Culture /

Bocce: The Pastime of the Elderly

“Twenty years ago, instead of watching, I came to play. Now my afternoons fly by.”

Small Bakelite balls roll across the synthetic, sandy green of the playing field. Groups of elderly veterans circle the boccino (the small ball, also called the pallino or the jack). Lots are drawn. Luck chooses the first to roll. It’s a rule as old as the dawn of ages. In Italy, especially in the north in Piedmont and Lombardy, the game of bocce is an often forgotten passion, associated with the slow and wise life of village elders. Yet, in Milan, there are many bocciodromi, hidden in the inner courtyards of railing houses or outdoors in the streets, shaded by the foliage of linden trees. In an osteria (like Progresso in the Maggiolina area) or by a soda kiosk (like the one on Viale Lazio), a few wicker or plastic chairs with lived-in corners create uneven circles around the tables next to the courts.

I spent an afternoon with Piermarino, my grandmother Adriana’s significant other, discovering the game of bocce with him. His blue eyes reminded me so much of Grandma’s gray-green ones: cheerful. I asked him a few questions and accompanied him to his favorite court behind Piazzale Libia.

How did you discover the game of bocce?

He answers me while we are having lunch. He sips a proper coffee, or maybe it was a blueberry schnapps. “In my time, say 70 years ago, in mountain villages, there were special avenues where bocce was played. They intrigued me and attracted me since I was a boy. I grew up in those places. They were played on Saturdays and Sundays and were outdoors. Summer was the best time. Women didn’t play then, but now there are also women’s competitions. In the August period, the Pro Loco (the local associations which promote and develop regional art and culture) used to organize bocce tournaments. Individual competitions did not end in one day, but lasted at least a week. Each night, there would be a round with eight players taking turns playing against each other. A cup, trophies, a silver or gold medal would be won.

Today, I play bocce to pass the time every day from 2:30 pm to 6:30 pm. My companions and I play during all months of the year. Even in snow. First you shovel snow and then you play. And to warm up you drink half a liter or a quart of wine.”

How does the game work?

“We usually play in triads, but you can play in pairs or individually. There is a little white ball, the most important one and the one that is thrown first, and four sets of balls with different colors. Each team chooses their own color. Every player, on their turn, throws a colored ball with the aim of arriving the closest to the pallino. Whoever gets closest to the pallino gets points. You can get to a maximum of 12 points. The proximity to the pallino has to be measured with a tape measure; there’s even a special tool, just for bocce, to measure the points! 

However, there are many techniques for playing. For example, there is ‘Raffa’ when you purposely hit an opponent’s bocce ball to move it away from the white ball. And then there is the game of pétanque.”

What’s pétanque? 

“Pétanque is a discipline of bocce, French-style. The game is timed, whereas in an Italian-style game, there’s no time limit. Pétanque is played on gravel, and the ball is thrown directly into the air (in bocce, the ball can roll on the ground). Plus, the balls are made of metal.”

I like to hear him talk about the game and to feel the excitement and thrill of a skilled player. 

“It’s like throwing a rock,” I listen as he talks technique with a fellow bowler, “You have to figure out how far you can make it go.”

What do you like most about the game?

“I go to exercise, but I have to be mindful of my back. I go to laugh, talk about soccer and everything, to constantly banter.”

How did you discover this court?

“My upstairs neighbor introduced me to the director Aldo, but my passion for bocce was born to pass the time and have fun. It’s the only activity we can do to stay in shape as elderly people.”

A friend barged in the conversation to tell why he had started playing bocce  “For me it was different. I started 15 or 16 years ago. Back then I was still a taxi driver. I did a good 33 years driving people around. After I finished work, I would come here. My bocce companions are the ones who made me want to.”

On the court, strong friendships are formed, people help each other out, anecdotes are told, and the carefree spirit of youth is remembered. Bocce is a sport for everyone, for all generations, even if one associates it with old age. And it is a hobby that has no social class. The players I see at the bocce court are young pensioners, some with families and grandchildren who watch from the benches. (One of Piermarino’s companions tells me, “Twenty years ago, instead of watching, I came to play. Now my afternoons fly by.”) Some play cards (especially burraco); others have fun chasing each other around; others eat and drink in company. With music in the air, the players’ enjoyable afternoon is one of community. 

In the background, you hear both heckling and supportive comments: 

“Nice, nice one!”
“Come on, you got it.”
“You throw these balls like you throw potatoes.”
“Bravo, bravo, bravo, you are an artist!”
“Try again, Sam.”
“Ah, now that you did it wrong, your back will hurt.”
“I never played bocce before I was 65.”

While waiting for an available court, people chat and take advantage of the comforts and conveniences of the establishment, which often has a bar and restaurant. The Antica Osteria del Progresso in the Maggiolina area of Milan, a chance discovery, hosts both a court from 1850 and a delectable Lombardian kitchen. I told Piermarino about it, and I want to take him there soon. The sun colors the field red at sunset, before the lights turn on to keep the court from disappearing into the dark.

Photography by Marco Eugenio