Anyone who has spent time in a small village in France has at the very least absorbed some sense of the importance of the ancient game of Pétanque within French culture. Now imagine a foreigner eventually being welcomed into the members-only, Cercle de Pétanque, club in the famous town of Saint-Paul de Vence, where French icons such as Yves Montand played the game, while Marc Chagall painted in his studio nearby.
Pétanque in Saint-Paul de Vence… “Il a le sens du jeu!”
To me this was a form of heaven — being warmly accepted into a part of French culture so near-and-dear to the hearts of locals in Provence! Now, this did not come easily or quickly, in fact it started with my neighbour and friend Hubert blowing smoke in my face and exclaiming, “you cannot play, YOU ARE NOT FRENCH!”, when I dared to ask if he would teach me to play the game.
Not being one to take ‘no’ for an answer, I countered with “OK, then I’ll find somebody else to teach me because I AM going to learn to play this game.” And with that, I stormed off into my cave-like apartment, slamming my replica 15th-century heavy wooden door for effect.
After I cooled off and emerged from my self-imposed dungeon, I immediately ran into Hubert again. As I attempted to avoid him, he said, “Attends”.
What followed was a complete shock. Hubert whispered, “OK, I’ll teach you.”
“What was that?” I replied, “I don’t think I heard you correctly.”
To which he said, “Shut up before I change my mind; you heard me.” Actually he said “Ferme ta gueule”.
When I impulsively blurted out, “Great, let’s go,” Hubert replied, still whispering as if the local Culture Police might be listening, “No, not now, you fool; I’ll come find you when it’s time.”
What followed were weeks of being taught to play the wonderful game, under the cloak of darkness. Like a clandestine affair, designed to protect those involved from the public ridicule that would surely come, if such illicit activities were uncovered. Once I had proven to Hubert that my skills and understanding for the game had developed to a level well above any other foreigner to ever set foot on French soil, he permitted me to emerge from hiding and play with him against other locals in broad daylight.
As a team, we more than held our own and I became respected for my play and my deep understanding of the game that locals cherished so dearly. To this day, my most fond memory of my time living in France if of the time I executed a difficult shot and an elderly pétanque connoisseur spectator spoke up quietly, but clearly, saying “Il a le sens du jeu [He has a sense for the game].” He didn’t say that I was good at the game, rather he was pointing out that I really understood the game deeply, and with that he was communicating that he knew how difficult it was to reach that level and he was congratulating me for having had the nerve and determination to get to that point. I simply looked his way, smiled politely, nodded, and carried on playing — it was a heavenly moment to savor forever.
We all know how common it is for people to inadvertently convince us not to try new things. Far too often we hear things like, “you will probably fail”, “that won’t work”, “that’s a bad idea”, “you don’t know how to do that”, “nobody is going to help you”, “you can’t make a difference”. Somehow I was lucky to learn fairly young to say to myself, “don’t listen to them… why not try?” And it was this “why not try?” attitude that turned out to be the catalyst for my wonderful year of playing Pétanque on the hallowed grounds in front of Le Café de la Place in Saint-Paul de Vence!
My new book, “Uncorked – My year in Provence studying Pétanque, discovering Chagall, drinking Pastis, and mangling French”, is in and of itself a “why not try” endeavor. It is not about wine, rather it is about “uncorking” traditions and personal realizations. I hope that the story inspires a few people to focus some light on the creative talents deep within them, if they haven’t already “uncorked” those talents on their own yet!