Chatting at the Gym


People talk to each other at gyms in Paris. In New York, people keep to themselves. Despite a reputation for being open, New Yorkers are less likely than are Parisians to engage in chitchat while working out.

The gym I frequent most, near Park Monceau in the 17th arrondissement, is, like most Parisian gyms, forced into a space that was built for something else. This one was an atelier for Gustave Eiffel. No vestiges of his work on his tower remain, of course. The construction of the gym erased the history of the atelier and kept the building where it was housed. And, like most gyms in Paris, everything is squeezed in.

Space is at a premium here. (The stairways, often added later to accommodate the locker rooms, are treacherous: more than one French friend has twisted a knee or ankle in navigating them.)

What might have provided room for inspiration as well as for the building of maquettes and pieces of Eiffel’s famous works now holds, just barely, free weights, machines and locker rooms. It’s all a bit ad hoc and definitely not, in that awful builder’s term, “purpose-built.” But that’s part of the charm (although charm isn’t a word you’d use either to describe the gyms of Paris). Perhaps that proximity leads to conversation. Because even in the locker room people chat. They talk in the weight room. They converse in the cardio room. They even yammer on during spinning classes. They talk and talk. And why not?

As an American in Paris, and an American working out in a Parisian gym, I generally keep to myself, even though I’m now a regular there, and I know the other regulars enough to say hello and even idle away a moment or two exchanging nothings about the weather while we wait on the sidewalk on the Rue de Chazelles for the gym’s doors to be unlocked at 7:30 a.m. sharp, weekdays (8 a.m. Saturdays). Inside, I will say a word or two to be friendly, but even though I’m now known (and known as an American who speaks French), I’m pretty quiet. That’s my nature at my New York gym (where people only nod hello and rarely speak). And that’s my American nature in Paris: friendly but distant (almost like a Parisian, actually, in day-to-day life).

Many of the gym members in Paris jabber on with each other as they go through the motions of lifting weights or doing cardio. I find this more impressive than the numbers of people who actually show up each day to work out (belying the cliché of non-exercising French). But nothing can keep a French person from speaking about no matter what, no matter where, no matter when. Like people everywhere, what’s being said isn’t of that much importance (and like everywhere else, it usually involves sports or work). The point is to keep that talk muscle in shape as you work out your glutes.

What I do miss in Paris gyms are the amenities you take for granted in New York. Things like soap in the showers. And towels. And restrooms in the locker room (people have to traipse up the narrow winding stairs to use the facilities, and often you just squeeze by someone heading up in towels and flip-flops as you descend in coat and sneakers).

At my gym in Paris you get one towel per visit (unless you pay another €100 per year for the privilege of getting another). So, thrifty Parisians are forced to use the same towel for workouts as for drying themselves after a shower. (I find this a bit unsanitary. I bring my own workout towel.)

You bring your own soap and shampoo, too. Nothing is free in Parisian gyms (except the secondhand smoke of the fitness trainers who, to my amazement, puff away on the sidewalk in between workout sessions with their clients).

I also miss the luxury of water. The showers in the gym are on timers: you press a button to receive about 5 to 10 seconds of warm water (it’s rarely hot, and often cold), then push again, and again, and again to simulate what would be a normal shower anywhere else. I can understand the concept: water is a precious resource. Still. Cleanliness is a virtue too, isn’t it?

I’m used to this all now, of course, though when I return to New York I revel in the abundance of towels, the free-flowing water, the toiletries and the space (even in Manhattan). But what strikes me in New York is the relative silence. I may not be much of a chatterbox in my French gym, but I like that the people around me are indulging in that very French exercise of voicing their opinions, and not even a series of abdominal crunches can stop them from sharing what’s on their minds.

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