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If the Italians living in my neighborhood when I was growing up ever played Bocci they played somewhere else. But there were enough Italians talking about Bocce that all of us kids knew that the Italian game of bowls existed. We picked up lots of arcane cultural knowledge from the Italians, the Poles and Lithuanians, the Slovaks and Germans in addition to all of the regular culture that is the Irish.

But, really, who ever heard of Petanque? N’est moi, certainment.

The French version is a fairly recent improvement on a much older game of boules. The original apparently involved running to a mark and hurling big heavy balls at a smaller jack. I suppose that over time the aficionados of the sport developed the sort of physical problems that you might imagine. Certainly Jules Lenoir, the guy who developed the rules of modern Petanque wasn’t disposed to sprint or to heave heavy balls of any size a great distance.

So, Petanque is played with steel balls a little larger than an American baseball. The boules, as they are called, must be sized within a specific range of sizes and weights and can be made of a variety of metals in various densities and shades. Proper boules have their size, weight, and manufacture stamped on them and may, or may not have a number of striations used to distinguish them from other boules in play and to affect traction on the ground.

The object of the game is for a player or team to toss or roll their balls closest to a small target ball, while knocking away or blocking the opponent’s balls. When all balls are rolled points are tallied according to those of the team closest to the target “cochonette” before the first proximate ball of the enemy.

Here in Las Galeras a lemon or, better, an almond often serves as the “piggie,” although that seems to change when a certain revolving coterie of French arrive for the period of January through April, more or less. The French. It seems, travel with their steel boules and their wooden cochonettes. In truth, a real cochonette is better than fruits or nuts, having no capacity to turn into a puddle of lemonade, and rolling truer than an oblong almond when cast. For me, it’s one more reason to love the French.

This October I began to pretty regularly join a group of Dominicans who meet in the late afternoon on the beach to play Petanque with a couple of year-round French residents. This is the nucleus of the Las Galeras Petanque Association. “Membership” in the association fluctuates depending on who is in or out of town and participation on any given day varies according to who is occupied with what sort of time-consuming project around the house. A German resident is a pretty regular player and a Belgian couple and the odd Italian or two drop in occasionally, along with a few other Dominicans and Germans and French. It’s an ethnic and linguistic polyglot. Understandably, most of the terms employed during the game are French. “Merde!” is the appropriate comment for an errant bowl, although one can occasionally hear a Frenchman, in deference to the lone American player offer up an Arkansan “Sheeeitt!” in a Toulousian accent. Much hilarity follows.

A couple of the Dominican guys are among the best players and the regular French residents are excellent also. A couple of the regular returnees (those who travel with their own boules) are dangerous players too. The rest of us can vary unpredictably from day to day, but the new German guy and I are consistently improving. The Italian fellow adjusted to the French boules very quickly and held his own quite nicely.

You wouldn’t imagine that it would be fascinating to watch a bunch of people toss steel balls around on the beach road but I’m told that our antics can be quite entertaining. There’s lots of lying and cheating accompanied by grand gestures and loud protestations in several languages. Disputes are often settled with the more or less precise comparison of distances between competing balls and the target jack using a single strand from a palm frond or some other handy piece of detritus from the beach. The German guy carries a tape measure. Go figure.

The fellow who is the most regular of the players decided that what was needed was an organized competition–sort of a round-robin tournament over three evenings of a weekend in January. A sign was produced by the local Dominican sign painter–who is also a killer Petanque player–and posted on the beach for 10 days in advance of the scheduled event. Here’s a look.

Pretty nice sign, eh?

We wound up with 6 teams of three persons each, with the idea that everyone would play one or two of the opposition teams on each of the three evenings with no more formal plan. The team with the highest total score on Sunday evening would be crowned champions for 2009. A simple scheme, but fraught with opportunity and, as it turned out, the necessity for revision.

To begin with, some of the players didn’t want to divvy up the entry fees among the “Win, Place, and Show” teams, preferring to have a party instead. These were mostly the European guys, for whom the 200 peso entry fee didn’t represent 1/3 of a day’s wages. And then there was the matter of actually showing up to compete. One of my teammates–and the organizer of the Concurso–didn’t show up the first day (pressing business on la loma.) The sign painter was crazy brilliant on Friday but a no-show for both Saturday and Sunday–reportedly on a bender. The entire French Women’s team failed to materialize for the Sunday evening competition. I imagined them sharing a glass of wine and tasty hors d’oeuvres while congratulating themselves on the decision to forgo the final day of play. Mostly, this group had not been regular players, although among the best “pointers” on the beach two are women, one Dominican and the other French.

The section of the beach where this takes place is also a road along the beach. As such, it is traveled by tourists on foot, tourists or farmers on horseback, trucks and automobiles, tourists on all-terrain vehicles and the ever-present “moto-conchos,” or motorcycle taxis. Mostly, the vehicles look out for the play and generally the players consider the speed and direction of passer-by before lobbing their steel balls down court. Often activity on the road comes to a halt while passer-by takes in a particularly challenging series of boules. You can safely bet that any group interested enough to stop is French, although one Japanese family was pretty taken by the sport. The rare group of American tourists will as often as not plow ahead with one of their number loudly declaiming about “Bocci Ball, that Italian game.”

Like I said: who knew?

Once our missing partner materialized on Saturday, he, Pedro, and I rolled unerringly to the championship, compressing three days of play into two and combining several big wins and a couple of narrow losses to amass enough points to prevail over teams comprised of better players.

Who would have guessed?

Here are some photos of the concourso.

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