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!

 

Italian pilgrimsPilgrim season is well and truly upon us. Our new pilgrim accommodation (finished with only hours to go and still needing a floor!) was christened by 14 Italian pilgrims. The jolly group, led by ‘The Boss’, Franco Stagni (pictured with Chris), left their confraternity in Rome last August and are still nearly 900km from their destination in Spain.

Since then, we have had a steady stream of pilgrims from various countries, including France, Belgium, England, Australia, Holland, Germany and Japan. They are all pilgrims of St James (in France, St Jacques) and are following one of four ancient pilgrim paths that cross France. The route that Happy Coulson lies on is the Voie d’Arles (GR653).

Each ‘Way of St James’ leads over the Pyrenean mountains to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the remains of the apostle James were discovered in the ninth century and are now entombed in a huge cathedral. When the pilgrims arrive, they present their pilgrim passports (stamped along the route at all the places they stay, including us!) and are invited to a ceremony in the cathedral.

Sanctuary of LourdesHappy Coulson is also at the start of another pilgrim route (GR101) that heads south to the holy city of Lourdes, made famous in the 19th century after a peasant girl saw a vision of Virgin Mary. This weekend, we visited for the first time the cave where Bernadette saw ‘Our Lady of Lourdes’, now beneath an impressive three-level church. The whole city was thronged with pilgrims, many of them sick, in wheelchairs or even beds. They come to pray and be bathed in the Lourdes water, which flows freely from taps all around the sanctuary. The feeling of faith was tangible. I fully recommend that any visitor to Happy Coulson fits in a visit.

 

Farewell Jim and BecciThis month has been all about friends. Friends leaving, missing friends and making friends.

We have said goodbye to two sets of very dear friends. First, Jim and Becci, who stayed in their converted library bus at the back of our house for over a year. These two, from Herefordshire, have been part of  Happy Coulson almost from the beginning. They have helped with everything from building to babysitting and will be sorely missed.

And yesterday we said goodbye to the Gofton-Kielys – Warwick, Allyson Jean-Luc and Olive Rose – who returned to New Zealand after an 18-month adventure in France.

IMG_1201_cropWe have grown very close to the GKs as our friendship grew during a special time for both our families. It was very hard to say goodbye to them but we know we will be friends forever and, as we have said to the children, it is super cool to have friends on the other side of the world.

As anglophone friends leave, one chapter ends and another begins. After nearly two years in France, we are making some really good French friends. This takes time, due to cultural and language differences, but the children have been invited to stay over with mates this holiday and we have friends we know we can call upon in an emergency.

We feel lucky to have shared life with some top notch Brits and Kiwis. And excited to be developing friendships with our new countrymen. Happy days indeed.

Skiing at Hautacam

We don’t have half-term here. Instead, we have a two-week ‘vacances d’hiver’ (winter holiday) at the end of February or beginning of March. Holiday dates are staggered across France so the ski fields don’t get too crowded.

We made full use of this year’s winter holiday and spent a week in the mountains. Every morning, the children went to ski school, leaving us free to explore the slopes. And by the end of the week, they had passed their ‘flocon’ (snowflake) medal and could keep up with us anywhere.

I have been skiing four times in the last 20 years – twice 20 years ago, then last year and this year. But until last year, I had never had a ski lesson. Poor student status made that impossible. Last year and this I treated myself to a couple of private lessons and learned a whole host of techniques.

Armed with these techniques, I now understand what to do. But it hasn’t made me a better skier than the 20-year-old me – completely unskilled but fearless, childless and unaware of the damage it could do to my knees. Now, I am prone to try too hard and find it harder to just relax and go with it.

It is difficult to find a balance between effort and surrender – expressed beautifully in the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Religious or secular, there is no arguing with that.

Just waved off our first three guests of 2014. No pilgrims yet as the season doesn’t start till March. No, this time it was three members of an Italian circus currently performing in the area. Apparently jugglers and clowns, although sadly we didn’t see any evidence of either juggling or clowning.

Taking shape

Not the best time of year to stay at Happy Coulson as we are currently building new rooms in the grain loft, right next to the dormitory. After driving from Italy yesterday and a show last night, the circus folk were hoping to spend a leisurely morning in bed. This plan was scuppered when builder Jim started sawing through the wall next door. The photo shows shows the view through the new hole – the clowns were trying to sleep in the room behind Chris. Perhaps no surprise they are not staying another night…

As you can see, building work is moving on apace and we can now see where the rooms are going to be. We are on track to have them ready for April – a good job as we have already accepted a booking from 14 Italian priests.

Bookings are starting to come in now, thanks to our listing in THE guidebook for the Chemin de Compostelle – Miam Miam Dodo. Loosely translated as ‘yum yum, nap time’, this book shows pilgrims where they can stay along the 936km route between Arles in France and Santiago de Compostella in Spain.

