Blissed out on BJJ

You know those times when suddenly, out of nowhere, the gears shift and everything is right with the world? You could be in the midst of a typhoon, but it wouldn’t matter because you’ve discovered the one thing that completes you.

I found BJJ in this small town of Bra!!!!

I FOUND BRAZILIAN JIU-JITSU IN BRA – this tiny city of 30,000 people, where nothing works and frustration among foreigners is a given.

It doesn’t matter that Internet can take up to two months to work here. It doesn’t matter that I’ve probably gained 15 pounds from the AMAZING food I’ve eaten. It doesn’t even matter that the amount of paper work it takes to live here could create a forest. None of that amounts to the amazing journey it took to find jiu-jitsu. I am a happy dumpling again.

It took 25 days, the help of many friends, and strong will to find pieces of home in Italy. I landed here with a very hopeful wish of finding a gym to keep training. I am by no means an aficionado in the sport, but I didn’t want quit just because I moved abroad. After eating nothing but pasta, truffles, chocolate, espresso, gelato, poached eggs, calabrese bread, more pasta, prosciutto, tumin, risotto and salami; the only part of me that was rolling was my stomach. I learned the hard way that these delicacies do dangerously dreadful things to your waistline. The itch to find anything to keep me from turning into a round caramel-filled truffle was prominent – almost as prominent as my once-flat-but-now-protruding belly. It didn’t have to be fancy, but it did need to keep my short attention span from boredom.

Just like in the U.S., I tried everything while searching for jiu-jitsu. At a health center called My Gym, I tried a total body class. A dinosaur-like lady with zero body fat and numerous wrinkles barked numbers and directions at me, as her muscles bulged perfectly in each direction.

“Avanti, uno, due, tre… sinistra otto, sette, sei… più forte… a destra quattro, cinque, sei… .”

I’m now fluent in my Italian my left, right, front, back and can count up to eight because of her. Though it was a good workout, I knew I couldn’t continue on like this–half confused and moving mindlessly. My Gym wasn’t my gym after all. It was on to the next one.

I finally decided to email a person at my school named Charles. He acts as the registrar, but he also has connections to Bra. I semi-pleaded with him to help me find a place where I didn’t feel like a graceless chicken with it’s head cut off–flopping about carelessly to a squawking Italian woman. He responded within the hour, saying that there was a judo center about 20 minutes from where I lived. It was the biggest in the city–which is a great surprise because everything in this town is like a hidden gem, waiting to be discovered.

I thought, “If I can’t kickbox or roll, at least I can learn some cool judo throws.”


But first, I went to Asterix.

That in itself could be a blog post, but I’ll spare you. I walked in one evening with a fellow Masters student named Guilia. She convinced me to try a Zumba class there. I had previously gone to look at their krav maga offerings, but I thought why not try something different. We walked in one evening, and a dwarfed, bearded Viking mascot painting greeted us as we walked to the front counter. The mix of sweat, must and wet mat pleasantly greeted my nostrils. For a minute second I felt like I was back at The Cove–the gym I trained at in Minnesota–after a review match. At the front desk, a scrawny boy welcomed us while petting a Chihuahua. It’s official, I just walked into Fight Club. They offered MMA, Muay Thai kickboxing and strike zone – whatever the hell that is. But of course, I’m here for Zumba.

A very flamboyant man in butt-displaying yoga pants, lime green Converse sneakers and matching long-sleeve skin-tight T-shirt tells me to gira – and I instantly think of cumin. Bachata music fills the room. I close my eyes, and let the music force my hips to sway. Three seconds later, I full-on bash into a stick-sized girl to my right. Zumba – though beautiful and athletic – is not for bulky-boned broads like me. I don’t have an iota of grace to my name, but Guilia can dance! That girl rocked the class. I walked out knowing how to gira (shake) and hoping the judo center would serve me better.


It’s this Friday evening. The ongoing mist has turned to fat dropplets of rain, and I’m dragging Guilia with me to go check out this mysterious judo center at Via Gabotto.

We cross the railway tracks, take a few right turns into seedy-looking neighborhoods and keep walking further into unfamiliar territory. Just when I’m about to say forget it, I look left. There it is! In all it’s glory, a huge square building with a big sign: “A.S.D Centro Judo Arti.” Hope fills my core again. I’m ready to get some information.

We walk into the center, up two flights of steps and into an office. A shorthaired brunette greets us with a good evening–buonasera. With Guilia by my side to parlay my needs in Italian, the lady hands me a schedule. No jiu-jitsu, she said. Then, she asks us to aspetti (wait). She says a few words in Italian to an older gentleman in a judo gi.

“Si Si.. .Fabio fa… .” he says to her.

The lady turns to Guilia, and rants off sentences I can’t comprehend. Something about Monday, 20:30 and she needs to come. We walk out, and the older man is on the phone. Something about a girl wanting to do BJJ, and he needs to come Monday. Just like that, I have a mission.

Monday night approaches. I’m running from my Italian class to try to make it to my first BJJ lesson in months. It’s now 8:27, and I have three minutes to spare. In broken Italian, I ask where the locker room is. I dump my stuff and proceed to start my pre-warmups. Fabio walks in with Venom-branded MMA shorts, a black long-sleeve rash guard and a white baggy T-shirt to cover the core of his black workout gear. We run, rep hip movement, practice the sit-to-side take down and go over no-gi chokes. For a full 30 minutes, I tune out what he is saying. It’s nothing but movement again, and I forget where I am. I could be anywhere – back at my gym at The Cove, in Brazil or even Japan for that matter. It’s just me on this spongy blue mat, repping arm triangle and I couldn’t be happier. We go over clinch. The karate people are totally confused, but I am smiling from ear to ear. Fabio says belisima as I complete a downward shoulder lock from bottom guard. This is familiar territory. I learn “mount” in Italian. He thinks I’m from Brazil.

“non parla italiano, solo portoghese.”

I smile and shake my head. If only I knew a word of Portuguese. It’s 10 p.m., and I still want more. We bow out, and I sit on the chairs outside the dojo, like I’ve done after so many other classes at The Cove. It was the Italian version of my MMAmily( MMA-family) – or I hope the start of one. It was like I was talking to my friends after kickboxing again. Instead of chatting about what I cooked that week or trying to grasp a new technique from class, it was me sitting there, trying to gossip and converse in a mix of English, French, Italian and hand gestures. I find out that Fabio is a judo master but has a high belt in jitsu (I think he said nero, which means black. One day I will be fluent in Italian, but until now I guess). He studied under some rank of the Gracie tradition in Brazil 15 years ago, but he hadn’t practiced in a while because he was a cook. He had wanted to get back in to training and teaching, but he never found the time. When he received a call from the old gentleman about a girl interested in Brazillian jiu-jitsu, he saw it as a sign. That’s how both of came to stand there, with sweat seeping from our pores, smiling back at one another as he patted me on my shoulder and said my name with a friendly chuckle.

The first-ever jiu-jitsu class at the judo center was completed, and I’d like to think it was because I asked – because I was adamant, because I screamed it out to the universe.

Fabio wrote my name down, so he wouldn’t forget, “Ouh-errr-meee-lah.”I told him that this is what I was looking for–a place to train, a place to call my own.

He added in English, “and friends.” We ciao’ed and vowed to meet again next Monday.

I walked the whole 15 minutes home, covered in a mixture of salty sweat and down-pouring mist, with a smile on my face dancing in the rain.

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