Text: Interviewed by Béatrice Schaad

“By walking, I left my pain behind”

Sylvain Tesson had built his life around travelling until one day a fall confined him to a hospital bed. He then promised himself that he would walk across France if he recovered. The Parisian author offers an in-depth look at life in a hospital, learning about weakness and the road to recovery.

In 2014, you suffered 20 fractures after a fall and were confined to a bed at Pitié Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris for two months. You said it was almost “lights out” for you. Three years later, what do you remember from the hospital?

I don’t remember everything. I was there for two months, but I experienced partial amnesia for almost four weeks of that time. That being said, my memories of the hospital are quite positive. I was in much more pain once I got out. Compared to some, what happened to me wasn’t that serious. I had some broken bones, a few rib fragments in my heart and screws put into my skull. It was annoying, but it could have been worse. Plus, I was never in pain because of the medicines I was on. I think medicine’s ability to control pain and deliver anaesthesia is much more impressive than the invention of the steam engine, tumble dryer or any of this other modern stuff. Whenever we try to come up with a philosophical definition of modernity, we tend to talk about the growing role of digital technologies. But modernity, true modernity, is the ability to allow a certain number of patients to suffer less. As I was travelling through Jérôme Bosch’s famous tunnel, I realised that everyone is chasing after happiness. Yet, after facing down this kind of challenge, it becomes clear that physical pain is the absolute worst kind of pain there is. I can no longer close my eye because of my skull fracture. It’s extremely painful because the nerve is directly connected to the brain. I received a transplant made out of gold that lets me lower my eyelid. I have 18-carat gold on the inside of my eyelid because that’s the only metal the human body can tolerate. Now that I think about it, I actually smuggled gold into Switzerland yesterday on the sly!

You said you started to be in pain once you left the hospital?

After I left, I had a tough year. Especially since I decided to cross France on foot exactly one year after my fall, even though it was way too early. I hurt everywhere and had constant inflammation when I was walking. If I had fallen into a stream during my walk, I would have polluted it with chemicals. I was a walking pharmacy.

Did you need the challenge of walking across France?

I wanted to put an end to all of my aches and pains with the walk. It was something I really wanted, and needed, to do.

Is walking a good way to heal?

Physically speaking, it’s a good treatment method because you toughen up and regain muscle tone. There’s also a physiological and emotional benefit. What is walking? It’s a small, low-intensity victory of a few kilometres. Plus, it’s completely harmless. You’re not winning by hitting someone over the head with a club. You’re not stealing – you’re not taking anything, actually. You’re not passively going through life because you are free. You have no constraints on your time or your direction. For me, it was wonderful. It was how I recovered.

You also say you had to have an accident to realise what you had. Isn’t this a very moral perspective: no awareness without suffering?

Why aren’t we outside by the lake right now, eyes closed and simply enjoying the feel of the sun and the wind? Because we think we’ll live forever. Otherwise, we’d be elsewhere, taking in the sun, wind and water. We’re crazy, actually. When you can’t get out of your bed, you think: “How in the world could I have wasted this much time? I should have been enjoying these things every day.” Suffering is a wake-up call. Life is short, and you shouldn’t waste it. You shouldn’t waste what you have, especially when it comes to your friends and loved ones. We humans tends to denigrate what we have and want what we don’t have. Not to beat a dead horse, but the fact is that all of a sudden you have a big warning sign waved in front of you, telling you, “Don’t forget you have all these people around you. Don’t forget you have the sun and the wind. Don’t forget to live.”

Now that you’ve recovered, have you been able to retain this same awareness?

That’s the rub. Life outside of the hospital is all about following through with the sermons you gave yourself on your sickbed. I have to be worthy of the person I was on my sickbed, otherwise it’s a betrayal of myself after my fall. In any case, I’m trying to keep all the promises I made to myself back then. I enjoy my life more. My joy for things has become more intense.

You write that you shouldn’t be rebellious or resigned in response to the accident. Instead, you have to “invent a new approach to life, a new way to continue your journey in the company of another person, weakness.” Is this what you’ve done?

I haven’t become wise, as much as I’d like to. But my life has changed. The accident changed me on a biological level: I move more slowly, I lose my breath, my lungs aren’t in as good a shape, I can’t drink a drop of alcohol, and I’m epileptic, so I have to be careful about getting regular sleep. All of this means I can no longer have the same lifestyle I enjoyed before: the life of a bad boy roaming the streets of Paris by night. I’ve become wiser not because I’ve actually gained wisdom but because my body has forced me to do so for health reasons.

