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  • Boules are cool! Inside Berlin’s pétanque scene


Boules are cool! Inside Berlin’s pétanque scene

This French pastime is as much about community as it is about ball-tossing glory, attracting a microcosm of Berlin life to sandy pitches across the city. We meet some of the scene's protagonists.

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Hailing from the French Mediterranean, pétanque has become an accessible summer pastime in Berlin. Photo: James Huertas

It’s a Sunday afternoon and the sun is beating down on the Mauerpark masses. An elderly gentleman is perched on the side of the path, playing his guitar as people stroll by. Just across from where he plays, the Pétanquistan e.V. are warming up for their weekend friendly.

As one man rakes cigarette butts from the sandy boules pitch, the president of the club, Martina Hoffmann, warms up. She precisely positions her feet within the ring on the floor – cigarette in one hand, metal ball in the other. She kneels, pauses and then launches the boule into the air with a flick of her wrist. “Scheiße!” she calls in frustration. Taking a drag on her cigarette, Hoffmann repositions herself and shoots again. A much more accurate aim this time. “Bravo!” cheers her teammate Guido Lang. Others clap in agreement.

For those unfamiliar with the sport, this is pétanque. Hailing from La Ciotat on the French Mediterranean, this low-impact pastime is accessible for people of all ages and body types, including chain smokers and the inebriated. On the male-dominated terrains of southern France, old men play while sipping on the pale, yellow-coloured aniseed liqueur known as pastis. In Berlin, by comparison, the pétanque scene is decidedly bunt, with players of all ages and nationalities, ranging from rookies to champions.

Different strokes, different folks

By the time it rolls around to 14:30, several generations of players have gathered at Mauerpark to start the match. “Our youngest player is 12. He joined four weeks ago”, says Lang, who has belonged to the club for the past 10 years. “And there’s our oldest player, he’s 86!” he points to an old man being greeted with warm smiles and fist bumps.

We have our jobs, things to manage… then we come here. It takes so much focus, everything else just melts away.

For Lang, the game can have almost therapeutic qualities. “We have our jobs, things to manage… then we come here. It takes so much focus, everything else just melts away,” he says. The Bouleplatz at Mauerpark has been there since 2002. Like other spots across the city, it is a public space, so anyone is welcome. “We always have a lot of people watching. If they want to have a go, it’s always free to join in. And on Sundays, they can put down €3 to play in our little tournament, called a super-mêlée. Sometimes they return another time, other times they don’t,” Lang says.

For the more dedicated pétanque players, it’s the competitive rush that keeps them coming back day in, day out. According to the Landes-Pétanque-Verband Berlin (LPVB), there are approximately 400 competitive pétanque players in the capital. If they look particularly focused right now, that’s because most of them are currently preparing for Germany’s largest pétanque competition, the Holstentorturnier, which will take place over the weekend of August 7-8 in Travemünde.

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According to the Landes-Pétanque-Verband Berlin (LPVB), there are approximately 400 competitive pétanque players in the capital. Photo: James Huertas

The French connection

Last year, the Pétanquistan Mauerpark team travelled to Marseilles in the hope of taking part in the Marseillaise, a major annual event in the boules calendar. “It was cancelled because of Corona, so we just played some small tournaments in the end,” says Lang, who spent his youth playing pétanque on holiday before getting back into it around 10 years ago. As is characteristic of this egalitarian sport, anyone can sign up for the Marseillaise. “There are beginners and advanced players, and then there are the professionals, like world champions!”

The LPVB recognises 18 official pétanque clubs in the city, the Frenchest of which is Club Bouliste. Situated in Reinickendorf – part of Berlin’s former French sector – the club was founded in 1967 by the troops. “When the Wall fell, the French military went back and our members took over the place,” says Manfred Kalusa, who has been president of Club Bouliste for the past five years. “The Germans continued to use the grounds and in 1994 we became a registered association. We now have 103 members in the club, and about 10-15 percent of them are French,” says Kalusa. Club Bouliste has an impressive 8400sqm of grounds, but the draw for Francophiles specifically might well be its bar, Clubhouse Carro, where you can get a glass of pastis for €2 and enjoy the occasional barbecue.

The Maybachufer crowds

The weather might not be as reliable in Berlin as it is in the south of France, but that doesn’t stop the BCK Kreuzberg team from meeting every day, rain or shine. Nestled at the side of the Landwehr Canal, between Forster and Liegnitzer Straße, the players practise at Berlin’s most popular Bouleplatz on Paul-Linke-Ufer. Thorsten Beckmann is the proud president of the BKC Kreuzberg club, who sees the spot as “our little garden where people meet”. “The place attracts around 50-100 players every day from noon onwards. A little less in winter,” says Beckmann, who has been playing with the club for the past 20 years. “The square itself is one of the most beautiful in Berlin. That’s why it’s always so busy,” boasts Beckmann. Not everyone is necessarily there for a game: for those looking for a bit of entertainment or social interaction, the benches around the sandboxes at Paul-Linke-Ufer are always full of members of the local community.

While pétanque clubs across Berlin are relatively multikulti, this spot brings in the most diverse crowd. “The players are from many different countries,” says Beckmann, “France, Switzerland, Holland, Spain, Turkey, Madagascar, Benin, Thailand, Laos… and a few more I can’t think of right now.” And if you’ve ever strolled past Paul-Linke-Ufer at the weekend, you’ll know how common it is to see millennials and even Gen Z playing, beers in hand, alongside their older competitors.

But still, the worry is that there are not enough youngsters picking up boules competitively. Martin Beikirch, the LPVB president and vice president of BCK Kreuzberg, says the surge in newcomers is mainly down to leisure players. There are still “too few competitive players under 30”, he says. As the sun continues to shine in Berlin, Beikirch and many other club presidents will be on the look-out for fresh talent on the city’s pétanque pitches this summer.

All the while, Kalusa of the historically French-loving Club Bouliste is convinced that pétanque is about much more than tournaments. “This is the ultimate, inclusive, fun summer game. Whether you’re 10 or in your eighties, just come by and give it a go!”

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Every set of competition steel boules comes with a unique imprinted number to ensure the umpire can identify the correct owner. Photo: James Huertas

The perfect pétanque kit

Boules Every set of competition steel boules comes with its own unique number imprinted in the side to ensure that the umpire can identify whose belong to whom. Once the number becomes unrecognisable, the boules are no longer any good for competitions. A fresh set from OBUT will set you back €150, or snatch a second-hand set for around €30 from a local club.

Boules bag These are lightweight, nifty, zip-up bags, perfect for carrying your kit to the park.

A cloth Since the weather is unpredictable in Berlin, make sure to carry a cloth with you to give your boules a clean in case sand (or Scheiße) gets stuck to them.

Cochonnet Also known as a Schweinchen (piglet) in German, this colourful little ball, 30mm in diameter, is thrown first to determine where players should aim for. The weight is important, which is why boxwood or beechwood is recommended to keep it in place.

Metre stick When things get really tight, you’ll need this to measure who is closest to the cochonnet.

Pastis and patience Some matches can last up to five hours, so why not sip on a glass of pastis between turns? But be warned, whether Ricard or Pastis 51, this aniseed liquor can be pretty potent. In true Marseilles fashion, enjoy with water and an ice cube.

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