Entering the room as the sole foreign participant in a French competition, playing a very French game, you may be under some misconceptions as to what may happen when your fellow players realise you are not ‘one of them’. Let me dispel a few myths.
The following will (probably) not happen:
- Upon entering and saying ‘Bonjour’ and thereby marking yourself out as an Englishman, the room will not erupt into people standing up and pointing at you, mouths gaping open, while emitting a high-pitched scream. This will likewise not then be followed up with them making you fall asleep while a pod makes you turn into one of them.
- Upon entering and saying ‘Bonjour’ and thereby marking yourself out as an Englishman, the room will not go deathly silent. The man that was throwing darts at the board will not miss and blame it on you. The barmaid will not refuse to serve you and the locals will not hound you out of the place, telling you to ‘stay on the path’. Furthermore you will not then be attacked by a werewolf, who will eat your friend, and you will not be forced to shower with Jenny Agutter.
- Upon entering and saying ‘Bonjour’ and thereby marking yourself out as an Englishman, the locals will not get Britt Ekland to try and seduce you by banging on your bedroom wall in the nude. They will also not then place you inside a giant wicker man and set it on fire, dancing around it while you scream, and thus ensuring the harvest that year is plentiful.
No, all jokes aside the people that I encountered at my first concours de belote (or belote competition) were friendly and welcoming. If somewhat curious at having an ‘outsider’ in their midst.
For the uninitiated belote is a very French card game, played in groups of four with two players on each team. It’s a game that’s as much about luck as skill, like many card games. I’ve written a guide about it on here if I’ve peaked your interest, and I would do one of those linky-things where the text is a different colour and it leads you to the page in question, but I’ve forgotten how to do it. Never mind, I’ll put it in later.
The game itself was broken down into four rounds, with each team playing a different team each round. Our team was composed of myself and my French father-in-law. My partner and my mother-in-law were looking after the kids. I pointed out to my father-in-law (he’s called Guy, I’m going to use that from now on, as typing father-in-law is making my wrist hurt) that it didn’t really matter what position we came in. This was because we were here, without the kids, and so had won the day already.
He did not disagree with me.
We received out team number (25) and milled about while the judges sat on high and decided who we all would be playing against. Once this was decided they chalked the numbers of each team, the number that that team would be playing and the table that they would be sat at on the board, and we were off!
We played a very elegant couple of ladies in our first round. They were polite and civil, they looked very glamorous. They wiped the floor with us. Guy looked crestfallen. ‘I have never lost by that much’ he said as he headed outside for a cigarette. ‘I bet he blames me’ I thought to myself. However there was more to these two ladies than met the eye….
We played a mother and her son for our second round. The mother was so frail and old and had such fine delicate skin that I was sure if I held her up to the light I would be able to see her internal organs. She was a lovely lady and played very well. Her son was equally charming, and very boisterous when he played. He was, alas, afflicted with very bad halitosis, which meant for every boisterous gesture he made in my direction – and there were many – I got a waft of something that I would politely describe as ‘chemical warfare’. Despite nearly passing out, we won this round comfortably.
Another pair of ladies were out penultimate adversaries, they were a great couple and evidently got along with each other well. I noticed a large moth on the wall at one point during the game and pointed this out to them. They reacted as if a giant moth on the wall was commonplace for them and nothing special. However they seemed to treat me – following the moth comment – as though I was ‘special’ (My partner has often pointed out that for many in my village there is a fine line between the ‘village Englishman’ (me) and the ‘village idiot’ (also me in this example). Oh, I was still laughing at that one a few days later, when I left the iron on one of her shirts a little bit too long. And a skirt.)
We lost – by the narrowest of margins – three points* (alright, so technically one point is the narrowest of margins, but you catch my drift).
Things get off to a very bad start as I fail to notice what suit we are playing and look at Guy’s face. Obviously looking at people’s faces is frowned upon, as the lady opposite loses her shit and the following exchange takes place:
Her (snappily) : ‘Can you play quicker?’
Me (snappily) : ‘Can you be a bit more patient?’
Her (snappily) : ‘Do You know that I know your partner?’
Me (nonchalantly) : ‘And so?’
Guy (to her): ‘You know me?’
This bit of frosty banter sets the tone for the game and we do not thaw out until the end. We lose, by a hundred-or-so points, and have a bit of a chit chat. It turns out that the lady opposite wasn’t asking me to be quicker – she thought I was trying to look at Guy’s cards, and so suspected us of cheating (or trying to anyway). In hindsight probably a good thing that I just thought she was telling me to hurry up. She apologises for her earlier error as during the course of the game she realised that we were not cheating. Cheaters get more points than us.
So the game is finished and the judges duly note the scores and tot up all the totals on the board. The results are as follows:
Some of you may have noticed the letter ‘F’ appearing next to a number of teams. This denotes that the team was all-female. A curious French tradition that, when I query its origins to Guy, he simply replies that it is a ‘curious French tradition’.
We queue up with the others to wait while they receive their prizes, the prize allocation at a concourse de belote generally goes something like this (with flowers included if the players are female, another curious French tradition):
1st prize: large piece of meat
2nd prize: slightly smaller piece of meat
3rd prize: slightly smaller piece of meat
and so on. Oh and if you come in last place you get the following:
Last place: a little bit of meat
We notice that the winning team – 20F – were the ladies that obliterated us in the first round. Something that still smarts for Guy. He gets chatting about them to a chap in front of us while we wait to receive our consolation prize. Turns out they were cheating. ‘They kept touching each other under the table’ he says, looking around in case they hear him ‘With their feet’. I’m about to suggest that maybe they are just ‘good friends’, but then he tells us they did it the week before too and are apparently ‘well known’ for it.
I ask Guy why they don’t just get banned for it, but he doesn’t know. I personally can’t see the point in playing a game and then cheating, it is a hollow victory after all. But then maybe that’s because I’m just not all that fussed about winning a lot of meat. I just enjoy the game.
We collect our prize* and head off into the sunset. I think I’ve done alright, and held my own.
And, due to the fact that he waits for me to get in the car before driving off in it, I think Guy thinks I’ve done alright as well.
*It’s a bag full of meat