Isn’t accepting your own weakness a kind of wisdom?

No; you’re confusing a limitation with a choice. Wisdom means suddenly changing yourself. It results in a metamorphosis because you’ve come to a certain conclusion. I just have to come to terms with a new pace of life. I didn’t rebel because I’m the only person responsible for what happened to me. I fell off a roof when I was drunk. But I didn’t give up either. I changed my lifestyle. I accept help sometimes, and I accept being last in line, being second string, and bringing up the rear, something I always hated in the past. Before my accident, I was a bit wild. That’s what I call acceptance. I have a lot of pain that I’ve learned to live with.

Alphonse Daudet named his pain. He called it “Doulou”. The way Daudet contracted his disease, syphilis, was pleasant, and he kept it at arm’s length by naming it like you would an object.

Personally, I believe in the power of forgetting. For example, this is the first time in three years that I’ve talked about it. I hate the idea of constantly thinking about yourself. It’s terrible to obsess over, publicise and explain your disease. It prolongs the pain. Hence why I wanted to walk. It wasn’t the best idea to leave just one year after my accident and sleep on a mat on the ground outside. It was idiotic, but it also saved me. By walking, I left my pain behind.

Would you describe yourself as being resilient?

What is resilience? That word is everywhere. I never use it. I find it a bit irritating, actually, because to me it sounds like digital, international or management jargon. Big, flashy words that try to sum up entire concepts. Nowadays, you sprain your ankle, trap your finger or have a leg amputated, and people talk to you about resilience. It’s used in reference to problems big and small, which dilutes its meaning.

Do you prefer the word “recovery”? What are the signs of this term? When do you know that you’re getting better?

I think one sign is pretty obvious. It’s when the world no longer means your hospital bed. For patients, the world starts at their pillow and ends at their feet. And then, suddenly, you become aware of suffering that isn’t your own. That can be a sign of recovery. In my case, I remember it was at the height of the terrible cruelty of the radical Muslims from the Islamic State. The courage of the people who were standing up to them was incredible. So many of them were dying because the West had abandoned them and they were caught up in the underhanded dealings of the Turkish government. It was terrible. Once you realise there are different degrees of pain, and that yours is not the worst, that’s a sign that you’re on the way to recovery.

Is healing an accumulation of many signs?

I was lucky to have another sign of my recovery that was less internal, less striking and less solemn than the realisation that other people experience pain. That sign was reading. I love books. I’m an avid reader, and books really helped me when I was in hospital. I never stopped reading. I took pleasure in reading, but my brain could still only enjoy it in the moment. It was an organic, simple kind of pleasure. It was like an anemone had suddenly learned how to read. I was happy just floating along, filtering plankton. Nothing stuck, however. Then, suddenly, my brain started to remember.

You write that books, just like walking, helped you “stay standing”?

Of course, it’s amazing when you start to once again appreciate the beauty of language, music, travel,’s great. But at the same time – sorry, this is going to sound harsh – I think it’s absolutely terrible that hospital rooms have TVs. Medically, it’s crazy. I was in a two-person room with another guy. He wanted to watch TV and I didn’t. In France, though, the person who wants to watch TV gets to watch it. So, I had to put up with the television, but he never had to deal with silence. Are you familiar with Nabilla? I had to put up with her for two days because she caused some mischief somewhere. I thought to myself, “This is terrible. I’ve seen the darkness. And now, here I am, starting to see the light of day once again, but I have to keep earplugs shoved in as far as they will go...all because of Nabilla.”

You wrote about a particular maxim: you should always ask a situation’s permission before turning it in your favour.

I like playing with words. You’ve hit a roadblock. Now, plough through it with a bulldozer. It’s true, I took control. But I didn’t ask permission. ⁄



“Suffering is a wake-up call. Life is short, and you shouldn’t waste it.”

Sylvain Tesson


Sylvain Tesson is a French travel writer born in Paris in 1972. He was awarded the Prix Goncourt for Une vie à coucher dehors and the Prix Médicis for Consolations of the Forests. He is the author of enchanting works such as Berezina and Sur les chemins noirs, the story of his tour of rural France one year after a serious accident.