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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One year ago today, on Indy’s fifth birthday, we waved goodbye to England and set out on a grand family adventure. Today we celebrated Indy’s sixth birthday and one year of Happy Coulson.

At 1am on Friday 20 July 2012 (it’s exactly 1am on 20 July 2013 as I write this), we unlocked the doors of a rather rundown and musty smelling old farmhouse. The next day we had our first alfresco lunch in the overgrown garden and plucked up the courage to tackle the marshy pond the estate agent had optimistically called a swimming pool.

July-(160)

July-12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One year on and I think we have earned the right to pause for a moment and look back at everything we have achieved:

 

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And it’s not just the things we can see that we can be proud of. So far, we have provided accommodation for 58 pilgrims and 12 B&Bers, started local yoga and Zumba classes and witnessed our children becoming bilingual. The house is always full of life – sometimes we have 12 for dinner, often from several different countries. It is hard work and there is still so much to do. We will never be rich but we might just make this work. With help from friends, family and workaways, Happy Coulson really is becoming the dream we had.

Be the change you want to see in the world.
Or as our French student, Pauline, would say: “Quand on veut, on peut”.
Happy days indeed.

Nearly a year into our French adventure and we’ve got some real friendships taking shape. In the past, I would have been mad keen to know immediately if someone was ‘going to be my friend’. But I have learned over time that sometimes the best friendships blossom in the most unexpected places, so I have stopped trying so hard and now enjoy sitting back and seeing what path a new acquaintance might take.

The BiblioBus

The BiblioBus

The friendships growing up around us are with a mix of people of varying nationality, age and life experience.

Jim and Becci have been staying with us in their library bus for a while now while Jim renovates his sister’s house. We’re pretty similar people so it was on the cards, but we have now passed the polite first stages of friendship and are now in a place where we really enjoy helping each other out but we can also be rude! Happy days.

Some of the less likely friendships are developing with my wonderful yoga students. French couples, Claude and Sylvian and Janine and Alain, have been coming to the class I run in our village hall since it started. They are there without fail each week – funny, open and honest and I love them.

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Andy and Julie are another English couple who also moved to Lahitte last year. Chris and Julie now take French lessons together with Philippe, who lives in the village. Sharing experiences like these is a great way of growing friendships.

Of course, not everyone is going to be your best buddy. People are like leaves in a flowing river – we’re all moving around the rocks and branches that life throws at us, at our own pace. Sometimes a bunch of leaves will hang onto each other and enjoy the ride together for a while. Then something happens and you move into a different stream, with different leaves, at a different pace. Sometimes you meet up again and that’s cool. Sometimes you don’t. And that’s cool too.

Fete des EcolesIs it really Monday tomorrow? I need another Sunday after our weekend of thoroughly French activities. Friday night was the Fete des Ecoles – the end of year show. First, several short plays – Tana and India were rabbits – and lots of amazing songs. Followed by a presentation on the week-long trip for children as young as six, which traced the Adour river from mountain to sea. Aperitif and snacks in the playground while the salle was reshuffled and finally a full-on, sit-down meal with copious amounts of wine that went on well past midnight. The children ate in a separate room by themselves, painted each others’ faces and played in the road outside the school in the darkness. Carnage. Awesome carnage.

PetanqueSaturday saw a rematch of a recent BBQ with our neighbours, Franck and Shirlie, and friends, Jim and Becci, who live in a library bus in our garden. In France, you generally start a social event with an ‘apéro’ – your choice of drink ranging from wine with cassis to beer or Pastis. Franck and Shirlie arrived at midday, the apéro was served and it began. Basically, we ate and drank all day, breaking for our first game of petanque.

Then the boys went to fetch Franck’s ping pong table and there ensued a fierce Anglo-French battle, dominated by the French but thoroughly enjoyed by the English.

Ping pong

Chris rediscovered his teenage love of ping pong and we will be looking for a secondhand table. In fact, at the hog roast we went to today (not quite so French as it was organised by the local expat group), he met someone from the next village who has a ‘club’ in his garden where men gather to play pool, darts and ping pong. We are so checking that out…

 

To have and to Holden

Hooray, summer feels like it is finally here. Thanks to our latest guests, Abby, Pete and Sophia Holden, who clearly had the sun tied to their car as they drove through France. The Holdens were here during one of the busiest weeks we’ve had (pilgrims, cyclists and new classes a-go-go), which could have been really hard work. But they were always there to help out, whether with concreting, kids or learning Zumba. We miss them already and can’t wait for their return trip.

