How to Play Pétanque Properly

An ode to a sport whose insignificance conceals great seriousness.
byKonstantin Arnold

Pétanque is a precision sport in the genre of boules, in which two teams attempt to place a set number of boules as near as possible to a target boule, or a “jack“. The word can be traced back through French to the Occitan pés, feet, which is based on the Latin pedes, the plural of pes, which in turn comes from to the Occitan tancar, feet together, which comes from vulgar Latin. Something like that, anyway, but it doesn't really matter, I don't really know anything about it and I have been playing for years. All you need is enthusiasm and people who don’t take life too seriously, a few boules, which do not need to be expensive ones costing 400 Swiss Francs with engraved initials, although they can be, just to illustrate the philosophical precession of this sport. Its extraordinary seriousness lies in its apparent absurdity. It is not merely a game of marbles. There are hierarchies, positions and a film with Gérard Depardieu which portrays this well. There are clear rules, although they are just the cage in which one can fly.

It should not be played on the beach, nor on grass, nor on disused one-way streets, car parks, holocaust memorials or service highway rest areas. You need a particular surface that is firm yet soft and enclosed by a defined boundary. In my view, specially provided pétanque stadiums are not suitable as they are located away from the centre-ville of everyday life, like on the Place des Lices in St. Tropez or in front of the Café de la Place in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, behind Nice. Hollywood stars play with dustmen, more about which soon.

A proper, poetic pétanque piste is bordered by the sea, mountains, trees, plane trees, maples, chestnuts, mulberry trees or cypresses, although larches and fir trees would also fit the bill. Ideally, it would be in front of a well-known restaurant or near another famous place, like in St. Moritz, at 1800 metres above sea level, in front of the Suvretta House. There, is a dream of an arena lies dormant, unused in the sunshine and covered by snow in the winter.
We play in Lisbon, without the famous place, every Friday at 6 in the evening with an aperitif in the Jardim Torel, on the right down by the fountain. Join us if you are ever passing, but make sure you are on time, bring your own boules and a bottle and leave your phone at home. In the beginning there was nothing happening here and there was no-one else, just us and the piste. Just a couple of daft folk playing with big marbles. The men thought we were mad, the women thought we were boring. Sometimes someone would take photos or join in, but only because of the drinks, which wasn’t very nice. At some point though, they noticed our child-like, happy faces, and the passion and meticulous care with which we drew the circles from which the boules must be played, and how we discussed the bowls, whether this one or that one was now nearest and how we then went into the bushes to fetch a twig as a measuring stick and then place it Bacchus-like, between the boules. Happiness is no more than not demanding anything else. It was like everything in life. You can't persuade people to be happy if they don't have happiness within themselves. You can only model it and wait and hope for it to be kindled. Anything else is a waste of time, like showing someone Caravaggio in the Prado if they otherwise only show emotion because Federer is quitting, although to be fair I also shed a tear at that. As they say, poetry and women only present themselves naked to their lovers.

Pétanque is one of the nicest daft things in the world. That is why it suits St. Moritz so well, they generally have the right sort of humour there to cope with life. Perhaps it doesn’t mean anything, but then what does mean anything? Football? 22 people who sacrifice their best years, to then reach 35 never having read Descartes and be ordering Jägermeister shots at the bar? What is left in life but not to take it too seriously? With devotion and perseverance, but not necessarily in the physical sense. You play it just to play, no other reason. You won't get rich from it. Those who aren’t playing stand with their hands clasped behind their backs in contentment. Sometimes there is some debate, but nothing heated enough to make a cigarillo butt fall out of a mouth. It helps to be old, of course, and in a steady relationship in the South.
For me, pétanque is the best thing to do after a long family lunch when one is dulled by wine and stands as heavy as an anvil flapping wings, when the sun is high in the sky, when work can wait and the only things that are busy are the bees. Instead of just staying at the table for no reason, drinking your way through to the evening, you stand in the shade of the mulberry trees, roll a few boules, drink, but less, and sober up slowly through the peripheral concentration.

The first time I saw men with this kind of happiness was in 2018 in Saint-Tropez, in front of Le Café. These were men of the South who made high art of their stocky physiques. I wanted to kiss their tracks in the dust. We were on a road trip at the time and nearly drove past Saint Tropez because we thought what everyone thinks about this place. Rich Russians’ yachts, the nouveau riche learning to walk, coquettes and their beaus. But it was not like that and we went into art galleries and sat in Le Café with pastis and watched the old men play. On the wall were photographs of Gunther Sachs and Brigitte Bardot, playing pétanque, happy, beautifully shot.

The second time, I saw them in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, behind the hills in front of Nice. It is a natural arena, perhaps the most beautiful stadium in the world. The tourists stand around reverently and take photographs, as if they were standing before an invisible attraction. They can’t quite comprehend it and as a player, it cannot be denied that that just fires you up even more. The terrace of the big cafe is like a box seat. What starting conditions, with the romantic village, the white of the square and the shade of the trees in front of the Café, and the small bar where the players sit and indulge themselves in a little something, and all the celebrities of the Colomb d’Or. A world-famous restaurant, perhaps the most famous. Belmondo, Picasso, Paul Newman, Orson Welles, Tony Curtis, Sophia Loren, Romy Schneider, Delon, Brad Pitt, Tarantino, Marion Cotillard (who played Edith Piaf) and Yves Montand have all dined here. Inside, there are originals by such alcoholics as Maurice Utrillo, Matisse und Miró on the walls. Patches of sun in the inner courtyard on the tablecloths and wine coolers that sweat in the shade of the mulberry trees, wonderful, yet I detest this restaurant. It’s not the restaurant’s fault, it’s the fat man with the red head that runs it.

A few months later I was in Vence again. I stayed in a hotel above the hills of Nice. I even had some boules with me. On the first day I just sat around in front of the café, drinking pastis on the wall, slowly edging closer and closer so that they could get used to me, as they would a new tree. You must make an effort. In the South you can’t just lean back in the sun and expect the grapes to grow into your mouth. You must invest time; you can’t just turn up and expect to join in. These men are locals, they grew up together and that in a way is sacred. In the club house there are black and white photographs of all those who have played here. Actors, road sweepers, presidents under the command of dustmen. Eventually, after two hours, someone asks whether I can play and I said yes and he shouted Alor! I could hardly believe it, I was actually standing on the square, I was part of it, I stood there, stepped down firmly, felt the square beneath my feet. Saw life as if it were my twilight years, perfection in this instant, an afternoon spent by the sea. It seemed to me to be the highest form of southern integrated life. I had arrived.

And here is my suggestion, dear Peter Egli. In front of the Suvretta House lies one of the most beautiful squares in the world. You can view the mountains, feel your own insignificance and see the lakes. I would stand there happily, leant up against the building. How many times was I there, sitting on the terrace and dreaming of people playing there. What would you think of the St. Moritz Pétanque Open? Ricard as main sponsor, I have asked already.

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