I find it somewhat unsettling to leave the shower room, lost in my own thoughts, only to be accosted by an old Dutch man in wooden shoes, obviously painted by grandchildren, and dragged by my arm: “Kom, Yennifer, you play me. You play my partner. We play de balls.”
“Uh, okay… I don’t know how to play the balls….”
“You kom. I show. I be back, I get more balls.”
And so it began, my first game of Petanque, played with three Dutch travelers in a smattering of Dutch, English and French. I played with the old man.
“He is the master,” Vicki told me. She and her husband were playing against us.
“You amateur,” the old man tells me.
It is a confusing game to be taught in Dutch, which I don’t speak, and French, which I’m not sure my teacher really speaks, and English, which he barely speaks. It took me at least half of the game to sort out the point, beyond getting close to the red ball. Scoring was an enigma as well, until Tony deduced the secret, allowing me to get one point. I never did manage to figure out whose turn it was, unless they told me.
The only thing I know for sure is that if my ball was closest to the red ball (which almost never happened) then it was certainly not my turn. Earlier in the day the old man spent an hour teaching my children to “play de balls.” I think he had more success teaching them. Except for Ezra. He cried. He always loses at these sorts of games. The old man threw half of his balls for him so that he came out better.
The sky was so dark that the other dutch man was wearing a headlamp. They showed me how to toss the little red ball between six and ten meters and then tried very hard to get me to toss the heavy metal balls within the vicinity of the red one. Their success was marginal. I scored only two of our eleven points. We lost.
Tony, wearing his headlamp, was declared the referee and presented with the sacred measuring tape. After every third or fourth ball there would be arguing in Dutch and the referee would be called upon to measure… sometimes twice, down to the millimeter. He inevitably ruled my ball out.
It was very dark and cold by the time the game was over. The stars had come out and the big bear watched from above our valley campsite with interest as our opponents scratched their last few balls in order to be sure of winning with their one good one. I returned “de balls” with thanks and listened as the wooden shoes clacked across the bridge toward home.