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Petanque a favorite pastime in southern France


A group of men play petanque in Mougins, France.

This past spring, we had decided to take some time off from Silicon Valley and were house hunting in Mougins, a small town in the South of France near Nice and Cannes. On the town's main street is a group of petanque courts, which caught our attention.

Situated near the post office, Mougins' only cafe and a newspaper stand, the petanque courts are an essential part of the downtown because they serve as a community meeting place. However, the simple dirt courts are not much to look at.

In petanque, much like bocce, two teams of one, two or three players compete on a field approximately 36-39 feet long. Each group has the same number of silver balls or "boules." A little ball, often called the "pig" or "cochonette," is thrown to the opposite end of the court. Then the players take turns throwing their silver boules as close to the "pig" as they can. The closest one wins.

Today's petanque is a modification of an ancient Provençal ball game that originated in 1910 in the South of France and has since spread throughout the world. In France it is enjoyed by people of all ages.

"I'm not the best petanque player here," one of the elderly men on the court told us. "That fellow over there - the one with the black cap - he's better than me. But he's 85; he's more experienced."

He pointed to a short cement fence that divided the eight petanque courts from the main street in Mougins. A low wooden board divided one court from the next. But the most important court was the one adjacent to the street. A certain group of players had priority on this court through an unspoken rule. They sat on the fence, looking at the empty court and reviewing the afternoon's games. One jumped out and moved to the center of the court.

"Here," he pointed with his toe. "The cochonette was here, and your ball stopped here."

Some nodded in agreement. Others shook their heads in disagreement. And so, they discussed and relived the afternoon's games.

The man who spoke with us wore a worn sweater. One buttonhole hung unused, over his pants. The sweater was buttoned; but each button was matched to a buttonhole one higher than its usual pair, much like a child who is still learning how to dress. He also wore a heavy felt hat like one of the fellows sitting on the fence. He continued his story.

"I'm 82," he said. "I play every day - unless it's cold, hot or windy. Otherwise, I play every day."

He collected his three silver-colored metal balls and zipped them into a pouch, swung the pouch over his shoulder and walked over to join the group on the fence.

Dorit and Ogen Perry are Los Altos Hills residents currently living in France.

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