Also in the photo are our new Liverpudlian workaways, Craig and Hannah. Keen to try their hands at anything, Craig is like the Duracell Bunny and Hannah has already demonstrated many talents, being gifted at both digging the potager and cleaning. We look forward to another four weeks with these two.

Are you my daddy?

The kittens are now six weeks old and growing up fast. We have hopefully found homes for all of them, thanks to the wonderful website, Le Bon Coin – the French equivalent of  Gumtree. Ebay isn’t big here at all so Le Bon Coin is king, selling everything from chickens to yachts.

India’s current favourite kitten is this wee one – named Coco by our Kiwi friend Allyson, who tried and failed to convince her husband they could take one home to New Zealand.

We still don’t know who’s the daddy. If I hadn’t taken Happy Cat here to be castrated myself I would put money on him. He does look as though he wants to eat them every now and then, though. Not sure if that’s a natural paternal feeling…

 

Yoga in Biarritz

It’s official – new friends are good for the soul. Spending time with like-minded people, even if it’s just for a weekend, always fills me with fresh ideas and inspiration.

Just back from a wonderful weekend in Biarritz with the Guerilla Yogi himself, Marc Holtzman, and hosted by the lovely Rose Capagli (sitting, taking a photo), an Anusara-Inspired teacher like me. It was my first yoga training in French and could not have been more perfect. The sessions were taught in English and translated into French by translator and yoga teacher, Terence. For me, a week before I take my yoga to a wider French audience, it was manna from heaven. And around the frantic note-taking I also got to do some amazing yoga. Happy days.

I made some wonderful new yoga friends – from Belgium, Poland, France, Italy, Canada – and thoroughly enjoyed our bilingual conversations, flitting between English and French as if it was one language! Lunching on calamari tapas by the sea, I found it hard to believe I live just two hours away…

As with all good yoga courses, I came away filled with energy and fresh ideas. Perfect timing as next week I launch my new Happy Fitness timetable upon the good people of Maubourguet and surrounding villages. You can see the new timetable on the Happy Fitness page. Very exciting!

I am also making plans with a lovely new friend and fab Pilates teacher, Debbie Adams, who lives 40 mins away. We are busy planning the first of many Yoga/Pilates events for the local English-speaking community. Oh, and a final thanks to Thierry, who made everyone on the yoga course a CD of his group – Ocho Y Média. I have been listening to his incredible salsa/mambo/ska all day and can’t stop dancing!

My carte professionelle!

I collected my hard-won ‘Carte Professionelle’ today and am now officially an ‘Educateur Sportif”, able to teach any group sport or fitness in France. It was a scary ride but I’m so glad I persevered and didn’t give up when the going got tough.

The going is tough at Happy Coulson at the moment as the weather is horrible. It is so cold that my roll-necks and big jumpers are out again. The kids even have hot water bottles tonight! The unseasonably wet weather means we’re nerve-wrackingly behind with all the outside jobs and are instead forced to spend days inside catching up on paperwork. Yuck.

We have been collecting piles of letters from various French government departments – social security, child benefit, the regime for self-employed people etc – putting off the day we tackle them…

That day arrived yesterday and I spent an incredibly frustrating morning on the phone (paying for EVERY call, even if after several minutes of music they said all the lines were busy and I couldn’t be connected!). The first few people I spoke to were so unhelpful that Chris had to calm me down (hello, role reversal). Then, thankfully, I got through to a wonderful monsieur who answered all my questions and made sure I understood exactly what I have to do next. The clouds lifted and all was well.

Today we took the children (Wednesday = day off) to our nearest city, Tarbes, for a seven-hour mission sorting out paperwork and buying supplies for the house. They were so well-behaved we took them to a fantastic Chinese buffet restaurant for lunch – only 11,80€ for adults and 8€ for kids. The kids had a ball – Tana reminded us it was our first meal out since last August and that was only at the local supermarket…

I’m feeling a little guilty as I’m heading off to Biarritz this weekend for a weekend of Anusara yoga with the amazing Marc Holtzman. It really is work as the sessions will be translated into French so I will be learning loads of new vocabulary for my classes. Convinced? Neither is Chris.

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