Brothers in Boules
Old men were playing in the snow.
The snowflakes, fat and heavy, floated down upon us as we strolled Le Champs de Mars, the long and beautiful park next door to the Eiffel Tower. We had just had a cozy lunch at a nearby restaurant, Le Beaujolais, and finished off with crème brûlée.
Now, we moved stiffly in the glacial air. We were Floridians. We were freezing.
The old men, bundled up in coats and caps, clearly enjoyed being outdoors. "Hey, cheater!" one teased another, in French. "You can't do that." Small, metal balls lay scattered on the ground among them. It was as if these men had been playing together forever, part of some eternal game of fun and friendship.
My daughter lifted her camera to her eye. One of the players, smiling, turned and waved.
A few weeks later, my family's trip to Paris was over, and I could think of little but when I might return. Curious about the game we had witnessed, I managed to land a lunch in Sarasota with the Canesse brothers.
A tradition of pétanque
Freddy and Gilles Canesse just want to play. They work together six days a week as hair stylists and French wine importers. But most of their free time goes to playing and promoting pétanque, a sport dear to them from growing up with it in France.
They travel to compete, and they hold several U.S. titles. It links them to each other and to their traditions.
"Our father played. Our uncles, our grandfather played, and we grew up with it," said Gilles, who at 40 is younger than Freddy by eight years. "We started as youngsters with plastic balls at the beach."
"That's our national sport, besides soccer," Freddy said. "Everyone has a set of pétanque balls in their car."
Pétanque is the game; boules are the metal balls, about the size of baseballs or oranges. Pétanque is similar to English lawn bowling or Italian bocce. The object is to throw metal balls as near as possible to a small wooden ball dubbed the cochonnet (piglet).
Like horseshoes or shuffleboard, the game requires skill and concentration but little physical exertion. It can be played at almost any age.
The Canesse brothers come from the Calais area in northern France. Freddy moved to the United States first, in 1979, an award-winning 20-year-old hairstylist hired to teach at a salon school in Columbia, Mo.
He didn't find any pétanque games there, but at that point he was focused on his career. In an international hair competition, he won an individual gold medal for daytime hairstyle.
Freddy moved in about 1985 to work in Sarasota. A couple of years later, Gilles came to work with him. They found out that some people in the local Alliance Française were playing behind a restaurant on the Tamiami Trail.
And the Canesses proceeded to make pétanque a priority. "It felt like competition was again rolling into myself," Freddy says. "I felt the need to compete continuously. And it just got bigger and bigger, I guess."
They helped to organize the Sarasota Club de Pétanque, which now has about 40 members who pay $30 annual dues and play Sundays at Lakeview Park east of Interstate 75. At the first meeting of the month, everyone brings a dish to share.
"It's fun," said Gilles. "It's an outing. There's no pressure. You come when you want to come. You're part of a little social club, you know, having a little picnic."
Look-alike smiles curled in and out of the brothers' faces over food and wine at Uva Rara, an Italian restaurant in Burns Court that has sponsored some of their competitions. The office where they operate their two businesses, Coiffure de France and Grands Vins de France, is just across Pineapple Avenue.
They deftly rolled understated witticisms into the conversation and off each other.
Playing socially involves "kind of trash-talking," Gilles said. "When you play in competition, it's quiet and serious."
Gilles comes across as slightly more animated and talkative than Freddy, who projects a low-key but centered reserve. And it's clear that Gilles, who is married, looks up to Freddy, who is widowed and has a teenage son.
The Sarasota Club de Pétanque competes in and hosts regional and national tournaments. Nationally it is one of about 28 clubs in 10 states in the 1,300-member Federation of Pétanque U.S.A. Inc. The FPUSA and federations from 58 other nations belong to the International Federation of Pétanque and Jeu Provençal, which counts some 600,000 members.
"The 'little boule' is no longer rolling just on the boulodroms of France, North Africa and France's neighbor countries," a history posted on the international group's Web site explains. "It has crossed the seas and the oceans and is now played in America (U.S.A., Canada), South Africa (Madagascar), the Far East (Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Japan), Australia and New Zealand."
John Rolland of Boca Raton, a Frenchman raised in Algeria who has lived in the United States since 1965, serves as president of the U.S. federation. "The sport of pétanque is growing slowly" in this country, he said. "Every year we add about 100 members." The FPUSA provides insurance to the clubs, making it possible for them to play in county parks.
Apart from a club in Michigan, most FPUSA member organizations are on the West and East coasts. Some are lyrically named: the Kiss the Pig Société in Seaside; La Boule du Desert in Cathedral City, Calif.; Les Boulefrogs of Church Hill in Richmond, Va.
The FPUSA is bigger on the West Coast, where most members are American, Rolland said. But it is growing faster on the East Coast, where most players are French -- many working in restaurants or hotels.
The French-born Canesse brothers are considered rising stars of pétanque in the United States, he said. "In Europe, too, they're going to be even better."
Brothers, partners, rivals
Freddy and Gilles want to qualify for the world championship in September in Grenoble, France. In the meantime, they have been defending their 2005 U.S. gold medals. Freddy, with Kate Setear of Sarasota, holds the national mixed double title; Gilles has the national single title; and the two brothers share in the national double and national triple titles.
With a partner from Miami, they successfully defended their national triple title on April 7 in Lake Worth. The Canesses and their triples partner will compete June 7-9 in Sonoma, Calif., to qualify for the U.S. team.
They have tried for seven or eight years, and the best they have placed so far was third, in 2004. "It's a tough tournament," Freddy said.
They break their strengths down this way: Freddy is the better placer and a good shooter. Gilles is the better shooter.
Once, in the national singles, Freddy beat Gilles. "You can say I gave it to him," Gilles said, uncurling and furling a smile.
Freddy said, "In doubles, we like to play together. We tend to know each other better than somebody else."
Pétanque is continuing to the next generation. Last July at a young people's world pétanque championship in Longueuil, Canada, Freddy coached a U.S. team of teenagers that included his 17-year-old son, Alexander, and Jesse Niece of Sarasota. They placed in the top 15.
I hung out one Sunday afternoon at Lakeview Park with Freddy, Gilles and some other very convivial club members, mostly French.
Sarasota County maintains courts for the club in a wooded area that, with its overarching trees, feels like a quiet chapel. Though the out-of-the way locale gives the Sarasota players little community visibility, visiting clubs envy the shade and natural setting.
The Canesse brothers let me use some boules and tried to teach me, but I was a poor student. I kept laughing and chatting when I should have been concentrating. I rolled out my little bit of French. I visualized the possibilities on bring-a-dish day.
The club boasts an age range from 11 years old to 90.
Setear, an American Francophile and Freddy's mixed-double partner, just started playing two years ago. She won the national championship with him the next year. She says the Canesses worked hard to help her learn. "They never tried to impose their will. They just made suggestions," she says. "They concentrate when they play, but they're relaxed, too."
Eliane Matt is French and has lived 35 years in the United States. She says the Sarasota club members are proud of the brothers. "In my opinion, they like pétanque more than anybody here. And they really push the tournaments."
Freddy and Gilles recruit actively for the Sarasota club. Anyone is welcome to play. But that doesn't mean the Canesses will pretend to play badly. They're always practicing.