“Uno di piu, Marco — uno di piu!”
So shouted Lorenzo, the muscle-bound Italian who’d taken me under his wing at a Roman gym. We were doing shoulder presses, and his testosterone-fueled urging to do “one more, Marc — one more!” struck me as the only similarity to gyms back home. In gregarious Italy, health clubs are as boisterous as bars, and in the locker room full frontal was not only the norm but the expectation. When in Rome, I thought later as, tired of the funny looks, I threw my Anglo-Saxon modesty aside and whipped off my towel.
Sure, in the quest to unravel a foreign land’s enigmas, a museum, landmark, or local hangout is always a good place to start. But as someone who, even on vacation, needs his daily fix of endorphins, I’m a fan of what could be dubbed “gym tourism.” In my experience, donning your shorts and working up a sweat with the locals is just as revealing as any cross-cultural foray — an immersion in a place’s mores, etiquette, and eccentricities that ultimately paints a telling portrait of its people.
I’ve worked out at gyms throughout Europe and Africa, but by far my most eye-opening adventure in weightlifting came during a visit to Tunisia in spring 2008, long before the jasmine-scented winds of change would upend the government of longtime dictator Ben Ali. America’s own regime change to the Obama administration had yet to take place, and US foreign policy — and by extension, its citizens — remained in distinctly bad odor in the Muslim world. While Tunisia is a sophisticated, forward-looking country, I felt anxious — particularly given the lack of compatriot tourists.
After a week of puttering around in a cramped Peugeot and gorging on camel steak, I was itching for physical activity. As soon as I set foot in the capital, Tunis, I set out to find a gym.
When I asked the hotel concierge, he convened a council of hotel staff elders to field my inquiry, but not before arching an eyebrow and inviting me to consider a nice brisk stroll instead. The heated debate that ensued behind the hotel desk lasted the better part of a quarter hour. Finally, a map was trotted out with great pomp and my route traced in black marker. Gym bag slung over my shoulder, I set off, girding my loins for a perilous trek.
As it happened, the gym was about five blocks away, and what I discovered after paying a pittance for a day pass was a place unremarkable in all respects save one: An invisible line ran through the large open-plan room. On one side men ranging in stature from scrawny to scary heaved weights or jogged on treadmills. On the other, a handful of young women, swaddled in head scarves, sweatshirts, and sweatpants despite the mugginess, did a racy brand of aerobics, all pelvic thrusts and butt wiggles, to a torchy Madonna song. It was a head-on collision of the secular and religious, modern and traditional — an image neatly encapsulating the simmering tensions that three years later would boil over in the Arab Spring.
Soon into my workout, a number of my fellow bodybuilders began to approach and give unsolicited advice, pointing out flaws in my form, suggesting modifications to my routine. What to make of all the attention? In my six years of semiserious weightlifting, nothing of the sort had ever happened. One of the interlopers, Omar, a mountain of a man, asked where I was from and beamed like a klieg light when I told him.
“America!” he proclaimed in English, fingers over heart in the Arab manner, “You are most welcome in my country!” He told me he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen an American tourist. Then he informed me I was doing my dead lifts all wrong.
Appointing himself my personal trainer, Omar put me through my paces, wringing every remaining droplet of energy out of me. Afterward, in a touching display of Muslim hospitality, he invited me over for dinner at his family’s house in the Kasbah. I begged off, utterly spent, but thanked him and shook his hand.
As I staggered away, he grabbed me by the elbow and urged me back down onto a weight bench, where he had me grind out one last set of dumbbell presses. I made it through eight reps before I began to falter. Triceps afire, eyes bulging, I managed a ninth with a gasp and lowered the weights. But Omar was clapping, grinning maniacally, goading me on. I’d wager he was saying something like, “One more, Marc, one more!”