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The rules of boules – it isn’t just a game in France

Boules is a serious business in France, it’s not just a game but a way of life…

An introduction to boules

Anton crouches, motionless. He cups a scuffed metal ball in his right hand, his face the picture of concentration. Seconds go by. A minute. The other players are silent as they wait for his throw. Then, without moving the rest of his body so much as a centimetre, he turns his hand over and flips the ball into the air. It floats there as if the law of gravity has been suspended. When the ball comes down with a thud, it rolls to within inches of the marker.

Robert shakes his head. “Boule devant, boule d’argent.” A front ball is a money ball. It can easily block opponents from getting closer to the marker.

Friday night is boules night in the village. The official name of boules is pétanque, meaning “feet fixed.” There’s no difference between pétanque and boules, but boules is one syllable shorter, so in our book it wins. The boules court is a flat, sandy patch in back of the village salle des fêtes, the town’s banquet hall. Mature trees surround the court, and floodlights hang from the trees to illuminate late games.

Anyone can show up and get on a team. Regulars are Anton and Sophie, Robert and Jeannine, Jean-Pierre and Josette, and Peter and Christine. The four couples are usually joined by Gilbert, Marco, and Baako, older men who live nearby. Then there’s Aimée, a sassy teenager who arrives by motorcycle and cries “Oh, putain!” whenever she misses a shot. But the de facto leader of the group is Jean-Pierre. We’re not exactly sure why this is. He’s short and shy with a round belly held in place by a sleeveless undershirt. Not the classic attributes of a leader—but leader he is.

The object of the game

The objective of the game is simple: To get your boules closer to the marker ball, or cochonnet, than those of your opponent. (Cochonnet is French for “piglet,” named for its smaller size; some are even pink.) There are two sets of rules for achieving the objective: the official rules and the village rules.

For example, the official rules call for no more than three players per team. In the village, it’s come one, come all. If people show up late, Jean-Pierre just sticks them on a team and gives the other team a couple of extra throws.

In the official rules, players are required to toss their boules from within a perfect circle drawn exactly 50 centimetres in diameter. In the village, players throw from behind a scuff mark made by Josette with the heel of her shoe.

The official rules say that each player’s boules must have a pattern of lines that distinguishes them from those of the other players. In the village, players tell their boules apart by the number of scratches and the color of the rust.

I was delighted when Sara gave me a set of boules for my birthday. Yet whenever I use them I feel slightly embarrassed. The best players have boules that are dark and rough with age; mine are still as shiny as silver dollars. When everyone’s boules are thrown, mine stand out from the others, usually somewhere outside the grouping. I feel this is a metaphor.

You’ve got to be in it to win it

Josette steps up to the line with a boule in each hand. She’s the polar opposite of Anton. Anton plays like a professional—muscular, precise, strategic. Josette just walks up to the line with a giggle and tosses the ball. If the throw happens to be a crucial one, she’ll stick out her tongue for added accuracy. Surprisingly, Anton’s and Josette’s styles seem to be equally effective.

Josette’s first ball lands just to the side of Anton’s.“Merde, pas la!” She throws her arms up in disbelief. Her second ball is right on target. It nudges Anton’s slightly to the left, replacing it with her own and holding the point for the team. She does a little victory dance, chubby arms and legs flying every which way.

“Pas mal,” says Anton, grudgingly.

Next up is Baako. Baako and Marco originally came from Italy, so they speak a sort of “Fritalian.”

“Troppo fort!” says Marco, as he throws his boule too hard, sending it past the cochonnet. He mutters something decidedly un-French, and casts his eyes heavenward. Taking a deep breath, he goes back to the line. His second ball falls short. “Oh, la la. Maintenant troppo faible!” Too weak!

Josette says that the ball probably hit a caillou—a pebble. “Ce n’est pas de ta faute,” she says, touching his arm. He seems reassured to think the pebble may be at fault.

Peter goes next. He’s tall and thin compared to the French, and looks more like cricket bowler than a boules player. He’s about to go into shooting mode. Shooting is a strategy in which the player throws the ball hard enough to knock an opponent’s boule away from the cochonnet, or the cochonnet away from an opponent’s boule.

Just as Peter is about to throw, Robert emits a barely audible clucking noise. Peter stops in mid-windup. He puts his hands on his hips, tilts his head, and stares at Robert. Their running joke is that Peter turns chicken whenever he throws. Robert looks away and feigns innocence.

Peter winds up again, and Robert clucks again. This time Peter follows through and his boule misses Josette’s by a mile, skittering off into the trees. Robert can’t contain a guffaw.

On his second throw, Peter is ready for him, and he knocks Josette’s boule off to the right with an explosive crack, leaving the cochonnet open.

Up comes Marco, a man so old that he doesn’t actually walk. He simply rocks back and forth while leaning forward. His throwing style is a miracle of efficiency: he stands ramrod straight under his sailor hat, imagining the course of the boule; then he opens his hand. The boule rolls down his fingers, onto the ground, and continues to the target as if pulled by a magnet.

This time it rolls right up to the cochonnet and holds the point.

Jeannine is the last to go. Her throwing style could be described as no style at all. Most players lead with the back of the hand as they lob the boule into the air, but Jeannine just tosses it out there underhand.

Her boule lands short of Marco’s, then rolls up close to it. So close, in fact, that all the players rush up to see who has won the round. Jean-Pierre stares at the two balls and the cochonnet. He squints and rubs his chin. He looks at Robert, who is walking from one side to the other to get a better view. Sophie says it’s Jeannine. Christine thinks it’s Marco. Members of both teams are down on their haunches to get a better look at the situation. Opinions are running about fifty-fifty. There’s no resolution in sight.

“Attention!” I shout. I’m standing just outside the group, waving my iPhone. On the screen is the Pétanque-ometer, a clever little app that David Stuart told me about. You hold your phone over the cochonnet, and the app draws concentric rings to show precisely which ball is closest. I push my way into the middle of the group.“Regardez,” I say, lining up the phone with the boules. The whole group leans in. They look at the phone. They look at me.

Then Robert starts clucking. Low at first, then louder. Soon everyone is imitating a chicken. “Look at the screen,” I say, “It’s Jeannine. Jeannine is closest!” The clucking gives way to out-and-out heckling.

“Merci, monsieur iPhone,” says Robert. He turns to the crowd: “Mesdames et messieurs, c’est Steve Jobs!”

Aimée runs over to a lavender bush and breaks off a length of stem. She runs back and stretches it from the cochonnet to one boule, and then to the other. She looks up at Jean-Pierre.

“C’est Marco!” he cries. The players nod their heads in agreement. Jean-Pierre looks at me pityingly, and says I can throw out the marker to start the next round.

“Allez, monsieur iPhone,” he says, handing me the cochonnet.

Eileen and Sara beam from the sidelines. We were in.

Marty Neumeier is the author of Beginning French: Lessons from a Stone Farmhouse by Les Americains, read our review here.

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