Sunday, February 20

the american cult of exercise

Reproduced in surely copyright-breaking length, here is my favorite part from Paris to the Moon, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik’s collection of essays on life in the French capital. After disappointment at a French gym where everyone in the pool, rather than swimming, is at the side eating sandwiches. He hears of a local New York-style gym and rushes to join:

It was going to bring the rigorous, uncompromising spirit of the New York health club to Paris: its toughness, its regimental quality.... they had organized a special "high-intensity" program in which... you could make an inexorable New York-style commitment to your physique and visit the gym as often as once a week.

It was obvious that the once-a-week deal was the winner—the closer, in Mamet language, and that though she had a million arguments ready for people who thought that when it came to forme, once a week might be going overboard, she had nothing at all ready for people who though once week might not be forme enough. We asked her if could possibly come more often than that, and she cautiously asked us what we meant by "often." Well, three, perhaps four times a week, we said. It was not unknown, we added quickly, apologetically, for New Yorkers to visit a gym on an impulse, almost daily. Some New Yorkers, for that matter, arranged to go their health club every morning before work. She echoed this cautiously too: They rise from their beds and exercise vigorously before breakfast? Yes, we said weakly. That must be a wearing regimen, she commented politely.

Then he goes through several weeks of trying to actually exercise, but not being able to. First the gym isn't ready yet. Then they have an opening party where everyone eats crepes instead of exercises. Then he returns again to exercise but is stopped: first he must talk to a professeur about his body, then later be trained on how to use the equipment.

While all this was going on, I tried to tell Parisians about it, and I could see that they couldn't see what, exactly, was strange. The absence of the whole rhetoric and cult of sports and exercise is the single greatest difference between daily life in France and daily life in America. It's true that French women's magazines are as deeply preoccupied with body image as American ones. But they are confident that all problems can be solved by lotions.

And yet, which country has greater obesity?

Among men, an enthusiasm for sport simply segregates you in a separate universe: You are a sportsman or you are not. The idea of sports as a lingua franca meant to pick up the slack in male conversations is completely alien here.... What the French do to bridge the uneasy competitive silences that seem to be the price of a Y chromosome is talk about government and particularly about the incompetence of government ministers; which minister has outdone the others in self-important pomposity is viewed as a competitive event. Though the subject is different, the tone is almost exactly the same as that of American sports talk....

If talking about the bureaucracy takes the place of talking about sports, getting involved with the bureaucracy takes the place of exercise. Every French man an woman is engaged in a constant entanglement with one ministry or another, and I have come to realize that these entanglements are what take the place of going to a gym where people actually work out. Three or four days a week you're given something to do that is time-consuming, takes you out of yourself, is mildly painful, forces you into close proximity with strangers, and ends, usually, with a surprising rush of exhilaration: "Hey, I did it." Every French minister, like a Nautilus machine, thoughtfully designed to provide maximum possible resistance to your efforts, only to give way just at the moment of total mental failure. Parisians emerge from the government buildings on the Île de la Cité feeling just the way New Yorkers do after a good workout: aching and exhausted but on top of the world.

Somehow I doubt that dealing with bureaucracy is often satisfying in this way. It wasn’t for me in trying to get my visa to come to the UK. But still it's funny to think that it could ever be. Maybe if I’d had this in mind while I was working on my visa it wouldn’t have been so harrowing.


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