Monday, May 18, 2009


We spent the weekend with friends on the Ile de Porquerolles. It's one of the Iles d'Hyères, which I seem to remember is a crossword-puzzle phrase, off the coast of Toulon. The Porquerolles is a national park, with minimal development and (in theory) no cars. (The cars, and really, there aren't many, are mostly in the village, of which of course there is one, this being France.) The rest of the island is divided between forests and vineyards and hiking trails. And of course beaches around the edges.

Our hotel was next to the church, on the village square. The village went something like this: church, hotel, hotel, restaurant, postcard stand, ice cream stand, corner store, restaurant, town hall (we've come halfway round the square now; the mairie is opposite the church), hotel, restaurant, ice cream, postcards, restaurant, bar, bike rental, bike rental, bike rental, bar, restaurant, swimsuit shop, postcards, filmy lineny blouses shop, restaurant, bike rental, bike rental, hotel, and here we are back at the church. The town was one block deep and one square wide; it looked like a stage set. If Humphrey Bogart had turned up on the terrace at the bar, we would not have been surprised.

The center of the village is taken up by a wide unpaved square. A playground stands in front of the mairie; at the church end, there's a paved step down into the place. A row of eucalyptus trees holds down the other two sides. Saturday evening I took my book and sat on a bench to watch the action. Whiffs of garlic and fish came out of the restaurant behind me as the chef got dinner started. A wedding had taken place at the mairie an hour or so earlier--we'd seen the wedding party having their champagne outside the town hall while we had our ice cream--and there were still stragglers from the group parading up and down in their finery. Daytrippers were hurrying to catch the last ferry to the mainland. Parents were sitting on the benches around the aire de jeux, and their kids were racing in circles around them.

But the main show was the boules matches. While I was sitting there--and I was there for an hour or so--there were never fewer than three matches going on in different parts of the square. The ground was uneven (sloped would not be too strong a word) and grassy in some places, stony in others. The players weren't troubled, though: if they preferred the manicured courts of cities, or even the mostly level ones of villages, they didn't act like it.

The group playing closest to my bench was made up of five old men. They were the central casting version of Provençal boules players: grizzled in varying degrees, leathery from the sun, dressed in outfits ranging from the downright natty (loafers, linen pants, polo shirt, a sweater tied over the shoulders) to the grab bag (grocery store espadrilles, worn, baggy dark Adidas sweatpants, and an equally worn, baggy tennis shirt in a clashing set of stripes). Each man had his own set of boules, of course, and they were all worn to differing degrees. One man--baggy sweatpants man--even had a magnet on a string that he used for picking up his boule. It kept him from having to bend down, presumably, and if it psyched out his opponents, surely that was no more than an added bonus.

Their game moved, after a bit, so that it was directly in front of my bench. When it did, the older man who had been watching them and providing color commentary relocated from his bench (up the way a bit) to mine. May I sit next to you, Madame? he asked. You have nothing to fear from me, he said, I am much too old.

C had joined me by this point, and we made room. The man's dog came along with him and sat down at his feet. We all watched the game intently; the players affected not to notice.

Are there two separate teams? I asked, after we watched most of a round.

No, there is only one team, he said, but there are two who play with three balls and three who play with only two. The ones who have three balls, their job is to use the third ball to knock the other balls out of the way.

Now, I could take a hundred or so words here and explain to you something about the way that boules is played, tossing the ball so that it comes close to the cochonnet, knocking other players' balls out of the way, and so forth, but even if I told you everything I know about boules (which is not much), that would still not help you understand what the man had just told me. The fact that I even understood the French--the words, I mean, not their meaning--was triumph enough for me.

He seemed to recognize that C and I were not up for the finer points of boules, and he changed the subject. Vous êtes anglais?

Non, Americain, we said.

Ah, American! But you speak French very well for an American.

Oh, no, I said, as I always do, not really. Sometimes I have good days of speaking, sometimes, not so good. Because there would be no point in saying, Yes, even though I am American, I am not a complete idiot and I have, by dint of years of study and reading and memorizing, gotten to the point that I can carry on a simple conversation with you. Because when an old Frenchman says that, in a genuinely surprised tone, he means it as a compliment.

He ascertained that we came from Washington and that America is a very big place, and that we were living in France now. Then I felt it was safe to ask him about himself: he had been born on the island and grown up there--he remembered when the Americans came, he was 15--but there was no work on the island; he'd had to leave, and had worked in the douanes, customs, for 40 years before coming home to retire. The island wasn't what it had been. Too developed. Too many people.

Then the subject returned to boules, or, as he called it (and many do), pétanque. If you meet a Frenchman and he takes a shine to you, you'll know because he'll begin to instruct you in something. My friend who sells cheese at the market--we call him the Cheese Man at our house--always has a new hike to tell me about. Jules is forever explaining to us the finer points of something rudimentary but which, to his mind, we are unlikely to know. And we knew we had impressed our boules benchmate when he began to tell us the history of pétanque.

His version went something like this: in a village on the coast, between Toulon and Marseilles, many years ago there was a game played that was very like boules. The best player in the village was called up to war, and when he came back, he had lost a leg. He could no longer play boules the way that the rest of the village did; he could not walk, only stand still. And so he would sit on the bench at the side, watching.

His comrades, though, knew this was not right. And they came up with a new version of the game: the players had to stand still to throw their boules. No more taking a step forward to toss the ball. The feet--the pieds--had to stay together. Piéds-tianque, he said, as though the words were self-explanatory. And from that, the true Provençal name for the game, came the bastardized French word, pétanque. Et maintenant, he went on, people play pétanque all over the world. The best players aren't even necessarily French. Some of the best players in the world come from Madagascar.

We listened and made the appropriate sounds of comprehension. Of course--fine French-speaker that I am--there was quite a bit that I didn't quite catch; this was miles away from school French, a long way from Parisian French, a fairly good distance even from the French that I hear in our village. But I think I got the gist of the story, and we all sat there together, when he was finished, watching his friends play until, a round or two later, the church bells struck the hour. They all picked up their boules and shook hands all around; our bench mate stood up and explained that he was very tired, he'd been doing some construction at his house all day, and he needed to go home now. He bowed to us, wished us bonnes vacances, and went away. His dog followed.

Then C slipped into the hotel. We'd noticed earlier that there were boules sets in the sitting room for guests to borrow. He brought a set outside, and we played a round or two of pétanque ourselves before dinner.

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