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A convivial game of boules in the town of La Ciotat. All photos courtesy of Lou McClelland.

pétanque (peh-tank) noun, feminine

    : a game similar to boules (bowles), originating from the Mediterranean and played in the South of France (and elsewhere!)

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Souvent, le jeu de pétanque est accompagné d'un verre de rosé.
Often, the game of petanque is accompanied by a glass of rose.

Pétanque and Passion for Vin

Today, guest author Gary McClelland (whom I told you about before...) talks about playing Pétanques with the locals. We had the chance to meet Gary and Tim (whom you'll soon read about in today's story) and their lovely wives, Lou and Lauren, at a wine-tasting here at our vineyard a few weeks back.  They all joined Jens and Vanita (and fils) from Denmark. Jean-Marc was a little late for the wine-tasting. Good thing he eventually showed up, for my Danish and American guests might've been stuck with me and my thé glacé .

Boules in La Ciotat
by Gary McClelland

Leaving Cassis after a pleasant day touring calanques,* eating fish at the port, and ambling on the rocky beach, we drove the vertiginous road over Cap Canille to La Ciotat.  Sliding into an open parking place, we were sandwiched between water and a beautiful boulodrome* shaded by plane, pine, and palm trees.  Tim and I keep our boules* in the car for such emergencies....


We began a 1‐on‐1 game as our spouses amused themselves with a walk along the Mediterranean Sea. The locals occasionally watched, and one flashed me an approving thumbs up after my particularly good tir.* We asked Jean, warming up by himself, about local rules.  Saying it would be so much fun, he quickly had us in a 4‐on‐4 game with local players. 

Our team was Tim and Noel (both "point," trying to roll close to the cochon), and Jean and Gary (both "tir"). We worried we were in over our heads, but we didn’t embarrass ourselves in a competitive game in which the winning team would gagner* only one point each round. 

Tim, Noel, Jean

At times the up to 16 very‐similar looking boules arrayed around the cochon seemed overwhelming, but in this social game teammates give advice on strategy and aiming.  There was lots of friendly ribbing.  When René’s point shot zoomed past the target, she exclaimed, “C’est le TGV!”*    

(Jean measures carefully)

Boule The game of boules or pétanque (Provençal for “pied ancré”*) was invented in La Ciotat so for us it was like playing a pick‐up baseball game in Cooperstown. Our team trailed 8 to 9 when inadvertently one of their boules moved the cochon so that we now had the three closest boules. We only needed two more points to win and I still had my two boules.  I confidently anchored my feet in the circle and curled the first roll closer than any of the others.  A fine shot. Enjoying the moment and thinking of the thrill of hitting the game‐winning “home run,” I scanned the beautiful setting, the colorful veteran players in their Provençal shirts, and the expectant looks. Perhaps this motivated me to try a shot with too much panache or maybe it just slipped out of my hand, but the moment the boule left my hand, I knew it was wrong. 

Quelle horreur!” My ball glanced off one of theirs and knocked it closer than any of ours. Not only was my roll not the winning fifth point, but we lost all of our points. My teammates were stunned and I wanted to sink into the sea.

Our opponents won after several more rounds. Both teams posed for a photo and my expression was blank. Despite my horrible error they wanted us to play more but we had a long drive to our gîte,* so we had to decline.

“Then come another day,” Jean suggested. 
“What days do you play?” Tim asked.  Jean, with a look that expressed sympathy with our impoverished lives, replied, “tous les jours, bien sûr.”

Gary, fourth from the left, and Tim, second from the left.

If you enjoyed Gary's story, thank you for letting him know. Why not leave him a message in the comments box? Also, feel free to share any pétanque vocabulary that isn't mentionned here. Thanks in advance!


Gary McClelland is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Colorado who became a francophile while spending a summer as a student in Paris in 1967.  He regularly visits Provence and built a boules court at his house in Boulder, CO, to practice. 

Data analysis, statistics? Do you sweat this kind of stuff? Thankfully there are part-time pétanquers here to spell it out for us. Check out Gary's book.

~~~~~~~~~~French Vocabulary~~~~~~~~~~
la calanque (f) = rocky inlet from the sea; un boulodrome (m) = a place (usually a dirt "terrain" where one plays pétanque; la boule (f) = heavy steel ball; tir = “fire or shot,” in this case, a shot hitting an opponent’s boule to knock it away from the target cochon; le cochon, literally “pig” but the colloquial name for the small target ball; gagner = to win; c'est le TGV! (TGV = train à grande vitesse) = It's the high-speed train!; pied ancré = meaning behind the Provençale word "pétanque" = =“anchored foot” because one cannot move one’s feet or stride while throwing; le gîte (m) = a self-catering rental apartment, home, or small cottage (oftentimes this is the guest-house of a local).


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