French Game Draws Melange To New York City Park

July 21, 2010

by Margot Adler

In Bryant Park, only a block from Times Square, there is a little corner where people play petanque (pronounced "pay-TAHNK"). The game started in France about 100 years ago. It's not so different from the Italian bowling game called bocce, but this game uses metal balls. What's striking is how international the players are: Africans, Latinos, Europeans – and they hail from every class and profession.

At first you don't even notice that that there are two little courts in Bryant Park. The courts are made of dirt, surrounded by a wooden rim. You could pass it by and not even notice. Yngve Biltsted, who is Danish and who represented the United States in two world championships, teaches people twice a week. Lessons are free.

The people playing are old, young and from everywhere. Biltsted points out players. "I'm from Denmark, we have a British guy, we have French people, of course. We have probably 17 to 19 different nationalities." The president of this local petanque club, which is called La Boule New Yorkaise, is Ernesto Santos.

"It's really the makeup of New York City," he says. "There are bankers, playing in their suits, with delivery guys and firemen and when there is a lot of construction across the street, we had a lot of construction workers playing." He was born in Cuba. His mother is Chinese.

Petanque was invented near Marseille, after a player who was disabled needed a different way to play. They modified the rules of another game. In petanque the player stays in one place with his feet together. So people in wheelchairs can play. Ernesto Santos says that two years ago a great player from France won a triples championship in a wheelchair.

"The game is accessible to anybody," Santos says. "A son, a father, and a grandfather can play at the same level at the same time. Men and women can also play competitively at the same time, at the same level."

Everyone says it takes five minutes to learn the rules, half a year to get competent, and a lifetime to master the game.

The rules are easy: You have two or three balls depending on how many play, you throw out a little wooden ball or couchenet and you try to get your metal balls as close to the couchenet as possible. Getting the metal balls to the right spot either means pointing (throwing it as close as possible) or shooting (hitting your opponent's ball to knock it as far away as possible). To a newcomer, pointing may seem easier than shooting, but Lucien Rakotojaona from Madagascar does not hesitate to state his preference. "I'm a pointer," he says. "I love to point. It's a big challenge between you and the court."

Emile Boujeke came to the United States only 16 months ago from Cameroon. He was a mechanic there. Here he is handling freight at an airport until he improves his English. On the petanque court he has met people from Morocco, Tunesia, Algeria, Guinea, and Niger. He says the game is also relaxing.

"When you feel stressed you just need to come and play some game, and after you forget everything," Boujeke says.

Several players agree that petanque makes you forget work, family – all your problems. But Boujeke has only discovered this group recently. He calls it "my new family." The club has led to friendship, community and much more.