What is this game, le baseball?
A visitor from the US introduces a French village to the great American pastime.
In 1974, when I was 24, I had the rare good fortune to spend six months with a family in France. That era was probably the last hurrah for a certain picturesque notion of France, the one from your high school grammar book, with little Paul and Paulette trotting off to école, with old men playing boules, with francs instead of euros, and with the sighting of an occasional beret. It was an age before the French discovered McDonald's, Disneyland, and supermarkets the size of airplane hangars.Skip to next paragraph
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The Thomases lived in the département of Vendée, half a mile from the village of Montournais, a traditional French town centered around a stone church and a village square. Downtown Montournais had a bakery, two small grocery stores, a butcher shop, a hotel, several cafes, a town hall, and a fishmonger. Mme. Thomas shopped at three or four stores each day, sometimes for each meal, gathering fresh ingredients.
Just outside the family home was a vegetable garden – M. Thomas's pride – lettuce, tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers, and onions picked daily for the evening meal.
From the garden, I could see a soccer field belonging to a nearby school (where M. Thomas was professor of English) and hear the cries and shouts of the players.
In other directions I saw farmland, gently rolling fields, small stands of trees. Across one field was a dairy farm owned by two brothers who were close friends of the family. We ate cheeses of the region, fresh farm eggs, and milk from cows we knew by sight.
My first Saturday in France, I unveiled my secret plan: a baseball game to be played on the school soccer field.
The week before I left America, I had trawled garage sales and flea markets and collected a team's worth of used bats, balls, and mitts, all stowed in an army duffel bag.
At the time, I wasn't sure exactly what I was going to do with my trove of equipment, but on that day, I decided it was a good time to teach the pastime to my new friends.
As in any sandlot game in America, I first commandeered some spare shirts and jackets and folded them into squares for use as base pads. M. Thomas led his students onto the field while a crowd of neighbors and onlookers watched me stake out the bases.
I unbuckled the duffel bag and passed out the mitts and balls. This was extremely interesting to the French – the oddest objects they had ever seen: "No, Sophie, that is not a chapeau. It goes on your hand. Your left hand."
About then, some of the older boys left their soccer-kicking and joined the tryouts.
I designated myself pitcher, manager, and captain, and appointed the most athletic-looking of the teenagers as infielders: première, secondaire, troisième. The six or seven little ones I sent to the outfield, which I considered the safest place for them.