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 a commitment to deep relationship building that may eventually permit admission into a circle of trust. If that permission is ever granted, the sense of fulfillment is nearly euphoric!
I was parachuted in to the ancient French village of Saint-Paul de Vence to open the European sales and marketing operations of our tiny, thriving Canadian software start-up. My office was in a nearby high-tech park, and I quite accidentally chose the magical village of Saint-Paul in which to rent an apartment.
Anyone who has spent time in a small village in France has, at the very least, absorbed some sense of the importance of the game of pétanque within French culture. Now imagine a foreigner eventually being welcomed into the members-only Cercle de Pétanque Club in this famous French village, where French icons such as Yves Montand had played the game, while Marc Chagall painted in his studio nearby. To me this was a form of heaven – being warmly accepted into a part of French culture so near and dear to the hearts of locals in Provence!
Now, this did not come easily or quickly; in fact, it started with my neighbour and friend Hubert, blowing smoke in my face. I would later describe this as my formal introduction to that French gesture I refer to as la puff. It involves taking a slow deep inhale on a cigarette, rolling the eyes back in the head, and then exhaling the smoke (either rapidly or slowly) in the general direction of the question asker. The best I have been able to interpret this gesture to means is, “The question you just asked is so stupid that the only response it deserves is an exhale of smoke in your face!”
The first la puff experience occurred when I asked Hubert if he played pétanque, and after I had dodged the smoke cloud and still looked puzzled, Hubert finally said, “Of course I play pétanque; I’m French.”
I took a step back to put a little more distance between us, readied myself for another la puff of smoke and dared to utter my brilliant follow-up question: “Will you teach me to play?” This was quickly met by the only grande puff I experienced the entire year I lived in France.
Offended to have been dismissed so easily I said, “Why not? I know I can be good at it!”
Hubert simply countered with the tough-to-debate, “YOU ARE NOT FRRRREENCH!”
Not one to take Non, or any form of smoke exhalation, as an answer, I countered with “Okay, then I’ll find somebody else to teach me because I AM going to learn to play this game.” And with that, I stormed off into my cave apartment, slamming my replica 15th-century heavy wooden door for effect.
After I cooled off and emerged from my self-imposed dungeon, I immediately ran into Hubert again. As I attempted to avoid him, he said, “Attends [Wait].”
What followed was a complete shock. Hubert whispered, “Okay, I’ll teach you.”
“What was that?” I replied, “I don’t think I heard you correctly.”
To which he said, “Shut up before I change my mind; you heard me.” He actually said “Ferme ta gueule [Shut your beak]” not “Shut up.”
When I impulsively blurted out, “Great, let’s go,” Hubert replied, still whispering as if the local Culture Police might be listening, “No, not now, you fool; I’ll come find you when it’s time.”
What followed were weeks of being taught to play the wonderful game, under the cloak 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. Once I had proven to Hubert that my skills and understanding for the game had developed to a level well above any other foreigner to ever set foot on French soil, he permitted me to emerge from hiding and play with him against other locals in broad daylight.
As a team, we more than held our own and I became respected for my play and my deep understanding of a game that locals cherished so dearly. To this day, my most fond memory of my time living in France is of the time I executed a difficult shot and an elderly pétanque connoisseur spectator spoke up quietly, but clearly, saying “Il a le sens du jeu [He has a sense for the game].” He didn’t say I was good at the game, rather he was pointing out that I really understood the game deeply. He knew how difficult it was to reach that level and he was congratulating me for having had the nerve and determination to get to that point. I simply looked his way, smiled politely, nodded, and carried on playing – it was a heavenly moment to savour forever.
We all know how common it is for people to inadvertently convince us not to try new things. Far too often we hear things like, “you will probably fail,” “that won’t work,” “that’s a bad idea,” “you don’t know how to do that,” “nobody is going to help you,” “you can’t make a difference.” Somehow, I was lucky to learn fairly young to say to myself, “don’t listen to them… why not try?” And it was this “why not try?” attitude that enabled me to rise above the smoke of many la puffs and that turned out to be the catalyst for my wonderful year of playing pétanque on the hallowed grounds in front of Le Café de la Place in Saint-Paul de Vence!
My new book, Uncorked: My year in Provence studying Pétanque, discovering Chagall, drinking Pastis, and mangling French, is a “why-not-try” story about that year I lived in France. It is not about uncorking a bottle of wine, rather it is about “uncorking” traditions and personal realizations. I hope the story inspires a few people to focus some light on the creative talents deep within them… or, at least, inspires them to travel to the South of France to enjoy a sampling of the cultural riches it serves up still to this day!
Santé (to health),
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