MY YEAR IN PROVENCE STUDYING PÉTANQUE,
DISCOVERING CHAGALL, DRINKING PASTIS, AND MANGLING FRENCH
Excerpt from Chapter 3: La Puff
The next time I saw Hubert I asked what I knew to be a stupid, yet necessary, question: “Hubert, do you play pétanque?” This is when I got my formal introduction to that somewhat rude French gesture I refer to as la puff. It involves taking a slow deep inhale on a cigarette, rolling the eyes back in the head, and then exhaling the smoke (either rapidly or slowly) in the general direction of the question asker. The best I have been able to interpret this gesture to means is, “The question you just asked is so stupid that the only response it deserves is an exhale of smoke in your face!”
After I had dodged the smoke cloud and still looked puzzled, Hubert finally said, “Of course I play pétanque; I’m French.”
I took a step back to put a little more distance between us, readied myself for another la puff of smoke and dared to utter my brilliant follow-up question: “Will you teach me to play?” This was quickly met by the only grande puff I experienced the entire year I lived in France.
Offended to have been dismissed so easily I said, “Why not? I know I can be good at it!”
Hubert simply countered with the tough-to-debate, “YOU ARE NOT FRRRREENCH!!”
Not one to take Non, or any form of smoke exhalation, as an answer, I countered with “OK, then I’ll find somebody else to teach me because I AM going to learn to play this game.” And with that, I stormed off into my cave apartment, slamming my replica 15th-century heavy wooden door for effect.
After I cooled off and emerged from my self-imposed dungeon, I immediately ran into Hubert again. As I
attempted to avoid him, he said, “Attends [Wait],” which in itself seemed odd to me.
What followed was a complete shock. Hubert whispered, “OK, I’ll teach you.”
“What was that?” I replied, “I don’t think I heard you correctly.”
To which he said, “Shut up before I change my mind; you heard me.” Actually he said “Ferme ta gueule [Shut your beak]” not “Shut up.”
When I impulsively blurted out, “Great, let’s go,” Hubert replied, still whispering as if the local Culture Police might be listening, “No, not now, you fool; I’ll come find you when it’s time.”
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