Saturday, December 6, 2008

Working it Out

My relentless 3 month search to find something that remotely resembles a health club had become a source of frustration and culture shock that I was reluctant to accept. I almost resigned myself to becoming a prosciutto. But after trying every health club in Florence, I’ve finally had to make some big-time adjustments.

I’m finally accepting the fact that a health club is as un-Italian as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The Italian health club is a “palestra”…this is a room filled with slick, shiny, brand new equipment that doesn’t work and machines that are designed for some species other than the human being. These machines force your joints into dangerously contorted angles that can inflict more damage on ligaments and muscles than good. How is it possible that a country capable of producing the genius of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi can’t produce an ergonomically designed machine? I believe…it’s not that they can’t…it’s that they don’t want to.

I've pondered the why's and have come up with a few theories, including the fact that this culture doesn’t see the point in unnecessary pain and sweat, and they don’t like to be controlled by machines. It threatens their freedom of expression, and forces them to restrict the movement of their hands. Asking an Italian to keep his hands on the bars of a machine for ½ hour is like asking an American to put a gag in his mouth.

The Palestra is a quiet, empty place that nobody goes to. It’s always empty, with a little old man sitting behind a counter, reading or talking to a neighbor, passing the time away. But today, I discovered a little palestra, hidden in a back alley that nobody knows about except the shop keepers, less than 100 meters from my apartment.

When at lunchtime the shops close down, this Palestra comes to life. As the women boisterously pour into the locker room, the drama instantly begins as the room is transformed into a piazza, where more calories are burned in their furious conversation than in the aerobics class. For a half hour the women noisily exchange recipes, complain out loud about everything… their fatigue, their work and their husbands. Everyone talks at the same time, nobody seems to be listening to each other, yet they are communicating. Everyone is yelling, laughing, lamenting, groaning, crying, talking on their cell phones out loud…you don’t know who is listening to who, you can’t distinguish one conversation from the other…yet everyone knows what everyone is saying. Then at once, they all barge out of the room, and onto the dance floor. The excitement begins.

Party time. The music goes on and the room is transformed into some combination of a 1970's Jane Fonda/Richard Simmons aerobics class....but with a passionate Italian energy that is contagious. I actually had fun, and eventually broke a sweat. When we got down for the floor exercises I was amazed at the sounds, the dramatic grunts of pain, the panting, the superlative expressions of exhaustion, the tears, the groans and sighs. We in America would never let our guard down. We swallow the pain and keep a straight face. But here, no feeling is ever hidden. If they feel pain, they express it, they exaggerate it, they dramatize it. The very essence of the Italian spirit that I've been yearning to reincorporate into my life.

After the class we all headed back to the locker room, where everyone was anguished, gasping for breath, unashamedly exhausted, and as everyone stripped down and took showers, I admired how they walked around the locker room unabashedly naked, demonstrating a shameless acceptance of their imperfect bodies...nothing to be hidden....nothing perfect....and nothing...nothing fake here. There's a certain cameraderie and bond that comes along with being nakedly honest in front of your friends. And one of the things that I love so much about Italy.