It happens every time the summer sun finally decides to come out in Germany: I realise I haven't shed the 20 pounds I figure I need to be in bikini form. Since I've lived here 12 years, that means 240 pounds I planned on losing. More than an entire me.
After Jack Frost decided to make an extended stay this winter, I finally resolved to join a gym. I figured I could get in shape on treadmills while the glaciers slowly receded from sidewalks and then hit Berlin's park trails already in 10k – if not marathon – shape come springtime.
The only problem was which gym.
At the age of 40, I have enough self-awareness to appreciate my fear of commitment: The Cub Scouts. Several ex-girlfriends. Even the Beer of the Month Club. I swore each was the right thing for me before getting distracted by other shiny objects like a magpie with attention-deficit disorder. So I wanted some place cheap in case I failed to follow through yet again.
Without giving too much away, I opted for a chain which has a name based on the racist German belief that all Scots are cheap – if it wears a kilt, according to the Germans, it's not foregoing underwear out of tradition, but out of thrift. To which I say: Germans apparently like to build extremely large glass houses. Of course, this particular chain has a reputation for being full of meatheads and roided-up NPD voters, but I figured as long as I kept my accent to myself and my eyes on the floor, I could train without repeating the ugly 10th-grade incident involving me, Greg Strater, a locker and lots of duct tape.
I joined anyway.
However, before I could even get through the door, I collided with a small cluster of smokers. Smokers in thick winter jackets with athletic gear on underneath – smokers either starting or ending their workout by tanking up on nicotine. I remembered how an ex-smoker friend once told me how much he enjoyed chewing nicotine-laced gum while running. “And it won't give you cancer,” he'd say while winking. But these people didn't enjoy that benefit and didn't seem too keen on moving aside to let me in. It was a nice metaphor for their collective psyche, I thought: sleek and healthy on the outside, dark and scarred on the inside.
Straight inside the front door I was met by a two-meter tall rack of the gym's own monthly magazine. Now I had imagined a gym would be cognisant of its members' not-so-healthy views of themselves and try not to make them feel even worse by inundating them with images of the ideal female or the perfect male. And I would be wrong. Because all over the cover of the magazine was the member of the month – we'll just call her Adele. You would think that – this being the monthly magazine of a chain of gyms – Adele would be wearing her workout gear, and you too would be wrong. Platinum blonde Adele was wearing stockings, panties and a strategically placed scarf.
Things only got worse when I finally made it to the treadmill. What's the first thing a treadmill wants to know when you hop aboard? Your weight. I lied. Then I looked up to see what was on the two or three TVs in view. Every cardio room I've ever been in before was running, at the very least, CNBC if not the Cartoon Network. But not at this place. No, here they also have their own TV channel and, while it features the occasional music video and even more occasional fitness tip, what it mostly featured that day was Adele. Not Adele working out. Not Adele giving fat-free nutrition ideas from a professional kitchen. No, it was Adele ostensibly fixing a 1965 Ford Mustang, which apparently requires metal bikinis, pleather skirts and a lot of bending over.
I opted instead for my mp3 player and nearly got kicked out when OK Go spooled into my ears and I attempted my own rendition of the ‘Here It Goes Again' video.
Although I went through this same procedure several dozen times – watching Adele become Jeff and then Jasmin and then Alex – my plans were eventually foiled by a co-worker's surgery, my wife's illness, my son's untimely accident and then even a visit to the hospital myself. It seemed as if fate was throwing up more fundamental health issues every couple of weeks merely to thwart my fitness regimen.
But the gym's monthly magazine left me with a plan for next year in the form of weight-loss tips from yet another member (not buxom enough to become the sexy workout vixen du jour, however). She had lost 28 kilos since joining the gym. How? “The first 10 melted away like a dream,” the magazine tells us, “and then I became severely ill.”
Next winter I'll just have a quick bout of minor colorectal cancer. That should get rid of a couple dozen pounds easy.
Since a good German Stammtisch is a place where pub regulars come to talk over the issues of the day, Portnoy welcomes a lively conversation in the comments area below.