French Game Draws Melange To New York City Park Petanque originated in France and resembles the Italian lawn bowling game of bocce, but New Yorkers of all nationalities and professions gather in Bryant Park to join in. This version of the game started as an alternative sport for a player who became disabled, so people of all ages and abilities can participate.
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French Game Draws Melange To New York City Park

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French Game Draws Melange To New York City Park

French Game Draws Melange To New York City Park

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You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

In Bryant Park, just a block from Times Square, there is a little corner where people play petanque. The game got its start in France about a hundred years ago. And it's not all that different from the Italian game bocce, but it's played with metal balls. And what is striking about petanque in Bryant Park is that whether you're talking about country, class or profession, the players are truly all over the map.

NPR's Margot Adler reports.

MARGOT ADLER: At first, you don't even notice that that there are two little courts, just a bunch of dirt surrounded by a wooden rim. You could pass it by and not even notice. Yngve Biltsted, who is Danish and represented the U.S. in two world championships, teaches people twice a week. Lessons are free.

The people playing are old, young and from everywhere.

Mr. YNGVE BILTSTED: I'm from Denmark. We got somebody from Cuba. We got French people, of course. We got a British guy. We have probably 17 to 19 different nationalities.

Mr. ERNESTO SANTOS (Web Designer; President, La Boule New Yorkaise): It really is the makeup of New York City.

ADLER: That's Ernesto Santos, web designer and president of this local petanque club, which is called La Boule New Yorkaise.

Mr. SANTOS: Bankers playing in their suits with delivery guys and firemen. When there are a lot of construction across the street, we had a lot of construction workers playing.

ADLER: You're Cuban?

Mr. SANTOS: Yeah, I was actually born in Cuba. My mom is Chinese, so I'm Cuban-Chinese.

ADLER: You really do see all kinds of people here. I notice a tour bus driver in his red uniform.

The game was invented near Marseille when a player who was disabled had to modify the rules of another game. In petanque, the player stays in one place with his feet together. So people in wheelchairs can play this game.

Again, Ernesto Santos.

Mr. SANTOS: I think two years ago, a really great player from France won a championship in a wheelchair. It's accessible to anybody. You know, a son, father and grandfather can play at the same level at the same time.

ADLER: Men and women also.

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

Mr. BILTSTED: Now, it's two guys against a girl because we have the points.

Unidentified Woman: So it's my turn?

Mr. BILTSTED: Just try and get close to the little jack out there or the cochonnet.

ADLER: Biltsted is teaching two first-timers how to throw the ball.

Mr. BILTSTED: Very nice. Okay. Now, you're going to try knock her out.

Unidentified Man: I got to knock her out.

Mr. BILTSTED: Because we're in second position, so you knock her out.

ADLER: The rules are easy. You have two or three balls depending on how many play. You throw out this little wooden ball or cochonnet and you try to get your metal balls as close to the cochonnet as possible, which either means pointing, throwing it as close as possible; or shooting, hitting your opponent's ball to knock it as far away as possible.

Pointing seems easier than shooting to first-timer me. But when I asked Lucien Rakotojaona from Madagascar which he prefers, he doesn't hesitate.

Mr. LUCIEN RAKOTOJAONA: I'm a pointer. I love to point. It's a big challenge between you and the court.

ADLER: Emile Boujeke came to the United States only 16 months ago from Cameroon. He was a mechanic there. But here, he has to get his English in order, so he's handling freight at an airport. On the petanque court, he has met people from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Guinea and Niger.

Mr. EMILE BOUJEKE: The game is not only is fun, but it's relaxing. When you feel stressed, you just need to come and play some game, and after, you forget everything. Yeah.

ADLER: I hear from several players that petanque makes you forget work, family, everything. But Boujeke has only discovered this group recently.

Mr. BOUJEKE: It's my new family.

ADLER: For him, it's friendship, community and more.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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