Rolling out a Pétanque Scene

French game now has permanent home in Eau Claire’s Wilson Park

Barbara Arnold, photos by Andrea Paulseth

HAVE A BALL! French national and Eau Claire resident Anne-Marie Bittner started the local pétanque revolution in Eau Claire’s Wilson Park.
HAVE A BALL! French national and Eau Claire resident Anne-Marie Bittner started the local pétanque revolution in Eau Claire’s Wilson Park.

If Anne-Marie Bittner, a French national, plays her pétanque balls right, she stands to bring awareness of and participation in this fun French game to the Chippewa Valley similar to what local resident Eric Anderson did for kubb, the Swedish lawn game.

Pétanque, pronounced PAY-TONK, is similar to the Italian game of bocce ball. The goal is to toss or roll hollow steel balls, each weighing about one and a half pounds, as close as possible to a small wooden colored ball called a cochonnet, literally piglet, while standing inside a circle with both feet on the ground. The game is normally played on hard dirt or gravel, one-on-one or with teams of two or three people. The word pétanque derives from the French expression pés tancats, which means “feet fixed” or “feet planted” on the ground.

Bittner – affectionately called “Nanou” by her family, friends, and fans (it’s a nickname her parents gave her as a baby) – is already well-known in Eau Claire. She inspired and organizes the annual Bastille Day celebration in Wilson Park; initiated Le Diner en Blanc (“Dinner in White”), founded in France as an invitation-only “chic picnic”; and founded the World Cultural Center in the Chippewa Valley, a group that meets monthly to focus on a particular country and discuss international affairs.

Bittner hails most recently from Marseille, and as a 1-year-old from Boulc, a rural mountain village, which is in the Haut-Diois, a section of the French Alps Massif Mountains. She came to Eau Claire, via Chicago and through marriage, in 1957. She and her late husband, John, had two sons, Michael and Joël.

In the 1850s, when the French fur trade was starting to wane in our area, the game of pétanque was just evolving in the south of France in the town of La Ciotat, near Marseilles. Marseilles is the capital of French boules, the name for a wide range of ball games that involve either throwing or rolling balls. Today, the “Mondial La Marseillaise a Pétanque,” the largest pétanque tournament of its kind, is held in Marseilles every year.

Eau Claire’s first two pétanque terrains in Wilson Park were officially opened to the public with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on Oct. 1. Each terrain consists of two playing “courts,” making four “courts” of 13 feet wide and 50 feet long.

Bittner is dedicating the area to her son Joël, who died at the age of 49 in 2011 from head and neck cancer. “Wilson Park was his favorite little park,” she shared in her lilting English with a French accent, almost as if she was singing, “and this will be a way to preserve his memory. He loved to play pétanque, and he did so often, especially in France, where he went many times for summers and Christmas.”

Prior to the official opening of the pétanque terrains, two teams of three played there on a 90-degree Sunday afternoon. The teams consisted of a physician, who honeymooned with his physician wife in France; a couple from Madagascar; the wife of a college professor and their daughter; and another professor’s wife. Bittner graciously walked among the teams, lending her special blue measuring wire to the physician when the balls were too close to call and official time-outs were required to measure proximity to the cochonnet (the little wooden ball). As points were scored, cheers periodically erupted. And, a gentle breeze, as if Joël’s spirit, rustling through the leaves to provide a light relief from the heat and humidity on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

Learn more by searching for Joël’s Pétanque Club on Facebook, emailing joelpetanqueclub@charter.net, or calling (715) 833-1633.

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