That French Champ is an American

It’s too late to back out now!  What was to transpire in the next few seconds would determine the outcome of this contest and if my partner and I would be the winners. The responsibility of carrying this out was mine. A strong feeling of not belonging came over me– the country was not mine, the language was difficult for me, and this game of boule (pronounced bool) was introduced to me only eight months before– yet here I was in a position of becoming a champion at this French sport! If I could have backed out at this moment, or had my partner take my turn, I surely would have done so.

Perhaps first I should mention some of the background of how I came to find myself in this position. It had been my good fortune to have been awarded a one-year special fellowship from the National Cancer Institute to do research in the laboratory of Dr. Jacques Monod, a Nobel Prize Winner, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, France. My wife and two children were able to go with me and we took an apartment in a totally French neighborhood.

The research in which I was involved was so completely inspiring and absorbing that I was surprised to find myself spending considerable time socially with our French neighbors. One was Gerard Salvucci who owned  a laundry on  the ground floor of our apartment building and another was Albert Alazet, a Paris policeman. These friends offered to teach me to play their sport of boule.

My introduction to boule was in the forest of Vincennes where Gerard and Albert took me one Saturday in February. They first pointed out that the official name of the game was petanque and that boule, the French word for ball, was the name used by everyone. The game is played with little equipment and on any plot of ground, preferably dirt surface, that need be only slightly larger than your living room rug. The equipment consists of the boules, which are steel balls about three inches in diameter, and a small wooden ball used as a marker or target.

Initially, the rules and terminology were somewhat confusing to me due to the language barrier. But as I began playing, the rules and such terms as pointeur and tireur came to have a clear meaning. The pointeur is a player who is good at rolling his ball close to the target, and the tireur is the player who is good at knocking an opponent’ s ball way from the target and therefore out of play.

Some of the fundamentals of the game which were pointed out to me are that no more than twelve balls are used in a game and there may be six players, three on each time with two balls each, or four players, two on each team with three balls each.

A game begins with the flip of a coin to determine which team plays first. A player on the team winning the toss, draws a circle on the ground, stands in it and tosses the target a distance of 20 to 30 feet. The first player, the pointeur, stands in the circle and rolls his boule as close as possible to the target. The opponents  must now decide whether it is more advantageous  to have their tireur try to knock this ball out of play or have their pointeur  roll  until he places a ball closer to the target than the opponents’. From 1 to 6 points can be scored in any single match, depending upon the number of balls closer to the marker than the nearest opponents’. There may be any number of matches, but the first team to reach 13 points wins the game.

As I learned the fine points of the game, my family became interested and we purchased a set of balls. My wife and two children would often join me for a game in a nearby park where other families were playing.

At this time I thought that playing with Gerard and Albert at Vincennes, or with my family, would be the only contact I would have with boule. My progress was quick however and Gerard and Albert were soon introducing me to some of their friends. One Saturday in May we went to Clignancourt in the North of Paris where I met Rene, Max and Serge. They were three more Paris policemen who liked to play boule. We formed a team to play against one another every Saturday at Clignancourt.

None of my boule friends spoke English. I was only learning the French language and perhaps speaking the little I knew with a Mexican accent, since I had been raised along the Mexican border.  But the language difference didn’t seem important.  It is amazing what an atmosphere of relaxation, spirited fun, and a real desire on everyone’s part to be friends can do to by-pass the language barrier. Their warm friendship was so spontaneous that I soon felt completely accepted which was most gratifying.  This gave me a glimpse into the everyday life of the French people that I could not have attained otherwise.

During the summer months we began to play on Sundays in the Tuileries, the gardens of the Louvre. Many American and British tourists would walk through the Tuileries, stop to watch our games, and talk about us in English with no apparent concern of being understood. The fact that the tourists thought I was French pleased my friends as much as it pleased me.

In the fall, I began playing on Friday afternoons also. Albert and I would meet at noon and go to a small restaurant where we ate lunch. We began with Pernot, which is the most popular aperitif in Paris; there would be wine, at least one bottle each with the main course; a carafe of wine with the cheese course; fruits with Kirsch, and coffee with brandy. I almost got used to this pace, which of course, many of the French are quite accustomed.

There are several petanque clubs in Paris where the men join together for competitive play.  These contests are open to all players in the city and the winners are awarded trophy’s. I wanted to enter a competitive contest before I left Paris. There are several during the summer and fall when everyone is active playing boule. I knew there wasn’t much chance of winning, but I wanted the experience of playing with these Frenchmen.

A contest had been announced in Clignancourt and Gerard, Albert, Rene, Max, Serge and I were entering. When we arrived, we were informed that those persons without a playing license could not participate. I discovered one has to have a playing license in order to enter the competitions. I urged my friends to enter as it would be enjoyable for me to watch them play, but all five men refused because I wasn’t allowed to participate. We then went to another part of the park and had our regular Saturday afternoon game of boule. After this, my friends saw to it that I became a member of their club and was issued a license for competitive play.

The last, and as it turned out, the only contest that I would have the opportunity to enter was in October, as I was due to leave Paris within a few  weeks. Gerard and Albert made sure my license was in order so there could be no question of my competing in this contest. Players from many clubs about the city entered.

