We Try Our Hand at Petanque

It’s a game of inches – make that millimeters.

The metal boules bunch up near "the cochon," or little pig, to which players are supposed to get as close as possible.
The metal boules bunch up near “the cochon,” or little pig, to which players are supposed to get as close as possible.

The game of petanque may not require much more than a reasonably flat patch of dirt, two hand-sized metal balls per player and a sense of humor. But it actually does demand a bit of skill, too.

In the town square of any self-respecting Provencal village, the old men play throughout the day, a glass of cloudy, licorice-flavored pastis not far away.  But anyone 6 or older can play this game, made positively trendy by Peter Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence.

Petanque gets its name from the way players must stand. They pitch their metal balls, or boules, from within a small circle, their feet fixed (or pieds tanque in the old language of Provence, as George, our school’s jack-of-all-trades and all things Provencal, told us).

The trick of playing the game is either to drop the metal ball as close as possible to a small rubber or plastic one, tossed 6 to 10 meters from the players’ circle, or to knock away an opponent’s ball in the spirit and style of croquet.

Kathy and I entered petanque spring training last night, but it felt a lot more like winter, with the wind blowing and temperatures dropping into the low 40s.

Alas, we learned that, as with the French language, mastery of the game may take a few more seasons.

At least after four days of intensive French, our outing cleared my brain, which by nightfall each day is so fuzzy that I’m reduced to either stuttering in French or babbling in the wrong tense and person. Mon dieu.

Petanque games like ours are nothing more than a chance for a bit of conviviality and alcohol.

But across the South of France, petanque sometimes draws the kind high stakes hustlers found in American pool halls, such as Paul Newman’s character in the film, The Color of Money. It’s a betting game, filled with strut and trash talk that’s hellbent on knocking an opponent off stride.

Of course, that first demands getting into stride in the first place. Kathy and I never quite got there. We lost Round 1 by the score 13-2, though we did make a valiant comeback to win Round 2 by 13-6 against the losing twosome in the other pairing.

DSCN0860The toughest player on the court proved to be Yolanda, my diminutive, warm and outgoing Guatemalan-Canadian classmate, who, with her husband, already has biked through four or five European countries in a year-long sabbatical that began in Paris last summer. I hope to share more about their adventures after we have several classmates over for a drink next weekend.

Then, with our classes over, it will be time for Kathy and I to rent some wheels (we prefer four at a time) and hit the back roads. First, though, a final week of trying to decipher this most difficult language.  I figure if we could win one game of petanque, I still have a chance of using the subjunctive correctly.

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