One of the things I tried to do to like Italy more when I first moved here, was go to the gym. It’s no secret that after my Florence move, I had the impression of having arrived in my own personal version of hell: insane bureaucracy, people dragging their feet to do anything, crazy driving, inefficiency at every turn, I took everything personally and I really didn’t like what I saw.
So I decided to start going to a gym, I have always gone to the gym and the country with my favourite gyms is England by far! The gyms there are amazing, the last one I was a member at had activities for me and my son happening at the same time, so I could work out in peace while he also did something physical, I loved that health centre. France was a slightly different story, the gyms in Paris itself were quite small and I only started going to one when I went to live in a banlieu. I loved that gym and went every day, between that and running in a forest near my house, I was the fittest I’d ever been.
Fast forward to my gym in Italy, I’m not naming names, suffice to say, I went to a very nice and expensive gym in Florence, but not in the centre. The fact that it was so expensive bothered me quite a bit, I felt it was over the top, especially comparing to the paradise I had in the UK some years previously for less than half the price, but the facilities were very good, and I wanted to give it a go. Well, it was an experience. I’m no longer at any gym, and just run to keep fit, it’s very effective and I really love it. However in the time I was at the gym, I must say I learned to understand Italians in a way I never thought possible, it gave me a very good insight into how they function and made me realise (prepare for this one) that they were not collectively doing anything to annoy me on purpose, life in Italy was the way it was and I could like or lump it.
How can going to the gym give me so many insights into the Italian culture, or even help me adapt to life in Florence? Well, the gym was the first place where I was really interacting with any Italians, remember I came here as the spouse of someone who had a job in Florence and my kids were in an international school, I only interacted with Italians at the supermarket, and that was no fun at all. The gym however was a place where not only did I have to interact, but I also watched their interaction amongst themselves. It was eye opening. By far the craziest thing for me was the behaviour in the changing rooms. Like I said, I’m not a prude, but neither do I enjoy being naked in a room full of people (I know, right?), but apparently Italians do. So people arrive in the changing room carrying at times actual suitcases, seriously, not just a changing bag, but a small suitcase with everything they need to get changed into their gym clothes, then shower (including a plush towel), then get dried, changed, made up and leave, pretty much in that order. But interestingly, the space between taking off your work clothes and putting on your gym clothes is really long and involves sitting down and having a full conversation with the friend who comes to the gym with you. Also the getting changed part of the process involves a lot of bending over, which well, you can imagine. So I looked like an alien arriving and leaving in my gym clothes, my shower at home is wonderful and I love my own bathroom. Of course not everyone goes home from the gym, otherwise why would they have showers, but it kind of felt like no Italian had ever gone straight home from the gym, or to the gym, because they all got changed twice in one session. I could count on one hand the amount of people who just took off a jacket and were ready on arriving, the majority of them had to get changed, almost as if they were surprised by the fact they had made it to the gym and had to now put on their workout clothes. After a workout, the strangeness in the changing rooms was much worse, because this time it involved a shower and inevitably drying the hair. Have you ever, in your whole life in Italy seen an Italian in the street with wet hair? No you have not, and you will not, not now, not today, not ever. Italians believe very firmly that this can make them sick. Wet hair makes you ill, if you are out in the streets and your hair is wet, you will catch your death. So they all dry their hair after washing it, including the men, and children. But did you know that you can, and apparently should, dry your hair fully naked in front of the mirror, and use the hair dryer down there, yes, down there also. Not for a long time, but they give it a blast. I swear after seeing this I never used a hairdryer in a gym again.
This is only the changing rooms, as far as classes go, it was also a bit different to what I was used to. Italians take themselves very seriously sometimes, even more than the French, if you can believe that… and some of the gym instructors are very serious about their job. I went to a class not long ago (a good friend of mine lets me use his membership when he’s on holiday, you can do this in certain gyms) and the instructor was very unforgiving of anyone who couldn’t do the moves in her class. Saying gems like « do you not know where your shoulders are? » or « look at me, does it look anything like what you’re doing? », thankfully she didn’t say this to me, I would have either shouted and left, or cried and left, depending on my mood on the day. I actually looked at the ceiling at one point to see if it was hidden camera show, but apparently this was the normal way she talks to her class. Afterwards in the changing rooms, I overheard two ladies who were in this class, say how great the teacher was, as she’s the only one who takes the time to really correct us, well, sure, but come on!
One thing that was very positive at the gym here, was that as a woman, I was really left alone and unbothered by any type of advances by the guys. It’s almost like in the gym you don’t exist and they show little if no interest in the girls working out around them. This was truly refreshing. The facilities were also amazing, but Italians use the gym for so much more than working out. There is a whole ritual involving sunbathing in the summer, there is the cafe, which serves pretty delicious food and healthy drinks. As I observed this mini Italian reality, a tiny slice of Italian life, it slowly but surely made me realise that Italians are truly free, they do their thing and are not really worrying too much about what others are thinking. They participate fully and engage with all the activities, and live the little moments in a way we can all learn from. This kind of demystified my outlook on my Italian life, and allowed me to see it for what it was, just people going about their days, not minding others and being generally pretty nice. I was able to embrace my move to Italy a lot more easily once I allowed myself to be open and accept the differences, instead of trying to resist the changes. It was a good lesson and even now that I’m no longer at the gym, when I’m driving and it feels like people around me got their licenses from a garage sale, I remember what they’re like at the gym and see that they mean no harm, they’re just oblivious to the fact that they can, sometimes, only slightly, really irritate me…
Some blogs are written to inform, full of accurate and sometimes even scientific facts, others are for entertainment purposes and although truthful, reflect only the writer’s personal opinion and experience, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Today’s is the latter type.