Anyone for Pétanque?

photo: boulistes & boulodrome

The Boulodrome In the Luxembourg Gardens

Looking For the Boulomanes

Paris:- Wednesday, 13. October 1999:- Being existential is being here and now. This not my 'philosophy' but a way of saying I can't remember when it was raining. Was it last week?

Whenever it was, it is not raining today. An Azores high has pushed into France and is holding the northwest lows at bay; over Britain and Ireland if they're unlucky. Paris has topless blue sky and in the afternoon it is nearly warm.

My 'nearly warm' may be your cozy and I make sure I am cozy too by overdressing. The sun is much lower at midday so there are many more long and deep shadows. If there is a breeze in one of these I don't want to get it in the neck.

On this bonus of a brightness day I am on my way to inspect the 'color-of-the-leaves' situation in thephoto: 2 sets feet, 3 boules Luxembourg gardens. It is astonishing how long they are dragging out staying green and staying attached to trees in Paris this year.

Unlike regular bowling, 'boulistes' wear street shoes, play on dirt.

Sometimes in late August they turn brown - not colors - and gravity pulls them off. This year it is like the birds have been going around at night taping them on - but this is silly; you never see birds in shops buying jumbo rolls of sticky tape.

Of course, I am not going directly to the Luxembourg even though I am not in the same mystery-writer mood as last week when I was idling around Bagnolet. No. This week I have a new address of what is probably an old gallery in the Rue Montparnasse.

The most direct way I know to the Rue Montparnasse is not the start at the exit of the métro at Edgar Quinet, but start at the beginning of the Rue de la Gaité, where all the theatres are, and restaurants, and peep-show parlors.

The sun is pouring through Gaité like liquid; but it's sleaze stands up to this inquisition. The Rue de la Gaité is probably more sleazy when dark, when the imagination is free to add all sorts of sordid details.

There is a lot of decor on Gaité which must be invisiblephoto: luxembourg asjl sign at night. Take 'La Comédie Italien' for example. It was being repainted during the summer and now it is a golden jewel. It is so good, read more about it on this week's 'Café Metropole' page.

Across Edgar Quinet, in the Rue Montparnasse I find the retirement home of the 'Artists' at this new gallery's street address. I know this building but I don't know what it is, so I get through its barriers and ask at the guardien's apartment.

It's a city deal; public housing for retired artists. I am too young to get in, but the waiting list is two years long. If I sign up now, I may get a subsidized flat when I need it. As an address, the Rue Montparnasse sounds snazzy, but it is too close to the boulevard for weekend peace. I don't sign up.

The art gallery is right there too. It looks like an abandoned shop; the guardien tells me it is only open Tuesday afternoons and evenings. I make a note of it - nothing wrong with part-time galleries.

Instead of crossing the boulevard and heading straight down to Raspail, I switch to the right to go and see if Philippe is behind the bar of Le Select. I am scouting for a fall-back café in case La Corona doesn't work. There's no Philippe to be seen anywhere, but Le Select will do. It hasphoto: two boulomanes it's afternoon sun too, but won't later in the year since the height of La Coupole across the boulevard was raised.

Turning left around Le Select puts me on Raspail and allows me to walk past the discount-clothing place which has a line of eager buyers outside waiting for it to reopen. In the big grownup city of Paris, places do close for lunch. 'La Bouffe' comes before business.

Serious boules players are called 'boulomanes.'

Then - I'm really still going to the Luxembourg - I just about pass the Alliance Française when I see it has something like the 'Théâtre du Monde,' which I think has been mentioned in Metropole's 'Scene.' It needs a checkout.

This allows me to shortcut through the building, a courtyard and through another building, to the Rue de Fleurus and go past Gertrude Stein's old place and more or less - I look at cafés, at hotels, at the light - straight along to the Fleurus entrance of the Luxembourg.

Which is where I expect to find the pétangue courts, but don't. I'll look around; I can't believe they aren't here someplace.

