France 101: Petanque
When I think of summer in the south of France, many things come to mind: the endless sunshine, the blue waters of the Mediterranean, the persistent sound of the cicada, the low roar of the crowd on a market day, the taste of cold rose by the pool, rows of purple lavender, sunburned tourists taking over my favorite restaurants, jumping over bonfires in flip flops, all day Sunday lunches with friends, and elderly men tossing silver balls on the treelined dirt squares found in every French village.
Like many things French, I don’t fully understand them, but I’ve come to respect and try to learn as much as I can- this includes the French obsession with a game called Pétanque (pronounced pay-TONK). It is a game that some would say is as French as the baguette or the beret, yet it is only the 10th most popular game in France. Played on a pitch of dirt or sand or even in a parking lot, pétanque has been played in Provençe in one form or another since the 19th century, and of course, there are those French that would have you believe that they invented the game.
The rules of Petanque seem simple at first, but become more complex as you play- totally French. The primary objective is to throw a metal ball (boules) as close to the target (jack- smaller wooden ball) as you can. The game is typically played with two teams of three who throw two balls each. Whoever gets their ball closer to the jack after all the balls are thrown, wins a point. The game ends once one of the teams scores 13 points. During and definitely after most matches, it is customary to partake in an aperitif of Pastis.
If you happen to play pétanque and lose without scoring a point, in other words, a shutout, the French have a term for this, “être fanny,” or “being Fanny.” The tradition is then for the losing team to kiss the fanny (butt) of a woman, whether this is a real woman, a statue, or a painting of a woman’s butt, I don’t know. In a more modern version of “fanny” the losers have to buy drinks for the winning team- “Fanny paie à boire” or “Fanny’s buying the drinks!”
Peter Mayle, wrote about Fanny in his book Provence A-Z: A Francophile’s Essential Handbook
Like many mythical heroines, Fanny’s origins are a little murky. One version has it that she was a boules groupie in Lyon – the kind of girl whom today you might see hanging around soccer players. Another is that she was a café waitress in Isère. The Provençal version, which is naturally the the one I take as gospel, is that she worked in a bar overlooking the boulodrome in La Ciotat, where pétanque was invented.
I was clearly wrong about this being a sport for only old men, as celebrities like Sofia Loren and Bridgitte Bardot brought awareness of the game while playing in Saint Tropez in the ’60s and more recently a new generation has been seen playing including Diane Kruger, Johnny Depp, and Joshua Jackson.
Fashion icon, Karl Lagerfeld even held a competition on the Place des Lices in which models & celebs all participated. For $2800, Chanel can add some style to your game offering a designer Pétanque Set made in two-tone brown and natural woven wicker bearing the Chanel interlocking C’s written with a braided rope on the top cover. The Chanel set comes with eight balls crafted in stainless steel, each also bearing the engraved Chanel logo.
If you want to live like a local while in the south of France, it seems to be a requirement to learn and participate in this summertime pastime of the French, just be prepared to drink a lot of Pastis and pucker up for the fanny. From what I’ve seen at the local Valbonne Pétanque courts, the matches are serious and quite competitive. As for me, I am lucky enough to have my own pitch, so I can practice in the seclusion of my own property without embarrassing myself in front of the French. I still have lots of questions regarding the rules, but those will come in time, and we have lots of that in Provence.