The Victor Hugo workout

I’ve resisted the nagging urge to write a column about this particular topic because of a previously perceived lack of substance, but sometimes my internal filter through which I pass all ideas gets polluted by particular aggravating experiences.

We all know about famous French cuisine, and believe me when I say it meets expectations. After a month of consuming more cheese, bread and wine than I have in probably the entirety of my life, I decided the biweekly runs along the river would no longer suffice as a workout plan. My roommates and I flirted with the idea of joining a gym, but it wasn’t a solid plan until the day I came back from celebrating Oktoberfest in Munich, and reflected upon how many liters of beer, large soft pretzels and bratwursts I had consumed in the previous two days.

So the next morning my roommates and I were swiping our debit cards for a membership plan costing 20 euros per month more than it had been previously advertised to us, out of failure to read the fine print that was not only fine, but also in French. We acquiesced to the ridiculously high temporary-member price out of desperation to begin our workout regime that very day, to stop what had felt like the five-pound-weight-gain-per-day diet. We were ready to jump on the elliptical.

And then the first surprise came. Conveniently enough for him, the guy signing us up waited until the moment after we each paid the obligated two-month price all up front to inform us that we were not permitted to use any of the equipment in the gym until we had a personal instruction session with a trainer, for which there were no openings until Friday — five days later. So much for starting right away.

The very name of the gym should have been the first red flag. Who names their fitness center “Club Victor Hugo,” after a 19th-century French Romantic writer whose exercise regime was probably the last thing he had in mind? After observing modern-day French exercise habits — or lack thereof — I can only imagine what it was like two centuries ago.

I don’t have the space to explain adequately each of this gym’s incongruous “rules” and the context through which I encountered them, so I will be brief. Friday came, and the personal instruction session proved to be just as much of a pointless formality as I expected it to be. I was placed on five or six machines, all of which I had used countless times before, for seven minutes each and was told how to “properly” use them.

I’m aware it sounds pretty acceptable that a gym wants to ensure its members are ready to use the equipment to get the most out of the membership. I thought that too until a week later. During a 15-minute session on the elliptical I was approached by another trainer telling me I was forbidden from using the machines for more than what my trainer had allotted me: seven minutes. I know it doesn’t really make sense, but it didn’t make sense to me either.

Next was getting kicked out of the gym for forgetting to bring my towel with me. The sacred and never-forgotten towel that each member brings with them each time, and wipes down their face and equipment with. First of all, that’s disgusting. And you’re really going to not let me work out because I forgot it?

Then there was the obese, furry gray thing hopping around the floor one evening that nobody seemed to be phased by except me. I saw it come in outdoors, but stray or not, this bunny nonchalantly strolled through the gym room one evening remaining unnoticed by everyone but me.

Most recently I was on a treadmill jog, about 14 minutes into a 10 km/hour run when the particular self-assured trainer who walks around correcting form came up to me and told me that I need to run on the treadmill with my speed set equal to my level of incline. For those of you unfamiliar with treadmills, a level-10 inclination at 10 km/hour is pretty much the equivalent of running up Mount Olympus. I looked at him and actually laughed thinking it was a joke, and he winked at me and said it was good for my equilibrium. Does he know that it’s actually impossible?

And worst of all, no iPods allowed! What?!

Normally this would be my space to sum up this French-ism and reflect on how it has helped shape my study abroad experience, or how it’s surely a difference in culture that must be respected, or how it’s something I wish the United States could try to emulate, but honestly it’s none of that. And given that I have used up most of my allotted space to rant, my only words of wisdom are that I cannot wait to get back to U.S. gyms and be allowed to do whatever my little heart pleases.

Valerie’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at

related stories