Shortly after the French bit the bullet and elected Nic Sarkozy (American lover! Immigrant not-lover! Salami eater!) over Ms. Royale (Well dressed!, Well mannered! A true French mum for us all!) it seemed like a good time to check in on mes amis francais to see how they were getting along under la nouvelle salade compose’. I am pleased to report the French are going about doing what they do best: being French. In my opinion, this means getting a very quiet revenge on the entire rest of the civilized world by drinking wine, eating foie gras, and playing La Boule like that’s all there is.
In the words of the now immortal Sebou, plus que ca change, plus que c’est la meme chose.
And where is the best place to enjoy this most French of traditions of tossing steel balls in efforts to get close by a small cork one? Without a doubt, The Café outside the fortress wall of St.Paul de Vence. Uh, that’s in France, BTW.
First, a wee bit of background on St.P.de V. Situated on the hills overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the town was a medieval fortress with commanding views (always that way, isn’t it?). The winding streets are a haven for art galleries and food lovers. Palm D’or is there. Chagall has a museum down the street (he’s gone, though). The city itself has preserved its fountains, cemeteries, cathedrales, cobblestones, public wash basins, and other key elements in drawing busloads of tourists to the place. A visit to St Paul de Vence is on many a must-see list, but many people rush from bus to shop and back, and walk right on by the best part of it all.
La Boule, played to the death!
I’ve watched this game from afar, played it up close, and observed it from every angle imaginable. (My buddy Gauthier at Quarterback actually hosts the Petanque Championships in Arles each year, but this piece isn’t about winning, it’s about living). A few rules to begin perhaps? Start with a softly undulating chipped clay surface, with just enough stray stones to knock the ball off course every once in a maddening while. A small (golf ball size) cork ball is tossed gently. Then each player takes a turn trying to lodge his boule closest to the object. (think shuffleboard, in a circular way). If your toss does not better the previous, you toss until done. Rolling gets you no-where. Pebbles disrupt everything. The prized shot is actually the sky ball, descending from the heaven, to annihilate a tightly clustered bunch of opponent’s boules, a partner’s shins, and perhaps some poor dog’s tooth who was after the chicken bone dropped nearby sometime earlier. When each team (of two) has finished, a succinct analysis is made, that being who remains closest the object ball, which has likely moved by now. Bonus scoring is achieved if all three of your boules are inside the best of your opponents. Everything is argued passionately: the boule moved! The pebble got in the way! The object was too far (left, right, away, close). The dog interfered! You cheat like Sarkozy! You cry like Segolene! Finally, peace is restored when a tape measure is introduced to settle once and for all in centimeters what the eye just can’t discern. And voila, one team declares victory for the round. Whereupon, the cork is gently tossed, the boules are wiped clean, the dog scatters for cover and we go again.
The game is sublimely simple. Maddeningly complicated. Requires no great physical prowess. And goes on forever. Which is why it is good to choose a good place to play. I knew the busloads don’t get it, but when I came upon – Café I knew I was in Yankee Stadium. It is has an amazing view of the valley and the coast, and room enough for at least 30 games of boules simultaneously. The Horse chestnut trees have halogen lights. The café is alongside to serve cold drinks, wine, and more wine. A clubhouse is nestled in the corner, with tapes, ball cloths, and extra visors. And the gravel is divine, some absolutely perfect clay that really only hangs around in that area, I am guessing.. No doubt, I am not the first to notice all this, because the crowd for boules is entirely locals, huge, and entirely mad. They play and play and play. They make the nuts in Jardin Luxembourg look like schoolboys. And they play well into the night. Like 2am into the night! The café never turns out the lights on a game. The bathrooms stay open. Wives who call the bar are told the last game is just finishing up… and the wine never runs out.
Kind of like the way it should be in more places, I think.