STELLA M. CHÁVEZ / Special
Contributor to The Dallas Morning News
Sarah Taquet, 11, stands poised on a
dirt field near White Rock Lake, knees
slightly bent, right arm raised,
steel ball in her hand.
"Up, up, up," yells Jean Edmond LaFont,
a man dressed in khaki pants and a
short-sleeve blue shirt that reads
La Boule Texane.
Sarah raises her arm more, swings it
back then forward and releases the ball,
which is the size of an orange and
weighs about a pound and a half.
It falls to the ground and rolls past
other steel balls. It's close but not
close enough to its target.
It's OK, LaFont tells her, and then
flings his own boule across the field.
At 70, LaFont is a veteran of
the game known as pétanque (pay-TAHNK),
a sport he grew up playing
in his native France. On most weekends,
weather permitting, you can find him,
other French expatriates and
Americans with ties to France playing
on a dirt field in Farmers Branch
or Winfrey Point at White Rock Lake.
They come for the challenge.
The objective: to land your boule as
close as possible to a smaller,
wooden ball known as the cochonnet,
The game can be played by
two, four or six people with
each player receiving three boules.
Players must stand inside a circle
when it's their turn to throw.
The first team to reach 13 points wins.
"One of the fun things is the
element of chance," says Don Craig, 63,
an American who lived in France
and Spain, where the game
is also played. "There's a real
element of surprise."
Everyone's approach is different.
Some players crouch low.
Others stand up straight.
And some only slightly bend
their knees before throwing the boule.
Strategy is involved. For example,
a player can knock another
player's boule out of the way.
Teams collect points for each boule
that is closest to the cochonnet
and that is closer than
the opposing team's boule.
But players also come for the camaraderie.
"We joke. We talk about politics.
We talk about what happens
here and in France," says Sarah's father,
Nicolas Taquet, 40, who helped
organize a recent tournament
at Winfrey Point on White Rock Lake.
On this particular autumn afternoon,
they enjoyed home-cooked dishes
such as pâté and quiche, a variety
of cheeses and some French baked goodies.
Those not playing lounged in chairs
and talked to friends.
The atmosphere was relaxed.
Taquet says he didn't grow up
playing pétanque. It was mostly
a retired person's sport, he says.
But in 2004, five years after moving
to the United States, a neighbor
invited him to play
with the Dallas-area group.
"It was a very pleasant experience,"
he says. "It's not a sport
that requires a lot of training."
Ingrid Gayet, 27, who usually plays
the game when she vacations
in her native France, has a similar
approach to the game as Taquet.
"For me, pétanque is more
a fun game than a sport," she says.
"It's a good way to spend time
with friends and have fun."
Age is not a barrier, says
P.J. Mallette, 24.
"A lot of my best friends, I met them here,"
Mallette says. "Some of those friends
are in their 40s, 50s and 70s."
Mallette took up the sport when
he was a kid. He lived in Sonoma, Calif.,
at the time and stumbled upon
a group playing pétanque on
his way to a Little League baseball game.
At first they weren't sure they wanted
a kid to join them, he said. But
this group eventually took him under its wing.
Mallette became a talented player and
at 14 attended the junior world
championship in Thailand.
"Everybody knew me as
the Pétanque Kid."
Next month, he will participate in
a tournament to try to qualify for
next year's world championship in Taiwan.
Louis Vachier, 64, says the game has
evolved from when he was
a young boy. Back then, fewer women
played and the boules were
made of different materials.
Vachier says playing the game stirs
up fond memories of his homeland.
He recalls people from his village
playing boule on Sunday afternoons
after church in a field across
from his grandfather's bakery.
"It was like in the U.S. when
baseball season begins and you
hear the crack of the bat," he says.
"In pétanque, you hear the boules
hitting iron against iron all across France.
It was a sure sign that
summer was around the corner."
Lucette Cumming, 78, who jokes that
she had a boule in her hand as soon
as she learned to walk, is trying
to spread the word that the group
needs a designated field to play on.
Austin, Houston and El Paso have them.
Cumming says they've talked to
Dallas city employees about their needs,
but says they will probably have
to find a sponsor willing to put up
the money for a field of their own.
She says a designated field would
allow them to host larger tournaments
and invite teams outside of Dallas or Texas.
"There would be more people playing
if there was a common place
we could use every weekend,"
she says. "I wish this could become
a pastime for the Americans as well."
Stella M. Chávez is a Dallas-area
freelance writer. Reach her
Ready to play?
To reach the Dallas-area
pétanque group, e-mail Bill Baker
For a guide to pétanque groups
For an explanation of the game's rules,
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda