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Can you get a Fulbright for CrossFit?

If I were a smart (Paleo) cookie, I would have connived a clever application for the Fulbright committee to read that involved me traveling around Europe in order to study the cross-cultural effects of CrossFit. I think maybe they would have gone for that. And then, on the side, I would have used the stipend to fund my dissertation research.

Or I could have spun the “hero” theme — doing “hero” WODs while studying ancient heroes, all the while being inspired by real life ‘heroes’ such as Kyle Maynard.

So it’s no secret that I am not shy, that I love meeting new people, and that I love picking up heavy weights and forging new bonds of friendship over the shared agony that comes with intense exercise (a la CrossFit). Starting in July I began a 5 month adventure in Europe in order to conduct research on my dissertation, but on the side I sought out the local CrossFit boxes or weighlifting gyms. In Oxford I found OXP, a place for Strongmen, Powerlifters, rugby players, and Olympic weightlifters to train… and me. In London I revisited Crossfit Central London for an Oly session. In Paris I ran around the streets, did pull-ups on some random scaffolding, and created daily WODs to complete in my studio apartment. .I got to CrossFit in other languages, starting with German. In Berlin I visited Crossfit Werk a few times, and even got to eat dinner with the crew at a Paleo restaurant. My long weekend in Vienna included two grueling sessions at Crossfit Vienna. Two weeks in Italy with my parents and no Crossfit gym provided opportunity for more creativity: I used my mother as a barbellfor back squats, and a staircase as a pull-up bar. My father joined me in a WOD.

my dad doing some perfect push-ups at the end of a wod in our Rome apartment

I coached my parents through some tabata squats and plank holds. I completed my first swimming WODs.

Post-swim WOD handstand

 

 

 

 

 

Now I’m in Athens and have settled in with the Primal Crossfit Athens  group. I am here for 3 months, so I am very glad I enjoy it. I don’t speak Greek (except a few words here and there… mathainw! (“I’m learning!”), but many of them speak English, and where the language barrier is tall we find a way to hurdle over it. After all, encouragement in any language is always appreciated, and the post-WOD feeling of “I’m so happy that’s over with” while you lie on the floor catching your breath is pretty similar for athletes everywhere.

The gym here has been, as ever, very welcoming and full of fun people learning new skills each day and making strength gains, amazing themselves every day at what their bodies are capable of. I am included in this, as well. Though I have still not yet managed to join the muscle-up club, I have finally mastered the art of the one-handed handstand!

Love being upside-down!

And competitions are not absent from my agenda even though I’m in another country! To be fair, each WOD is a competition against yourself and your fellow gym members, but there are other opportunities here, as well. Every Saturday at our gym we hold a \”Primal Tournament\”  competition, and in a couple weeks I’ll be venturing to Volos, Greece, to be the only American competitor in the Argo Games. I don’t know much about what to expect, but I fear a mountainous 5k run for the first wod… If anything I know it will be fun! And I will want ice cream when it’s over 😀

 

Needless to say, it’s been quite an experience seeing the different ways each Crossfit box functions. That isn’t to say all American boxes are the same — because they are not. But there are further differences once you cross the pond: European boxes are predominantly male whereas in the States they are usually at least 50% female; they work with kilos instead of pounds; the pull-up bars I’ve come across here are thicker than in the States (which makes using them more difficult); they are harder to find, in general!!! CF is growing in popularity, but unlike in the States, where Tucson, AZ alone has about 8 different places you can go to Crossfit, Europe has maybe one-three gyms per COUNTRY (Paris, Rome, Florence…. none of the cities have CrossFit).

There are other gyms to visit, of course, including ones that specialize in powerlifting or Olympic weightlifting, and since CrossFit is like a gateway drug to those other disciplines, you can still get in a good lifting session. And I can’t imagine a place where you can’t at least go for a run, or do push-ups in your bedroom. But as anyone who attends a CrossFit gym will know, it’s the community aspect of it all that keeps us coming back (that and the adrenaline/endorphine rush that comes with each workout). And I have to say, not a one has let me down. The Greek guys even invite me, the American, out with them at night.

