Boules to All That


I was in the queue at Pali – the most downmarket of the local supermarkets – and indicated to a woman carrying only a pot of yogurt to pass ahead of me. Inevitably, the customer first in line at the checkout then had a meltdown with her credit card which I greeted with a mutter of

‘Putain de merde!’

Old habits die hard.

The woman with the yogurt turned to me smiling…

‘You’re French!’

No and neither was she…but she had lived in France for many years, as had we: her husband had worked there as a plastic surgeon and on retirement they had returned to Costa Rica. They lived in San Jose but had come down to prepare their finca for the family gathering over Christmas and New Year.

We exchanged telephone numbers…we talked, we met again…we cooked together.

It was good to share memories of a country we had both lived in at the same time – though in different spheres: hers was Paris, mine La France Profonde.

But one thing we agreed upon…France is not as she is depicted in the tourist literature, nor as in the outpourings of the ‘living the dream’ brigade.

She can be a lot better than that – and a lot worse.

Slower way of life….try that when Madame Untel is elbowing her way past you at the charcuterie counter…

The wonderful fresh bread…stale in an hour…

Romantic villages….with dodgy drains…

The cultural life…wet tee shirt night at the local discotheque…

The cinq a sept …zut alors!

The other thing we agreed upon was that once adopted by a friendly neighbour doors opened wide on the real life of France, from helping out at the Secours Populaire or Catholique to joining the Troisieme Age (not for the faint hearted) on their outings; supporting the local organisations’ fund raising with their couscous or paella evenings; joining the historical society…the sewing bee…the cycling club…because there you would meet the people who really kept France on the rails with their sense of civic responsibility – and their sense of fun!

For me that was exemplified by the game of boules.

I used to know when spring had arrived, as the faint click of metal on metal could be heard from Jules’ yard as I passed while walking the dogs.

They were nothing loth to renew acquaintance with his old Breton spaniel and I was nothing loth to join Jules, his wife and a couple of neighbours in a few rounds of boules followed by a few rounds of drinks in his hospitable kitchen.

Playing and drinking were two separate activities, and probably as well while I was undergoing my apprenticeship in the fine art of boules on a dusty surface where you had to know where the dips were – only to find they had changed by the next time as the Breton spaniel had taken a dust bath on the piste.

It was not competitive, just a way to pass the early evening before locking up the barns for the night and settling down to supper and the television and that was the way I liked it.

As more British moved into the area, more learned the game and it seemed to take them two ways.

Some, like me, just liked the excuse for a natter with the neighbours while others became extremely competitive indeed and started running – British only and by invitation only – competitions…even building boules courts alongside their houses with much use of the spirit level to ensure British fair play.

They also called it petanque. Some of them even wore panama hats and white trousers on competition evenings. Some of them used to practice, too, which I thought completely unBritish.

So there was a sort of divide between the ‘casuals’ – boules – and the ‘professionals’ – petanque.

Then a chap with a holiday home, who enjoyed playing boules with his neighbour, had an idea of furthering integration with a ‘boules day’.

His idea was to invite his British friends while his neighbours invited their French friends, get scratch Anglo-French teams together on the day and have a jolly with a picnic.

All went swimmingly. Too swimmingly. The event began to outgrow his neighbour’s yard, and by the week before the due date, his neighbour approached the maire about using the salle de fetes, which had a huge car park, the idea being to mark it out for boules.

The maire was delighted and signed himself and friends up for the event.

The organiser was getting short of British. The casuals were all about signed up, including one lady with a zimmer frame, but the professionals were holding back… was all a bit, well…casual….and it wasn’t petanque.

The maire, a very nice old boy who must have descended from a long line of corkscrews so Machiavellian was his conduct of the commune’s affairs, had the answer.

As this was a sort of community event, a step towards integration, the commune would put on the wine for the picnic. Free. The press would be invited.

As he had divined, no professional ever spawned can refuse free drink and publicity.

The ranks of the British were reinforced overnight.

