Playing a fun game of Pétanque (French) is a terrific way to spend a pleasant and socially distanced evening outdoors in the fall. Or in any season for that matter, except winter!! We discovered our love of this fun game while visiting a Club Med on the Bahamian Island of San Salvador many years ago. We were at the mercy of the magnanimous French guests who, with kindness and guile, allowed us to join their pre-dinner games and so seduced us with its magic, only to cream us when we thought we’d mastered it!
Ideal for these socially distanced times, the charming game of Pétanque doesn’t need to involve close proximity to be played. Although a very ‘social’ sport, it can be performed without in-your-face closeness and it’s also an outdoor activity. It can be played by two or more people and can also be played as teams. The players involved can keep their distance easily and thus avoid close contact.
Similar games, depending on the country of origin, go by other names, such as Boules (also French) or Bocce Ball (Italian). The differences are in the size and kind of balls used as well as the techniques for throwing or bowling the balls. The scoring system is the same, though. There are other similarities too, such as the strategy and the competition that invariably surfaces as people get into the spirit of a game.
We play Pétanque regularly and still cannot beat the French players — even here at home in the Laurentians of Québec—the locals are experts. It’s in their DNA.
For the Love of the Game
We recently invested in our own set of boules (the better to bone up on the game in our spare time) consisting of 8 balls, or four sets of two. It also comes with what’s called the “cochonnet”, a little red ball, (the target, often referred to as the ‘Jack’ in English) and a neat measuring gadget to be used when the distance between your boule and an opponent’s boule vis à vis the cochonnet is heavily disputed. You can tell the boules apart when playing by the various etched designs on the pairs of balls.
All these elements are neatly packaged in a padded wicker basket which has a handy carrying handle. The whole thing weighs a ton. That’s because the balls weigh a hefty 1.5 pounds each.
We’re fortunate that we live in proximity to several parks where there are actual regulation sized, night lit, boules courts. Or, as our Francophone friends say, “les pistes.” But not to worry, if you have no piste, boules can be played anywhere as long as there’s a minimum of 2 x 12 metres of space. Ideally the surface would be sand or fine gravel. A beach makes a perfect place to play, for example.
In our experience, simply showing up in the park to play boules has enabled us to meet a lot of new friends and to learn to converse more fluently in French with people in our community and age group. Boules is very popular with the local retirees as it’s not hard on the body, keeps people social and engages the mind in strategy and wit. And laughter abounds! Another great reason to play.
Every game of boules is a challenge involving snappy conversations, egging on, cheerful disdain, laughter and of course, fierce competition. It wouldn’t be boules otherwise. Teamwork, collaboration and strategy challenge our minds while coordination and deft and skillful play add physical challenges too. Bending, stretching, and tossing the heavy balls provide a subtle workout while playing the game as does walking back and forth to either end of the piste. And everyone’s heart and soul goes into winning. It’s a serious game! But full of fun and in the end not serious at all — unless you lose!
Celebratory drinks follow most matches but these days, they’re courtside instead of at our local watering hole. Nor are there pats on the back or kisses on either cheek! We mime those two gestures and each player brings their own verre de vin and then, at the end of the evening we say “bonne nuit” and everyone heads off into the sunset!
Au Jeu! — To the Game!
Winning a game involves a person or team being the first to reach 13 points. The points are scored based on whose balls are closest to the cochonnet after all the balls have been thrown. A match consists of 3 games. Trust me, as a novice, the game and its scoring take time to understand. It’s best to learn from a professional site or booklet, but even better to just play the game with those who know!
So, If you’d like to know more about how to play and score Pétanque, I direct you to a site where the rules and game play are better described by an expert, rather than me! There are a lot of subtle nuances to be learned and believe you me, competitive players know them all!
And I also recommend that you check out the BBC TV show (or book) popular years ago called “A Year in Provence” by author Peter Mayle to witness, in the ‘Summer’ chapter, a game changing episode where the Brits vs the French living in a small, Provençal town, overcome their differences during a lively yet serious game of boules and seal their lasting friendship.