Going Back

The return.

That is a trilingual (Hebrew, Arabic, English) Jerusalem street sign, and this is a story about going back.

I spent 2004-2006 studying in Jerusalem where I was fortunate enough to find the best gym I had ever trained at before or since. It wasn't a large place, but what it lacked in size it made up for in seriousness. I moved back to North America when I finished my studies and found it very difficult to find a new gym. I ended up finding two, neither of which comes close to replicating what I had previously enjoyed.

This past week I returned to Jerusalem and went back to the gym. I was nervous about going back. When I first landed in North America I was determined to go back even stronger than when I left. But new job and new life interfered, and eventually I realized I had lost too much strength to make that possible. Then I just wanted to go back as strong as I was when I left. That too became impossible, and at the end it was simply that I needed to go back and re-experience the environment that made the transformation possible in the first place. I was nervous and embarrassed, but my desire to see the gym, the Coach and the other people who train there overrode the fears.

I landed on Monday afternoon, dropped off my belongings where I was staying, and headed off to the gym, frumpy and jet-lagged after my 16 hours of travel (2 flight + 3 layover +11 flight). I didn't recognize the young man at the front desk and for a moment I worried that everyone I knew would be gone. Coach wasn't there that evening but Trainer was. He looked at me like I had dropped in from the moon.

Didn't you go away to teach? he asked.
Yeah, I said.
When did you arrive?
Three hours ago.
And you came here?
Where else would I go?

Really, where else would I go? I transformed myself here and I worked harder than I have at anything else in my life. This gym is what I miss most about Jerusalem. (Ok, vegetables that taste like vegetables were meant to taste and not like plastic are a close second.) I don't know if a person who doesn't train or who trains at some commercial gymplex can understand what it means to be in a gym where "serious" is the default mode. And it's the default mode for the majority of those training: female, male, young, old, bodybuilder, powerlifter, or just training for health, rehab or a child's wedding.

I came back the next evening. Coach was there.
Came to train? he asked.
Yes. I said.

Coach had designed a program for me before I left. I had to modify it due to what the gyms in the US had. For example, I haven't done negative pull-ups in a year because there was nothing at my US gym to hang or descend from, with a predictable impact on my back strength. Over the next four evenings I went through my current program so he could check my technique, establish new maxes and modify my program accordingly. I found out that I had lost strength (no surprise there) but my technique is still solid. I need to grip the bar tighter on the bench press but that's about it. It could have been a lot worse.

I missed so many things about this gym: I missed hearing the cacophony of Hebrew, Russian, Georgian, Arabic and English. I missed working in with people who are generous about sharing a rack even if they are lifting three times as much as you. I missed seeing familiar faces every evening. The questions came quickly as people noticed me there and did double-takes. "What are you doing here?" (teachers' workshop.) "You're back! Are you staying?" (No, unfortunately, but I'm going to come back as often as I can afford it.) "Did you find a place to train there"? (Yes, but it can't compare to this place.) "What's it like over there?" (Too many treadmills and too many tvs.)

One person, with typical Israeli bluntness, got right to the point: "You lost fitness. What happened to the biceps"? (I slacked off and lost them, but I'll get them back.) I'm glad someone called me on it, actually, and glad to discover that they had noticed the biceps in the first place.

In three weeks I have to go back to my gyms in North America. I'll be going back having given myself a booster shot against the malaise of the standard North American gym. In the same way that Jerusalem recharges my spiritual batteries, this gym recharges my physical ones.

Portnoy's Cheers theme put it simply:

"Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came. "

Especially when it comes to gyms.

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Mich Cahlon

Mich Cahlon is an author for Straight to the Bar. She blogs at Maspik Teruzim (Enough Excuses).

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