jeudi, février 16, 2006

Workouts in Paris

A gym in Paris--what would that be like? We assumed it would be expensive, and came to the city without any leads on where to look, or what to expect.

After a few uncertain inquiries into possible health clubs (mainly pricey Yoga studios, all a bit too far away to be “convenient”), we were one day taking a side street shortcut between the Rue des Ecoles and the Boulevard St. Germain, and were fascinated by the sudden sight of a gym. “Jean de Beauvais” the sign said out front, looking like the insignia for a denim jeans manufacturer, but inside the tall windows we could clearly see a spectacular gym, with aerobics class stepping and swinging in French. The club, it seemed, was named for the tiny rue on which it lived.

We’d long wondered whether French people, or at least Parisians, worked out, and if so, where? Because if they did workout, we needed to join them. With the constant caloric assault of Kir’s, pain aux amandes and so many bread-y things, we knew we’d be lost without a return to regular (if half-hearted) exercise. All around us French people went about their business looking, on average, supremely svelte, and untroubled by the amount of carbs they were daily consuming.

“How do they manage this?” many people have wondered. You’re probably aware of at least one book on the subject, “The French Woman’s Diet,” or “The French Aren’t Fat,” or something. Wine drinking figures into the popular diagnosis, so does walking and self control, I think. And after living here for a while, I could see that. Just looking at some of these strictured, deadly earnest female faces, and their convincingly slender silhouettes, it was obvious their shape was the product of nasty discipline, less an individual than a cultural creation. I say cultural because there seems to be an accepted template/mold/look many Parisian women fit; seen from behind, gals of 22 and women of 58 are indistinguishable, wearing (right now, in the cold) the same 3/4 length winter coat in flattering A-line cut, the same fine denim fashion jeans with the narrow cut and flaring boot hem (their derriere discreetly hid), the same high heels--and the same mid-length hair, often wildly uncombed and even unwashed (all this hype about the finicky coiffure finishing of the average Parisienne is bosh). This defines the uniform for the majority of women we see here, their code of appearance.

Do they work out? We weren’t sure. Most have ambiguous, old-fashioned frames, the sort you’d see on Jean Harlow or Irene Dunne, bodies that were proudly displayed and admired in the days before six-pack abs and Bowflex. Un-toned, with contours that haphazardly, only faintly, briefly comply with our contemporary understanding of how an arm should look, which dictates recognizable muscle groups and no hint of lassitude. There are the sinewy among the population here, a minority among the women, but we believe few have come to this appearance by way of Nautilus machines or Stairmasters. At least not in the way an American woman would, with her proud display of veiny biceps and incisively inserted lateral delts.

No, these French women seem to come by their appearance in a charmingly old fashioned way: they seem to will it. Why the thin look? It is elegant, yes, but it seems deeply appropriate over here, with the emphasis on the mind, and where complexity is celebrated, in food especially, which means very rich dishes that can be taken only in measured doses; but this complexity extends to a physical preference for the brain over the body, too. You see someone, a pretty young girl, for instance, walking down the street, and she is eating a plain baguette. If you want to keep reading or keep looking at a painting, or otherwise don’t have the time or inclination to sit down for a proper meal, and by proper I mean aesthetically satisfying, then you just skip it, and satisfy yourself with a baguette, or coffee and pastry later on, after your intellectual curiosity is sated. Paris is emphatically not an on-the-go, American style hustle-ocracy, where your go-go results directly in your get-get: but neither is it as acquisitive, with as much routine gluttony. Haven’t I written how our old apartment building, with a dozen apartments to service, offered us one regular sized trash can to share among us, with one slightly smaller recycling can, and how these cans were rarely even full on trash day (admittedly, twice a week)? Everything’s more measured here, and the energy that is spent on work and the physical in the ‘States is here expended on flights of inspiration and pursuit as often as not having to do with some intellectual or emotional concern that is ultimately a private matter, whether it be meeting a friend for coffee, reading a book, or getting laid. This is most pleasingly manifested in the low-profile of cell phones in Paris, where they are less often seen or heard than in the U.S or Italy or the U.K.; and when used in public, the user’s voice is typically hushed. Cell service is continuous in the tunnels of the Metro system, but rare is the audible ring, or obvious phone-talker. This helps in making it the most peaceful public transport system in the world.

The gym Jean de Beauvais is in an 18th Century looking building, with stone walls and Romanesque vaults in the downstairs, basement level; most of the doorways are low and narrow, and there are surprisingly tight, winding staircases, with all sorts of half-steps up into little hidden rooms. The men’s lockers are in a compact pair of rooms, split into two stories, with one shower and a steam room in the lowest level, and three more showers and a sauna in the upper chamber. No toilettes. The girl’s locker room is similarly split-level, with conditions that sound even more compressed than the men’s. But all the architecture looks recently refurbished, and the fixtures look very new, and things seem clean, even if the occasional dust-bunny drifts across the locker room’s travertine floor while you’re undressing.

The weight room itself is a very airy, high-ceiling’ed place, with chiseled stone walls and intricate, highly polished dark-wood beams above, supported by authentically antique wooden pillars. These pillars are carved in a doric profile, but time has left them each individually afflicted by splits, which carpenters years ago sought to remedy through a series of beefy, black iron bands and anchors. The workout equipment is arranged between this architecture. It’s all quite spectacular, and impossible to imagine in America.

They also have a similarly lavish room for aerobic-type exercise classes. It all looks so good, you can’t wait to workout there, at least we couldn’t, and after the tour, we gladly signed up. 1,400 Euros for two people for 6 months of unlimited use.