Together at last!April has been a month of rekindling old friendships and starting new. One year, almost to the day, since they went back to New Zealand, the Gofton-Kielys came back for the launch of Allyson’s book, Recipes From My Kitchen. The GKs lived in a nearby village for 18 months and became great friends so they just had to come and stay with us for a few days. We had a wonderful time helping Allyson present her book, which is number two in the Kiwi book charts and was very well received here. I will let you know as soon as it becomes available on this side of the world…

Sponsoring RakshaFeeling incredibly blessed as we do to live in France and have two healthy children, I have been on the lookout for a way to help a less fortunate family. The opportunity arose when we went to an event at our children’s school.

Pupils of all ages have been working with a local charity which raises money for a school in Nepal, learning about the life of children over there. The charity was started by a couple who went trekking in Nepal and came across a tiny village. They started sponsoring a child and asked friends to do the same – more than 70 children are now in regular schooling. We decided to sponsor a 12-year-old girl called Raksha, as most families will only bother to send their sons to school.

Raksha lives near Pokhara so not far from the centre of the earthquake that hit Nepal on Saturday. We are waiting for news.

 

I am still recovering from my whistle-stop tour of the UK (Petersfield, Brighton, Norwich) which saw me work hard, party hard (with friends old and new) and do some yoga just for me. Blissfully burnt out.

I taught a workshop on the Quest for Happiness, which has featured in most of my classes since my French friends wished me a new year ‘plein de bonheur et que le meilleur’ (full of happiness and only the best). Having branded our family the Happy Coulsons (no pressure there), this is something we should know all about. And we certainly are happy. But why? How? And is it something we can actively pursue?

Talking to friends who do not deem themselves ‘happy’, happiness seemed to them an elusive concept, intangible and unrealistic. One person even said they didn’t believe in happiness. They talked about it as something you might find in small measures throughout life, something that comes from things going on around you. I disagree. The motto we use on our Happy Coulson website is: ‘Happiness is not a destination, it’s a way of life’. But I was struggling with how best to express how to live it…

The Very Happy BrainUntil I saw a short animated film by Dr Amit Sood, about his scientific research into what makes a brain happy. Dr Sood believes that more effective than the pursuit of happiness is the pursuit of two other, much more achievable goals – Compassion and Gratitude. Compassion to yourself and others, and gratitude for the good in your life.

I have found myself thinking and talking about my cousin Dan, who broke his neck in a diving accident six years ago. For a while, Dan struggled to see the good in his life. Then he stopped struggling and focused on what he could do. He could breathe in and breathe out, at first not without the help of a machine, but for that he was grateful.

Dan's happiness talkDan is happier than ever before. He has set up the Dan Eley Foundation to give underprivileged children in Columbia, where he had his accident, access to training and a way out of poverty and crime. He also gives inspirational talks about his ‘formula for happiness’ or using adversity to discover our potential and has just applied to become a TED speaker.

Dan is the walking embodiment of how the pursuit of gratitude and compassion can make you happy. And before you think I just used a really inappropriate word to describe my tetraplegic cousin, check out this video of Bionic Dan, walking for the first time since 2009.

Be kind. Be grateful. And see where that gets you.

New floors

After

No floors

Before

Open season at Happy Coulson has always started in March. But this year, it is only mid February and we are welcoming seven guests in the next two weeks. Our two workaways, Mark and Ellen, have worked incredibly hard to finish our new rooms, including new wooden floors, skirting boards and painting everything that doesn’t move.

Mark, Ellen and Wolfie

 
After two months here, Mark and Ellen leave us next week to walk the Spanish section of the Camino. We wish them luck and are already looking forward to their return.

Our first guest of 2015 is a return visitor from last year. Paul visited his friend Ellie when she stayed here as a workaway and is back for 10 days to write and do yoga. And tomorrow, four Portuguese musicians arrive.

Exciting news about flights from Stansted to Lourdes from April. Instead of flying at 0620 on a Tuesday and Saturday, flights will leave Stansted at 1310 on Fridays and fly back at 12 on Mondays. Very civilised.

