Being Italian and originally from New Jersey I am well familiar with the game of bocce, in which a target ball is rolled, then opposing teams try to roll their balls closest to the target. As played amongst our family the game consisted of much yelling, waving of arms, arguing, brazen attempts at cheating, and drinking of adult beverages. So when I was first introduced to the game of petanque at a family gathering here in France several years ago, I mistakenly thought, “Oh, I’ve got this.” It was, as they say, Similar But Not A Match.
Petanque, I quickly learned, is pretty much THE National Game of France. Everybody plays it, and I mean everybody. And they all play it well. At your own peril, go ahead and take lightly an apparently hobbled elderly lady who steps in to take her turn. She is about to embarrass you. And do not dismiss that tattooed adolescent; I am told a recent national champion was 17 years old.
Unlike bocce, which in our family was played on the nearest patch of lawn, petanque (pe-TANK) is most often played on a rectangular patch of dirt, with wooden rails marking the boundaries, although in a pinch any patch of dirt will do. Every town, every village, down to the smallest hamlet across this entire country has a petanque court, although I’m not sure you can accurately call it a court. Maybe a pitch as in soccer. So too, do many homes. Alex and Christophe have one in their yard. Anthony has one in Papi’s yard, across the street. When we spent our vacations in the village of Belveze there was a dirt patch where every evening a game took place. Here in Luche there is a recreational area on the banks of the Loir, with a swimming pool, a bar, and several petanque courts. It was on those riverside courts that I became further absorbed into the fabric of this village, and into the petanque culture.
It began with a game at Alex and Christophe’s. A bunch of us were over there for a barbecue, and after eating everyone headed to the petanque court as if by wordless instinct, but not before grabbing another of their drink of choice. Who knew? In recent months Christophe has built a mobile bar that can be carried to the court–his Petanque Bar.
People started hauling out their own personal sets of balls (boules), steel or aluminum, each with a particuiar pattern on them for identification. And small towels to wipe off the dirt and dust, and a great little device….a very strong magnet on a string or tape used to pick up the balls to avoid having to bend down, and draped around the neck when not in use…amazingly handy!. We began to see that there was a lot more to this than our family yuk fests.
In theory, the game is simple: team A rolls a small object ball, called le cochon (which means pig, don’t ask me why), then rolls one of their balls to try to get it as close to the cochon as possible. Then team B rolls a ball, and keeps rolling, until they get closer, after which team A goes again. Simple–but the mix of technique and strategy is fascinating, and addictive. As I said, everyone plays and everyone is at the very least, very, very good. Some are deadly, because when someone from team A might be foolhardy enough to delicately roll his boule right next to the little piggy, there is very likely someone from team B who will respond by lobbing his ball high and hard into the air, drop it right on top of the offending boule, and knock that sucker right out of the court, voila!
The first time I saw this happen I thought, “Hmmmm. That was lucky.” Until it happened again and again, and I realized these people were able to routinely lob those metal balls and drop them like bombs on the opponent’s boules with astonishing accuracy.
So, about The Bear. Once, it was my turn and the other team’s boule was cozying up next to the pig. I was about to make a play, planning to roll my ball up to the other one and maybe knock it against it, when a burly, bearded fellow on my team , Christian, nicknamed “Bear,” stopped me with a motion that said, “Hang on. I got this.” He lobbed one high into the air, and it came down squarely on the offending boule, knocked it into the next area code, and settled right next to the pig. With a sly grin, he looked at me and said, “come sa.” Like that.
Well as it turns out, both Beloved Wife and I really got into playing Petanque at Alex and Christophe’s place, because there was almost a daily gathering in the late afternoon of a group of folks I have come to call The Usual Suspects. We quickly acquired our own sets of boules and began showing up with some regularity, and they quickly started to call themselves The Usual Suspects. At the very beginning, we were the source of some amusement- “Look, Americans trying to play petanque! Ha Ha!” The bad shots were knowingly chuckled about, and the good shots greeted with some surprise and were somewhat patronizingly applauded.
Then things started to change. Almost immediately I got serious about it, and my game began to improve. I began to get consistent, and the good shots were less a surprise; more expected, and greeted with a knowing wink or smile from my teammates. Christian, who was at first intimidating and standoffish, not sure what to make of this American who thought he could play petanque, has become a chum. As teammates we can often go an entire game without saying a word to each other but exchanging a running dialogue of winks, nods, gestures and smiles. As opponents, it turns to trash talking and mutterings.
When summer officially came the game moved to the courts by the riverside, only a three-minute walk from our home. Now, I would get a text: “We are at the plage. Petanque.” It got to the point where I was counted on to be there for the game. Now, when teams were assembled I was one of the guys, and I didn’t feel like the team that had me believed they had a liability–the American-assigned to them. I began pulling my weight. Now, when strategy on a shot was being discussed I was involved, my input was sought. Now, instead of amused encouragement we exchange trash talk. We chirp at each other, although I often don’t understand exactly what is being said, I get the drift, and Christophe will often translate for me. We laugh a lot and we play seriously, and it is one of those things that has happened to us that makes me shake my head in amazement–absorbed into this intensely personal and communal activity, another way to be an insider in a world that is not often open to outsiders like us.
With the end of summer the plage, the rec area, closes. It turns out…and who knew?…there is a petanque club that plays year round in the next village. Christian, Bear, has told Alexandra that he’ll take me there. I am pretty good on the ground, but that aerial shot, which they call something that sounds like, Carrow, but I call Bombs Away, is completely beyond me, and I need to practice to get that into my repertoir. Hearing me say that, Alexandra said, “You and Karen can come over any time if you want to practice. We don’t have to be there. Just let the dog out when you get here if nobody is home.”
Such is life in the village.