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A Passion for Pétanque
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In La Ciotat in 1907 a man named Jules Lenoir was starting to suffer from rheumatism. He loved to play boules, the French version of bowls where you take a run up and throw the ball down a long pitch. Jules was finding it hard to run, so he asked his friends if he could sit down on a chair and throw from there. They agreed, but said he was at a disadvantage. They decided they would all abandon their run-up, and throw with their feet together from within the same small circle drawn on the ground, where Jules could place his chair. And that's how pétanque differs from boules, and how it got its name: the Provençal words ped tanco, or pieds tanqués in French, mean having your feet stuck to the ground.
So now here I am with my feet stuck to hallowed ground, in the medieval hill village of St-Paul-de-Vence, near Nice, learning to play pétanque in Provence. My tutor is Rudy Gross, who had the bright idea of offering pétanque lessons to interested visitors. Rudy's giving me an hour's lesson outside the Café de la Place in St-Paul, where local resident and French movie hero Yves Montand used to play every day, when he wasn't away filming. He and his wife Simone Signoret brought famous names to St-Paul, people like Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles, and Montand would drag them down to the boulodrome.
Today it's just me and Rudy, which is probably just as well as Rudy is the kind of tutor who takes no prisoners. I might even be in danger of having to kiss Fanny, which is apparently what you do when you don't win a single point and lose 13-0 at pétanque.
I haven't met Fanny yet, but Rudy has introduced me to the little pig. The cochonnet is the name of the small wooden jack, that the first player throws a distance of 6-10 metres, from within the circle scraped in the earth with your foot. Rudy throws the little pig, followed by his first boule, which lands what seems to be a long way from the jack, till it rolls slowly over the bumpy ground and ends up almost touching it. I throw my first boule, which lands what seems to be a long way from the jack, and stays there. This means I throw again, until I either get closer to the little pig than Rudy, or I run out of boules.
I run out of boules. Rudy steps back into the circle and his two remaining boules also nestle close to the jack. 3-0 to Rudy. At singles you normally have four boules each, but we're playing a kind of petit pétanque for beginners. It takes me a little time to get used to the weight of the boules, and the ruts and bumps in the pitch.
'There are all kinds of tactics, of course,' says Rudy. 'If your opponent likes to play short, you throw the jack long. If you can land your boules in front of the jack, you block the way. But that's when your opponent might throw a bomb, throw his boule up in the air and land it right on the jack, to knock it away from your boules towards his own.'
I'd be content just to get one boule closer to the jack than Rudy's, but my moment of glory is at hand. Rudy throws the jack and it rolls into a little rut that runs across the pitch – one of the delights of playing pétanque. His first boule is a little too fast and goes into the rut but out the other side and away. I see my chance, and throw my boule so it lands gently in the rut and rolls along it to within a foot of the jack. Rudy tries to sneak in with his second boule but he goes too far past. I've got my eye in and my second boule drops gently into the rut, six inches from the jack.
'Ooh-la-la,' says Rudy, now only with one boule left, with which he tries to blast my boules, and/or the jack, out of the way. But he misses and only succeeds in putting a dent into the side of the pétanque pitch, where many other chips and holes make it look like it's been hit by cannonballs over the years. Now it's my final boule. Do I play safe and aim to miss, knowing I've got two points in the bag? Or do I go for broke, and risk knocking the jack closer to Rudy? Damn it, I'm British, we play to win. My third boule performs a miracle and drops slowly into the gap, almost kissing the little pig. 3-0 to le rosbif!
Sadly it was only a very brief moment of glory. His pride dented like the wall round the pitch, Rudy got stuck in and won 13-3.
'So I don't have to kiss Fanny?' I asked.
'Come inside and meet Fanny,' Rudy said, and we went into the bar. There was a little frame on the wall, with the curtains pulled across. Rudy tugged on a string and voila – there was a pair of plump pink cheeks, and I don't mean facial ones. In Britain you get the wooden spoon or a duck. At pétanque you get to kiss a lady's bottom, even if it is a ceramic one should there be no real Fannies to hand. I'm beginning to see the appeal of pétanque.
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