When I was a little kid, like lots of boys in the United States, I had dreams of acquiring top-level skills in the sport that I most often saw people playing: baseball. Presumably, if I had been born in France, I would have had dreams about acquiring top-level skills in the sport that I most often saw French people playing: pétanque.
The two games are their respective countries’ national pastimes. But there’s an important difference: being good at baseball requires a great deal of physical skill, strength and coordination (three things that God, in his or her wisdom, forgot to give me), while being good at pétanque requires a great deal of spare time. In other words, while in America anyone can grow up to be president (literally, based on recent evidence), in France anyone can grow up to be an excellent pétanque player.
For foreigners who are unfamiliar with this game, pétanque is the French version of lawn bowling. And the game is so simple that even executive heads of major industrialized nations bordered by countries whose names begin with “M” and “C” can understand it. Probably.
The equipment is basic. All you need is a set of large heavy steel balls, called boules, plus a small wooden ball, called the petite boule (go figure) or the but (which translates as “target”), and a playing field, called the boulodrome, which translates as “dirt.” For some reason, French lawn bowling is never bowled on a lawn, but on a patch of bare ground.
The rules are so basic they turn litmus paper blue. In essence, the players take turns throwing the big balls at the little ball, and after all the balls are thrown whoever threw the former closest to the latter wins the round. It’s as simple as counting votes.
But of course, this being a sport, some people do their best to make it complicated. There’s an official pétanque governing body called the Fédération Internationale de Pétanque et de Jeu Provençal (FIPJP) that, after making its own name as convoluted as possible, turned its attention to the rules and defined official guidelines for all sorts of rare but possible circumstances.
“A valid target ball must land six to 10 meters from the thrower’s circle, be visible from the circle, have no obstacles between it and the circle, and lie at least one meter from any other obstacle and/or the edge of the playing field.” (Loose translation from the French Wikipedia article on pétanque.)
And there are specific terms and arcane strategies that serious, high-level players actually waste time thinking about, like:
“In certain instances, the pointer might not seek to place a ball as close as possible to the target, but at some distance from it, a tactic that could be applied in cases when the opposing team is scoring many carreaux, which will thus no longer be an advantage. On the other hand, if the opposing team is good at shooting but not pointing, it is better to throw close to the target in order to tire them out.” (Again, Wikipedia.) (And even looser.)
Note to serious, high-level pétanque players: a much better way to tire out your opponents is to make them read the FIPJP rules and strategy book.
But the vast majority of pétanque players are low-level wisenheimers who just chuck the balls around and then look at the results. It’s one degree more sophisticated than pitching pennies and (once you have the boules, which never wear out) costs less.
That’s no doubt part of the reason why pétanque is so enormously popular in France. Even the tiniest village has at least one public pétanque field, most households have a set of boules, and the annual Marseille World Pétanque Championship draws more than 10,000 competitors and 150,000 spectators. Who all cheer wildly and do the wave whenever a pointer seeks not to place a ball as close as possible to the target but at some distance from it.
Another part of the game’s popularity is that there’s no age limit (essentially, if you’ve got a pulse you can make the team), no difficult skill set to acquire and, perhaps more importantly, no significant influence of alcohol consumption on anyone’s ability to play.
And perhaps most importantly, it’s as good an excuse as any to hang around outdoors, chat with your friends and pretend that you’re doing something worthwhile.
As an indicator of pétanque’s popularity, the tiny town of Cénevières in the Lot region of southwestern France (one of my favorite parts of the solar system), with a population of around 160, has no fewer than six pétanque fields lining the main road:
That’s one for every 27 people in the town. If Paris had proportionately as many, there would be 83,000 pétanque fields in the city. Since a regulation field has a minimum area of 36 square meters, that would represent nearly 3 million square meters (about 740 acres) of space devoted solely to this dirt-simple game, which at current Paris apartment prices (€8,430 per square meter) would represent some €25 trillion worth of real estate. This is meaningless and totally beside the point, but I already did the math and want to stick it in here somewhere.
When I first moved to France, I became vaguely aware of the existence of this game, but since I’ve always been a washout in every sport I’ve ever tried (baseball was only the first of a whole list), I never had any desire to play pétanque. For years, I thought it was a witless waste of time and possibly a good way to get a crushed foot.
Then one day it happened. Nancy and I were staying at the country house of a family we know. It was a nice, sunny summer day, and we found ourselves with a gap in the activities between about 5:00 pm and dinner. And someone suggested playing pétanque.
Of course, being French, they had a set of boules. And of course, it being the country, they had dirt.
For me, it was one of those situations in which I was going along with the idea just to be sociable, but was secretly dreading it, expecting:
a) to be bored witless (it was, after all, pétanque), and
b) to lose badly (I was, after all, me).
To my surprise and gratification, it turned out that the first step in playing pétanque, according to house rules, was to serve apéritifs. Once we had all been issued a glass of something cold with a kick, we chose up sides and started heaving boules.
I have to admit: it was fun. Fortunately, no one present was either serious or high-level, so basically the game became a premise for cracking wise about each other’s throws, especially after the third round (of drinks, not pétanque).
So there I was, hanging around outdoors, chatting with friends and pretending that I was doing something worthwhile while alcohol consumption exerted no significant influence on anyone’s ability to play.
Not only was I not bored, but I didn’t lose – or at least not badly. Which is a good thing, because there’s another (non-FIPJP) rule in pétanque that would have resulted in a lot more wisecracking: according to a century-old tradition, players who fail to score a single point in an entire match are obliged to kiss, and not just anywhere, a statue or picture of a fictional pétanque figurehead: a woman named, in what must have been one of the very first lamentable English borrowings into French, “Fanny.”
Today this bare-fessedly misogynistic tradition has mostly died out, but 100 years ago pétanque players were never far from a poster like these:
Come to think of it, maybe it’s a good thing that I wasn’t born in France after all. If I had seen those Fannys as a little kid, I probably would have had dreams, but not about glory on the pétanque field.
The next new C’est Ironique will appear on July 19.
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.