French Gymnastics

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A day or so after I arrived in Paris, I joined the Club Med Gym on Avenue du General Leclerc, between the metro stops of Denfert-Rochereau and Mouton-Duvernet. It’s located at the rear of an uninviting retail space, between a shop that sells corsets – its name is actually Les Corsets de Paris – and a women’s shoe boutique. The regulars gather before the locked doors waiting for “la salle de sport” to open at 8 a.m.

It was there that I made my first cultural gaffe.

After paying for my membership and signing the unnecessary reams of forms that come with any sort of registration here, I worked out with the towel I was handed. About 45 minutes later I tossed the dusty cloth into the bin and asked if I could have another to use after showering.

“What?” the woman at the welcome desk demanded, outraged. “You get only one towel!”

She said more than that, or at least she seemed to, the flood of words pouring out from her as if she’d been a just-punctured barrel of invective. She spoke so quickly, so heatedly and so disdainfully that I was only able to hear the word “serviette,” or towel. (I was far from the point where I could identify individual words, let alone sentences. So all I heard was a rapid buzz of vitriol directed at me.) This was my first confrontation with that particular French way of doing things in a particular French way. It wasn’t the towel that was the issue: it was the rule surrounding the dispensing of the towel that was important. A crucial difference.

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The corset shop next to the entryway to the Club Med Gym (now CMG), on the Avenue du General Leclerc.

She repeated “une” a few angry times, glancing at the pile of well-worn clean towels beside her, then casting a scornful glare at my uncomprehending face until I finally understood some of what she was getting at. This was my second day in Paris, and I hated being railed at for a regulation I’d been too obtuse or ignorant to become aware of. I’d also coughed up what I considered a good chunk of money for the privilege of working out in a windowless basement gym and had assumed that what worked in New York would also be the norm in Paris. I was disabused of my assumptions quickly. But figuring that I would be going to this particular gym on a regular basis for a while, I suffered my humiliation.

I couldn’t respond to her in kind, of course. Who can, whose French is virtually nonexistent? But I gave her what I hoped was the French equivalent of a sheepish smile and managed to eke out something that approximated, “I didn’t know.” She narrowed her contemptuous eyes at me and then, with reluctance, provided me a thin excuse for a towel, as if even that rag were better than a philistine like me deserved.

So while gyms are gyms everywhere – I found in Paris the same sort of regulars racing to get to their usual machines or treadmills before the others, the same guys using the same lockers day after day – gyms here were different from what I knew (and much more popular than I’d been led to believe – the French do exercise). Club Med (since rebranded CMG) has quite a few branches in Paris, more than any other, and it was, and is, the only option in this neighborhood. So I had little choice. It was expensive yet cheap.

You’re still given one towel on entering, but only if you’ve paid for the membership that includes that towel, of varying quality – sometimes they’re plush, sometimes they’re almost translucent from use. (The policy has since been amended so that if you want to pay a couple of hundred euros more per year, you get to have as many towels – of still debatable quality – as you want.)

And you’re expected to use a towel on the machines and during workouts – on the mats where you do sit-ups for example. Many people later use the same towel that they’ve dragged around the workout areas to dry themselves after a shower. Or perhaps I should say “shower.”

What surprised me most was that the showers are timed. You get only one temperature: hot or, sometimes, lukewarm, water. You press the button and you get 10 seconds of the stuff. Then press again and again. It’s as if part of the recommended workout regimen is having your fingers do pushups. You certainly couldn’t linger under the hit-and-miss force of the water. In and out, and don’t forget to return that damp towel to the front desk before you leave.

You also have to bring your own soap and shampoo. This is not unusual in gyms elsewhere – some of the cheaper ones in the U.S. are stingy with the soap, too. But I was unprepared my first day, so rinsed off and headed home for a more thorough cleaning.

I’ve since adapted. I’ve bought cheap towels with which to work out, so I can dry myself off with the precious “one towel, one person” that’s dispensed to me. But only after indulging in 10 to 15 button-pushes’ worth of tepid water. And I never ask for another towel. I’d rather air dry than repeat that first mortification.

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