The maire had also offered the salle de fetes’ trestle tables and benches for the picnic and had persuaded the farmer with the field behind the car park to move his cattle off in time for the cow pats to dry out before the day, so that the picnic could be al fresco, rather than in the stifling air of the salle, which bore no small resemblance to the Black Hole of Calcutta during wedding receptions in the summer.

The organiser, by now relegated to sub organiser behind the maire, bethought him of food.

Since the French – well, the maire – had been so generous with the wine, perhaps the British should make sure that the picnic buffet tables were well replenished in the food line.

He and his wife undertook basic salads and levied contribution on the British participants for the rest.

I’d volunteered to help his wife with the salads, and as we transported the mounds of lettuce, cucumber and tomato, not to speak of beetroot, spring onions and radish, to the buffet area, it was clear that the tournament was going great guns.

The French and the British were mingling and playing amicably and, more surprisingly, so were the casuals and the professionals, but this could have been because the maire had decided that communication on a dry throat is never a good idea and had opened the casks early on in proceedings.

The British picnic contributions were arriving, and it was interesting to link contribution with contributor.

Some had been incredibly generous, plates of ham and charcuterie, cold roast chickens, huge bowls of mixed salads, cheeses…some had even sacrificed their emergency food parcels – pork pies and cooked, cold, British sausages! There were commercial and homemade chutneys and even bottles of salad cream with which to astonish the French.

Trifles, summer puddings, fruit salads, treacle tarts, chocolate mousses – we had to ask if we could use the fridge in the salle to keep them from spoiling.

Others, all straw hat and garden party dress, would deposit their offering of a small bowl of pasta salad – where the pasta element had beaten the other ingredients by a country mile – in pride of place in the centre of the buffet, smiling sweetly at those working behind the tables before turning sharply to the wine cask area and the serious business of the day, tracking down the press photographer.

The tournament had been a great success…I have no idea whch team won, if indeed any did…but then came the moment of truth as the crowd approached the buffet.

How would the French get on with the British idea of a picnic?

We had filled bottles from the casks and distributed them around the tables, but now it was every man for himself.

The maire plunged in and, reassured, his flock followed…..

The sausages and salad cream were the great successes….one lady had to go home to round up some more of the latter.

Chutneys intrigued, especially with pork pies, while the puddings roused the maire to send out for supplies of the local dessert wine straight from the cellars of one of the players.

Clearly, a success, and so it has proved down the years.

I moved away a long time ago, but friends in the area say it is still going strong although with more and more difficulty getting generous donations from the British element, it has for a few years’ now been a mechoui – a spit roast lamb – affair with a professional caterer and a small admission fee.

Still, it was a super idea, founded on the amiable idea of having a few friends round for a quiet game and a few drinks.

And that, to me, was boules.

I was wrong. There was a lot more to it than that.

In August, Madeleine’s cousin used to hold open house on Sundays for those who had not gone off for the holidays.

The wine was cooling in a bucket in the well, we would all bring something to eat and the afternoon would pass with a game of boules, gossiping in the shade or a quiet nap, depending on circumstances.

However, occasionally the mood would take the cousin to be up and doing and he had the entree everywhere…nowhere was a closed door to him, or not for long…he knew who held the keys.

I had been playing boules with the chaps when the cousin came upon us.

‘Let’s show her a real game!’

I thought he was going to take a part himself and up the standard, but it was nothing of the sort.

He disappeared into the house, then emerged, beaming,.

‘Everyone in the cars!’

We headed for the silent, baking town and into the alleys of the medieval quarter, where we drew up before an ancient building with an iron grill in the wooden door.

He shouted, the door was opened, and we found ourselves in a large, cool club room, where a number of elderly gentlemen were having a quiet drink.

There was a lot of joshing around, to the effect of what was he doing, bringing women in here….this was a men’s club…was nothing sacred?….but we were supplied with cold, dry white wine all the same and the cousin explained.

