When I was a young whipper-snapper I used to play with marbles all the time. I loved them. Oilies, ball-bearings, clear ones, ones with bubbles inside – pretty much what you can see in the pic above, they really rocked my world. Because I was 7, and it was a much, much simpler world. There were no Gameboys*, no iPhones, nothing really electronic to distract you at all. We had fun and it was very, very simple fun; all you needed were a few kids (easily done) some marbles (easily won) and a grate/manhole cover (easily found). Then it was a simple case of playing the game against your opponent, whoever touched the other one, or managed to get their marble in the ‘goal’ (generally one of the small indentations in the grate) was the winner and claimed the other player’s marble as their prize.
Skip forward 30-odd years and the world is vastly different, there are many, many distractions available for kids – inside and outside of the playground – and yet marbles (or billes as they are known in France) are making a massive comeback.
For us it started as a reward system, if the kids behaved we would give them treats. The kids soon got wise to this though, and so were being good and then immediately coming to collect their prize. I had started out with Kinder Eggs: big mistake – have you seen the prices of these things? If you think they are bad in the UK, come and buy some in France, if you buy more than four a week your mortgage-repayments may suffer. So I looked at other, cheaper ways of keeping them on the ‘straight and narrow’. My son had expressed an interest in marbles, but in a collector’s way, not for any kind of game-playing reason. He’s a bit of a hoarder is my son, and he likes pretty, shiny things – a bit like Gollum but with a more annoying voice (love you son xxx).
So, off daddy went to look on Amazon and eBay to price up some marbles – and back daddy swiftly came, after seeing the prices + postage and packaging, and then checking his bank balance. No that wouldn’t do, that wouldn’t do at all.
Then the answer presented itself: brocantes. Yes the people at brocantes don’t charge extortionate prices for marbles, and they can be haggled with. I can’t haggle with Amazon – he doesn’t want to know. So when you roll up and eagerly eye a big sack (or tin, sometimes they are in pretty tins which your children will immediately purloin from you) and ask them how much, they may say ’50 centimes, pour dix’ (50 cents for 10) to which you can then reply ‘Combien pour tous?’ (how much for them all?) and you will then generally be able to walk away with twice as many billes as you would get on Amazon/eBay for a tenth of the price (and that’s not an exaggeration). You see the brocanteurs haven’t cottoned on to the fact that France has gone mad for marbles yet, but when they do…well expect to see the prices start jumping up, particularly among the more savvy ones (i.e the ones who aren’t just clearing out their recently deceased granddad’s house, and actually do it for a living).
So with this stock of marbles I was able to effectively, and very economically, reward good behaviour. As well as using them as leverage if there was any bad behaviour too – a double whammy a carrot AND a stick. This went on for quite a few weeks, and the kids amassed quite a collection of marbles, so much so that repeat trips were required, more for variety than anything; but that was OK, there’s always a brocante when you need one.
Then a funny thing started happening – my son started taking his marbles to school with him. Nothing new here, he often (read: every day) takes something in to show the kids. But then he’d start showing me his collection and mentioning how cool they were, and I didn’t recognise all the billes, these were different billes. Where were these billes coming from?
‘I won them from Yohanna’ he told me one day. ‘We play them together, me Yohanna, Alice and the other kids, and I’m good at it’. He then went on to play a game of marbles with me, a bit different from when I used to play, but essentially the same game. However I think I should amend my son’s phrasing as I think he meant to say ‘I’m good at cheating at it’. Unless of course it’s only with me that he plays marbles by guiding his marble towards mine, with his hand maintaining contact with his marble at all times. I don’t mind though. I’m not bitter.
Plus I’ve still got more marbles upstairs than he has (literally, as in upstairs in the house, not metaphorically, the kids have seen to that).
It wasn’t isolated to his group of friends either, as I first thought. We started to pass harried looking parents arguing with their kids. ‘He’s moaning to his daddy’ my partner translated on one such occasion ‘Because daddy forgot to put his marbles in his school-bag’. You can see them every day as well, in the playground, huddled in their groups playing away. It’s so refreshing. Here’s a past-time, from the past, which I had long thought to be firmly in the rear-view mirror enjoying a new lease of life. I can’t comment if it’s the same the world over, I haven’t researched it intensively; but it’s great to see here. No screens, all outdoors, a communal atmosphere – just good, clean, wholesome fun.
I did worry at first when I learned that they were playing this game, as my son can get quite (read: very) attached to things. Particularly shiny, small things (again, like Gollum). But he doesn’t seem phased at all by his very, very gradually dwindling pile of marbles. He’s just happy playing. Plus he knows if he’s good daddy will restock his collection – effectively making me the backer to his gambler (well, it is a form of childish gambling if you think about it). So that’s been a weight off my mind.
The real concern is when his sister starts playing…
…because she loves shiny, precious things even more than her brother – like Gollum, but more aggressively protective – (love you daughter xxx) there may well be blood on the playground floor if she loses her marbles…
*Yes, yes, it’s a dated reference but you get what I mean