I cracked my kneecap: a fairly common injury for an active middle-aged person, the young doctor told me with a smile. “You have two options,” he continued. “You can either go to the gym and strengthen your upper legs or have an operation.”
The next day, clutching my doctor’s certificate, I shuffled past the massive Roman gate that marks the confines of the centro storico of Verona and stepped gingerly on to the pink marble sidewalk of Corso Cavour. I slumped against the wall of a grand modern building (circa. 1700s – that is modern for Verona) and estimated the distance to the palestra (gym). It was only the goal of having Beyoncé-like thighs by the end of the year that kept me putting one foot in front of the other during that long five-block exercise in pain.
Gyms are a rather new phenomenon in Italy and they seem to be based largely on images gleaned from music videos. Positive slogans in English – “A strong mind starts with a fit body” and “Energy – the more you give the more you get” – are painted on the walls in letters a foot high.
Eight large televisions tuned to the major national channels and, inexplicably one tuned to German MTV, hang from the ceiling in front of a mirrored wall. Facing the televisions are rows of ciclettes (stationary bikes) and tapetti (tread mills, literally carpets).
It is thanks to these TVs and my doctor’s advice to keep on pedalling that my German vocabulary has quadrupled since starting at the gym. From being able to point and exclaim “Mein Hund!” (my dog) and “Mach schnell” (hurry up), I now know keen phrases gleaned from MTV reality game shows: “Machen” (Made), “die gekickten” (those who have been kicked out) and “nächst!” from the dating show Next und the wonderful word “gepimpt”, as in “you have officially been gepimpt” from the car make-over show Pimp My Ride.
The employees of the gym have their job designation printed in English on the backs of their tasteful black polo shirts: “Staff” or “Personal Trainer”. This is very helpful as Italian Personal Trainers are not quite like those in the United Kingdom or the United States. In those countries a Personal Trainer is a muscular young person charged with nipping at the heels of the client, exalting him or her to “go for the burn” and “do ten more flexes” and “fifteen more ab curls!”. They are expected to be smiling dictators who will keep the client on track. In Italy Personal Trainers tend, on the whole, to be weedier. This does not interfere with their job as here their role is really that of a trained listener rather than exercise dominator/dominatrix. They drape themselves over a ciclette, their dark, sensitive eyes locked on those of the client and nod sagely and murmur in agreement while their sweat-suited or spandex-clad charge complains about the children, the weather, the state of the nation. The exerciser’s pedalling or pushing or pulling grows slower as their monologue becomes more complicated.
At the gym the Italian fascination for cleaning products and fear of germs comes into play once again. (A recent study conducted by Proctor and Gamble and published in the Wall Street Journal not only confirms that Italians purchase more cleaning products per capita than any other Europeans, it also states that the average Italian spends twenty-one hours a week cleaning as compared to Americans who spend around five hours a week at the same thankless task.). There are ladies at my palestra who, in addition to the little bottle of designer water and the matching wrist and headbands, bring a large towel, a spray bottle of disinfectant and a small towel for rubbing down surfaces.
As I was doing my fifteen minutes on the exercise bike I watched as one of the ladies unpacked her cleaning supplies and prepared her bike for mounting. She scrubbed the handlebars, the pedals, the seat, the dials, the post the seat is attached to. (Have you ever seen anyone touch that bar? No, neither had I until I spotted the Disinfectant Ladies.) She cleaned with the maniacal diligence of a serial killer, who has studied every episode of CSI. After she was finished she carefully spread a clean towel on the seat before climbing aboard for her obligatory warm-up ride.
Another thing that sets an Italian gym apart is the perks your membership offers. In New York and London gyms sometimes make reciprocal deals for discounts at health food cafes or leotard shops. Here your gym membership card entitles you to a discount price on Happy Hour cocktails (and I do not mean a carrot juice smoothie) and the pleasure of noshing at the ample buffet at a local bar.
Should you wish to sign up at my gym you will have no trouble finding it. There are always four or five personal trainers and clients clustered around the entrance enjoying a pre- or post-sweat cigarette.
In the meantime, I continue to pedal on, my intentions still firmer than my thighs.