Everything I needed to know about Switzerland I learned while watching petanque. I discovered petanque, and by extension Switzerland, with the help of Nico, who is as illuminating about his country as he is cryptic about himself.
It is Nico who sidles up to me as I stand near a small, parklike square on the edge of Lake Lucerne and halfwhispers something to me in a furtive manner that I tend to associate with mafi oso types.
“Pardon?” I reply in my best SwissGerman accent, honed from years of watching Hogan’s Heroes reruns as a kid.
In a kind gesture, Nico does not roll his eyes at me, nor does he point out that the proper German response would be something more like “Verzeihen sie mir?” For this act of international diplomacy, he becomes my favorite Swiss ever.
“Petanque,” he says again, a bit more slowly. “The game you’re watching.”
“Ahh,” I say, happy that we are speaking a language that doesn’t require me to pull out my laminated cheat sheet of German words and phrases. “So that’s what it is.”
Petanque is an intriguing hybrid of boccie and marbles, in which players compete to toss hollow metal globes as close as possible to a small wooden ball, known as a piglet. It’s a French game, Nico tells me, pointing out that in the old days, the losing player had to kiss a pretty, young female spectator. How this could ever be construed as “losing” is beyond my grasp, but Nico is adamant on this point. C’est la vie.
The five petanque players we’re watching are a diverse group, united only by the fact that they’re all well past retirement age. Nico patiently deconstructs the game for me while I analyze the players’ differing styles. Why, I ask, does one of the players make such exaggerated motions? “Because he is a preening peacock, that’s why,” Nico says matteroffactly, as if there can be no argument about it.
As we chat about petanque, I also learn a few things about Nico: He prefers to go by one name, like Cher or Madonna, and he’s exceptionally camera averse. He sticks to these eccentricities with dogged determination, no matter how much I pester him. He also has a nearly insatiable fondness for beer — especially when it’s consumed at an outdoor café and purchased by an American tourist.
Despite his milky vagueness, Nico promises to be an engaging (if stationary) tour guide, and we quickly settle on a price for his services: I buy the beer, and he supplies the insight and expertise on his country. I’ve made far worse deals in my life, believe me.
There is a café nearby, within sight of the petanque matches, and as we settle into our chairs I wonder if I am merely the hundredth or the thousandth tourist Nico has charmed into such an arrangement. But I keep my spoilsport hunch to myself and wait for my formal Swiss education to begin.