Feelin’ the buuuuuuurn

Sadly this isn’t my gym. This is evidently the branch of Superfit where Tron was filmed.

Exercising in general doesn’t really work out well for me. When I arrived in Berlin, I had no choice but to go running – in public – which was fine, apart from two serious issues: the first being the unbelievable complaints and funny looks I get when I have to do that bouncy-joggy-boingy thing at pedestrian crossings, and the second being the horrendous shinsplints that jogging on uneven surfaces seems to give me. Ow.

I missed the gym. I missed the cross-trainer, and the terrible music, and the fact that treadmills have a nice lectern you can put your things on so you don’t have to shove your keys inside your bra. And I realised that, as someone who is likely to be unemployed for a considerably long time, I would need something to keep me going and stop me from aimlessly drifting until I lost my mind. After a lot of careful research and the inevitable moment of ‘Oh hell I’ll just pick one at random because for god’s sake!’ I marched over to my local Superfit and signed on.

The moment I walked through the unspeakably shiny glass door, I knew this was a totally different ball game to my old creaky gym in Berkshire. In my old gym, the ‘technology’ was limited to one ancient CRT-display computer (you know, the really old ones that for some reason were always a pale beige colour) which never registered my age so kept me on a child’s membership for my entire time there until my cancellation last month. Here, the beefy chap at the counter who looked like Morpheus ushered me to a round, black table littered with pristine iPads, into which I tapped in all my details using a foam-tipped silver wand. “Hello,” thought I, “This is a bit swish, innit!”

At the time I left my old gym, it had developed even more character since my last related post. The walls had cracked and leaked enough that they finally brought a painter in, and I watched as he spent the morning covering over all the cracks in an unfortunate shade of ‘Winter Magnolia’ which did not quite match the current shade of ‘Sicilian Apricot’. With the walls now looking like a tie-die of pus, they brought in new cross-trainers which required you to do a kind of awkward forward-shuffle with your legs, like how dads put on their slippers in the morning. The card reader for the door had fallen off the wall and been duct-taped back on. It was a gym you had to love for its homely charm alone, and it cost about £35 a month for an adult membership.

I am in love with my new gym. It costs me €18,95 a month, and for that I get not just a workout but an adventure. Seriously, exercising in my gym is like exercising in the future; it’s like a fitness center in a spaceship. When you enter, there are drinks dispensers on the check-in desk which swirl luminous green and orange liquids around like cocktails in the Death Star’s nightclub. To the left of all the machines is the classes studio, which is a shiny black-dark space walled off with tinted glass and illuminated with strobing multicoloured lights which fade in and out like the heartbeat of a flux capacitor. The only classes they had at my old gym were spin classes, which were simply a lesson in the stages of human agony performed directly in front of the machine-users to torment us as we jogged. In my Berlin gym, the classes are amazing, choreographed sessions led by beautiful smiling androids; the class I always seem to coincide with is some kind of combat-punching-aerobics class which is mesmerising; it genuinely looks like hundreds of Tekken characters practising their moves in perfect synchronicity. 

Every machine is its own unit of futuristic science and magic. Each one has its own little air-vent so you can choose your own level of cooling breeze, and each one has a big computer screen on which you can watch telly, control your iPod, or simply watch your progress on a strange graph which seems to represent a hill and effort and time and energy expended and other things all at once in a series of orange and red shapes. Even the lockers have a robotic lock that closes automatically and flashes blue when you hold your card against it. Everything you use feels cool and high-tech; I like to run while listening to action-movie soundtracks and pretending I’m a starship warrior training for future battles. 

Another element of entertainment comes from the fact that half of the machines are lined up along the broad, shining glass wall of the gym which cuts it off from the shopping center that houses it. This means that as you exercise you can observe the kinds of people who come all the way to the top floor to go to the hairdressers and the toy shop. Oddly, large numbers of people seem to ride the escalator all the way to the top simply to turn around and immediately ride back down again, which tells me something about human nature, although I’m not quite sure what. Is is heartwarming to watch kids with back-turned baseball caps and enormous schoolbags strut into SpieleMax and come out with Pokemon cards (yes!! They’re still alive!), and I love the way that they look at us through the window, a bemused stare which reminds us that we’re all essentially mental: running on the spot on a machine in a hermetically-sealed room in our own free time.

