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.

We’re well into our second year in France now. This is it. For real. Complete with all the challenges of normal life. Among them, concerns that Tana might not be progressing as well as he should at school. Last year he was with children younger than him so could do most of the work with them. Now he has leap-frogged up into another school and is one of the youngest.

But after meetings with the teachers and Tana, we are reassured that he is doing just fine and “N’oubliez pas, Mme Coulson, Tana est presque bilingue”. Now if that isn’t progress I don’t know what is.

Tana's first try

Having high expectations is good and I believe it has helped in my pursuit of happiness. It certainly helps Tana when he plays sport as he has a real determination to excel.

But it’s a delicate balance. In Tana’s first rugby tournament last weekend, he didn’t fully understand the rules and when he was subbed for another player he became despondent and sulky.

Cue a pep talk from daddy about how he needs to really show he wants that place – high-fiving the other player as he comes off and standing by the coach pestering him to go back on. His next touch of the ball – a try.

Now staying with my mum in England and wondering what makes her such a joy to be around? Well, she doesn’t grumble or moan. She just gets on, whether the job is making dinner or clearing out the gutters. Even though she doesn’t like cooking. (Clearing out the gutters she loves, but that’s just mum).

A little picture on her wall (something her father always used to say) reads:

Life ain’t a matter of holding good cards, but playing a poor hand well.

We could all do with trying to please our coach more. Stop moaning about your cards and get stuck in.

Well, we have survived our first full summer in France. Eight weeks of no school and our busiest time yet – surely a recipe for disaster? Actually no. All ready for La Rentrée tomorrow and feeling fantastic.

Camp Coulson

Happy Coulson has seen a total of 92 pilgrims, 20 campers, a handful of B&B guests and 5 French students, each staying for a week. Siblings and cousins reunited, birthdays and anniversaries, old friendships rekindled, new friendships explored, and fêtes, fêtes and more fêtes.

This summer at Happy Coulson has been all about people. Different nationalities, life experience and personalities, all thrown into one big melting pot. Give it a stir, savour the aroma and enjoy the feast!

We should be exhausted, and certainly we know we’ve been busy. But when your job is helping people on holiday have an even better time, and when most of those people are, or become, your friends…

Let’s just say, there are worse ways to earn a living.

A momentous week has passed chez Happy Coulson. My brother and I together for a whole week for the first time in 23 years. Jim and I haven’t avoided each other over the years. On the contrary, we have always got on brilliantly. But living on opposite sides of the UK and having four young children between us has meant that quality time together recently has been rare, almost non-existent.

But that mattered not a jot from the moment Jim arrived. The cousins were soon inseparable and after a few days, as the mountains emerged from the summer haze, so too did the prospect of many more joyful weeks together over the years to come, remembering old and building new friendships.

My bro

It is easy to beat yourself up about not staying in close contact with family and friends: I should make more of an effort, phone more often, blah, blah, blah. But I’m a bit phone-phobic and hate those duty calls when no-one really has anything to say. I never phone any of my friends – it’s not that I don’t love them, we just have more to talk about when we do get together!

One of the best things about moving to France is that when people visit, it’s usually for a substantial amount of time. So everyone has time to relax into the holiday spirit and really get to know each other.

Cousins Cousins and kitten

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