It was announced that each team would consist of two participants, a pointeur and a tireur. I knew that in competitive play where only two players are on one team, each player must complement the other in order to win.  This became more of a challenge because even with an excellent partner, I must play well if we were to win against the caliber of players that were present. Names of participants were put into a hat, pointeurs in one and tireurs in another. Those drawn together were matched as partners. My name was drawn with Charles Haran, who is considered one of the foremost tireurs in Paris. The scorekeeper assigned opponents at random and we began to play.

We won the first several matches by skillful play on both Charles’ and my part. I had been rolling each ball with greater accuracy than ever before, and each came to lie close to the target. This kept the pressure on our opponents, forcing them to play. Charles had been throwing with his usual skill and removing our opponents’ balls when they came to lie too close to the target. We continued to survive the early matches with the competition becoming stiffer with each new game. By the last game the competition was terrific. Each winner of each previous game was pitted against Charles Haran and me, since we were winners in our games.

As the final game began I became tense with the increasing pressure. Our opponents made 4 straight points. Charles’ encouragement helped me regain my confidence, and we began playing better and scored 9 points. We felt for the first time we might win. Perhaps we became a little overconfident because our opponents quickly pulled ahead 12 to 9. We now were in a difficult spot. Our opponents needed 1 point to win and we needed 4. Our hopes began to rise as Charles’ skillful play gained 1 point in the next match and we were down only 10 to 12.

My mind flashes back now to that final match – I had to play first. I carefully surveyed the ground over which my ball had to pass in order to stop near the target. Although it was a cool autumn afternoon, I was perspiring. I released the ball with a gentle force and was breathless as it rolled toward the target. It came to rest within the five inches of the target. “A good roll!” I thought.

Our opponents exhausted three of their balls before the fourth came to lie closer than mine.   We had the advantage.  Now it was up to Charles to remove this threat. My partner with his great confidence took aim and threw his ball with such force that I knew when it made contact there would be nothing left of that steel circle which was denying us victory. The resulting crack of steel meeting steel moved their ball far out of play!

“It’s your turn again, my worthy opponents!” my mind raced on.

Our opponent refused to be beaten. Again he rolled his ball closer to the target than mine. Charles threw his ball and again the resounding blow was rewarding as the second ball was knocked out of scoring range.

“Play opponent, play your last ball!” my mind admonished.

He did! His last roll injected his ball between mine and the target. He would score unless my partner could remove this threat. It would be a difficult throw.

“Please, Charles, please be careful!”

My partner released his ball and the resulting crack of steel on steel could be heard throughout the gardens of the Louvre. Charles’ ball had hit mine first and knocked it into our opponent’s. Their potential score had been lost and so had mine, but Charles’ ball stopped near the target and we had 1 point.

I had two balls to roll …  “Could I score?  I must score!”  The championship rested on these two shots.  I surveyed the ground with a steady eye.  I had to miss the small stone just inches to the left of the path my ball must take, but not hit the small branch just to the right. There was that slight rise in the playing surface obstructing a direct roll to the target.  My ball had to have the force to climb over this obstacle but not too forceful or it would pass the target on its descent. I released it. It passed the stone and the branch safely and began its climb; it had the momentum to overcome the rise, then it began the descent toward the target.

“Watch out for Charles’ ball, don’t hit it!”

It came to lie within a single inch of the target. This was our 12th point. “One more point to win — just one more point!”

The pressure was overbearing.  I paused and reflected for just a few seconds. “How had I gotten myself in this position? I came to this country to do research, yet at this moment the most important thing was whether I could get this steel ball out of my hand and close to the target which lay about 30 feet in front of me. Can’t I back out now?”

I glanced over the crowd which was watching. Many of these people had become my friends over the past few months even though I still had difficulty with the language. They were pulling for me even though in the back of their minds they knew that I was too new to this game to be playing with these seasoned veterans; and that I shouldn’t be standing here ready to roll the ball which would determine the outcome of this contest.

I released my last ball and looked away fearful of the outcome. Charles’ immediate reaction left no doubt that it had scored and we had reached 13 points to win this game and to WIN THE CONTEST!

What transpired after this is not as clear to me as the excitement of trying to win. Several people in the crowd congratulated Charles and me, and we sauntered over to the nearby restaurant where a victory celebration had been scheduled. Later, as the other participants began corning to the celebration, they congratulated us also and many said that they were pleased if they didn’t win, the American had!

We were awarded an excellent bottle of wine for celebrating and others who won second and third places were given bottles of wine also. The trophy awarded to us was later engraved with our names.  It remained in Paris as property of the club we represented. As a friendly gesture, the men bought another trophy which they had engraved with my name so I would be able to take it back to America as a reminder of this happy event.

Since I have returned to America, new officers of the boule club for which I won the trophy have been elected. I was told by Albert that the club has elected me by an unanimous vote to serve as their President for one year. I cherish this position very much even though I have been somewhat of an inactive President.

I sincerely hope that every American will have an opportunity to meet and to know people of other countries as I have known the French.

Anyone for boule?

Addendum: This article was written with the assistance and encouragement of Ms. Blanche Groesbeeck.