Thursday, 21 August 2014

Boules to that..

 Let me tell you about the time I played in my first (and probably last) boules tournament.

We were on holiday in France, staying in a small village in the Haute Loire département.   It is the annual 'vogue', a four day fête where you can enjoy such delights as a fun fair, travelling circus, car boot sale and several music events.  But the highlight for the more competitive residents are the two tournoi de boules.

Hats were compulsory until 1959, then the Beatles came along and changed all of that..
Now you may think that boules is just a jolly pastime that you've dabbled at while on holiday and that you've seen locals play over a pastis and Gauloise, but that simplification would be like saying all football is about a bunch of blokes kicking a ball around with jumpers for goalposts (which is in effect what it is..), what you are really seeing is France's national obsession, their beautiful game.  Have a look at French TV, they regularly have televised games and many towns will have a Bouleodrome, a boules centre which often includes indoor facilities to allow year round enjoyment.  Suffice to say some people take this very seriously and travel around their region in the summer months making a few tax free euros, if they're good enough.

Hence there are two boules events at the vogue, one strictly for people from the village and another more serious event for all comers.  So my beau père and I enter the village event after clarifying that I qualify due to my close association with the place and more importantly that as an Englishman I offered little threat of appearing in the latter rounds and therefore stealing the prize money.

We duly turn up at the registration time, casually eyeing up our competitions, wishing them a friendly 'bonjour' with an undertone of 'I hope you lose'.  Most seemed to be family pairings, father and son, mother and daughter, nothing to dent our belief that we would at least give a good account of ourselves if nothing else.  The organisers took our entry fee then noted our names on a flattened out crisp carton, adding to the ad-hoc 'it's just for a laugh' ambience.  Then as time moved on, the more serious players began to arrive, noticeable by their natty little 'Obut' ball carriers and their sporty trainer/white socks sports combo, as opposed to my flip flops.  Please note I didn't use the word 'bag' in describing the ball carriers.  I'm trying to avoid any double entendres so you don't descend in to Sid James style sniggers at every turn, so get it over with now and we can move on, matron..  This was beginning to look like a serious competition, for a start these guys had their own kit, always an ominous sign, and it looked as if they had used it fairly recently. We hadn't played for a couple of years and the boules we had in the garage were turning a nice shade of rust.  I've had this feeling of impending doom before when I was the holder of the annual tennis club 10 pin bowling championship.  The following year a guy from the club turned up with his own ball, shoes and hammock like ball polisher.  Suffice to say he won.  After a delay of about an hour, waiting for the bandits to turn up, we started our first round match and I began to learn what this game is really all about.

Like most casual players, I had assumed the idea of the game is to get your ball nearer to the jack, or cochonnet as it's known in France, than your oppenents',  and indeed that is the concept but it's not quite the same as green bowling in the UK.  In that game, if you want to remove one of the opposition's balls (really, come on..) you have to fire it out along the ground, whereas in boules you have the third dimension of aerial attack. Although while watching some green bowling in England lately I noticed that some of the more mature players were using a sky-borne Barnes-Wallace approach, forced on them by arthritis or general maladies in the back/leg department.  I can imagine the banter over tea later about the validity of Earthquake Ethel's 617 squadron approach on the last end of the game..

We won the toss, which was about all we did win on the day, so the honour of throwing the cochonnete and taking the first shot was mine.  Thankfully I managed to get my boule to within about 4 inches of the target and stepped back, comfortable in the thought that this end was as good as won, rule Brittania.  Now please take the time to visualise a news clip released by the RAF of a target, a warehouse perhaps, being used for some nefarious purpose by an unseen enemy.  Next thing you know it's obliterated by a smart bomb, launched from thirty thousand feet, the warehouse is gone but the surrounding play school, hospital, pet sanctuary and old aged person home are untouched, not a tea cup displaced. Hooray for lasers.  

