ochester, New York, located on the shores of Lake Ontario, has its legendary charms. From beautiful fall foliage to the burial place of Frederick Douglas, we have the Jazz and Fringe Festivals, many Halloween decorations, and it may surprise you to learn that we also have a thriving, but small, pétanque community.
WHAT IS PETANQUE?
Yes, well, it is a game, which originated in the south of France, played on a dirt or gravel surface. Metal balls, called boules, approximately the size of tennis balls, are assigned either to teams or to individual players. A much smaller ball, (in our case orange) is thrown first. This smaller orange ball is called a piglet, un cochonnet. After the piglet is thrown, the players throw their own boules trying to get as close as possible to it. The game was codified in 1907 in Provence, and when you hear that, codified in France, your heart skips a beat, because that means many many rules, replete with a governing body: FIPJP. (Even the number of letters is not a good sign.)
The first team (or person) to reach 13 wins. You score one point for having your boule being closest to le cochonnet. Now if more of your boules are closest, you can score more points. It is possible to have all of your boules closest to le cochonnet, and thereby score lots of points, but it is rare to score more than two points per game (in my vast experience of 5 or 6 games played).
Let’s imagine there are two teams with two players each. Each person on the team has a set of three balls, boules, as they are called. The trick is to be sure that each set of boules is distinguishable from the other sets. Some sets are scored; some are silver; some are black. It is a fine art, selecting the weight and size of the boules, particularly for championship play.
LET’S GET STARTED
Someone draws a circle, where each competitor must stand, feet in the circle, to throw anything. Bocce, an Italian cousin, is more like bowling, apparently, with a couple of steps before the rolling.
The person in the circle, called le pointeur, throws le cochonnet. It must be 4 meters to 8 meters away from the circle and 1 meter from any obstacle.
Now, the person who threw the cochonnet, throws the first boule. It is the most beautiful swing when it is done well. You palm the ball on the inside of your hand, and then the arm draws back, steady and firm, like a pendulum. The pendulum swings forward and you release the ball with just the right amount of force. The aim is to get as close to the piglet as you can. Each team member then takes their turn. The one farthest from the cochonnet goes next.
1. Practice. The organizer of our Rochester pétanque kindly lent me three boules to practice. Well, it got busy around here, so just before a game, I thought I could at least practice my swing. Following the above dictates, I spent a few minutes channeling a pendulum. When I got to the pitch, the organizer commented that my swing was better than that first unschooled day. “I practiced!” I trumpeted. When he asked where, and I told him the living room, he looked surprised. “Your neighbors must really have loved that.” I did not admit that my practice was basically an Internet affair. Despite my initial success, I later developed a rocking motion. (No good.) And a bouncing up and down. (No good.) It is harder than you think to turn your arm into a pendulum and release the ball without throwing it. One of our members has a very fluid swing, which we all admire. His French relatives could not believe that there was a pétanque group in Rochester, NY. We are now immortalized in his cell phone. These same relatives wondered why we were not drinking Pastis, an anise-based drink with 40-45% alcohol/volume, diluted, it’s true, with water or ice. (Wine averages about 12% alcohol.) Pastis has replaced the famous absinthe, which was outlawed.
2. Placing and shooting. Sometimes you want to place your boule, to get as close as you can to the piglet. But sometimes you want to drive the opponents away, in which case, you swing high and try to land your boule on top of theirs. Two of our group squat to do their pendulum thing, and I must say their aim is quite accurate. Their boules are able to kiss le couchnet. Now all these elaborate placings (pointings) and shootings can come to nothing if somebody actually hits le cochonnet, wildly displacing it so that my boule, for example, poorly aimed and poorly thrown, lying lonely and far away, is suddenly somehow the new neighbor of le cochonnet.
3. Use all the right expressions. You can say, Caillou! Which means your boule hit a stone; otherwise, its placement would have been perfect. Zero plus Zero égal la tête à Toto. (Zero plus zero, in keeping score, turns out to equal the head of Toto.) This is a French thing where you have a visual representation of zero. If you add zero to zero, you get zero. So draw a big zero. Put two little zeros for eyes and a plus sign for the nose; the equal sign is the mouth. Other remarks characterize the path between you and le cochonnet. For example, you’ve got the equivalent of the boulevard, Le Champs Elysées or the round-about, La Place de la Concorde, before you. And don’t forget the various swear words, such as putain, which literally means “whore,” but covers a multitude of colorful expressions.
4. Talk about cuisine. Our menfolk interrupt the game to talk about their favorite recipes and even show pictures on their phone of various croissants stuffed with du jambon et du fromage (ham and cheese). We have a good French restaurant in Rochester, I pipe up, called Roux. “Where do you get good bread in Rochester? I can’t find any?” someone asks. “Have you tried the Public Market?” I ask. This continues until someone says, Zero plus Zero égal la tête à Toto, or some such, and we carry on.
5. Read funny articles about pétanque. https://www.parisupdate.com/sports-france-plebian-pleasure-petanque/
6 Grieve that pétanque was denied admittance into the Paris 2024 Olympic games.
I fear Beckett, the author of Waiting for Godot, was born too far north, namely in Ireland, to appreciate the game, and so he does not incorporate pétanque into his play. I also found no evidence that he played the game himself.
Me: Perhaps, M Beckett, we could retitle your play, Waiting for Pétanque?
M Beckett: Et tu, Brute? Everyone fiddles with my play. I overlooked the name of your blog, writing4godot. But now this?
Me: The best I can do for the vagrants is to say that they engage not in pétanque, but in in pe-talk. That is their game of choice.
M Beckett: Petanque, pe-talk, are they really that different? Standing around, shooting the breeze, waiting for that lucky throw to save you?
Me: So we’re good to go with Waiting for Pétanque?
M Beckett: Let me say this. Pétanque is waiting for you.
Here’s a clip in French with subtitles.