Quite often when I do my new things, the experience turns out very different from the one I expected. Like how normal I found all the girls at The Bachelorette audition, or how I left an air guitar competition convinced it was a serious sport.
And tonight my reaction felt more extreme than the others. What I thought was going to be an easygoing beginners’ fencing class turned into an intense session that really forced me out of my comfort zone.
When I got to the class – which is held in a graffiti-ridden building on Mott Street – I was immediately overwhelmed by a group of suited men swishing swords. This was supposed to be a beginners’ class! In fact, I was the only first timer and the rest of the class were having one of their weekly meets with their teacher, Maestro Ramón Martínez.
While I felt very intimidated, it did mean that I got a one-on-one class for 90 minutes with one of the Maestro’s apprentices, Ben. With unbelievable patience, he showed me step-by-step how to hold my posture correctly for fencing with French foils. It involved a balletic squat with most of the weight on the back leg and my arms extended.
He also led me through stepping forward and backwards while maintaining my weight and posture, and then he taught me how to cross my feet to step even further forward – which felt like dancing. Finally we moved on to extending the foil and lunging to make contact.
While Maestro Martínez occasionally came over to push in my protruding tusch or loosen my grip on the handle (‘It’s like holding a bird – you don’t want to crush it, but you don’t want to let it get away’), he did say it was good how self-aware I was. I think he was right because I was desperate to improve. Much to their bewilderment, I kept shouting, ‘Let’s regroup!’ when I knew my technique was going awry.
After watching myself step, lunge and extend in the mirrors, I moved on to the target – and this is where it all really fell apart. It meant I couldn’t see myself in a mirror and this threw me (such a narcissist). Ben assured me it was normal and patiently led me through the steps again until I made contact with the target with a satisfying prod.
With my quads aching, I sat down to watch the rest of the class. They battled in different styles – including Spanish, where they stand upright and circle each other – and with different weapons, and they made it look easy. But this is clearly not the sort of sport you get overnight; Ben has been learning for eight years and said he struggled to keep up with the others.
As well as getting a brilliantly attentive introduction to the sport, another bonus was the characters I met. For fans of such a meticulous sport, I shouldn’t have been surprised that there were three doctors (one a domineering 6ft 3 Romanian) and two filmmakers among the small group. Another guy was the organiser of a yearly national fencing convention; he was a bearded, sharp-witted enthusiast brimming with bizarre information – reminding me of someone who enjoys those staged fights in the forest.
Everyone was so friendly and welcoming, but chatting with them made me feel very out of my depth. I can usually conjure any sorts of questions when I’m talking to a stranger, but I just didn’t have the wealth of knowledge about this world to know what to ask next. (The last time I felt like this was about three years ago when I went to interview a wine expert for this cracking piece of journalism.) All I could do was say ‘Interesting!’ every now and then.
The whole experience just made me want to learn more and when they asked me if I’d be back, I smiled and said ‘Sure’ – knowing it’ll be at least a few months before they’ll see me again. But I do want to go back. It put me out of my comfort zone and now I’m determined to crack it.