Now picture a grainy black and white picture of my boule, resting smugly in it's place next to a little white ball..  Boom, now it's gone but the white ball remains.  'That's a lucky shot' I'm thinking as I step up to try again.  Once more I am close to the target and once again Dead Eye Dick, as I am calling my opponent, launches another 'smart ball' to violently move mine away and so a pattern is established.  It transpires that this forcible removal of other people's shots is what the game is about, rather than the accurate placement in the first place, which is beginning to look like the easier bit.  We were therefore being given a boules lesson and resigned ourselves to a quick defeat.

It's fair to say our opponents were not overly chatty, but did reveal that they were not from the village but a large town some 30 miles away.  Ha!  But this event is for local people, maybe we can get them with a technical knock-out.  However the conversation with a rules official then played out in my head - 'Excuse me Monsieur, I do believe these players are not from round 'ere, I expect you'll want to disqualify them under rule 5 subsection 'C' regarding the lack of proximity of their abode?'.  'Bien sur Monsieur Rôti de Beouf, just remind moi of your address?  The Middle East you say, ah, tant pis...´.

So we retire to the bar area for a drink and to await the draw for the next round, and it became apparent that this was also part of the event, the drinking that is.  In fact, if golf is a good walk spoilt, boules must be a good boozing session interrupted by flinging a ball or two.  The break went on for the best part of an hour and seemed to be of an interminable time.  Some players who we're sitting next to us seemed to suggest we could go and have a practise while we were waiting which after our first match seemed like a good idea.  They were also from out of the area, I'm beginning to see a pattern here..

They won the toss and in time put their first ball close to the cochonnet. I thought this would be a good opportunity to get some training in so I attempted to fire it out, with great success.  In hindsight, this was the only time during the whole afternoon I managed this feat but from small acorns..  The rest of the game went their way, with me trying out a variety of shots in the hope that I found a technique that worked and generally not paying too much attention.  Game over, we strolled back to the bar in order to find our second round opponents, only for me to be told they had been those players and we had just been defeated again, lost in translation.

I should say that I do speak reasonably good French, but family and friends make allowances for my short comings by speaking more slowly and clearly.  I have often found than when engaged by random people the nature of a casual conversation without knowing the context and often including slang is often unfathomable.  Hence when asked a two word question by our second opponents I was completely flummoxed.  All I could hear was 'more balls?'.  Did this mean he wanted to carry on playing or was it an observation on the poor standard or our play?  It transpires he meant 'do you have any more balls to play in this end?', but the complete lack of any grammar and virtual lack of vocabulary just didn't give me enough to work on.  It's not unfair for me to add that the chap asking me this question was probably not France's answer to Stephen Fry, but a man who seemed to think that he'd only been given a limited amount of words to use during his lifetime and didn't want to waste too many on me.  Add to that the fact he didn't move his lips while speaking and you can understand why I was confused.

Another immense wait for the third round and then then draw, where we get a father and son combo and a closer, more enjoyable game.  Still lost, but the manner of losing was more agreeable.

So what did I learn about boules?  Well you need a laser guided smart ball and eye to go with it, we were the equivalent of a Roman siege machine, the only guaranteed thing our balls were going to hit was the floor. 
OK, it's not accurate, but whatever we hit will have a big hole in it..
Secondly, mark your balls (hang on in there with the sniggers, we're nearly at the end..). Ours came in a value set from Carrefour some had markings and others were plain.  I played with the latter on the assumption that everyone else would have lines on theirs. Not so fast Mr Bond.  I would estimate that 75% we're plain like the ones I had so at any given time I had not the foggiest idea of what was going on.  The only way I could pick them up with any certainty was to wait until everyone else had taken theirs and assume the remaining three were mine.  Even now I'm not sure I bought the same set back that I'd taken out.

As a footnote to this episode, the following day the 'open' event took place.  It started at 2pm and finished at 11.30pm, and my wife thinks golf is a time consuming game.  We also learnt from some neighbours that there was a bit of controversy about the number of players in our event who were not village people, that is people from our village rather than members of the disco group.  In our experience two out of our three opponents came in to this category, so if they were disqualified we would move from relegation zone ignominy to top third respectability, result.