via Flickr/Xavi Talleda
Walking by Clark Park one Sunday, French expat Morgane Houssais came across an incongruous sight: “Some American people are playing a French game — that’s really funny.” The game in question, wedged in between the drum circle and the chess players, was pétanque.
Today, crowds of up to 30 players gather each week to play the ball game, imported from Southern France to West Philadelphia by a group of Francophiles and expatriates. Created in December, the Philadelphia pétanque club — the city’s first — now has more than 100 members on meetup.com. On a recent Sunday, a Catholic nun, a fourth-grader and a Penn Romance-languages professor were among the diverse crowd.
The bocce-like game pits two teams of two or three players each in a competition to throw fist-size metal balls as close as possible to a target ball called the “cochonnet.” In France, pétanque is traditionally associated with working-class men who, sporting a paunch and an affinity for an anise-flavored liquor called pastis, while away their Sundays playing the game under the Marseilles sun. The sport “moves just fast enough … to allow for a conversation,” says organizer Bill Craig, a West Philadelphia architect who was struck by the game’s beauty while travelling in Brittany, a region in Western France, a few years back. His voice drops, and he adds: “Historically, it’s been for the older men … while women are doing the housework.” Not so here. “It’s an American adaptation: Three of the women are our best players.”
The game’s West Philadelphia adaptation certainly has a different feel. Houssais, a Penn post-doctoral researcher who is now the club’s event organizer, was surprised to find how seriously they were taking a game she associated with the summer vacations of her childhood. One Sunday, “We played under the rain,” while holding umbrellas, she says. “That was not French at all.”
The group boasts several professional-level players, including Essadik El-Haddad, who drives from Harrisburg every few weeks with his wife, Lisa, just to play pétanque. He played for the national Moroccan team before moving to the United States in 1999. “I missed [this game] for 13 years,” he says. El-Haddad was among six players who represented Philadelphia in this year’s Bastille Day pétanque tournament in Brooklyn. Now, they’re organizing their own tournament, for Oct. 5 at Clark Park. Everyone’s invited — as long as they take their fun seriously. “It’ll be competitive, and all our best players will be in it,” Craig warns.
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