Ossu! I have been meaning to write some stories about karate here in Austria but it’s hard to find time. However, now that I am sitting here balancing ice packs on my cheek, my forearm, my leg, and my foot … it seems like a good time to write.
I found a nice group with a Sensei from South Africa and a few folks from Slovakia and Austria. There are only about 10-14 students in all I think – all male except for a Slovakian black belt. It took her two weeks to make eye contact, let alone say hello. But, it turns out that she is quite nice. They meet twice a week (I only go once – so I can also stay married) in the second basement (two floors underground) of a converted low-rent housing building from the socialist revolution. It’s an eerie place and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done was to walk into that basement in my gi. But it was OK. There was some bowing and reshuffling and I was placed between the green belt and the black belts (where were all the nice white belts?).
The warm ups are different: a lot of loud out-breathing – which is sort of creepy way down underground – and a perplexing amount of toe wiggling. There are a few other differences besides the actual style: I am the only one who says “Ossu” at all and I am also the only one who seems to be able to keep my belt tied on for the whole class. When they say “turn around and fix your gis”, it takes minutes. I have even observed some of the lower belts doing drills as their belts fall to the ground. Is it really that hard?
They are constantly telling me not to move through the center – “wasted movement.” (Don’t worry Sensai, I am mostly ignoring them). Everything happens fast – I’m not sure they’ve heard the term “slow for form” and the first day’s ipon kumite nearly brought me to tears. I was getting commands in 3 languages (and English was maybe the most difficult to understand) and the drill involved doing everything wrong as I know it. It was like trying to practice inside a mirror. One friendly guy kept laughing and telling me not to do the “biting block.” What the heck was he talking about? While everyone was nice enough, they were pretty tough too and I was, well, pretty much, humiliated. I kept enough composure to leave the room, change, and crawl home. Over the week, I discovered that, in this style, Blue Belts are above everything but Brown and Black – oops.
Anyway, one of the next hardest things I’ve done this trip (ever?) was to go back into the basement door the following week. I went back really for no other reason than not to quit. The second class was better and the third better still. They talk alot about the importance of being able to fight in small spaces “like behind a bar and in a ship galley”. While these aren’t really situations I see in my future, I’ll stay in shape and I’ll learn something … if the taste of that Brown Belt’s gi doesn’t teach me to keep my head back, nothing will.
So today, after a few good classes, I arrive feeling confident and happy. A lot of toe wiggles later, Sensei says “make partners” and, since they refuse to let me line up where I belong, I am partnered with the Brown Belt (whose gi I have already tasted). Sensei says “You have good company today” and smiles at me. Then he says “Today we practice free sparing” which, apparently includes everything that might get one disqualified at home, some aggressive “hugging techniques”, and “ground wrestling.” This pretty much brings me back to the ice packs. I will have you know, however, that I managed to get blood on 3 people’s gis from a tiny cut on my finger … no stopping for band-aids in this group … no siree.
Well, I apologize for the length of this post but I laughed out loud writing this and I just couldn’t stop. Sensei G. – Thanks for getting us started in all this. I was thinking during the mokuso (which is upwards of 3 minutes!) how I never ever could have predicted liking karate enough to willingly hang out in an underground gym with a bunch of black belts. Sensei A. – The girls are signed up for a nice blood-free class down the street.