On Gyms and Gym-Going in the German Capital

I’ve been in Paris for the past week and a half, and staying in a hotel with my mother. This means I have access to a television, and CNN has been running on a practically 24-hour loop of Berlin Wall craziness. I’m actually thrilled to get away from it, and from news coverage in general—there’s something so inherently uncomfortable, almost repulsive, about hearing the robotic voice of a newscaster trying to breathe life into a place and a history that has come to mean so much to you. At some point among the interviews, the features, and the “Live from the Brandenburg Gate, 20 Years After the Fall!” specials, I realized that I’ve actually been devoting way too much time on this blog to the Wall and Berlin history as well. This coming Monday, Nov 9, 2009, is actually the 20-year anniversary of the Mauerfall (the reason why everyone on CNN cares so much), and I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about then. But instead, this week, as I take shelter in my Paris hotel from a passing rain storm, let me switch gears for a moment, and write about another subject that is near and dear to my heart; one which I have been meaning to write about for some time now: going to the gym in Berlin.

I’ve been a somewhat religious gym-goer for the past four years or so, but exercising while traveling was rarely something I thought about, simply because it seemed impossible to find a gym, or not even worthwhile to bring along a pair of sneakers and a sweatshirt and zip out for a run in the morning. Even when I first came to Berlin, I didn’t bother trying to find one. Every gym wanted you to commit to a yearlong membership, I thought I would only be there for two months. When I came back just before New Year’s and it became apparent that I would be staying for quite a bit longer, I signed up for a membership with McFit, the chain of super-cheap gyms frequented by everyone on a budget, which basically means everyone in Berlin. It costs 20 Euro a month where my gym in New York was $80 at a discounted rate. It is huge and bright and airy, located in a converted factory space right above Alexanderplatz, and going there several days a week for ten months now has given me some insight into the way Germans exercise.

In America, going to the gym is very simple. There really is only one true rule to follow: get in, get out, and speak to no one. Going to my New York Sports Club on 94th and Broadway was a lot like riding the subway: as long as you stared straight ahead with this bored, self-important expression on your face, no one would bother you. That included, of course, the officious trainers, who would come around to correct your position on weight machines if they saw you with your shoulders just half a centimeter too high, or your fingers gripping the handles the wrong way. Everything about the gym experience was about avoiding being talked to: a trainer at first correcting your position might very easily end by trying to get you to sign up for a package of ten very intense and intensely-expensive private sessions. Another gym-goer meeting your eye might lead to you getting hit on when you look your absolute worst, or lamenting the fact that you look your absolute worst when you really just want to hit on somebody. In Berlin, going to the gym is very much a social experience. I have seen men working out together, some of whom are obviously gay and some not so obviously so. I have seen a man and a woman, probably a couple, working out next to each other, and girl friends giggling side by side on stairmasters. Instead of always having headphones firmly clapped to their ears, many people just exercise without them (and in truth, the music at McFit is often so loud that the headphones make no difference). I sometimes see people spotting their friends and going over to say hi. One of them will lean on the front of the exercise machine while the other one continues to clock normal speed. The last thing I want to do when I’m exercising is talk to anyone, and on the rare occasions when I’ve had a running partner, I’ve warned them that we would both be wearing headphones, each of us acting as if the other weren’t there.

I’ve been chatted up at the gym. It was only once, and I think she was a lesbian, meaning that the conversation would fall into the “hitting on people” category mentioned above. Still, it was a real conversation, which was pleasant and friendly and even interesting enough, except for the fact that it went on a lot longer than I would have liked. The girl next to me on the stretching mats had noticed me doing what was apparently an impressive exercise, and wanted to learn how to do it herself. After she asked me and I gave her a vague explanation, we continued to chat, mostly in German but also a bit in English. She was from South America, I was from North America, and we talked for what must have been fifteen minutes about our respective experiences coming to Berlin. When it was over, I put my headphones back on, went on with what I was doing, and a few minutes later, left.

I also find the German obsession with cleanliness (and it’s inverse, the terrible fear of sweat—which I guess in German would probably be something like Schwitzenangst) somewhat endearing. At the gym in New York, you would see both men and women positively soaking as they went through their third round on the treadmill—in Berlin, they barely break a sweat. Still, though, gym-goers seem to be uncommonly careful about what they are touching, afraid, I suppose, to get their non-sweat all over the machines, thereby disgusting the next person to use them and breaking some kind of unspoken gym-going rule. When at all possible, Berliners make sure there is a towel in between the machine, the mat, or the weight, and any part of their body that might touch it. When they sit in one of those hip-abduction machines, they have a towel neatly folded and placed against their backs. When they use one of those frames to do crunches on the mat, that same neatly folded towel shelters their head from whatever terrible germs are imbedded in the head pad. What’s more, even Berliners, who are environmentally conscious to a near-obsessive level on most counts, seem not to care that they are consuming yards and yards of paper towels by wiping off every square inch of the elliptical or the stairmaster after they’ve used it. Of course, these are all things I now do too. But that’s only because I fear that if I didn’t, I might be met with more indignation than if I walked across the street on red in front of a mother with small children.

But perhaps the most bizarre of all strange Berlin gym-going habits is the tendency of Berliners to walk right up to the door of the gym holding a cigarette, take one last drag, and then throw it away. Now, I’ve had friends before who were smokers and avid runners. I’ve even had friends who smoked while they were running. The absurdity of it was not lost on me, but the sheer logistics were. Perhaps it’s because I have asthma, which is something that held me back a lot more as a child than it does now, and which can be absolutely debilitating in some people, but I just don’t get how a person can subject his or her body to the normal strains of working out on a regular basis while also inhaling a variety of toxins that make it all the more difficult for adequate oxygen to be transported to the lungs. Does it hurt when your heart starts to beat faster, or is it an odd kind of rush, like the one you get at the apex of pain during a workout, when you feel that you absolutely cannot go on, at the same time knowing that if you push through, your body will become numb and tingly all over and you will achieve a kind of workout nirvana? The first time I saw people smoking on the steps of McFit, I wondered if they were working out to counteract the effects of the cigarettes. But now I wonder: are they somehow missing the point or am I?