Church Hill resident John Whitworth lets fly his boule. (Photo by Jay Paul)
Crouching in a hoop on the stone dust court, Vicky Sickinger aims her boule and airs it with a graceful, arcing toss. It lands between two other balls and sidles up to the cochonnet. “Nice plombée!” shouts her teammate, “you snuck that one in.” And then it’s Kenny Artis’ turn. Down to a final throw, he’s either got to “point” and position his ball precisely near the target or “shoot” and clear his opponent out. A born-and-raised Church Hill’ian, Artis shows city grit and shoots his boule hard and fast. Sickinger’s ball is knocked to oblivion and the round ends. “Two for us,” his partner calls. When one team reaches 13, they’ll break for a picnic.
Pétanque (pay - TONK), a game of contrasts, is like this: power and finesse, competitive yet social. Richmond’s home for this pastime très élégante is Les Boulefrogs of Church Hill Pétanque Club. Founded in 2005, the club partnered with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to build four courts in the Chimborazo Park playground just off 29th and East Grace streets. Twice a week, when the weather is agreeable, Les Boulefrogs gather. Newbies learn the game in a Parisian minute and don’t even need their own equipment. The club has loaner balls (boules) and the only French you really need to know is cochonnet: the “piglet” for which everyone is aiming. Players take turns tossing or rolling steel balls toward this small wooden target ball. Each team, made up of one to three players, throws six boules total per round. Whichever team is closest to the cochonnet scores one point per boule nearer the target than any opponent’s balls.
Beyond gamesmanship, this club values fellowship. “The people are so great. It brings new friends and a reason to get out of the house,” says Karen Jones, the club’s vice president. “It’s not age restrictive or even physically restrictive,” says Mark Rankin, a French teacher at George Moody Middle School. He’s talking with me, but his eyes are on Sheila Luellen as she shoots from her wheelchair, maintaining one crucial wheel in the throwing circle.
On one April afternoon, we spy straw hats and ball caps, teenagers and seniors, men, women, whites, blacks, Southerners and southern Europeans. Just a cochonnet’s toss away, dads push toddlers on swings while moms nurse babies and neighbors tend the community garden. And over there, two dozen 20- and 30-somethings shoot hoops. I hear the counties have their charm, but this is a uniquely City of Richmond moment.
Whether to dust off your high school French or just find an excuse to meet cool cats in Church Hill, Les Boulefrogs are another reason to get your game on in RVA.
Les Boulefrogs play Sunday at 2 p.m. and Thursday at 6 p.m., weather permitting. boulefrogs.com