Spinning my way into Dutch life
Guest blogger Sueli Brodin explains why she bikes indoors despite the beauty of the surrounding South Limburg countryside.
“Why do you bike indoors when the South Limburg countryside is so beautiful?” a Dutch friend once asked me when I told him about my spinning addiction at the local gym. “Don’t you feel claustrophobic in a room packed with sweaty strangers and all that loud music?”
His reservations were understandable, and I admit that I didn’t pay much attention to the gym when it first opened its doors in our village about ten years ago: back then, both my Dutch husband and I used to work full time in the nearby city of Maastricht and didn’t have much contact with our neighbourhood.
A few years later however, after the birth of our first two children, things looked quite different. I had left my job to take care of my family, but found myself overcome with loneliness and frustration. I still knew no one around and the additional weight I had gained during my consecutive pregnancies was nagging me.
So when I heard about the open day at the gym, I decided to take action, even though the prospect of joining a local organisation seemed a bit frightening at first: what if I wouldn’t fit in? What if I was made to feel like an outsider? What if the instructors would speak only dialect? If so, would I be able to understand any of the exercises?
There were many visitors at the gym that Sunday afternoon and the atmosphere was warm and lively. A young staff member showed me around, describing the various types of lessons and training equipment. She took me to the spinning room on the first floor and the sight of all those bikes standing so close next to each to other immediately intrigued me. The gym’s childcare service for customers with small children sounded attractive too. The woman’s genuine enthusiasm worked like magic: I decided to join.
Now, five years later, I visit the gym between three to five times per week and it has become an unconditional part of my life. I’ve become so attached to it that when we recently decided to move to a bigger house, my husband laughed at my almost childish plea not to go “too far away from the gym”.
I feel welcome there. “Hallo Sueli!” says the staff cheerfully when I show up. After exchanging a few more smiles and friendly nods in the changing room, I often partake in a chat with other customers before the beginning of a lesson. These are usually parents whose children attend the same school and sometimes even the same classes as my own. Over the years many customers have become good acquaintances, whom I often run into in the streets, at my children’s school, or in the local shops.
I especially enjoy the gym’s spinning classes. They provide such an intensive workout - lasting from 50 to sometimes even 70 minutes – and leave me totally exhilarated.
The team of spinning instructors is very varied and this gives us the chance to experience many types of training styles and music genres. Some instructors are lively and talkative while others are more reserved; some like to play instrumental pieces, while others stick to famous hits. But there is one thing that they all have in common: they’re always in a happy mood and in for a good laugh.
At the beginning of each spinning class, the instructor reads out a presence list and we are asked to raise our hand when our name is called. A pleasant result of this routine is that I have become so familiar with those names that I sometimes even recognise some of them in the local papers and magazines. Over the past five years, I have found out for example that some of my fellow spinners are local officials, or shop owners, and even that one of them used to be the drummer of a hugely popular Limburg rock band in the seventies! Naturally everyone else at the gym is probably already aware of all of this, but for me, as a foreigner, these small discoveries are a great source of excitement and contribute to my increased sense of bonding with the local community.
I enjoy learning more about Limburg at the gym. Once I even had a lesson in linguistics! This happened when one of the young spinning instructors, who likes to start his classes with a small welcome speech, used the verb “fietsen” (to bike). The lady next to me swiftly corrected his pronunciation: “Fietsen!” she teased him in Dutch, “niet fètsen!” I honestly had not heard the difference so I asked her, intrigued: “Does he have another accent?” “Yes”, she replied, “he comes from Geleen, so he says “fètsen” but here we say “fietsen”!” I could not help burst out laughing at her explanation. Up until then, I had never known that people from Geleen, only about fifteen kilometres away from here, spoke with a different accent!
