The Five Files:

The Five Files return this week, with a detailed look at the author’s favorite park in the world – le Jardin Du Luxembourg, in Paris. The park is usually noted for three things: its natural, verdant beauty, its superb location in the centre of Paris, and the tendency for it to descend into a hub of legal and illegal fornication after dark. As my French buddy Guilliaume de Demandolx (NC) opines “la richesse du Jardin du Luxembourg est la diversite des personnes qu’on rencontre et des evenements qui peuvent changer le cours de votre aprs-midi”. I’m told that this roughly translates as ‘the beauty of the Jardin du Luxembourg is that you meet pretty girls and face events that can change your day”. Anyone who has visited would agree.

However, take a stroll through the garden during the day, and you can’t help but notice a hub of sports and other activities, which really give life to this lovely Parisian sanctuary. Interestingly enough, none are conventional, but all are great fun, and contribute to the fabric of Parisian society and are as French as pain au chocolat, too much garlic, and guys in berets saying the word “bof”.

5. Le tennis
Le tennis (aka tennis) is not usually considered an unconventional sport, and the regular version does exist in the park. However, far more popular is the half-court version which combines the fast pace and quick reflexes of squash with the fresh air and gentility of regular tennis.

Unlike some of the other activities, bookings are required, and are notoriously difficult to come by. Apparently they are controlled by a small man in a little caf in St Germain de Pres. Who is dangerous and well-connected to other larger men in the same area.

4. Le backgammon
Le backgammon (aka backgammon) is played throughout the park. Le backgammon is a tale of two worlds in Paris. On the one hand, you have the charming old retirees, who sit on foldaway chairs and play game after game and talk about years gone by. They are reluctant to let you join in their game, but are always happy to have a chat. Note that few speak English, so have your Parisian patois ready. On the other hand, beware of the shysters who try to hustle you out of your hard-earned Euros. You can usually distinguish them as they will be younger, alone, and cleaner looking. They are clean in looks alone, as sleight of hand and loaded dice are common ways of parting fools and their money.

3. Les echecs
Les echecs (aka chess) is played widely in the park, with most boards in the same regions as the backgammon games. You will see the same types of old blokes playing together, and enjoying the sun and the social side of the game. More serious players go for speed chess. The experts sit there with their clocks and challenge passers by to games. The difference between this and backgammon, though, is that cheating is not possible.

They will still take your money, but you will feel better about it as they did it through years of speed chess experience, not dodgy equipment.

2. La petanque
La petanque (aka bocce) just missed out on the top spot in the Five Files. This game involves between two and four people standing at one end of a dirt pit, tossing metal balls (with different groove patterns to designate the owner) towards a small wooden ball. Just like lawn bowls, the closest wins. The game is quintessentially French. You can spend hours just watching the players, and marveling at their skill and accuracy. The best players use a backspinning action and can land their ball within inches of the wood with alarming frequency. The groups are not particularly likely to invite you to play, but are more than happy to let you watch, and are a raucous and humorous bunch.

1. Les maquettes de bateaux
Les maquettes de bateaux (aka model boat racing) takes place in a large circular pond, situated in the center of the park. There is a serious ‘feelgood’ factor here. Parents from the wealthier ‘arrondisements’ (zip codes) bring their children to race remote-control yachts around the pond.

Those of more limited means, however, have just as much fun by pushing boats made of paper and seeing if they can catch the wind and make it across the pond. It is a beautiful picture – the sun shining over Paris, smiling children and happy families, with the backdrop of a lush garden and the Palais du Luxembourg. How much closer to heaven can you get?

Do you have a sporting/recreational Top 5 of your own? Send it to Joseph Tesvic at jtesvic@mba2005.hbs.edu.

March 1, 2004