A Catholic nun, a fourth-grader and a Penn Romance Languages professor may not appear to have much in common. But on Sunday afternoons, they're all drawn to the same place: West Philly's Clark Park. Each week, between the drum circle and chess players, they go the park to play pétanque. A group of francophiles and expats brought the ball game with them from Southern France and hooked quite a few passersby, drawing a crowd of up to 30 players every week.
The 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.” Created in December by a group of West Philadelphian enthusiasts, the Philadelphia pétanque club — the city's first — has now gathered more than 100 members on meetup.com.
In France, pétanque is traditionally associated with working-class men who, sporting a paunch and an affinity for an anis-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. Morgane Houssais, a Penn post-doctoral researcher from France who is now the club’s event organizer, was walking by one day when she noticed, “Some American people are playing a French game — that’s really funny.” She 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.” But like other expats, she was excited to find pétanque players in a foreign land. About half of the pétanque club members are French, she says, and many are affiliated with Penn.
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 once played for the national Moroccan team, and when he moved to the United States in 1999, he longed for it. “I missed it for 13 years,” he says.
El-Haddad was among the six members who represented Philadelphia in this year’s July 14 Bastille Day pétanque tournament held in Brooklyn. They didn’t do as well as they hoped, but are organizing their own tournament, to be held on 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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