I will dance party in every CrossFit gym around the world, if I can! (Fulbright or no Fulbright.)

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Another Notch in the CrossFit Bedpost

…two notches, actually (my my I’ve been busy!). And this doesn’t count the 3 weeks I spent in England training at Oxford Powersports with a random drop-in to Crossfit Central London. Everywhere it’s always been about the people, and wonderful amazing people (you’ll have to read all the way to the bottom to hear me rave more about people. I love people).

In the past 2 weeks I’ve made more CF friends! In Berlin at CF Werk and in Vienna at CF Vienna. Very different experiences, but both fantastic and happy (I expect no less from my extended and distant CF family)!

CF WERK (Berlin) — Motto: “einfach war gestern”

From the initial emails with the owner, Flo, I knew I’d enjoy this place. Being the only CF box in all of Berlin, it was an easy decision to visit, especially after 2 weeks in Paris with nothing but running and bodyweight exercises. It was completely out of the way, behind a brewery, off my map (no it was literally off my map), but Flo’s email just said “from Suedkreuz, just follow the signs to IKEA then we’re right down the street 200m.” Huh, look at that, he wasn’t kidding. After that all I had to do was just listen for the repetitive clank of a loaded barbell hitting the ground. When I found the charmingly small gym and walked in, someone was plowing through “Grace” (30 clean and jerks for time at 60kg). I hadn’t touched a barbell in over 2 weeks , so I was extremely excited. Excitement, however, subsided quickly when I learned the actual WOD for the day was “Kelly” (5 rounds for time of 400m run, 30 box jumps [24″/20″] and 30 wall balls [10kg/5kg because those are the weights they have]). Their runs are actually 450m around building with uneven terrain, and guess who had to use a 10kg wallball!??! That made things a wee bit more difficult, and needless to say my time wasn’t spectacular. But, the great group that these CF Werk people are, they all just reminded me that I rocked the 10kg wall ball and be glad about that. Oh.. .yeah! Right! Thanks, guys! They were awesome, too, putting up some very impressive times and finishing the WOD with head high and big smiles after. My favorite part? Everyone hugs everyone goodbye. That’s way beyond the camaraderie of just good old-fashioned “high-fives” for a job well done!

Of course I returned on Saturday (couldn’t make it in Thursday due to museum-ing all day, so I made up “Annie” in my hotel room with a PR time of 6:34!) for “Griff” (2 rounds for time of 800m run forward, 400m run backwards), and then stuck around to get some Olympic lifts in. It felt just UH-mazing to put weight overhead again! I kept the weights light to medium (no more than 50kg for snatch and just a few pulls at 60kg for clean and jerk) and then Flo graciously asked me to teach a little session on the Clean and Jerk. I happily obliged, sticking to just power cleans and push jerks, and at the end of an hour I got to see at least three people make huge PRs on their lifts (some by at least 10kg)! Happy smiles all around.

Saturday also ended up with me participating in the most international CF class ever: each person was from a different country (Germany, Australia, USA, Finland, and Belgium), and the class I attended the couple days prior we had an Italian! Only in Berlin, I guess 😀 Now, CF Werk is a small gym, as I mentioned before, and a young one, and it’s not exactly loaded with equipment (only 2 barbells, 2 10kg medballs, 2 5kg medball,s 2 boxes [that can be flipped to become 20″, 24″ or 30″], a few KBs, some PU bars, rings, tires…). This made for a learning experience for me! It’s amazing how creative you can get when you have to make do, such as sharing a box for box jumps (talk about accuracy!). So, for instance, GHD sit-ups. No GHD machine, but there is a loading paddock, a tire, and people. Turns out that’s all you need! Just amazing.