But that’s the one thing I do miss from my old gym. I miss the crazies. The German gym-goers are just so serious, so good at what they do, so athletic and so considerate (they always wipe the machinery clean with forensic precision once they’ve finished). I miss my old Berkshire cohorts; the insane old woman who looked like André 3000 in her rainbow windbreaker and sunglasses, half-heartedly pushing the weights, and the enormous bodybuilder whose varicose veins had bloomed into a purple-blue impressionistic vista all up and down his legs. The people who talk, or roar, as they exercise, and the people who don’t understand how the machines work and end up flailing helplessly on the treadmill as they pound the controls in desperation. We don’t have them in my new gym. I guess in the future, such people will simply be rounded up and destroyed.

Native species of the Gymnasia highlands

Who goes to the gym in platform flip-flops?

Ever since I was old enough to realise that my physique resembled a blancmange in high winds, I have been a regular visitor of my local gym. The humiliation of exercising publicly is too much for me; I don’t want old people on park benches regarding me with sardonic dismay, I would much rather seedily sweat away on a contraption among other light-shy cockroaches like myself. I am fond of my gym like one might be fond of an old but slightly smelly family dog. It’s the cheapest gym around, which means that the machines tend to make interesting noises and all the televisions are playing Jeremy Kyle and the mirrors are sellotaped together, having been smashed long ago by an errant dumbbell. It means that directly opposite the exit, like a nightclub opposite a rehab clinic, sits a Burger King. It also means that rather than being full of aspirational young businessmen drinking Evian and blonde Scandinavian types, the place teems with a strange mix of people, few of whom seem to really belong in this low-budget robot room with its high-volume dance music and brick-headed personal trainers. 

I am a mid-morning gymgoer and have had the opportunity to observe and become familiar with the kinds of species that tend to roam the gym floor when the sun is out and other, perhaps more predatory creatures, are nesting in their habitats of paid employment. But in my occasional evening visits it is interesting to see that there is an entirely new range of species which come out into the synthetic light of the fitness studio once the sun has set. These creatures are equally fascinating to observe not only in themselves, but also in the ways that they differ from the daytime gymmers in both their behaviours and appearances. 

Diurnal Species

Overly friendly and chatty people who don’t seem to realise both of you are trying to exercise
Entering the gym this morning, my heart sank as I saw a familiar face. I had met this man once before: the crazily-smiling middle-aged dude who was next to me on the cross trainer a while back during the holiday before my last term of university. I was whirring away whilst trying desperately to read through Moll Flanders on my Kindle, propped up on the crosstrainer dashboard, as a ridiculous attempt to combine two of my most hated things – exercise and revision – in one agonising fell swoop. Cue complete stranger who takes this demeanour of total fury and concentration as an invitation to have a nice old chat:
“Hello, what’s your name?”
Oh god, please don’t be doing this, I have ten minutes left of this to do – “Urr…puff…Rosie…”
“That is a beautiful name.” 
Ah. He’s that kind of crazily-smiling, middle-aged dude.
He asked me what I was studying, and what I was doing for my holidays. I mustered the last filament of friendliness I had left in me to ask him what he did. He was a businessman, who liked to go boating. 
“I have many boats.”
“…Lucky you…”
“So I suppose you are fluent in German?”
“…Yes…” 
“Err…Wo wohnst du?” 
So many people, on finding out that I speak German, instantly wheel out the three questions they remember from secondary school German; I can never tell whether they’re trying to catch me out and prove that I’m a fraud, or whether they want me to clap my hands with delight and give them a gold star. Needless to say, I cut my workout short. 
These creatures are predatory, despite their friendly appearance. They hone in on the figure who is most out of breath and least enjoying themselves to make an attack. It’s like the awkward conversationalists at bus stops, except at this bus stop you are simultaneously trying to give birth while they ask you about your weekend.


Retired men ‘staying in shape’
These silver foxes are determined that they will die before their killer abs do. There is a sixty-year-old who wears a red lycra short bodysuit and does thousands of crunches until his thick head of hair bristles with the effort. They jog along beside you on the treadmill and occasionally but regularly cough violently sideways in your direction. They are devotees of the weights machines but only spend about half of their time using the weights and the other half sitting at the machines having a long fisherman’s chat with the other retired men ‘doing weights’ around them, making sure no-one else can use the equipment and disturb their jovial bonding ritual. 

