weird looking bugs and other funky things
but the birds are beautiful here
finches and doves, red winged blackbirds
orioles and hummingbirds coming to my feeders
hawks and herons and egrets and wood ducks
making patterns in the sky
sitting on the dock
watching little fish scurry
and big fish jump
I love it here, so close to nature

rated with love
Touching and thought-provoking.
This was a delight: quiet and thoughtful with a heady impact that sneaked up on me just as I finished the last sentence. Beautiful.
You're right, people assumed immediately it was Islamist radicals that did this. We, and the rest of the world have spend untold billions to stop them, with futuristic machines and different things. But, one man, crazy or not, but motivated, can go massive damage for the totally opposite reason the radicals do it. I really think that this isn't the first or last time this is going to happen, and it won't be who you think it is. I hate spiders too!
You've captured a lot of thoughts and feelings in this post. I like what you say about living and dying in your city. Though it does sound beautiful, in a way, for an undomesticated bird, it is disturbing when you think of a human being or an unwanted dog or cat. That poor homeless man, the image is still with me.

If I recall, this isn't the first time you've written about the spider with moxie who lives in your bathroom tiles. Didn't you write about him/her back in October? I was still in Italy then and had seen one the size of a flattened tennis ball in my bathroom in the country. Yikes! It would be nice if we could communicated with them somehow. If we knew what we could expect. I feel the same as you about terrorists like Al Qaida.
On life and death. Nature and humanity. You really hit the high spots with this post.
Thank you so much for reading and commenting, everyone! These were some recent thoughts I just had to get out.

@greenheron – I thought the spider was male because it hasn’t made a web. Crap. I don’t want it setting up shop and starting a family! :-o

@elizabeth – You’re right – I did write about a spider back in December, but it was the HUGE one that lives near the shower in my in-laws’ bathroom in the countryside. Equally disturbing. Ugh.
Beautiful piece, Alysa! At my house, a daddy long legs has taken up residence in the corner at the top of the stairs. I don't like to kill spiders--they're so smart and also useful. Usually, I catch them and release them outside, but for some reason, I don't have the heart to upset this spider's delicate habitat. Besides, daddy long legs can't bite humans. The spider's been there for a while now and keeps busy catching lots of other bugs that do bite humans. I need to pick a nice, gender-neutral name for him/her.
@Sally - I don't like to kill spiders, either. I have a "bug gun", which is a sort of toy for (crazy?) children who like bugs (ahh!). It's like a very gentle vacuum that sucks up the bug/spider in question and puts them in a little clear hard plastic chamber where you can "observe" them (ah!) and then it unscrews so you can release them. This is what we do - but the one by the hole is tricky to get. I agree spiders are smart and useful. I wish I weren't so darn afraid of them. As for a name for yours, it's not gender-neutral, but when I try to calm down about a spider being around, I often try to call it "Charlotte", after the titular one from "Charlotte's Web." Similarly, when there's a bug I am having trouble dealing with, I call him "Gregor Samsa." They still freak me out, though. Bravo to you for not killing living things in your house.

@Dom - When I was in the desert last year, I traded my habitual flip-flops for hardcore Doc Martens. I hoped they'd weigh me down if one of those ginormous spiders you speak of, came for me. Luckily, we didn't see any. I am still relieved when I think back on it. No joke.
This is wonderful, right away my favorite stanza from Blake comes to mind:
To see a World in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.…

Your musings leave a similar effect on me, Alysa. Thank you.
I love you in this stream of consciousness mood. Such a free and easy meander. But I have a different take on the Islamist terrorists. They don't do the kind of out-in-the-open kind of massacre out of self-preservation. It is hard for me to see it as some kind of honorable boundary.

Most of the time if I encounter a spider outside, I'm calm enough to avoid it and let it get on with it's business. I can even acknowledge that most spiders are very benign creatures with a definite place in the ecosystems they inhabit. All of that goes for nothing whenever I spot a spider inside my apartment; at that point, they've crossed battle lines.

Regarding the horrible tragedy in Norway, the first I knew of it was reading about it in the paper after it was all over. But yes, it was a very Western style act of terrorism, picking off and shooting the victims in that way. What an ice cold bastard that man was. Suicide bombers are also horrifying, but the manner of the killing doesn't have that "first you, then you then you" quality about it while the intended victims try to get out of the way.

This was wonderful Alysa..
Two of my favorite things. I simply adore spiders,
always have,
with no fear.
Don't you dare hurt any spiders! If you do,
I'm gonna fix you good! Give your location to some creepy
crawly comrades of mine...expect an invasion...oh yeah,
they play dead...then BOO!!..gotcha...ha....
also they can be trained to drop on your hair, dear woman.
One phone call to my Paris connection and (s)he will
be paying you a visit as you wash those locks of yrs with your
fancy french sham-poo.....

