For your average Frenchman, any recipe for a relaxing summer’s evening would have to include the three Ps: plane trees (or palms at a pinch); pastis; and that most quintessentially French of games, pétanque. You’ll see this Gallic version of bowls played on countless squares across the country, where groups of mostly middle-aged men in baggy shorts congregate around gravel-and-dirt boulodromes to lob heavy metal boules at diminutive wooden ones called cochonnets (literally “piglets”). Pétanque matches played after work and on weekends are part and parcel of the daily rhythm of life, especially in the south.
The game was invented in 1907 in the town of La Ciotat on the Côte d’Azur by an enthusiastic bowler whose rheumatism prevented him from making the usual extended run up. Instead, he devised a version of his favourite sport in which the bowler’s feet stayed planted firmly on the ground (pieds tanqués). The pitch was shortened accordingly, and after the local bar owner firmed up a set of rules, the new game quickly caught on. A whole lexicon has evolved around pétanque to describe different throws and scenarios. Each team, for example, has a mix of “pointeurs” (pointers), players who place the ball as closely as possible to the jack, and “tireurs” (shooters), whose job it is to displace the opposition’s balls with spectacular lobs. If the throw falls short, it’s a “palouf”. If it nudges one of the other team’s balls, it’s made a “biberon”, or “baby’s bottle”. “Faire la Micheline” means to turn up for a game without your own set of boules. “Faire la chanson” refers to attempts to distract the opposition by chatting between points. And, most insulting of all for wannabe pétanque players from the UK, “faire de l’anglais” describes a totally hopeless throw.
Finally, if you’re lucky enough to spectate at a complete whitewash, you’ll experience the most ribald of all pétanque traditions, “Kissing the Fanny”. When a team or individual player loses by 13 points to zero they have to kiss the bare buttocks of a statue or framed picture of a lady named “Fanny”, usually kept in the nearest bar expressly for the purpose.