In many ways being a member of the local gym reminds me of my experience as a kibbutz volunteer in Israel many years ago. None of the kibbutz residents seemed to particularly care which country I came from, what I did for a living or who my parents were. We were all equal as long as we worked well. It’s a bit the same at the gym: whether we’re young or old, slim or chubby, high or low on the social ladder, Dutch or foreigner, we’re all sweating together in the same effort to reach the same goal!
Many people at the gym display the same self-confidence that I first witnessed among the Dutch volunteers at the kibbutz. In my opinion, this self-confidence has nothing to do with pride or arrogance: I would rather describe it as a distinctive sense of self-respect. Regardless of their age or years of experience, our spinning instructors are strikingly self-assured. I admire the way they always keep an open posture, speak clearly, look at people straight in the eyes and smile and talk to everyone.
One could say that this is just part of their professional training but I think that it is more than that. I believe it all comes with being Dutch, because I recognise the same self-confidence among my fellow spinners too. When one of them arrives late for class, I never see him or her blush or hunch in an effort to become as tiny and invisible as possible. On the contrary, late comers simply walk into the room, greet the instructor and anyone else present they might know, stand upright in front of the class as they try to locate an available bike, and after finding one, calmly make their way towards it and start spinning. How I wish I too had learned to be assertive like this!
Although it is clearly a village gym, where customers usually address each other in dialect, the place is unexpectedly international. Once I suggested an Australian friend to have a go at the weight lifting class, and proposed to meet her directly at the gym. When I arrived, I found her chatting away with the receptionist… and they were both speaking English with an Australian accent! The lady at the reception noticed my astonished look and laughingly revealed: “I grew up in Australia, in exactly the same area as your friend here!”
The music selection is also strikingly international. Since I have never been a member of any other gym, I don’t know if this is a general feature of all gyms, but I am amazed at the amount of world music we get to listen to during our training. Many instructors seem to be particularly fond of Brazilian music, and I have lost count of the number of times we have spinned on famous hits from my native country. And it is not only the musical culture of Brazil that I secretly share with my fellow spinners, for we often hear French songs as well, and once in a while even a musical piece containing Japanese words. I think no one at the gym can imagine how grateful I am for these songs, which remind me of my mixed French-Nisei family background and bring me back so many childhood memories.
In truth, Dutch tunes are comparatively quite rare, except in the month of February, when all of Limburg, including my village gym of course, switches to Carnival mood. That’s how I’ve discovered that Carnival songs in dialect lend themselves fine to the spinning classes too!
Music is an essential element of the lessons, because it keeps us in rhythm and stimulates us to pedal harder. It also clearly functions as a bonding factor. On a recent evening, our instructor announced: “This is going to be a special class: we’ll listen to only one CD, and there will be no pause between the soundtracks.” She then added with a friendly wink: “The songs are oldies from the eighties, so I think you’ll all recognise them”. And thus we biked for an entire hour to a seemingly never-ending succession of great hits by Cindy Lauper, Duran Duran, Fleetwood Mac and many others. Looking around at my fellow spinners, I realised that most of us belonged to the same generation and that we basically had been exposed to the same musical culture, whether we had spent our early adulthood here in the Netherlands, in France or anywhere else in this globalised world. The class was such a big success that many people clapped their hands to thank the instructor when it ended.
Over the past five years, my three to four weekly visits to the gym have undeniably improved my condition. I feel much fitter and stronger now than when I first joined. But condition is something that one needs to keep working on… and that can always be further improved. Now my secret goal is to become as fit as the group of friendly pensioners who are vigorous enough to take two spinning classes in a row several mornings a week!
“Oh no,” I replied to my friend, “I never feel claustrophobic at the gym. Very much to the contrary!” Being a member has taught me so much about this small corner of the Netherlands. It has made me feel at home in my village and has definitely worked better for me than any integration course!
12 July 2007
Sueli Brodin / Expatica
Sueli Brodin is the editor of Crossroads, a web magazine for expatriates in Maastricht. www.ejc.nl/crossroads
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