The Clank Of Pétanque

15th August 2023

In travel, any pace is the perfect pace. Each choice of transport brings its own delights.

Travelling with donkey, once you’ve figured out how the ignition, clutch and accelerator work, affords a view of the world at the pace of a wandering child.

Consequently, this rhythm easily takes on the character of a Nature Walk. I find myself moving from micro-curiosity to micro-curiosity, with time to ruminate in between, slowly building a mental scrapbook of my encounters.

Kaïcha, for her part, shows no sign of rumination. Firstly, she’s evolved hindgut fermentation to digest her food. Secondly, she’s not that bothered.

On crossing the Langouyrou River, I notice Langoirón on the bridge’s signage. The additional language is Occitan.

Yes! I’m entering Occitanie, a region which evokes within me some childhood D’Artagnan emotion. I fancy myself in a swashbuckling novel, as we plod along.

Can it be true, that the allure of a person or place is ignited simply by how a name sounds and is spelt? Those Musketeers remain nameless. It is only D’Artagan who lives on. In the same vein, I’m immediately on board the Good Ship Occitanie.

By way of exception, I was devastated to hear first-hand reports from a friend that Zanzibar is a complete shit-hole. Given every possible alphabetic advantage, the Indian Ocean archipelago has, notwithstanding, gone to pot.

Through the lands of French farmers we trod, along ancient rights of way. I begin educating myself on cereals. The corn is as high as the eye of a guy. And indeed, corn is the only crop I readily recognise without phoning a friend.

Wheat and I, having been reacquainted, are getting along famously. Van Gogh would be delighted. I take a while to distill this grain’s unique beauty, as it is not only in its pale-yellow, dry freshness, or in the thick military manner with which it clings to the field.

The secret of wheat is its angel-hair beard, which flaps high above the kernel. This beard, in turn, is cajoled by the breezes into a joyous field of dance.

I have stood in front of a field of wheat and appreciated things I have not understood since a child. Golden. Wondrous. Godly.

On approaching a small village yesterday, the clanking of metal was in the air.

In a rather odd location – the neglected tarmac which marks a fork in the road – I come upon a family of six playing pétanque. Progressing into the village, similar scenes popped around every corner. Families, friends, colleagues – it seems the whole village is playing boules, and improvising their playing terrains at will. This is, apparently, a tradition which kicks off the village’s summer festival. The donkey plodders, alas, must miss it.

Pétanque, I thought to myself.

What a game, to bring a whole community together; where grannies compete with grandchildren, and lords with labourers.

The word is derived from the Occitan for ‘feet together’, pe-tanca. From a small circle which your feet must not leave, twelve steel balls (boules), the size of large apples, are thrown. Pétanque is played from the wrist which confers an elegance to the thrower and a spin to the boule. The object is to land as close as possible to a plum-sized ball, 6-10 metres away. There are two teams, and each double throw results in a score. The first to reach 13 points wins.

The resulting sport is more challenging, collaborative and strategic than you might expect. Invented in the early 1900s, pétanque is a summer gift to the French. Its grassroots community activism, so reminiscent of the GAA in Ireland, means it is spoken about almost as much as cheese, and dreamt about almost as much as a three-day working week.

Having exhausted ourselves crawling around fields at a snail’s pace for four days, Kaïcha and I are on a day off in Langogne. I want to replace my walking shoes.

I fall into a conversation about Irish and French rugby with the owner of Dubois Chaussures, as I try on a pair of Meindl hiking shoes. Chatting about the destiny of national rugby teams is an uncomfortable zone. I improvise responses in a manner which jauntily keeps the chat alive, without revealing a single, non-existent opinion.

I must, one day, summon the courage to come out of the sporting closet. I know in my heart that the people who count will stand by me.

‘You’re not complicated’, he says admiringly, as I try on, say yes to, and purchase the shoes, all within two minutes.

Having thus mis-read me twice over, this friendly man’s third theme of conversation most definitely hits the bullseye. I had asked him for a restaurant recommendation in the town.

‘Le Boulodrome’, he said. ‘It’s hidden away from the Main Street. The food is great, the owners are my friends, and there’s an outdoor bowling alley reserved for diners’.

What does this mean, I ask him.

‘Well, you can play pétanque after you eat.’

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