It doesn’t end there (in CrossFit, it never stops at the gym). The next night some of the CF Werk crew joined me for dinner at Sauvage, a Paleo restuarant (yes — PALEO!!!). It was my one extravagant dining expense for myself (about 25 euros for a 3-course meal with a GIANT glass of wine), but gee whiz was it worth it (especially considering my breakfast buffet at my hotel had sufficiently fed me for the entire day for the past week). Above all else, the company was great, and that always makes for a great experience. But also the food was fresh, phenomenally prepared, generous portions were served, and I didn’t have to “resist” any bread tray or worry about what went into the preparations of the food on my plate. Even if you aren’t gluten-free, sugar-free, or dairy-free, I highly recommend this place.

CF VIENNA —

Similar to CF Werk, one of the walls of CF Vienna is decorated with shirts from other boxes (I should send shirts…). This one had shirts from CF Copehnagen, CF London, CF Fenway, CF Adelaide (“like fit, but fitter”) and a couple others. Very cool. Very UNLIKE CF Werk, this gym is located in the basement of a deceptively very nice building on Josefstädter Straße with a door code and everything. The owner, Basti, is L2 certified, and was very welcoming from the start (see a trend there?). His classes were structured similarly to what I’m used to at my home gym in Charlottesville: group warm up, strength, WOD, group cool down stretch. Unlike Flo, Basti led everything in German with the occasional “you have any questions?” directed at me. Thankfully, stretches and movements don’t change with the language barrier, so I was just fine. Wednesday WOD was just 5×5 backsquats. I hadn’t squatted anything but air in 3 weeks, so I knew a heavy set of 5 was going to feel REALLY heavy, but I managed to get 85kg and opted to not try for 90kg and instead do a recovery set at 70kg. The two guys sharing my bar with me were pretty awesome and encouraging, and one of them hit a 5-rep PR at 90kg which was super cool. *Quick sidenote: Vienna is my first experience with real humidity since I’ve left Charlottesville. So I was sweating, a lot. We were all sweating in the 75% humidity and heat. We were indoors, and it was sweaty and dirty and people were lifting heavy and it was great.* Then we had a surprise WOD (hahah surpriiiiise more work!) of a quick 5 minute AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) of 7 push-ups and 7 air squats. I got 11 rounds with HOG push-ups (“hands off ground”). Then stretches, then fist pumps of camaraderie, then some good chatting with the owner. And a promise to return the next day.

Thursday’s noon class was a tad smaller than the previous afternoon, but that’s all good fun. A little different style than the previous day, in that it was just a met-con programmed and no strength component. The metcon was: 3 rounds of 30m bear,crawl and 20-15-10 KB/DB squat clean&jerk. I used 10kg DBs for a time of 6:29 (I should have used the 12kg KBs I realized too late). A little singing, a little dancing, some discussions about Paleo and worldwide CF and the Games and strength bias, some more fist pumps of camaraderie, a quick hug goodbye for Basti (who tricked me into doing the above WOD TWICE, by the way) and then we all headed back out in the heat and humidity to continue our days. Really nice people, fun CrossFitters, I’m looking forward to returning when next I’m in Vienna.

So, I’m having fun touring the CF boxes of Europe. Of course, I would expect no less. I’ve been to quite a few CrossFit gyms outside of the one in Charlottesville, and each one has only resulted in a great experience. It’s no wonder that whenever you ask a Crossfitter, no matter what their level, “What is your favorite part about CF?” almost inevitably their answer will be “the people!”. The community aspect is beyond incredible. I’m here in foreign countries where English is NOT the main language spoken easily able to walk into any CrossFit gym and feel right at home. Can you say that about your gym or sport?

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Sadly my next stop is Florence and Rome and they have no CrossFit. But I WILL have my parents, and my mom is perfect to use as a barbell for backsquats. 😀 But then I’ll be in Athens and happily settled in with the fine folks at Primal Crossfit Athens.

