MY YEAR IN PROVENCE STUDYING PÉTANQUE,
DISCOVERING CHAGALL, DRINKING PASTIS, AND MANGLING FRENCH
Excerpt from Chapter 14: Il a le Sens du Jeu
There were several matches going on in parallel and a typical assortment of tourists and locals watching from the edges of the grounds. One elderly local onlooker was familiar because I had noticed him playing from time to time, and seen him watching frequently; yes this was the old man of the hilarious “Canada Dry!” barb. I met eyes with him as he stood on the sidelines, arms crossed over his chest and brow furled, surprised to see me playing without Hubert. I would lock eyes with him many more times during this match than usual, probably because Hubert wasn’t my teammate and I therefore had much less in-game conversation to occupy my full attention, though possibly because he was trying to size me up now that I was playing without my coach.
I had become a fairly skilled pointeur, but an even better strategist. A moment emerged in the match when I didn’t play the obvious shot, instead opting to park my ball very close to one of my others that was already in scoring position, so as to protect it from the skilled tireur of the other team. I managed to uncork a beautiful shot, my ball gradually rolled its way across the dusty ground with purpose, bouncing over little pebbles and curving towards my other ball until it came to rest directly in line and only millimeters away from it—an outstanding defensive execution, if I do say so myself. As the ball came to a stop, the elderly pétanque connoisseur spoke up quietly but clearly, saying to nobody in particular, yet in a way to everybody within earshot, “Il a le sens du jeu [He has a sense for the game].”
I smiled graciously to the old man and nobody else added anything to his remark, though I noticed a few nodding heads. At this point Hubert strolled towards me from the sidelines and while passing by he whispered, “Tu as entendu ça? [Did you hear that?]” I gave the slightest of nods and an even slighter smile, without so much as making eye contact with him. With that Hubert continued his stroll past me and back to his viewing position with a bounce in his step like that of a proud father seeing his son bring home his first date to introduce to his parents.
Hubert’s behaviour confirmed what I had been thinking; the fact that the old gentleman had said these words out loud was an immense compliment that I should treasure. He didn’t say that I was good at the game, but that I really understood it deeply, and with that he was communicating that he knew how difficult it was to reach that level and was congratulating me for having had the chutzpah and determination to get there. So it hardly mattered to me that Roget and I did not go on to win the match. This was the closest I had come yet to experiencing a ‘nearly accepted’ moment, while in the middle of playing a match, and I was going to bask in the glow of that feeling. Arguably it was the zenith of my acceptance into French culture—“Il a le sens du jeu”—wow!