Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Victory and Defeat

The annual boules tournament has come and gone once again. As an event it’s smaller than the World Cup … but bigger than the state fair. I call it a tournament but it’s actually a festival. The matches are more than a pretext to socialize … but less than a reason d’être. Which is as it should be, because boules as it is played in the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris or the city parks of southern France epitomizes the attractive mix of grandeur and inconsequence that many find so attractive in French culture. This year (coincidentally) the event was held on Darius Milhaud’s birthday, which added an extra Provençal touch.

The seriousness of the occasion may be suggested by the fact that our hosts, Tim and Carol, have built a boules court in their back yard. Yet when you consider that the event lasted nine hours, though most of the participants were actually engaged in competition for less than twenty minutes, it becomes clear that the afternoon held other attractions in store as well, the most important being food, drink, and conversation—though not necessarily in that order.

On the appointed day friends that we haven’t seen in months arrive from every corner of the city, and our friend Rollo—who speaks French fluently and was on business in Milan and Paris just a few weeks ago—also drops in from Seattle on his way to a family reunion in the Red River Valley. The assembly spans three generations, and a stray elder brother-in-law, just back from some financial consulting in New York, comes close to adding a fourth. There’s meat on the grill and salads on the buffet table inside the house. Our hosts try to keep the competition progressing, minding the pairings and rousting whomever is up next, and someone usually has a tape measure in hand, at the ready to adjudicate if two balls come to rest equidistant from the “target ball,” more familiarly known as the cochonnet.

About the food, only one thing can be said: fantastic! As for the conversation, it’s easy and fluid among friends who’ve known one another for decades. People losing jobs, working harder on contract for less, writing books about anti-gravity, making large batches of garlic-ginger paste and freezing them in thin sheets, going to Inception for the second or third time, reminiscing about a death-defying trip to Venezuela’s Angel Falls, bicycling from Rushford to Fountain and back at 95 degrees, telling BWCA bear stories, reliving those glorious moments on stage at a recent folk festival in Denver—not to mention Rocky Mountain National Park! The kids duck inside to watch Johnny Depp in Alice in Wonderland. The 9-point rounds of boules continue.

There was a time when, perhaps, I was a contender. (Well, I won two of the first three competitions.) But my star has long since faded, and the limelight has shifted to Dave and Jim. Yet Tim was always lurking in the shadows, waiting his moment. This year Dave fell from competition in the early rounds and Jim was knocked out in an intense nip-and-tuck battle with his wife, Debbie. I knocked her out of the competition in turn, though not without difficulty; Michel outlasted Carol, and Tim continued an exhibition of brilliant sky-balling that Michel could not overcome.

There we were, Tim and I, in the final. Darkness had fallen. He surged to a five-zip lead, but I crawled back into contention. The score stood at seven to eight. I got close. He sent me to the back wall with another brilliant sky-ball, then put another one close. With my last ball I had no choice but to try to hit him away. I hit the mark and his metal ball went streaming to the limestone wall. But mine wound up nowhere near the cochonnet. Tim rolled a final ball effortlessly within three inches of the litte piglet, and the trophy was his.

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