The thrill of the toss ... the agony of argument
Pétanque, the everyman's sport of France, involves a 'little pig,' a lot of skill, and an attitude.
Aix-en-Provence, France — On a hard, rutted courtyard in the village of Le Tholonet, beside a shaded patio where the Impressionist Paul Cezanne lunched with friends, the Provençals play pétanque.
White-haired men and a smattering of women stand beneath the broad plane trees, tossing silver metal balls toward brightly colored smaller ones yards away. Then they cluster in tight circles to examine their handiwork. They stare awhile. One gestures, another shrugs, a third thrusts a finger forward to make a point. And in the background, someone keeps chattering, a self-appointed color commentator of this game, also called boules.
It's Victory in Europe Day, a holiday commemorating Germany's surrender in 1945. Some of these guys look like they might have fought back then. Two days ago, France elected a new president. But on the hard dirt of Le Tholonet, where nine pétanque games progress simultaneously, no one is debating history or politics. They're too busy arguing about millimeters – or, more specifically, which player's ball, or boule, has rolled closest to the target, called the cochonnet, or little pig.
It's a scene played out daily across this sun-drenched region: on weekday evenings and Sunday afternoons, on beaches and back roads and at designated boulodromes – from the hillside villages of the Luberon Mountains to Avenue de Pétanque on the Mediterranean's La Ciotat, where the game was invented, some say, 100 years ago.
"Everywhere you live in [the South of France] you can walk to a pétanque court," Alain Gimenez tells me. He grew up playing near Marseille. "If you stop in any village, you have the town center. You have the church. You have the boulangerie. And you have pétanque."
And where there is a game, there is also the "social theater" that accompanies it, says Alec Stone Sweet, a Yale law professor and pétanque fanatic. For in the South of France, pétanque is more than a sport. It is more than a social gathering. It's a reaffirmation of the art of argumentation.
"It's all about attitude," says Mr. Gimenez, who is moving back to Provence this summer from San Diego. "In the south [of France], pétanque is much more interesting and much more passionate. It's interesting because there is all this argument. There is all this confrontation…. Almost anything is tolerated on the pétanque court."
Just as chess players relive moves long after their contests end, pétanque players relive their game's great moments on and off the court, leaning in, gesturing, pantomiming a controversial point to show why the presumption that someone else's boule came closer to the cochonnet than their own is undoubtedly no more than optical illusion.
"Exaggeration and embroidery is a very important part of the Provençal character," says Peter Mayle, author of the bestselling "A Year in Provence." "You've got to have a row with the people you're playing with."
Not that all these rows are light-hearted, either. At the elite level, pétanque's social theater often veils the passion and at times desperation of those whose dinner may depend on their ability to challenge and beat others for a negotiated stake, says Mr. Stone Sweet, who last year was the highest-ranking American among more than 12,000 players entered in the Mondial la Marseillaise à Pétanque, the world's biggest annual tournament.
"One has to be mentally tough to play at an elite level," he wrote on LaBouleNY.com. "Even in relatively polite games, there is an important language, not always verbal, that mixes respect and aggression."
And sometimes there is behavior that skirts the perimeter of cheating. Alain Gimenez knows from experience. He began playing at age 6 on family outings. He introduced the game to his American wife, Mitzi Gimenez, the first time they met. They kept playing, she eventually as president of San Diego's club. And on a hot summer night a decade ago they found themselves in a three-on-three tournament with Alain's father, Jean-Pierre, in the village of Les Cadeneaux, matched against three men intent on one thing: winning.
Pétanque's rules are encoded and clear. Someone tosses the cochonnet 20 to 30 feet from a circle carved in the dirt. Each player (competitively there are two or three to a team) tosses from the same circle – feet fixed, les pieds tanques – trying to roll or drop their balls closest to the cochonnet. In each round of competition, the team that gets one or more balls closer to the cochonnet than any opponents' balls scores a point for each. The first to reach 13 wins.
But the game has its subtlety. Instead of rolling close to the little pig, players can blast their opponents' balls away or hit the cochonnet itself to move it. Each toss can change the court's – and game's – configuration.
What's not supposed to change is the playing surface itself. The rules say obstacles – twigs, rocks, bumps – should not be disturbed.
"You read the terrain in the same way a golfer reads the green," Alain Gimenez says.
But that night at Les Cadeneaux, his and Mitzi's opponents marched steadily back and forth between circle and cochonnet, packing down their path as they went.
"These guys were doing a soft-shoe shuffle," Mitzi Gimenez recalls. "They were smoothing a lane about a foot wide."
Other times, players try to gain an edge with a distinctly French form of trash talk. "They'll break your concentration," Mitzi says of the personal needling that crackles in the air.
Though they've played other tournaments with a modest purse, Alain and Mitzi count themselves among those pétanque players – an estimated 18 million in France alone – who play primarily for recreation. Another 450,000 French are registered, competitive players, says Franck Filiaggi, director of La Musée Pétanque in Vallauris. Smaller numbers play, competitively and recreationally, in countries from Great Britain to New Zealand.
Each year, the Marseillaise tournament draws a mix of the social and the serious. Individual entry fees are 5 euros. All comers are welcome. So this July, Alain, Mitzi, and Jean-Pierre will try for the first time. Alain has no illusions he'll be joining Stone Sweet in the final rounds. Mitzi, however, might turn a few heads just by showing up.
"I think it's exceptional," Jean-Pierre Gimenez says of an American woman competing in the men's division. He's proud to be playing alongside her – even though just seven years ago his club in La Gavotte told Alain that Mitzi, as a woman, wasn't welcome on the court.
Jean-Pierre insists his fellow club members are behind his team, though the all-male contingent the day I visit suggests little has changed. I've come to watch Jean-Pierre, a retired cop who plays at least two hours a day. But soon I'm playing against him, trying mightily not to embarrass myself too badly.
Jean-Pierre's team has the game's talker, a tall fellow in a white straw hat who seems determined to keep me on my heels.
"So what's the allowed diameter of each boule?" he asks in French.
I haven't a clue.
"65 to 80 millimeters," he says.
"How far do you throw the cochonnet?"
"Six to 10 meters?"
Later, as his teammate shoots, he snaps a command at me: "Two meters. Two meters!"
That, I learn, is how much breathing room the competition is supposed to give the shooter to keep from distracting him. Supposed to is the operative word term here.
"Two meters. Two meters," I warn "straw hat" later as I prepare to shoot.
"Bien." He stops jabbering and backs off.
I'm not sure if I contributed much to my team's 2-games-to-1 victory that day. But I know I scored at least one point – a beginner's parry in the art of argumentation.