He had brought his friends to show the foreigner – me – how a proper game of boules was played.

La boule de fort.


His friend the club president issued us with slippers and flung open double doors to reveal what a vast room, seven metres wide by twenty long, he said, with a concave floor – he called it a gutter – running its length.

He presented me with something heavy that resembled a squashed pear…not round, one side was less so than the other, which was weighted down by a lead plug on the bottom. A metal ring, adjustable, encircled the thing and it weighed a ton.

No mere boule this, but a boule de fort.

The idea of the game was similar to that of all games of boules….to get nearest the jack, but when some of the gentlemen demonstrated, it was apparent that this was a far more sophisticated game.

The slippers were to protect the gutter in which the game was played, and the teams had two sorts of players….the first would select their spot and gently roll the boule as near as they could to the jack.

The second were the artillery..they would roll the boules down at speed to clear opponents’ boules from the track. The noise was unbelievable.

I could see that it would take a lot longer to learn this game than that as practised in Jules’ yard on a spring evening.

Back in the club room, the president explained that these clubs were, like the old ‘amicales’, the refuge of men and very precious too in the days when unless you could afford to marry, you didn’t, so respectable bachelors needed a place to foregather and talk dirty.

The vocabulary could be a bit ‘special’ – nothing these days when filth spews from every television set – but mostly double entendres and very daring in their day, of which the one which has lasted longest is the invitation to ‘partager une fillette’ – to share a young lady.

Before anyone gets all PC, it would be as well to know that a ‘fillette’ is a half bottle of wine, and I’ve shared a few fillettes in my time without any moral damage to either party.

The most important duty of the president was to choose the wine to fill the fillettes…..and make sure he got a good price so that the members paid about half the price of the same stuff in a regular bar.

However, as always, the best was saved for last.

The president explained that after a game, a player who had made no score at all was obliged to pay a forfeit.

.Yes, a round of drinks, the losing team would pay that, but for the man with no points to his name, a special forfeit was in store.

He had to  ’embrasser Fanny’ – to kiss Fanny.

What? I thought this was a men’s club…for respectable bachelors! Where was this woman tucked away?

With a sly smile, the president moved to a cupboard on the wall, which opened out rather like a tryptich to reveal a painting of the luxuriant bare backside of a woman.


This was Fanny!

I wonder what the panama hat and petanque brigade would have made of her…..and whether the ‘living the dreamers’ would ever have discovered her.


36 thoughts on “Boules to All That”

  1. I’ve heard of these indoor boule courts with Fanny and a gutter and seen pictures of them, but never seen one for real. I think they are quite rare now.

    One of ‘my old ladies’ (as my husband refers to the elderly women I chat with in the street) asked me if I would be interested in being her new boules partner as her previous one had died. She liked to play but it is a very male dominated sport and she wanted another female partner for moral support. I turned her down on the grounds that I didn’t think I could commit to regular games, but I often think it might have been a really worthwhile experience and I should have said yes.

    1. Indeed you should – but it is difficult when you are running a business where the client comes first.
      Most of the boule de fort action is around the Angers area and I did later see a very modern (well, fifties) installation but now cannot remember in which town.

  2. Great fun to read! Really! When I owned the Royal Oak, a village pub with a vast garden, I constructed a ‘rough’ piste that just complied with the requirements and rules of the Kent County Petanque Association/League. We, like you and your friends played for the pleasure and the booze – when we joined the league we donned a straight jacket. Our flashes of occasional brilliance was generally fogged by the fumes of fine bitter beer and good humour. We languished happily in the third division. One year we drew the very correct petanque league champions in the annual knock-out – and destroyed them! The appealed on the grounds that we did not take the game seriously. The result stood, which was more than we did as we went out in a haze in the next round! Finally, J and I still have our boule. They are up at our mountain cabin where we play the odd rounds at the end of our work day as we enjoy the sunset and a jar or two. Finally, finally, in our kitchen cupboard, where they are put to useful purpose, are the two emblazoned plate trophies that J and I won at the Mote Park petanque club. I took the winning end in a very tight game by bouncing my boule off a tree. Our opponents were as amazed and delighted for our win as we were. Bottoms up!