"How do you know but every bird that cuts the airy way
(or spider who weaves a wondrous web)(sorry, william)
is an immense world of delight,
closed by your senses five?"

think on that one!!!

(one of my least favorite things is crazy murdering punks.
this was quite a, ah, fine
of a post!)
this is some wonderful musing
You painted some very vivid images here.
Very nice how you wove this all together.I think if terrorists thought it would be effective they would do what that guy did in Norway. Who knows- hard to understand, no matter what. All we can do is try, really.
Thank you so much for reading, guys. I am sorry I can't answer all the comments - I have a bunch of things happening in real life and am checking into OS intermittently today.
I do want to say:

- Lezlie: You wrote: "But I have a different take on the Islamist terrorists. They don't do the kind of out-in-the-open kind of massacre out of self-preservation. It is hard for me to see it as some kind of honorable boundary." I think you're probably right; I think they know that killing mass amounts of people with a bomb has a very different tone than gunning down individuals- especially teenagers. A lot of it probably has to do with the image they want to evoke, and/or the ability to cause more damage than one gunman alone - and your idea that it's self-preservation probably also plays a role. I guess when I wrote about "honor" in their case, it was more like a sense of "amour-propre"' - they want to get their message across, and sow fear and terror through the land, but they seem to know there are some lines you just don't cross, even then. I hope they never will cross those lines. The whole issue of what happened in Norway has really been bothering me for some reasons I'm gradually uncovering. I may do a post about some of that, to kind of work it out....

-James: No worries AT ALL - I thought you knew me better - I NEVER kill any animal in my home unless absolutely necessary. If I did kill them, that spider by my bathtub would already be gone. We just use our bug gun to harmlessly trap the offending insect/arachnid, then put it outside. I don't believe in killing things that mean you no harm. It's something I believe in very strongly. So, no need to make that call!
Entertaining and well written on the many aspects of nature. I didn't realize until talking with a friend who grew up in the city and moved to the country how many things "city people" may not realize. For instance we were talking about the stupidity of the people who set campfires that resulted in the huge fires in Arizona when the forest was so dry and the winds were blowing at 70 mph that day. She pointed out, that few city people realize the dangers and many are just "trying out" the camping experience. Interesting and alters one perspective a bit. Not saying it is any less frustrating or lacking in what I believe is common sense but who knows had my perspective been different as well.

As far as spiders they are the web weavers of life in the life of symbols. What a gift in your new home although you are afraid of spiders.

Its sad when you think about the homeless and their lives and their endings. Yet for birth/new to come a death is necessary. :)

May you walk in the beauty way!
The Cawing Raven
You are a complicated lady, loving nature yet fearing parts of it beyond reason and then feeling such compassion for the corpse of something you feared so much. I keep jars around the house for spiders and insects, even wasps. I catch them and put them back outdoors. You should know that most male spiders end up being eaten by their mate after mating, so most of the spiders we see out and about are indeed female. The one under your bathtub, I have learned, is called Charlotte. Be kind to her. She will keep other bugs, nasty bugs, out of your house.
So much food for thought on so many different levels. I have gotten used to the daddy long legs being a country girl but any furry spider gets squeals from me and yelling for my son. I do understand that. How strange to worry if a spider suffered....but maybe that is why I make my son take them outside to set them free.
I'm arachnophobic too, but -- and I never thought I'd say this -- it has gotten better with age. I mean, I can look at pictures of spiders and even see the beauty in small ones (the wee rolly-eyed ones). Nature has lots of pretty surprises for us if we're willing to look -- and feel (that spring in your cat's fur). Dark surprises too, but those are usually human.
Nature will prevail and you honor Her beautifully. Spiders will forgive you.
Such an interesting combination of thoughts and emotions. Very well done.
It was lovely to spend time here with you ... quiet in thoughts and reflection.

Ah, ladybug, ladybug ... such delicate and lovely little bugs. But I can't remember the last time I saw one. Gee, it has been a very long time.

I'm not keen on spiders either but Matt's suggestion of thinking of your spider as Charlotte made me smile.

When I heard of the massacre on the island in Norway, I was like you ... it didn't seem to fit with the ways of Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. It reminded me so much of a massacre on Australia's island state of Tasmania many years ago ... a lone gunman just coldly killing men, women and children. So very sad ... so very difficult to comprehend.

I've seen dead human bodies before, Alyssa ... family members ... and somewhat like those resting pigeons you describe ... as you draw closer , it's as if their soul, their spirit, has risen and flown away. To a better place I like to imagine ... one of everlasting beauty and peace.

Alyssa, thank you again for these quiet moments.
A gentle meditation. I need gentle today. Having grown up in Chicago, I could see the pigeons.
i suppose by now u have guessed my secret:
in a previous life, yes, i wuz a spider.
Alysa, you seem to have a perfect understanding of nature. I love the way you write about everyday natural occurances.

Thank you very much for this beautiful post.