December 12, 2014

Chasing Christophe Legout

The French are big joiners. (No, not carpenters.) They like being in groups (they also really like close-standing, which is annoying) and create new clubs at a brisk pace to satisfy this hunger. Want to get together casually and talk about photography? Better create a club, with by-laws, elections, an org chart, meeting minutes, dues, and strategy for the future. 

In our hometown of Arnay le Duc, 1700 souls-strong, there are clubs for handball, hunting, walking, local history, municipal music, soccer, art, judo, tennis, blood drives, cycling, dance, and one for the parents of elementary school students. Nearby are clubs called Desperate Scrapwives, Hold 'Em Poker, Friends of the Club of Burgundy Writers, Popcorn, Burgundy-Vietnam Solidarity (number of Asian people spotted in Burgundy in the last year: 4), and Mouthwatering. All are registered with the regional government. This may not seem unusual, but here is the kicker: it is difficult to practice any of the things here on your own. The only legally authorized hunting is in a group. Want to walk with a gaggle of gals every once in a while? Gotta join up, playa. While nothing prevents you from riding your bike on your own, why wouldn't you join a bureaucratic organization, replete with internal politics, petty bickering, and financial concerns so that you can...ride your bike?

It has taken about a year for me to understand this fundamental difference between our two cultures. Imagine telling an American that he had to register his a cappella group in the state capital in order to be allowed to perform. Envision a small, informal walking club that meets weekly in rural New England requiring its members to submit a letter of health from their doctor before allowing them to walk. I dare you to tell a Texas hunter that hunting is only allowed on Sunday, and he will, of course, need to be part of a club, inform the local newspaper where he will be hunting and during what hours, ensure that every member of the club is wearing the regulation, state-mandated safety gear, and, oh yes, pay the several hundred dollar license fee. (In Texas, a hunting license is $25...I looked it up.) Superficially, it is a small difference, but below that surface, I now see that it is a major deviation in our cultural spirits. The French enjoy being in groups with lots of paperwork and following the rules of those groups. I won't speak for all 300 million Americans, but I can guarantee that I ain't joining no club if I want to help plan the blood drive.

Critical paper
But, I live here now, so when my friend Eric said he was the President of the Table Tennis Club in Lacanche (more precisely, L'Association sportive de tennis de table de Lacanche, or, in that unforgettable acronym, ASTTL) and invited me to come "practice" with the club one Thursday evening, I said sure. We were at Eric's house, enjoying a casual meal for nine of gougères stuffed with foie gras; eggs poached in white wine with bacon and a cream sauce (accompanied by a Chevalier-Montrachet grand cru, naturally); a poulet de Bresse with morels and vin jaune, the unique wine of the neighboring Jura region; a gratin of leeks; four cheeses; a homemade baba au rhum; coffee; and chocolates. He informed the assembled guests that there had recently been outrage on social media when one of his club members was pictured wearing sweatpants instead of the regulation shorts. Some posters claimed he was "dishonoring the tradition and seriousness of the sport." This is ping pong, remember.

Second thoughts began to creep in, and I pawed at the air in front of me, trying to take back my acceptance of his invite. I wasn't going to be wearing short shorts to play ping pong.

Alack, I was committed, and as I got myself ready for Thursday night, I emailed Eric and told him I would be arriving in jeans and a T-shirt. I also boasted to my wife about my hand-eye coordination, betting that I would be able to hold me own at the table. After all, said I, "I grew up playing golf, ice hockey, and lacrosse. These people ride bikes and play soccer." Plus, I had played basketball with ten French people on Bastille Day and, well, if I was the best player on the court, (a fact that would make Naismith roll over in his grave), then drinking wine with lunch and eating cheese hadn't totally eliminated my athletic superiority to the average Frenchman. 

I did a little research on the club and discovered my president friend was no joke. He was quoted in the newspaper this fall saying, "Seuls les jeunes intéressés sérieusement par la pratique du ping-pong seront acceptés." In English, that reads "Only young people seriously interested in the practice of ping pong will be accepted into the club." PING PONG!

I had a brief crise de confiance, beginning to doubt if I would be able to hold my own. 

These doubts were well-placed, as I got schooled at Ping Pong Club last night. My first match (games to 11 points, best-of-five) was doubles (hardly a nice entry into the gig), and I felt myself compelled to let my adversaries know that the last time I played ping pong, there were 20 cups of beer on the table and "losing" could easily be considered "winning."

The balls were spinning, jumping, dying, and squirting all over the table, my racquet sometimes waving at the air, like George Costanza's hand trying to jump and touch the awning. My team lost in quick order.

Next, I moved to a friendly singles match against the President. When I found myself leading the first game of our match 10-8, a smart aleck 18-year old kid commented to the President that I played better than he did. I paused, the ball in my left hand as I prepared to serve, and, in English, told the kid, "A friend of mine taught me about the concept of courtesy golf. It's when someone pays your greens fees, you don't go out and beat him by 20 strokes...even if you could. This is courtesy ping pong." I'm not saying I tanked, but Mr. President emerged victorious, 12-10.

After a little training with a man who has been coming to Ping Pong Club for fifteen years, we played one more match of doubles, and I am happy to report we took it, three games to none. 

It was a great night, two-and-a-half hours of table tennis, occasionally interrupted for cigarette breaks, sparkling wine breaks, and, most common, abrupt disruptions so that Mr. President could sign myriad forms for the club, keeping the crew on the good side of the law. In the season's first match, they had to forfeit because only one of the required four players had turned in their medical certificate declaring them "fit for table tennis." The group's €2000 account had recently gained a new treasurer, which led to much paper being signed in triplicate. I was the only person surprised.  

At the end, I took solace in one player telling me "tu joues bien. Tu as des bonnes gestes," and went home, promising to return (still without my medical certificate, however).

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