How cool Happy New Year!that it is our tradition to wish each other a ‘Happy New Year’. In France, folk are maybe more realistic and wish friends and family a ‘Good Year and Good Health’.

But I love that we make happiness the most important thing. Believe it or not, happiness is a choice. We can choose not to be miserable. Focus on the good things in your life and if something brings you down, try to learn from it and let it go.

And spread that New Year love around. We have kissed and exchanged greetings with EVERYONE in our village at the annual gathering organised by the mayor. It may chafe your cheeks but it’s a great way to bring a community together. That and the copious amounts of whisky and wine…

November at Happy Coulson is pretty much all about the birthdays. My birthday, Tana’s birthday and Chris’ birthday. My birthday was spent on the sofa, watching films and eating gâteaux. Perfect, actually.

Tana's X-Wing Fighter cakeTana’s, as always, took the most time and energy. His ninth this year and maybe the last year he invites a big group. So we pulled out all the stops with a Star Wars X-Wing Fighter cake, a dusk treasure hunt through the spooky woods, a bonfire to cook crêpe burritos and fireworks. And homemade lanterns that used tampons dipped in petrol for fuel – failed miserably but caused much hilarity.

Chris celebrated his birthday yesterday. I say ‘celebrated’ – he had a French lesson in the morning then started to work on a laptop which belongs to a student and apparently has lots of precious homework stored on it.

Most of his birthday was spent sweating and swearing at the French laptop with its flaming French words and French keyboard. He did eventually find the solution – at 5am on the day after his birthday.

Chris survival courseThe children may have gone back to school in September but October has been a real learning experience for the Happy Coulson grown ups. First there was Chris’ survival skills training course. Five days in a woodland in Oxfordshire, learning how to make fire, build shelters, whittle and other manly things.

He was on his own each night, eating wild fare he prepared himself ranging from squirrel to rook and sleeping in his shelter, which he was pretty proud of by the end of the week. Chris will be sharing his skills with visitors to Happy Coulson, including our French students.

Now back on French soil, Chris’ learning month continues with the reprisal of his efforts to master the language. After two years here, his vocabulary and comprehension are impressive, now we need to fill in the gaps so he can take a more active part in conversations.

La VentucaI feel moved to help Chris progress following my four-day retreat in Spain. Although all the teaching was in English so I didn’t need to speak Spanish, I found being unable to communicate unbearably frustrating. And not understanding the simplest of menus was just embarrassing. Next month I am starting an online TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course to help with my French students. When that is done I am going to start learning Spanish so the next time we go I will at least have the basics.

The yoga and meditation course in Asturias in northern Spain was wonderful. Amazing venue, beautiful scenery, great people, delicious food and four days of me being the student instead of the teacher. I found it so inspiring and came back rejuvenated and excited to share everything I learned with my students in France and England.

Grannie and Grandad in the potagerBack to school September has passed by in a flash. The kids settled straight back in – two years is proving to be a real breakthrough point in terms of language and integration.

The visitors just kept on coming, notably Chris’ mum and dad for their annual trip. It was a very busy time for us but Heather and Barry got stuck straight in and helped with everything, including the big apple and onion harvest.

We were also delighted to have a visit from my Australian relatives, Jon and Jill Holmes, who were on a tour of Europe. Chris and I stayed with them while travelling in 1997 so it was lovely to repay their kindness. Especially cool was the chance for them to meet Chris’ mum and dad, who they unwittingly took a photograph of on their honeymoon in London around 30 years ago. But that’s another story…

Happy Yoga Retreat

September saw our first wholly Happy Coulson yoga retreat – with yoga by Kate and food by Chris. It was just a day for some of my students, held at a friend’s house as our yoga studio is still a barn, but it went down a treat. We are now looking forward to the day we can host such an event…

To do that, we need a yoga studio so Chris is about to start work on a new shed complex, enabling us to empty the barn of all his tools and supplies. We also need to finish the floors and walls of the new rooms, work that was put on hold when the pilgrim season started way back in April. Lots to do, as always. Good job that’s how we like it.