There are a lot of people sitting in the sunny parts of the gardens, in these well-tended theme areas which are decorated with all the statues, where the grass looks like it has been painted green and the flowers hand-painted too. There is lots of light and lots of shade.

It is Wednesday, so there are lots of little kids too. Some are playing basketball, and a big crowd of them are in the closed-off play area, while their moms or minders have got their park chairs placed in patches of sunlight.

Just beyond is the pétanque pitch. There is less direct sun here so there are few spectators, but it is about two-thirds full of players.

Unlike checkers, which is a game, pétanque or boules is a sport. Not all the players are of retirement age, but all of them are very focused on what they are doing. They are tossing metal cannon balls at a little wooden ball, inside a dirt-surfaced area surrounded by a 30-centimetre high board fence, which is inside of a low, wire loop-loop park-fence.

For some reason, pétanque is associated with hot summer and the Canebière in Marseille, although there are a good 40 boules pitches in Paris. This one in the Luxembourg is particularly shady as long as the leaves are still on the trees.

It is considered to be more of a players' than a spectators' boulodrome, withphoto: 3 sets feet, 6 boules its three distinct pitches. To play regularly one should get a park sports' membership. Its association name is ASJL and a year's membership costs about 200 francs. This permits having insurance, which is important when there are a lot of little kids not far away.

To me, all boules look like identical cannon balls; but not to the 'boulistes.'

This does not mean there are loose cannon balls flying all over the place. Metal balls are tossed at other metal balls and sometimes the balls are just pushed away from the marker - but they can ricochet too - as I hear them thud into the board barrier - whack!

While the sport in the Luxembourg is reputed to be relaxed, over at Nation there is cash money on the games; which means sometimes heated disputes, and since it is not in a park play can continue until two in the morning - plus there are handy cafés near the pitch - like in Marseille.

There are other places with handy cafés too, such as in Les Halles, near the Bourse de Commerce. There, the café Le Comptoir organizes tournaments and provides refreshments. The Arènes de Lutèce are less formal, and the cafés are further away. The members of the Joyeux Boulomanes des Buttes-Chaumont have their own club café.

It is true that there are cafés within the Luxembourg gardens but none are close to the boulodrome, and on the Rue Guynemer just outside the gate in the park fence, there are no cafés I remember. Also, the park is closed for the night, so there are no late sessions.

I walk around and look at the small kiosk that passes for a clubhouse. It has lists of names and scores and not much else. The dirt of the court closest to the street has not even been played on; its rake-tracks are clearly undisturbed.

When the leaves fall, they have to be swept from the pitches and if the season is an usual fall and the leaves are in a falling mood, they must be annoying to players. But this fall they are hanging on, up high above.

The pitches are about square and in two of them the players are generally playing crosswise, while in another one the players are up and down. Boules can be played across country on a dirt road; the players only watch the balls.

In fact the balls appear so identical, that you have to watch them like a hawk to know whose is whose. After they have been bopped around a bit, only the players can keep track of them.

The players always watch the balls. They might look up after a game after they've picked up their own balls, but the little wooden ball gets tossed out pretty quickly and the next game is on.

Things may slow down a bit near a game's end, when the closeness of two players' balls is nearlyphoto: view boulodrome equidistant from the little marker ball. There might be a brief discussion. If there is really serious doubt, a tape measure may appear - but this always ends discussions quickly.

A 'boulomane's' paradise, even if there is no nearby café.

Not far away several hundred kids are batting around the play park making a muted racket. Further up towards Saint-Michel, other kids are bumping over rougher terrain in pedal go-karts. Beyond them, by a big patch of very green grass full of sunshine, moms are chatting while their little kids play everywhere except on the grass that is reserved for them.

Near the exit, under trees flanking no-go grass, a crow decides against investigating a pigeon that looks like it was hit by both barrels of a shotgun at close range, when it spots me looking at it.

The gold tips on the park's high iron fence are glittering in the sun against a sky so blue it seems thick. There is so much light, the gold tips will be white in the photograph. I am not going to complain about this; I can see the gold. I can remember it.

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