Thursday, 13 September 2012

La pétanque

In Provence, the people work hard and play hard.

Every possible opportunity for socializing is exploited to a maximum (unless, of course, it falls within the sacred hour of la sieste - the afternoon nap that is so necessary after a long summer lunch). And one of the most sociable activities known to les provencaux is a good old game of Pétanque.

The well-known French game of boules doesn't exist here in the south. Ask a Marseillais or an Aixois to play boules with you, and you'll get little more than a strange look and a shrug of the shoulders in return. Here, we play pétanque. To the untrained eye, this may appear to be the same game by another name. There are, however, some subtle differences... In traditional boules, for example, the player takes several steps before rolling a metal ball, with a technique similar to lawn bowls, towards a little wooden target ball (the cochonnet). The player that rolls his metal ball nearest to the wooden one wins the round.

In pétanque, however, the player keeps his feet firmly planted - or tanqués - in a set position (usually a circle drawn in the sand), from whence the name: pieds tanqués... The metal balls are not rolled, but rather thrown underarm, chimpanzee-style. Furthermore, pétanque is generally played in teams of two, each with his own strategic role. One player aims to throw his ball nearest to the target, whilst the other aims to hit the opponent's balls and knock them out of line. Pétanque can be played just about anywhere, as it requires a much shorter court than boules; the terrain just needs to be relatively flat, dry and, ideally, sandy (a gravel driveway is pretty good!):  

This variant of the sport is reported to have been invented in La Ciotat, a village situated along the coast to the east of Marseille, in the early 1900s. The inventor of the game is thought to have been suffering from arthritis, and so was unable to participate in a local boules tournament. And so, on a small boules court next to the local café, he persuaded his friends to try his new version of the game. Apparently, it went down well; I like to imagine that this is because the steps required to play conventional boules become wobbly and unpredictable in the case of the serious player, who will have drunk several glasses of pastis before spitting on his hands and stepping up to take his shot. Because a real game of pétanque lasts for a whole afternoon, during which much pastis and rosé wine are consumed by the players (often accompanied by sucking of teeth and efforts to distract the opponent). Should a cochonnet be lost, it is very frequently replaced by a wine cork - so much so that the little wooden ball has come to be known as a bouchon (a cork). The pétanque world championships are held in Marseille every year, attracting hundreds of enthusiasts from all over the world. All participants are presented with a bag of goodies before they even begin to play, including a bottle of pastis per player. I can only assume that this improves performance.

Pétanque courts litter the region, my personal favourite being the one in front of the cathedral in Marseille, with its own sea view, and local bars within easy staggering distance. Ask any inebriated local if he plays, and he will regale you with stories of cheating neighbours, dogs on the court, and that time, in his 20s, when he so very nearly won the championship...

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