    1. ‘They appealed on the grounds that we did not take the game seriously’….I wonder if any of them had holiday homes in my area! Rumour had it that they even served their wine in stemmed glasses, while we plebs used the ones that had contained mustard when sold in the supermarkets…..
      Mark you, according to the rumours circulating among their fascinated French neighbours some of them would not have been averse or unaccustomed to embracing Fanny…or Annie…or Jean…or Susie…
      Bottoms up indeed!

  3. Of course it was a very enjoyable read, thank you. It took me back to the skittles that were played when we were in Somerset. Times change and unless there is an electronic connection and a some sort of Facebook League there is no sport for such village pleasure.

    1. That seems such a shame! From my time in England bowls used to produce a degree of fanaticism, though – and even carpet bowls could rouse the devil in some of the participants.

  4. I had no idea there was so much to know about the boules-playing community! I bet the casual players had a lot more fun than the earnest panama-hatted professionals. You’ve inspired me to partager une fillette at the earliest opportunity.

    1. Just don’t put it on the net or you’ll have the thought police on your tail.
      I suppose the panama hats had fun in their own way, but it all seemed to me so contrived ..’look at us in France with our own petanque piste’…and so insular, confined to other Brits.

  5. One of the museum lassies plays in a Petanque league based on here local village pub, quite near the top she claims.
    I like the idea of laid back Boules meet but I suggest I may get rude to the Panama hatted lot if we played them. It’s only a game but some folks (usually English) need to beat others.
    A good memory and amazing that it still continues, even though the ‘English’ are fading away. Just wait till Brexit works and they all have to claim French citizenship to remain!

  6. Where to start! You are so right about those selling the French dream (I can think of one blogger in particular who would have you believe that H E Bates was re-writing his Darling Buds in France – the reality is not the dream but the reality can be, if you accept it and are accepted very very good as you well know. And the critical element, for me, is a sense of humour. I have a good one and have just attracted that familiar uncomfortable garumphing from my fellow passengers on the 12:30 to Paddington 😉 at the hands of your brilliant recanting of the boules – what finished me was kissing Fanny of course …. I am unabashedly an overgrown schoolgirl! Our village is called Champs sur Tarentaine-Marchal and they have a proud Pétanque team called …. Champetanque – what wags they are!

    1. To generalise, I was accepted/tolerated by high and low in France but not by middle where the self serving pomposity was too much to be borne. Much the same as in the U.K……
      Ah yes, laughing in the train in England! In need of a programme of re education at the very least! I had to be careful of that if reading Wodehouse…
      If that’s the blogger I think it is then, being an old cynic, I am wondering how long before the soft focus turns to the hard sell, once the punters are hooked, on the model of a blogger based – I think – in Normandy who set out in the same way some years ago.
      There is so much more to France than sodding croissants but the purveyors of ‘the dream’ don’t seem to have a clue about how to access it themselves let alone how to introduce people to what lies behind the tourist bumf.

      1. I have always found the middle layer of any society the most unappealing and at worst insufferable. I managed the journey back from London without snorting by reading nothing that risked either laughter or wrath (newspapers banned by husband some weeks ago). I am sure it is the blog you think it is and my cynicometer has me betting heavily on the result you predict.

        1. I wonder if Ladbrokes would give us odds…
          I enjoy the photographs on that blog and have to admit to nipping over every so often to see how far the screw is turning…
          I used to quite (New England usage?) relish my two hour commute to London – though I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done so if obliged to do it every day – but laughter was, in general, frowned upon by my fellows. Given the nature of their political views as indicated by their choice of newspaper I would hesitate to call them my fellow travelers.

