Sweat ran down my flushed face and I ignored the curious stares as I ran down the waterfront of La Giudecca Island. People ate at the round tables facing Venice, talking amongst themselves as waiters carried plates of food. A little self conscious, I darted quickly down the crowded spaces, trying to avoid the incredulous looks of passers-by.
Traveling and studying abroad has revealed what is most important in my life. And perhaps one of the most important constants has been health. No matter what city I was in, I found time and resources to stay fit and eat well (for the most part).
Certainly, the fitness scene in Europe has been very different from that of the United States. For example, in the United States, I had no problem wearing gym clothes all day, running around Austin, or lifting with the guys. But in Europe, runners, for the most part, stick to parks and trails. City runners attract dumfounded stares. Gyms are far less common and I’ve noticed that women rarely frequent them. Nonetheless, I decided fitting in was less important than staying fit.
While backpacking, I always made sure to at least run if nothing else. In Paris I ran. And received many incredulous glares. In Venice I also ran, despite similar attention and the more macho response of cat-calling and shouts of “bella. ” In several cities I even found rock climbing gyms, outdoor climbing, and a good amount of hiking.
I’d been told that exercise shouldn’t be a concern abroad because I’d be walking everywhere. But people didn’t understand that when I said “I workout,” I didn’t mean that I simply walked several miles a day. I did walk miles a day in the U.S., of course, because I was a carless college student that lived a mile from class. I walked everywhere all the time. And while I walked a bit more in Europe, that didn’t qualify as the same caliber of “workout” for me. At home, my workouts ranged from 1-4 hours depending on the season, the day, etc. So no, the little bit of extra walking wasn’t sufficient.
Certainly, it was hard while backpacking to get up before everyone else in the hostel and slip on my running shoes. I did get lost often, but running early in the morning ensured I’d have the whole day to find my way back without the worry of darkness. And such an early workout gave me a jumpstart on all my adventures for the day, helping me make the most of my time traveling.
Of course, I didn’t run every single day. Hiking 11 miles in Cinque Terre was a good enough exercise, for example. I played everything by ear, making sure my body was happy and healthy. I tried to take advantage of the natural terrain each place offered, the unique aspects of every city that made staying in shape fun and effective. And as soon as I made it to my homestay in Aix-en-Provence, I got a gym membership and got back into my usual routine.
But this whole experience has shown me that fitness is something very important to me. I couldn’t sacrifice it completely, even for my travels. I always made sacrifices to incorporate physical health into my daily life. The same went for nutrition. It wasn’t hard to eat healthy in Europe with all the fresh markets and foods available. Of course every now and then I treated myself to regional delicacies: a pain au chocolat in Paris, gelato in Venice, etc.
Before my departure, everyone told me to buy bigger clothing because I’d gain weight. They told me I’d be too preoccupied to worry about my health and fitness. Certainly it’s possible to lose track abroad, and can be difficult to maintain a perfectly healthy diet, but travel is no excuse to let oneself go. I’ve been having the time of my life without sacrificing completely my health or happiness.
So I guess an important thing I’ve learned is that if something truly matters to me, regardless of whether or not I get strange looks, I stick out, or feel a little uncomfortable, I will find a way to keep it in my life and deal with the costs. Because in all honesty, while running down les rues in Aix is looked down upon, in six weeks I won’t know or see any of the frowning faces that watch me run every morning. But I will remember the feel of the fresh Southern French air and sun on my face as I inhaled the scent of lavender and roses, cherishing my early morning run in paradise.