Survey Says: Berlin is IN

The exam is over, it’s all been graded, and folks, I gave Berlin an A+ (even despite the fact that I went to Germany and did not see a single castle).

The city is warm and inviting, open for exploration, full of history, food, and beer. I didn’t see nearly close to all of it, but I saw a good part of Mitte, MuseumInsel, and Alexanderplatz, which was enough to tell me that this is an exciting city with tons of character. I even walked from my hotel in Mitte to the Judaisches Museum and over to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche by way of Potsdamer Platz (FANTASTIC Musical Instrument Museum) and then along Tiergarten where I saw NUDE male sunbathers! Talk about culture shock!

I’m still not used to the sight of people walking home with an open beer bottle in hand, nor do I think I’ll ever “get used to” the permanent odor of cigarette smoke that clouds the air, but all in all, this is a great European city.

Now I want to talk a little about Museum Island. In reality, the entire city of Berlin is like a giant museum. Its streets are dotted with statues, shrines and memorials honoring its own (sometimes infamous) history. There are sections of the Berlin Wall still standing with plaques illustrating its history and destruction. But museums of all sorts (modern art, photography, interactive, ancient, specific people, communication, etc.) are to be found in every neighborhood, and many are free the last 4 hours on Thursdays (and on Thursdays they are usually open late, some as late as 10pm!).

My second day there I got a 3-day Museum Pass to all Stadt Museums which only cost 19 euros — this quite a deal, considering the Pergamon Museum alone costs about 12 euros! I spent the first 2 days of that Pass just on Museum Island! It is quite literally an island in the middle of the river, in the very center of town (well, technically it’s in what was once East Berlin), and it is filled with some of the world’s best museums. The Berlin Dom is also there. I can’t properly express just how excited I was to grace the halls of the Altes Museum and see the Berlin Painter’s name-sake vase,

Berlin Painter's name-sake vase

to walk through the Pergamon Museum overcome with awe at the Ishtar Gates of Babylon,

the "smaller" intertior part of the Ishtar Gate from ancient Babylon (15m high)

and admire the architecture of the Neues Museum just to come across the room that holds the painted bust of Nefertiti.

Realistic busts of Akhenaten and Nefertiti

These are simply highlights. I took hundreds of pictures on this island and I still didn’t manage to capture all that amazed me. It’s no wonder I felt I could easily spend the entire week in these museums alone and never see the rest of Berlin — but I’m glad I ended up exploring further afield.

So, do I like Berlin more than I like Paris? I’d say that’s an unfair question. Both European capitals are charming and fantastic in their own rights, and I, for one, will not take sides.

There’s just something so enticing about a living history that comes with a city — something you find everywhere in Europe (especially in Rome! Oh Roma, ti amo); it just never gets old (hehe).

Gesundheit!

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” –Mark Twain

It’s no secret I love to travel. Often I find myself returning to familiar places (Italy…) or in a familiar city but finally really discovering all that it has to offer (such as my last 2 week in Paris). I even find new things to do each time I’m in Rome, no matter that I’ve visited that city for more weeks than I care to count (and will add another week to that long list in September).

But what is truly a great experience is to find yourself in a whole new city — nay, a whole new COUNTRY. Well. Here I am in Berlin. I’ve never stepped foot in Germany before today and now I’ve went and gone on a 3.5 hour guided walking tour of the city seeing all the major sites and (re-)learning the city’s history (started at Brandenburg Gate and ended in the middle of Museum Island). It is really an amazing experience. I can’t say I speak the language well, and I didn’t have a map until my hotel receptionist handed one to me, and I don’t eat pork though many of the meats sold by street vendors and in restaurants most likely include pork (can you say “currywurst”?). But I’m loving it. I love the experience, if anything. Does Berlin make on to the list as one of my favorite cities? Well… we’ll see, won’t we.

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