“Les Boulefrogs” Bring A Provençal Pastime to Church Hill

by | Apr 11, 2018 | RICHMOND NEWS

It’s a beautiful early spring afternoon, and members of Les Boulesfrogs, Church Hill’s only pétanque club, are gathered at Chimborazo Park. Nineteen members and three newcomers, including this reporter, are here to play the bocce-like French game, where teams take turns launching steel boules at a small wooden ball called the cochonnet (“piglet”).

“Pétanque is Provence patois for both feet together,” club president and founder Richard Taranto tells me when I first arrive, walking me through the rules. He’s playing opposite John and Benedict Whitworth, a married couple originally from England and France respectively, who joined the group when Taranto and his wife, Kirsten, founded it in 2005.

John and Benedict Whitworth

As Taranto takes his turn, John and I note some of the differences from bocce: Pétanque is more of a throwing game than a bowling game, the boules in pétanque are smaller, and as I saw upon arriving, nearly half the players here are women, unlike the male-dominated bocce courts of my native New England. “That’s the great thing about pétanque,” he replies. “Anyone can play it. You’ll see men, women, people of all ages. The women are usually better than the men.”

He also points out the lack of physical restrictions, something pétanque shares with bocce. Although she’s not present today, one member, Sheila Luellen, plays from her wheelchair.

On this Saturday, ages range from a 28-year-old to a few people “in their 80s,” said Taranto when I ask him after his turn. Their youngest dues-paying member–dues are $30 per year, split evenly between insurance and equipment purchases–is 20, but currently off at college.

“We haven’t had to use it, but it’s a good idea,” Benedict said about the insurance, noting that this spot in Chimborazo is an active area for families, dog walkers, and others. Near the intersection of East Grace and North 29th streets, the eight courts are adjacent to a popular basketball court and a small play area.

After a bit of reassurance, I’m pulled in to play a game myself, convinced by John, who said it’s a mixture of skill and luck. Players self-organizing as pointers or shooters; the latter try to position their boules near the cochonnet while the former knock their opponents’ boules away. As a rookie who doesn’t really know the difference, I line up with the pointers and join team sorting by throwing a borrowed boule at a cochonnet.

My boule is closest to John’s, so by a stroke of luck, I’m paired up with the British shooter and, in my opinion, pétanque shark.

The reporter, captured by John Whitworth

Amid friendly ribbing from our opponents, we talk strategy and basic rules. I need to land more of my three boules closer to the cochonnet than our opponents do; John on his turn will choose between knocking out their boules or trying to score alongside mine. Rounds end with scoring after all boules are thrown, with a simple system familiar to anyone who’s watched curling. Only the leading team scores in a round, gaining one point per boule closer to the cochonnet than the closest boule of the losing team.

Just as in curling, measuring is part of the game. It’s not always possible to tell by sight alone which boule is closest. “If there is ever a question, we always measure, and we always take the word of the measurer,” John said.

Taranto checking closeness

For a first game, it couldn’t go better. After giving me a do-over on my first round (not normally allowed), we win almost every successive one. Whichever team wins begins the next round by throwing out the cochonnet to establish the target for each team’s six boules.
We win 13 to 2, making for a short game of only eight rounds. Hypothetically, a game can be as short as three and as many as twenty-five rounds. Basking in glory, I head over to the snack table, where members are eating peanuts during a mid-game social break.

Many of the players were exposed to the game overseas, like Mark Rankin, a French teacher at George H. Moody Middle School in Henrico. “I first saw it when I was living in France,” he said, talking about a few years when he taught English overseas. He teaches his students how to play now, too, and some stick with the game outside of the classroom.

For another player, newcomer Todd Van Gordon, the introduction to boules games came while living in Venezuela, where he played bolas criollas. “We played on rough ground there, which makes it very interesting,” he said. This club used to play on rough ground too, said Rankin, on a few of the back alleys, but they built the courts in Chimborazo several years ago in partnership with the city of Richmond. Van Gordon first found Les Boules Frogs by chance, as many do, while walking his dog through Chimborazo park, and then joined after meeting some players at a neighborhood gathering.

That’s essentially the recruitment strategy. Although not here today, Kirsten was my introduction to the club, striking up a friendly conversation with me at the downtown YMCA where I was covering another story and inviting me to come out and play. The couple played in a club up in Northern Virginia before they moved here in 2005 and sought to recreate the experience here partially as a way to meet people and make friends in their new home. By any metric, it was a success; from a blurb in the Church Hill Newsletter that brought out ten neighbors, they’ve grown to a club of some fifty regular members. It’s the only club in the region, and shares some members with the local Alliance Française chapter, but you don’t need to be a francophone to join.

Games are held twice each week on Sunday afternoon at 2:00 PM and Thursday evening at 6:00 PM. Although they play year-round, they won’t play in the face of rain, snow, and extreme cold, Taranto said, adding, “It’s too cold to play if your tongue freezes to the ball.”

Whether you’re looking for a new hobby or just want to enjoy some of this lovely spring weather, you won’t go wrong with the friendly folks at Les Boulesfrogs of Church Hill.

David Streever

David Streever

David Streever was editor of the RVA Mag print quarterly from 2017 until 2018. He's written two cycling books for Falcon and covered the Tour de France and the 2015 UCI Championship in Richmond. He writes about politics, culture, cycling, and pretty much anything else.

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