A few weeks ago Mr. Pinault finished his first half-marathon, an arduous jaunt through Newton, Mass (home of the infamous ‘Heartbreak Hill’). It was a triumphant expression of his newfangled passion for running that, strangely, only manifested after I myself had quit running under the revelation that my body did not enjoy rhythmic pavement pounding.
“I didn’t know frogs could run,” I joked once, fanning Mr. Pinault’s fears that his proud French id was crumbling into a sweaty over-achieving American super-ego. Because regular running for exercise is very un-French. Witness the reaction to French President Nicolas Sarkozy, disparagingly dubbed “Sarko the American” by his subjects, whose jogging habit is viewed as a right-wing conspiracy (physical fitness being a hallmark of totalitarian regimes). And, how undignified it is to see the President’s knees!
The French just don’t see a need to compensate for their pleasures with pain. They don’t see the runner as a virtuous sportsmen in pursuit of peak physical fitness, but rather as a vulgar individual on the brink of over-exertion. Surely the French sentiment about jogging was only confirmed when Sarkozy collapsed last summer while running in the heat. Many blamed witchy-wife Carla Bruni, who reportedly holds Rasputin-like influence over Sarkozy’s fitness regime.
I am currently reading the semi-marvelous book Paris to the Moon, a collection of vignettes by American journalist Adam Gopnik about living in Paris. There is a hilarious chapter about when Gopnik and his wife went to a soon-opening Parisian gym with the intention of joining. A ravishing woman with long hair and lightly applied make-up gave him a sales pitch:
“It was going to bring the rigorous, uncompromising spirit of the New York health club to Paris: its discipline, its toughness, its regimental quality… everything would be not just a l’americaine but tres New Yorkais. Best of all, she went on, they had organized a special “high-intensity” program in which, for the annual sum of about two thousand francs ($400), you could make an inexorable New York-style commitment to your physique and visit the gym as often as once a week… though she had a million arguments ready for people who thought that when it came to forme, once a week might be going overboard, she had nothing at all ready for people who thought once a week might not be forme enough.”
The gym improvised on an unlimited membership for Gopnik, who showed up a week later to find that the gym was not yet open. The ravishing woman apologized and gave him a bag of chocolate truffles. When the gym finally opened, he attended an opening party where they served crepes with apricot jam and creme de marrons. Gopnik reflects:
“The absence of the whole rhetoric and cult of sports and exercise is the single greatest difference between daily life in France and daily life in America. It’s true the French women’s magazines are as deeply preoccupied with body image and appearance as American ones. But they are confident that all problems can be solved by lotions… Among men, an enthusiasm for sport simply segregates you in a separate universe: You are a sportsmen or you are not. The idea of sports as a lingua franca meant to pick up the slack in male conversations is completely alien here… Sports is a hobby and has clinging to it any hobby’s slightly disreputable air of pathos.”
So, given all this, you see why it is so bizarre to see a frog run.