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Marty Neumeier reveals how to make friends in France over a game of bo 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.
oules 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. ules... 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 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!
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