We played boules in Provence. What else is there to do of a late afternoon in La France Profonde when the stone-deaf crickets are still beating their tums and there's no water source to secretly divert or bestselling book to be written? We played boules before we had even touched a drop of pastis or local wine and we - that is the Frenchman and I - were still lamentably bad. Our hosts, a retired married couple, played as if they had practised every afternoon for the last six years they have lived in the country, which they insisted they hadn't although the shiny boules were a bit of a giveaway. I played like I needed glasses - I do - and like I couldn't tell the wooden cochonnet ('little piggy') from the gravel stones in our friends' drive - I mostly couldn't.
I am quite proud of my accuracy with an air pistol and have refused many a traumatised goldfish in a plastic bag at fairgrounds and fetes but I couldn't play boules for sticky sweets. I tried to cite my Englishness as an excuse, like I do when skiing ("Listen, there aren't that many snow-covered mountains where I come from.") but it was pathetic. My boules bounced off stones and hurtled off in unexpected directions or rolled twenty feet past the target or landed with a dull thud in the only patch of sandy drive and didn't roll at all. This absolutely did not happen to our opponents' boules. OK, I thought, they know their own drive. But even when I dragged my heels when changing ends to deliberately rearrange the stones and gravel, it still happened to us and not to them. Each time I launched a boule and it ricochet off into the laurel bush I thought of my mother, a trophy-winning lawn bowler, and was glad she was not there to see how her only daughter had failed to inherit a nanogram of her skill at putting a large heavy object somewhere in the same neighbourhood as a small white ball. (yes, yes, mother I know the game of boules is much easier but even so...)
So there we were playing boules, or pétanque as it's sometimes called, trying not to shame ourselves and at the same time trying to avoid braining La Fille and our friends' grandson who thought it immensely amusing to run across the drive the moment 800 grams of solid metal had been lobbed into the air. For some reason known only to the Frenchman who is perfectly well aware I need glasses, he decided that I should be "Le Tireur" while he would be "Le Placeur". This meant I had to screw my eyes up, squint really hard and throw my boule with enough speed and accuracy to knock our opponent's boule out of the ring, leaving the Frenchman to place his boule next to the cochonnet. We would then win. Did it happen? It did not. We lost.
I made the mistake of saying: "Hey, it's just a game," and was looked at as if I'd scattered my marbles as recklessly as my boules. This is France's national sport and would be an Olympic discipline if they had their way. All the flat cap and Gitanes jocularity on the sidelines is an illusion. The celebrated quote by Bill Shankly about football being "much, much more important than life and death" could be applied to boules. Last year a French author wrote a book marking the 100th anniversary of the modern game called '1907 After Jesus Christ: Pétanque'. Games have even been known to end in violence, especially if pastis is involved.
We did win one game after I worked out that if we hurled the cochonnet far enough down the drive, ie. almost into the neighbouring property, our hostess would not have the necessary strength to reach it, though if she hadn't complained I probably wouldn't have guessed. In any case this, judging by the muttering about rules and distances, was clearly not considered to fall under the heading "Being A Good Sport". We were left in no doubt that it was against the boules equivalent of the Queensberry Rules, whatever they might be, even if allowed. It was academic anyway, we still ended up losing. The Frenchman, who normally hates being beaten at anything but conscious of being a house guest, put on his rarely seen Good Loser Face. "It was my fault," he said. "It's just a game," I repeated. Later over a post-match pastis when I had finally uncrumpled my squinty face, he and the couple began a blow-by-blow dissection of the match and I thought, as I have thought a thousand million times before: I will always be a foreigner in France.
The move to France was only supposed to be for a couple of years, not forever. Then I met The Frenchman. Then I had La Fille. Now there's no way back. But La Fille, to whom a horse is a cheval and a frog is just pond life is still half English. So before the Gallic nation claims her for its own, sprinkles her with garlic, sautés her and swallows her up whole we make regular escapes on the Eurostar. And we have discovered the grass is various shades of green either side of the Channel.