The unnervingly omnipresent tiny bodybuilders
The other part of the gym’s male population is the tiny bodybuilders. These are oddly short, oddly delicate men who stay at the gym for hours pounding away at their bodies, presumably in an attempt to grow lush fields of rolling muscles where there are merely gentle hillocks. One almost suspects they believe that if they pump enough iron they will grow a few inches in height. These men work out in strange and foreign ways; they strap parts of their bodies to bits of the weights machines which usually accommodate other bits of the body and use them to carry out strange, convulsive new exercises which I’ve never seen before. One man, who I like to call Gino because he looks like a fifteen-year-old Italian pizza-boy, is short enough that he can stand on the seat of the shoulder press, velcro his wrists to the hand grips and use it as a surreal squatting device. Another boy, who is undoubtedly starting puberty, flings himself about on the weights so they smash about with unbelievable volume and tries to do his reps so quickly that he repeatedly hurts himself and emits yelps of pain. It’s like watching Daffy Duck trying to do a Rocky montage. If these men all simply shrugged their shoulders and accepted their slight builds, they could join together and form an indie band.

Scary android-women
Full-body Adidas spandex. Worrying tattoos. Mahogany-tanned, aging skin. Pulse meters, pedometers, calorie calculators and other useless exercise tamagotchis strapped around their limbs. These women are training to be the next Terminator. They can whip you with their ponytail so hard your neck will snap. 

Teen Girl Squad
Teen Girls come to the gym in packs. They work out in twos or threes, wearing tank tops with “Yeah!” or “Miami Beach Party” printed on them. Their favourite machine is the exercise bike, because they can sit at them for the whole hour, pedalling at the kind of trundling speed even an infant on a trike would find laughable. They exercise in Primark leggings. They chat about stuff and things and swap iPods as they work out and text people called ‘Shaz’ or ‘Jaya’. I am old.

That one lady who doesn’t use the exercise bike
There is a lady who comes to the gym and sits on the exercise bike. She wears a skirt suit and spends her time talking to people on two mobile phones simultaneously, one at each ear. I am not sure what she is doing.

Me
I don’t know what these other people all see me as. Possibly a Teen Girl – I have after all been paying the child’s rate for membership for about eight years now – although I suspect I am more regarded as a misanthropic anomaly, or a young woman who has to exercise in order to hold off the effects of a terminal disease.

Nocturnal Species

Post-work work-outers
These are the most common gymgoers of them all, but only begin to emerge mid-afternoon as temperatures start to decline and 5.30pm has passed. The gym is their final weary port of call before home and dinner and booze, and they just want to get it over with. They keep it short and sweet and are too fagged out by the whole situation to bother with real gym outfits, opting instead for jogging bottoms from Tesco and any pair of trainers they had knocking about from taking the dog out over the weekend. I want to embrace these people and hand them a giant, delicious steak-and-kidney pie on their way out, and wish them a lovely evening’s rest. They look like they need both of those things.

Indoor walkers
Mostly middle-aged ladies with curly hair, these people enjoy the gym because it is a relaxed and low-key affair. All they have to do is walk gently on the treadmill for a while and see their friends. They look overjoyed to be there and have a whale of a time talking to each other and watching the early-evening telly. No-one knows if this is actually exercise or why they pay a huge amount of money just to walk slowly on the spot for a short while; this species is still under research.

The Spin-class swarms
In the centre of the gym floor is a forest of tangled yellow standing bikes. As soon as the sun has set, wiry women and driven-looking men mount these bikes and suddenly the speakers in the gym begin playing club anthems at an eardrum-tearing volume. The spin instructor bellows his commands like an apoplectic army major and the spinners themselves cascade fountains of sweat from every surface of pulsing red skin. These are highly aggressive, combative periods, and the other creatures in the gym stare constantly at these people with narrowed eyes and blackened stares, hating them for bringing their cacophany and masochistic athleticism into our world of futilely optimistic effort.

Me and my mum
Our gym outfits are stained and older than some of the other people in the gym. We have a specific type of clairvoyant communication where we can, in a single moment of eye contact, say to each other, “Can we go yet?” I read my Kindle and my mother props a bit of the paper on the machinery. I love the cardio and mill my stubby legs about on the treadmill at a slightly inappropriate speed until my mp3 player falls onto the conveyor belt and is whipped with a tremendous smack against the back wall; my mother loves the weights and is gradually trying to build enormous and slightly incongruous biceps on her slender arms. I don’t know what species we belong to, but it’s too hilarious for me to care.