All my life I’ve been that 90 pound weakling desperately trying to keep a bit of weight on while the rest of world packs on the pounds just from gazing at a donut. But since moving to France I’ve discovered even I can gain weight as long as the right tonnage of dough is ingested. I’ve also discovered that I’m very easily intimidated in this new culture. I think it’s mostly about language but it’s also about everything being so different from what I’m used to.

Take a simple thing like going to the gym. I’ve finally returned to regular workouts, congratulate me please. Apart from being proud of myself for shifting my attention from the bakery to strength training, I’m also proud that I’m no longer feeling ridiculously lily-livered every time I go. But let me tell you it was no easy feat.

For the last 12 years I’ve worked out in gyms exclusively for women and I liked it that way. Never mind the gawking, it was all the grunting and groaning that finally did me in. But there’s only one gym around these parts and there’s no escaping the big boys at this one, not even in the change rooms, or should I say room as there is only one. So far driving home soaked in sweat is working out just fine.

So on my first visit I was hanging by the entrance dilly-dallying to put off the inevitable entry. I finally mustered up the resolve and of course the first people I saw were three gigantic men. I was trying to avoid any eye contact which became impossible as they decided to form a wall of muscle in front of the gym door. Merde. But then the oddest thing happened. With a smiley ‘Bonjour Madame’ they each extended an enormous hand for a shake. I complied and they moved on leaving me bewildered and sweating bullets before I’d even started. I soldiered on into the weight room and just imagine my relief to be the only woman in the place.

So there I was doing my best to be inconspicuous when yet another beefy young man came in. He walked straight toward me and a with a gracious bow of his head offered me a solemn ‘Bonjour Madame’ as well as his hand then did the rounds with everyone in the room. I had no idea what the hell was going on but just as I was trying not to heave up a lung on the treadmill, every man in the place started presenting themselves to me for the ritual. Well I never!

Turns out this isn’t a one time introductory thing, it happens every time I go. I’m starting to get used to it, me and a gaggle of the world’s most polite bodybuilders. It’s bizarre to stop in the middle of a set for a greeting but quite simply that’s how it’s done. Even the guy who looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger manages to grunt out a very pleasant au revoir while he’s bench pressing 1000 pounds.

I guess all that testosterone must be having an effect on me because today I boldly walked right up to a burly Frenchman and asked him about this gym etiquette. He told me that when you join the gym you become part of an association sportive, a members only club that owns and operates the joint so social graces are part of the deal. And at 80 Euros for an annual membership who can argue with that?

Despite his brawn he was remarkably courteous and so very patient with my disastrous French. In fact he charmed me right into thinking that I’d misjudged these jock types. That is until, without any information about my situation, he said, “So you’ve moved to France for your retirement?” Ah yes, I’m 43 but apparently I don’t look a day over 60. Well they do say that steroids can cause visual disturbances. But they also say that exercise boosts self esteem so I choose to see it another way. I just look rich for my age.