You head over to Fontvieille for petanque, perhaps a bit late. You come across six kids playing in le bouledrome, shouting, whooping it up unlike the more reserved oldsters. You observe.
You see the guy you met in the café the other morning playing with his guys at a court up the way. You go there and hang, and after they finish a game and appear to be putzing around you ask votre ami if you can play. Teams are assembled. Them: an old farmer dude with thinning inch-long hair sticking straight up/out even in the rear – you shake his roughened hand and notice half his index finger is gone; a jolly, pot-bellied near 300-pounder; and the George Hamilton of the group, with wrap around shades, stylin’ sandals and hair. He came to the game on his motorcycle.
Us: Michel, your friend from the other morning; another old timer in a short-sleeve plaid shirt and long pants, the top of his head gone bald, a few teeth AWOL; and the crazy, brazen, long-haired American. The game gets going and when it’s finally your turn to shoot, you’re thinking “God, just get it close: you have to show them you're not a petanque chatte (pardon my French)." You point up and land it six inches from the pig (le cochonette). A slight murmur goes through the players and several observers on the park bench watching: “He is not an American goo-bear." Thank you Jesus.
The game progresses, goes back and forth: we are behind trois-zero, and Michel gives you the universal sign (lips pursed, both hands facing heavenward, stomach-height, with a little English on them) for: "What can you do?" You start to catch up, once with a four-point round. You are actually pointing up very well, which mainly gives George Hamilton a chance for target practice. He shoots you out several times, but he’s not perfect. Michel is your main shooter, but he misses as many times as he connects.
You get lucky, shooting two of their boules out on one point and they laugh and reference “the champion” (moi!). It comes down to a score of 11 – 11. Michel throws his last bouleto make it 12 – 11. It is then up to the American to close the deal, which you do, snaking one in a few inches from the pig for the win. You shake everyone’s hand (something you haven’t observed them do après le match), and come away knowing you’ve touched at least 300 years of combined history of Fontvieille, of petanque, of the people of the countryside of France.
By the end of the game, a kid had wandered up with his boules, and as the oldsters went their ways you asked if he wanted to play. Tomas can speak less English than you can French, but he said yes and we began. The score never see-sawed; you were up from the start. He caught you at 9 – 9, and then it was 11 – 11. On the final point, he was out of boules and you still had two left. You threw two good ones and won. It was cool of him to take on the old guy from America, and great fun for the American.
As you’re leaving, taking pictures of the “boulodrome” sign above the courts. Several guys from the first game come running up, calling out for me to take their pic. They are shoulder-to-shouder, lanky, horsing around, arm in arm. Just kids. “Wait!” says one in the green straw hat, as he arrives late and jumps on the back of one of ses amis. The pic is taken; you ask for an email address to send it to them. No one has a pen or paper, but the one who can speak English best shrugs, smiles and says “It is for you.”