“Oooh, shiny!” exclaimed Howard Ando and Jane Wilkinson when we unveiled our set of six petanque boules, scarcely used over a decade since they were purchased.
The couple’s own set of metal boules were dull with the wear of frequent play on the gravel surface typical for petanque. Over the last two years, much of that play has come on the rectangle of gravel in the side yard of the couple’s Ypsilanti home, just west of the Eastern Michigan University campus.
After seeing the game played during their visits to France, they developed a passion for it that led them to have their own court constructed. And now they’d like to invest in petanque for the public – they’ve offered to pony up the cash for a facility in Burns Park. A public meeting to discuss the potential facility will be held on Monday, Nov. 17 starting at 7:30 p.m. at the Ann Arbor Senior Center at Burns Park.
The wintry slop falling out of the sky on Saturday led us to opt for a pleasant living-room conversation instead of chasing a little pig across the piste (court) – the jack, or cochonnet, also translates as “piglet.” In petanque, the jack plays a role similar to that in bocce, which might be more familiar to some readers.
After throwing the jack, the game continues with teams alternating throws of the metal boules, with the object being to conclude a round with one or more boules closer to the jack than the opposing team’s boules. Strategy is not unlike curling, where decisions must be made about whether to try to place a boule close to the jack (pointing), or rather to send one’s metal sphere crashing into an opposing boule that is already closely placed (shooting).
Petanque differs from curling in that the target is not permanently marked on the playing surface, but rather varies as the jack is thrown. And of course, petanque is also played on a gravel surface, not ice as in curling.
Assuming that any concerns that could arise at Monday’s meeting are adequately addressed, construction of the facility at Burns Park would likely entail something similar to the simple process used to build Ando and Wilkinson’s court: excavate to a certain depth; fill with coarse gravel; throw in a layer of landscape fabric; top off with a finer gravel. What the lousy wet weather on Saturday demonstrated was that any concerns (already raised at a Park Advisory Commission meeting in August) about petanque facilities adding to the impervious surface of the city are unfounded. No puddling or pooling was visible on the surface.
At that August PAC meeting Ando estimated the cost of construction at around $20,000. But at the October PAC meeting, the cost estimate provided by city staff was substantially greater. Colin Smith of the city’s parks and recreation staff told commissioners that the cost to build a petanque facility is estimated between $50,000 and $75,000, depending on amenities. The key to the difference in estimates likely lies in the nature of those amenities.
The offer of financial support from the couple comes with the added bonus of a 1-1 match from Pfizer if the money is donated this year. Ando is a retired employee of the pharmaceutical company.
So what exactly do Ando and Wilkinson find so attractive about petanque? Part of the appeal lies in the egalitarian nature of the game. The name of the game itself reflects a heritage of accessibility (it’s not onomatopoetic, reflecting how the balls land, as in “kerplunk”). The name petanque derives from “Les Ped Tanco” in a Provençal dialect, which means “feet together” – contrasting this game with others that allow a running start. The inventor of petanque suffered from rheumatism, which prevented him from executing the athletically powerful maneuver of a throw with a running start. This led him in 1907 to create a game disallowing such throws.
Another point for accessibility of the game is that the metal boules can be picked by using a magnet tied to a string or attached to a telescoping wand. That means people who can’t easily bend over or people who get around using wheelchairs can participate fully in the game without relying on others. The business card that Ando uses for this project reads, “Petanque Ann Arbor, a sport for everyone.”
The phrasing “a sport for everyone” might suggest to some readers it’s not competitive. On the contrary. The sport has conducted a world championship since 1959, with the 2008 edition starting last Thursday in Dakar. Asked if they kept track of their match records in the petanque games they play against each other, Wilkinson and Ando said they didn’t. Asked a second time, Wilkinson reflected a moment on an occasion when she had won recently and laughed, “Howard said, ‘That’s good, because I won the three before,’ so maybe he is keeping score!
So why did Ando and Wilkinson choose Burns Park in Ann Arbor instead of a park in Ypsilanti, where they live, to offer their financial support of a petanque facility? It has to do with the fact that their vision is a bit more ambitious than a single petanque court in a single park. They’d like to see the sport really catch on in the region to the point where the facilities are more commonplace. And Burns Park, they said, seemed like a strategically good choice: it’s proximate to both the Ann Arbor Senior Center and Burns Park Elementary School, which brings a built-in geographic constituency.
That’s also why it makes sense to hold the public meeting there on Monday evening. If there are concerns from neighbors – about exact location, possibilities of increased neighborhood traffic, loss of a favorite path through the park as a cut-through, too much French being spoken – it will be convenient for them to make those concerns heard. The meeting is also for any residents who just want to learn more about the game of petanque, or for those who are excited about the potential for petanque. For residents who have a scheduling conflict for the meeting, the city of Ann Arbor park planner who is handling the petanque facility is Amy Kuras, who can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org