We are also taking bookings from people keen to share the excitement of the French summer. Packed with the usual fêtes and events, this year is especially exciting. In July, two stages of the Tour de France are starting very close, including one in our home town of Maubourguet. There is also the world-famous Jazz Festival in Marciac, perfect for families during the day and with babysitters on hand if you want to sneak out for the evening. Get in touch if would like to join the fun at happycoulson@orange.fr.

Happy Love Day for tomorrow.

 

As you might expect from the land of polite greetings (there is even a way to say ‘Have a good end of the afternoon’), there are several ways to say ‘Happy New Year’ in French. But the one I am hearing most often, and the one that says so much more, is ‘Bonne Année et Bonne Santé’.

Good health is at a premium in our village as one family – the Bindés who live on our track – have had a rough end to 2013. First, lovely Robert the farmer had a stroke and is still suffering with eye pain and speech problems. Then, just before Christmas, his two-year-old granddaughter, who was accompanying Robert on a visit to the eye specialist, was sent straight to hospital with a suspected cancerous tumour. The little girl, now in hospital in Paris, had her eye removed yesterday and will now need chemotherapy.

Canet Beach, The Med

Looking at the photos of our new year visit to the Mediterranean to see the gorgeous Kibbey family, who have also moved from Norfolk to southern France, I counted six healthy children (baby Jack was being carried by dad).

Instead of starting the year resolving to change something I think I don’t like about myself, I am counting our blessings and making a promise to get the most out of every single day. As the mayor of the next village said when I wished him ‘Bonne Année et Bonne Santé’ this morning: “Ah yes, because when we have good health, we have everything”.

Wishing ‘Good Year and Good Health’ to you all.

 

Christmas has finally arrived at Happy Coulson, following a thoroughly festive weekend in Norwich. It was so lovely to see all the lights and feel the excitement in the air but it was also wonderful to get back to our little French oasis of calm, where Christmas has to be created by us.

Christmas makingOn our way home we stopped to spend the children’s Christmas decoration budget – 10€ each kindly donated by Nanny. After looking around long and hard at all the brightly coloured plastic, they decided they would rather buy a pack of 24 plain wooden shapes to decorate themselves. There followed a whole Wednesday of Christmas crafting.

Having our children at home every Wednesday (French children currently don’t go to school on Wednesdays) is a mixed blessing. If I’m totally honest, sometimes it’s downright inconvenient. If I am teaching private yoga lessons or have a meeting then Chris can’t get on with any big renovation jobs as he has to look after the kids.

I am at the stage now where I could be working a lot more. My business brain is urging me to expand into the gaps I still have in my working week: “Go on. You’ll be spreading the yoga love AND earning more money, very useful when you’re hoping to take the kids skiing in March…”.

But why? I’m pretty sure I have, for the first time ever, found a true balance between work and life. This is something many people strive for and I always wondered whether I would even know if I achieved it. Well I did. The other day when I was collecting kindling in one of my spare moments, I made a conscious decision NOT to start another class. We’re fine, we don’t need any more money at the moment. Thank goodness my Happy Coulson Head is louder than my Business Brain. Roll on next Wednesday – I smell mince pies…

November is our big birthday month. Mine, Tana’s and Chris’ all arrive within 11 days. Been thinking about the best birthday presents we have ever got each other (in the order I thought of them).

1) Chris 40th – bright blue bass guitar (from the whole family). He’s always wanted to learn.

Happy birthday, Daddy

2) Me 20-something (can’t remember which) – huge shaggy white coat. Looked like a yeti pelt but now resembles a bad perm as I tried to tumble-dry it. Tit.

3) Chris 34th – a four-day-old Tana with a gold ribbon on his head (for future reference, not my finest idea, sticking a bow to a baby).

4) Chris 35th – dinner at The King’s Head, Bawburgh. Not the dinner but a wooden box with same gold ribbon on. Containing stick with blue line introducing baby India. Hadn’t thought through implications of waving a wee-soaked baton around a restaurant but hey, everyone seemed happy for us.

I LOVE making or buying presents for people but I am not great at receiving them. For many years now I have had everything I need so I rarely need more stuff, especially the month before Christmas, when you get loads of stuff.

Successful gift ideas for Kate must be useful and cheap – current favourites include notelets, funky socks, luxurious toiletries. Or handmade – a note, a card, a cake. (Really? Did I turn 40 or 80 last week…)

Chris wanted to do something really special for my 40th so he arranged a night away without the kids with a meal at a fancy restaurant. Chris knows me better than anyone so he had booked us into a cheap hotel but when we arrived there was no room with a bath, and I had packed my scented candle and bubbles…

For the first time in my life, I suggested upping the budget and we ended up in a fantastic suite with a glass-walled bathroom, his and her sinks and roomy bath. We had champagne in the bath, a wonderful meal out and breakfast in bed at 10am. Sometimes it’s just nice to treat yourself.

Best present this year, though? Sorry, babes, but it’s Tana’s homemade card with this message:
“Happy Birthday Mumy (sic). I love you and hope you have a lovely day. I love you so much I could explode with the love that I have for you. Love Tana (plus 49 kisses as he got a bit carried away)”.
Priceless.

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