IMG_2682_cropThe long summer holidays, which we thought would never end, are almost over.
We waved goodbye this afternoon to our final two French students – sisters Elisa
and Magda – who after just a week felt like part of our family.

We have had 12 French students in all, each staying either one week or two for an immersion in all things English, including Yoga and Zumba with Kate and cooking with Chris. This is our second year of hosting students and we have loved it.

Special credit goes to Tana and India, for uncomplainingly sharing their bedrooms, toys and mummy and daddy for more than two months. We are now all looking forward to some ‘just us’ family time in the autumn and winter.

Fun with Nanny

We have had a constant stream of gorgeous guests at Happy Coulson. Wonderful workawayers, the Karate King and three Norfolk families (you know who you are) brightened up the sometimes woefully unsunny summer days with boozy suppers and general silliness.

Nanny was in her element with three of her grandchildren when she brought cousin Will over for a visit. We are already looking forward to the next time – with cousin number four, Oli, as well. Who knows, we may even brave Eurodisney…

With all of their help, we have managed to get to the end of an astonishingly busy nine weeks, with up to 19 people staying in our house (including a steady stream of pilgrims), feeling chilled and content. Happy, Happy Coulson.

Indy is 7 July has been a month of transformation. Indy turned seven on 19 July, the day that we moved to France two years ago. Amidst the chaos of her pool birthday pool, we managed to find a moment to look around us and appreciate how much we have achieved in that relatively short space of time.

Happy Coulson is not the only thing to transform – Indy lost both front teeth in a matter of days. I always think this is a real turning point, when a child’s face begins to transform, giving hints of what they will look like into adulthood. Indy is so grown up now – I really hope the diligent way she is caring for her new birthday rabbits is not just a phase…

Another transformation, observed with humour by Chris, was how I cater for my children’s birthday parties. When we moved to France, I was horrified at how kids ate just cake and sweets at birthday parties, usually drinking sugary, fizzy drinks as well. For the first two years, I persisted with cherry tomatoes and cucumber sticks and crisps (if you were lucky). This year, however, before I even realised what I was doing, I had served up rainbow cupcakes with sweets on, with more sweets on the side. Fizzy drinks are still a step too far for me but I did flavour the water.

Le Tour in MaubourguetTo round off a truly transformational month, today our local town of Maubourguet morphed from a sleepy village of 3,000 inhabitants into a bustling crowd of more than 10,000. People came in droves to witness the start of stage 19 of the Tour de France, the first time this has happened here.

First, a convoy of brightly-decorated sponsorship vehicles, hurling toys and sweets into the crowds. Then the cars and coaches bringing bikes and teams. And finally, the lining up and departure of 140 cyclists, all looking rather tired after the hard ride in the Pyrénées yesterday. They were gone in a flash and people immediately started melting away – it’s exhausting work, this metamorphosis.

 

The TroublamorsAnyone else thinking where on earth did June go? Here at Happy Coulson, it passed by in a flurry of pilgrims, weddings, music and bizarre weather.

First, a wedding with two brothers serenading their father and his new wife as they went into the ‘mairie’ (town hall) to get tie the knot. Formerly of the Troublamours, these guys are incredibly talented and all their friends either played an instrument, sang or danced. There followed a very special wedding, with live music all the way through, even when we danced around a bonfire to celebrate midsommer’s eve.

Debbie and Fred from Blues CaféMore music at the Larroque Festival, a great little festival which took place the same weekend as Glastonbury and suffered the same weather. The first time I have seen drizzle since moving to France but up the road they had hail the size of golf balls so I suppose we were lucky!

Rain stopped play for a couple of hours but resumed with a rocking reggae band. And some of the musicians from Blues Café serenaded the hardcore all-nighters in the beer tent.

We’ve had over 100 pilgrims already this year and are now entering full summer season. Now gearing up for our village fête, our neighbours’ wedding, the Tour de France and the Jazz in Marciac Festival. Vive l’été!

 

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