Pétanque the Story of Gaining Admission into a Circle of Trust in Provence
Le Cercle in Saint-Paul de Vence
International travellers and those who have relocated to live expat lives in foreign places, know all too well how challenging it can be to gain acceptance into tight-knit social circles and closely-held local traditions. To do so requires relationship building at a level so deep. To enable admittance into a circle of trust — if that permission is ever granted, the sense of fulfillment is nearly euphoric!
In all my years of world travel, I have only felt this deep sense of belonging once. It came through the wonderful game of pétanque, while spending a year living and working in Provence.
Now imagine a foreigner eventually being welcomed into the members-only, Cercle de Pétanque club, in the famous town of Saint-Paul de Vence, where French icons such as Yves Montand played the game, while Marc Chagall painted in his studio nearby. This did not come easily or quickly, in fact it started with my neighbour and friend Hubert, blowing smoke in my face and exclaiming “you cannot play Pétanque, YOU ARE NOT FRENCH!”, when I dared to ask if he would teach me to play the game.
After not taking this form of “no” for an answer, and repeatedly pressing Hubert for his teaching assistance, I was eventually permitted to learn the game under the cover of darkness — like a clandestine affair, designed to protect those involved from the public ridicule that would surely come, if such illicit activities were uncovered. Eventually I was even allowed to emerge and play in broad daylight, on a team with Hubert, against others of the town; gradually earning the respect of leery locals, including a woman named Annette who was always polite with me, though clearly dubious of my intentions and ability initially.
One lazy afternoon after a match concluded, Hubert very matter-of-factly said, “Follow me; Annette has something for you.” He then started walking slowly towards the only building that adjoined Saint-Paul’s dusty and ancient pétanque grounds other than the café. It was a small humble structure with a sign above the door that read only ‘Le Cercle’. Was Hubert walking me towards the private bar that was off limits to everybody except registered pétanque players of Saint-Paul? As we neared the door, I paused and said to Hubert, “Vraiment [Really]?” He grinned, nodded, put his hand on my shoulder, and said nothing but “Vraiment.”
Annette greeted us at the door and shook my hand and Hubert’s. I could hardly believe that I had earned the right to be invited to enter this historical little building that tourists steer well clear of. The biggest part of the surprise came when Annette presented me with a little card that made my eyes well up, because I immediately understood that it carried with it a new level of acceptance that I had never expected. She drew an inhale from her pipe and let out a short polite exhale as she handed me the little plastic card and said, “Bienvenue à la Cercle [Welcome to the Circle].” It was my official Saint-Paul pétanque membership card, which would allow me admittance into their private club for life and carried with it a status granted to few.
I thanked Annette and few words were exchanged, though none were really needed, because the first-time bisou (air kiss) on both my cheeks and her warm smile conveyed the message one more time—Welcome into our circle!
Hollywood’s “The Circle”
Fast forward close to 20 years and I cannot yet figure out why the new Hollywood movie, “The Circle”, starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, gives a cameo appearance to pétanque, and I wonder if one of the producers knows of Le Cercle in Saint-Paul de Vence. The movie depicts how being granted admission into a large all-knowing “circle” can turn out to personally intrusive and potentially dangerous, as all sense of privacy becomes stripped away. It made me reflect on the fact that tight-knit, small circles of friends, that hold to deep-rooted traditions and loyalties, are where we should focus our energies; rather than on the massive, impersonal, digital era, virtual circles of “friends” that so many of us are clamouring to gain acceptance into these days.
A toast to the Cercle of pétanque in Saint-Paul… santé [to health]!