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Follow the bouncing boules

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

Half a dozen folks are crouched over a cluster of orange-sized metal balls strewn on a gravel path outside the French Legation Museum.

Some of the balls, called boules, are dinged up; others are shiny as new coins. But only one sits closest to a walnut-sized orb called a cochonnet (or "piglet" in French), and someone's using a tape measure right now to figure out which one that is.

This is pétanque, a popular French game similar to bocce ball that's finding a growing following in Austin.

Three times a week, members of the Heart of Texas Pétanque Club unpack their gear and start lobbing their boules. On Sunday, pétanque players from as far as Florida will gather here for the second annual Heart of Texas Pétanque Club tournament.

The game originated in early 1900s in southern France and is now played by about 17 million people there — and at least 40 or 50 in Austin. It's intense. Players bend at the waist as they make their throws, concentrating intently and contorting as they unfold.

"We have one boule left. This is terrible," says Sasha Evans, 53, vice president of the club, when it's her team's turn.

But it's as much about social interaction and enjoying the day as it is about sport. Some 25 people are gathered on the grounds of the museum today, the sun warming their backs as they play.

"It's really community," says Evans, who arranges her work schedule around pétanque time. "You get to get out and get away for an hour. It's like a weekend in the middle of the day."

Here in Austin the game draws an eclectic group that includes jugglers, a University of Texas professor, a French chef and a magician. Sundays bring out even larger crowds, and equally impressive refreshments. Spreads of quiches, pâté and escargot, plus bottles of wine, aren't uncommon.

Arsene Dupin, 52, a juggler and magician from Paris, learned the game from his grandfather in the south of France when he was 5 and has played ever since. He started a club here two years ago in part to help keep homesickness at bay.

While the weekend games are family-friendly fun, he dreams of developing national-caliber talent and starting a tournament like one in New York City every summer that involves hauling in tons of sand and closing down several city blocks.

"Anybody can play. There is no demarcation — that's the beauty of the game," Dupin says.

Today, the smell of corn tortillas wafts up from a nearby tortilla factory. A small reddish dog trots through the middle of the playing field.

"See now, if you put backspin on it when you throw it, it'll slow down," someone calls out after an errant toss.

The game starts when a player, who must stand inside the outline of a pizza-sized circle drawn on the ground, pitches the cochonnet onto a long, narrow playing court, called a "piece." One by one, players toss out their boules, trying to land them as close to the cochonnet as possible. They can also knock their opponent's boules out of the way.

Points are scored based on their proximity to the cochonnet when all the boules are thrown. The first team to score 13 points wins. It's a dynamic game because while everyone is busy pitching their boules, the cochonnet inevitably gets moved, changing everything.

The game can be played on almost any surface, from grass to dirt, although gravel is preferred. At the French Legation, it's mostly gravel. A good pétanque set can cost between $100 and $300.

The game is easy to learn but difficult to perfect. "It takes a lot of practice," Dupin says. "When you start to approach it as a sport, you have to warm up the body, do some practice drills ... "

It's full of quirky traditions, too. A 13-0 loss is frequently followed by a tradition involving a bare "fanny," though this group keeps it G-rated.

"There's actually a lot of strategy," says David Edwards, 68, a University of Texas government professor who plays two to three times a week. "It gets us out in the open all year round."

I decide to try my luck. The roughly 11/2 pound boule feels like a small cannonball in my hand. I bend forward, and gaze downfield with ferocity. I wind up and pitch, lofting the metal orb high. It drops with a thunk, then rolls harmlessly away from the little piglet. I have the same sorry result with my next lob. But during a second round, I manage a decent shot, and no one betters it. I earn a point for my team.

"In France, it's usually an old person's game," chuckles Marie Claude, a 55-year-old native of France who has been playing here for two years. "If I hadn't moved to Texas, I probably wouldn't be playing."

The group plays year-round, donning gloves and hats if it's cold and slickers if it's raining. Today, three games are unfolding simultaneously.

Nance Friedman, 54, lives in France but is in Austin visiting her mom, Carolyn Cornell, 76, who lives within a few blocks of the museum.

"I love that it's a game that age doesn't matter," says Cornell, who got hooked after watching some people play during a Bastille Day celebration.

Richard Armstrong, 63, who has been playing pétanque for 30 years, was a national pétanque champion in 1994. It took plenty of practice to get that good. He'd throw 300 boules after work most nights. These days, he's a little less serious — but not by much.

"I like the fact that each time you throw the boule it changes the dynamics. It's tactically engaging," he says.

As for Dupin's dream of creating a hotbed of pétanque in Austin? It might not be such a far-fetched idea.

"Texans already play horseshoes," he says.

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MORE INFORMATION:

The Heart of Texas Pétanque Club plays from 1-5 p.m. every Wednesday and 1 p.m. until sunset every second and fourth Sunday at the French Legation Museum, 802 San Marcos St. The club also plays from 1 p.m. until sunset every Friday and 1 p.m. until sunset every first, third and fifth Sunday at Pease Park, 1100 Kingsbury St. The club will host a tournament at 9:30 a.m. Sunday at the French Legation Museum. For more information about the Heart of Texas Pétanque Club, go to http://heartoftexas.wordpress.com/. For more information about pétanque go to www.usapetanque.org.