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Petanque Anyone?

There's almost nowhere Jeffrey Widen would rather be on a sunny summer afternoon than in the center of downtown Detroit playing petanque. Well, except maybe in Paris, but he'd probably still want to be playing petanque.

Widen is a founder of the Detroit Petanque Club, a group that meets weekdays at Cadillac Square Park to play the French game -- sort of a cousin to bocce — but don't dare call it by the Italian name. For as similar as these two bowling sports are, they are also quite unique. (Quick pop culture reference: Petanque is featured in a classic Cosby Show episode circa 1988.) Here is a quick rundown on the rules.

The game is pretty simple and involves trying to roll as many boules — small, heavy metal balls — as close as you can to a small ball called a cochon.

Widen discovered the game while in Paris at the wonderful Jardin du Luxembourg — the largest public park in the city. He saw a group of older Parisians gathered round in the park and was enchanted.

Now he's obsessed. It's OK to say it. He adores the game. So much so that he wants you and three of your friends and three of their friends to join him and whomever else is in the park on any given weekday. He'll teach you, don't worry. He'll let you borrow his boules. And after a couple of round, you might find this game is addictive and quite fun.

"I've always been keen on trying to get people together and having a lot of fun with this crazy little sport of mine, and trying to make it as accessible as possible," he says.

Recruiting new players

The games have become a midday institution for players, many of whom work downtown.

"There's Ernst & Young. There's Honigman Miller. There's Compuware. They're looking out of their windows to see us playing and then they're out there. Or Campus Martius has that web cam and they look at it say, 'oh yeah they're playing.' "

The lunchtime games give him a chance to recruit new players. "I just pull them in when they are walking by and get them playing." About 20 people on average join the weekday, noon to 1 p.m. games.

Widen stresses that anyone and everyone can play petanque, and they do. This is not some elitist, fancy pants activity. You don't have to play any sport particularly well to be good at it. Participants in the Detroit club come from all walks of life, all races, all sizes and all ages. The egalitarian nature is one of the things he loves about it. "Our players just go by first names, and everyone plays with everyone else. It's really Democratic."

Still, there is something very urbane about the whole affair. Petanque is competitive, but it's leisurely and almost elegant. Your shoes might get dusty in the piste (petanque court), but you won't get dirty.

Widen likes the idea of a game that was introduced to him in one of Paris' famed public spaces now taking root in a great public space here: Cadillac Square Park and Campus Martius. "Those echoes are really nice," he says.

Community vibe

Widen, who works for Miller Canfield downtown and has an East Coast accent that betrays he's not from around here originally, says these greenspaces resemble the community vibe you get in Parisian parks, "except maybe the accents and great food," he adds, joking. OK, maybe not so much joking. But hey, we've got Au Bon Pain … well, nevermind. In the end, he just wants more people to play, so he has more people to play against. He doesn’t care how or when you come, as long as you give it a try.

"What I want to do is encourage people to play. If they don't have a partner I hook them up with someone who does play," he says. "Do I have enough equipment? I carry enough boules for a tournament every day. No one has an excuse."

That's right, because if you are not free for lunch, he also has taken the game to Campus Martius on Wednesday nights for the Buzz Bar's "Bands, Beers and Boules," where you can play petanque and hear live jazz in the company of a frosty beverage. Two more dates, Aug. 22 and 29 are left this summer. Also, on Saturday, Aug. 25, the Detroit Petanque Club is hosting a tournament at Cadillac Square that will draw players from Canada, Chicago, North Carolina and Alabama. Locals — and even first-timers — can play.

So get out there, toss some boules around, and get a little continental. Widen and company couldn't make it any easier for you to try.

For more information on the Hard Rock Detroit Doublettes Tournament on Aug. 25, or any Detroit Petanque Club activity, go to Detroit Petanque Club, or e-mail Jeffrey Widen at jeffrey@detroitpetanque.com


Clare Pfeiffer Ramsey is editor of Model D.


All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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