          1. I’ll ask my son-in-law to enquiries …. he won a decent packet on Mr Trump he told me. Actually, second thoughts, I rather think the odds would be too short on this one! The pictures are very nice but the picture painted is rather vomity for a warty old bag like me who doesn’t much care for sickly-sweet. I was a 2-hour commuter too and honed in true Reggie Perrin style. The best bit was always the time to read in peace (so long as no-one was sitting in ‘my’ seat)

          2. I was fine on the up train but not always so lucky going home….but even then the passengers thinned out after an hour, so I could use the journey up for papers for work and the return for reading a paperback.

            The blogger is clever though, in a sort of furtive way: picks up on clues from the comments of her followers and reproduces them in short order – it is a wonderful love in, but with strict control.
            A blogger I follow innocently upset the cart of highly polished apples recently and was dismissed with the hope that she had a good Sunday after one of the faithful had duly stoned her.

          3. Yes, the return was more a free formed zoo most nights ….. we used to call the service Worst Great Western! THe blogger in question (you were a lawyer, I’m loving imagining I am giving evidence but please don’t cast me as WPC Ploddette) is formulaically smart without question and has a very well trained pack of sycophants and of course up to a point, I play the game however I do find myself, inevitably if you know me (I was always the one with her head above the trench first and then testing no-man’s land) am beginning to get braver and the other day started a comment with ‘oh come on X … ‘ Watch this space, I’m back in France next week for 7 month at least and I do like a it of bad behaviour 😉

          4. I never touched criminal law…as a friendly policeman said, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between practitioners and clients.

            I note that our blogger is not treading on the toes of Rolfita the Ganger, who uses French sources for the stuff she flogs, but seems to be starting to accumulate a stable of expat dilettante producers.

            Just make sure that when you raise your head over the parapet it is protected by a tin hat sourced from a brocante. A colander will not do…

          5. Wise copper! I’m afraid the inner imp is bound to whisper in my ear before long and I will start ‘playing’ but I promise I will don the correct headgear …. I’ve got a nice 1st World War job in the cupboard belonging to my brother here at mother’s and there’s also her old Gas Mask which might come in handy!!! Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye …..

  7. I am so reminded of the wonderful games of bocce that our front yard entertained when we had massive parties, guests ranging in age from my mother’s friends through three or four generations, the last being among the audience, swinging on swings or wading in the creek. The captains of each team were a generation apart and each knew the rules–except from different rule books. Everyone went home happy, but you would not have believed that while watching the game.
    They all went back to their city lives after a wonderful weekend in the country, vaguely wanting to live in all that fresh air, too. They never knew about sorting wells and septics and wood stoves.

    1. I’m glad it brought back that memory to you….and how right you are about the city dweller seeing only the good things about country life!
      I can remember when in France a visitor asking me whatever I found to do in the country…the list blew her backwards bow legged.

  8. Love this post and the last part made me laugh out loud, We have two sets of Boules and I cannot remember the last time we ever played. I have never seen anyone playing it locally here either – odd!
    Glad that you have made a good friend though, just shows what muttering French in another country is capable of 🙂
    Hope you have a good week and I hope Leo is doing OK. Diane

    1. It was the sly mile that made me wonder whatever he was going to reveal when he opened that cupboard!
      Do they play palets, perhaps – those metal rectangles aimed at a post?
      It was good luck to meet up…perhaps what they told us when we were young about swearing was all wrong…
      Leo is not having a good time…breathing is not so good and now he has shingles! I often wonder whether he was christened Job and they kept it quiet!

  9. To be allowed into the inner sanctum of la boule de forte: not an experience every woman – or man – in France has enjoyed, I would imagine. Fewer still can relate it with such enjoyable detail.

    I’m glad some places still continue such enjoyable pastimes.

    1. I was lucky in my friends…and in their friends. Doors opened where you did not even know that doors existed, let alone what lay behind them. The cousin had the entree everywhere in the area: he knew the men with the keys!
      You would have enjoyed this, I’m sure. Just be careful to score a point or two…

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