Although very few could identify petanque, players of this 100-year-old game would argue that it’s more popular than you’d think, which is why this French game of accuracy is expected to have a new court in Saratoga’s Azule Park in the coming weeks.
But even for a city with about 30,000 people, a dozen petanque players isn’t very many. And even for a community with seemingly infinite funding, $17,000 seems like a lot of money to spend on a court that only 10 to 12 people will use.
In spite of the small population of petanque players, the city of Saratoga deemed this expenditure worthy and is slated to install the court as soon as the construction contract is negotiated.
Saratoga and petanque go hand in hand. Both are family-friendly, but not very widely known.
Even lesser known is the municipality next door: Monte Sereno. It is so small that the city with a population of only 3,483 has no police force, no library, no schools to its name — not even a city park. For these services, Monte Sereno looks to its slightly larger neighbors, Saratoga and Los Gatos, for support.
Monte Sereno’s reliance on its neighbors justified allocating $40,000 of its 2002 Proposition 40 park-development funds to Saratoga to improve those that Monte Sereno residents use for recreation.
“We generally look to where our citizens use parks in surrounding communities and what services our citizens use to the greatest extent,” said Monte Sereno City Manager and Planner Brian Loventhal. “And we look for ways to spend those funds in those opportunities.”
Senior Engineer with the City of Saratoga Iveta Harvancik said, “and we, in return, are giving them some advantages to use the improvements they provided funds for.”
The advantages will include using the petanque court at a discounted reservation rate, Harvancik said. “The citizens of Monte Sereno will be able to use the petanque court as citizens of Saratoga.”
Some citizens of Saratoga, while not necessarily against this investment, have some questions about how reasonable it is to spend so much money on a game that only 12 Saratogans play.
“California is in such bad shape to be giving out money for a petanque court,” said Johanna Landin in downtown Saratoga.
But Harvancik said that the money was just sitting there waiting to be spent and can only be spent on city parks. The city council asked people to submit ideas on ways to spend the cash and decided that the petanque court was Saratoga’s best use of the money.
The city of Monte Sereno has been unable to use its Prop 40 funds to develop any parks of its own because of limited space.
“We’re a 100 percent residential community with just a few exceptions,” Loventhal said, adding that it’s unlikely that the city will develop its own park. “We have very limited ability, without purchasing and abolishing existing single-family residences, of accomplishing that.”
But the resident-rich tiny town couldn’t just hand over the cash. In order to transfer the funds for park development projects from Monte Sereno to Saratoga, the cities’ councils checked with the authorities.
“We needed to check with the state Department of Parks and Recreation that they are okay with Saratoga using Monte Sereno’s funds,” Harvancik said. “So we went to the state and just made sure everything was okay. We went to both city councils and everybody agreed to use the money in Saratoga, so everything is legal.”
Not only is it legal, but it’s good old-fashioned family fun, says Devin Utter, the informal leader of a small group of petanque players who petitioned the Saratoga City Council to spend its Monte Sereno money on the court in Azule Park.
“I like it because it’s a family sport; anybody can play,” said Utter, who has been playing petanque with his family as well as in tournaments in the eight years since he retired. “It doesn’t matter if you’re on crutches or in a wheelchair, any disability; it won’t set you back. We can always figure a way to get them in the game.”
Even to Utter, Petanque could have been a dance or a pinball game until one holiday season a few years back, when his wife gave him a set of boules, or petanque balls, for Christmas.
After the gift collected dust for some time at the bottom of his closet, Utter pulled them out, dusted them off, and headed outside.
He walked a few houses down and knocked on his neighbor’s door — a neighbor whom he knew to be French and who was happy to teach Utter to play. Ever since, Utter and his neighbor have brought a small number petanque-playing Saratogans together to play in make-shift courts around the city.
Utter said that although the community of Saratoga petanque players is a petit one, people in small communities all over California and across the United States are enjoying the little-known game.
“There are clubs in cities all over this country,” Utter said, adding that, after the court is built, he hopes to establish a formal Saratoga petanque club. “We’ve got some pretty good players.”
To play the game, Utter says, there must be two teams who toss a coin to see who goes first. Then, players draw a circle on the ground in which to stand while tossing the colorful target ball, called a cochonnet (French for ‘little pig’), into position.
Teams take turns trying to get their boules as close to the cochonnet as possible. During the game, players are allowed to knock the other team’s boules out of the way. After each player has exhausted their supply of boules, scores are taken.
Teams are awarded a point for each boule that is closer to the cochonnet than the other team’s closest boule.
This process is repeated until one of the teams achieves 13 points.
Harvancik says that Saratoga petanque players will only have to wait a little more than a month to enjoy this game in Azule park, and it’s been a long time coming. Both she and Utter attest to the fact that he’s been petitioning the Saratoga City Council for more than five years for these plans to come together.
After the the City of Saratoga firms up the contract with Golden State General Engineering, the court will take about a month to build, but who knows how long it will take for petanque to become a household name. It might be sooner than we think — afterall, Utter took it from the floor of his closet to the heart of a city park.