The Making of a Ragnarian (or something like that)

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You know when someone asks you to do something really awesome but really hard and normally you could respond with “that sounds great, but I can’t because …”  and then they have the audacity to tag it with “…next year…” and you don’t yet have your excuses lined up for NEXT YEAR, you know what could happen ….

You could find yourself sitting in a really big van early on a Saturday morning with head lamps, sleeping bags, and enough GU gels to supply a small village in route to some place called Sittingbourne with the expectation that you and your van mates will manage to run every mile between it and Brighton by Sunday afternoon. GRL PWR on the move.

That happened this past weekend.  We ran a Ragnar Relay Race.

Psst …  because you absolutely won’t know enough about English geography in advance of committing: here is Sittingbourne on a map.  And here is the way they are expecting you to run to Brighton.  Red rover, red rover, they are asking us to FREAKIN’ RUN VIA DOVER!


Here was the pitch:

“Take to the road with 9 friends for the trip of a lifetime, as a Ragnarian, you'll embark upon a journey filled with fun, bonding, and obviously, running (both night and day).  At Reebok Ragnar White Cliffs your team will tackle a 170(ish) mile course that snakes through picturesque towns, rolling fields, and the most beautiful collection of white cliffs you've ever seen. Entering this unique, overnight relay means night-time runs, turning a spacious van into a temporary home, and a bond-strengthening experience like no other.  Each teammate runs 3 “legs” with each leg ranging between 3-11 miles and varying in difficulty.”

Here are the 10 of us who signed up for this as Team WRW 9s:


Here’s what they don’t tell you:

Someone will get lost.

Someone will get sick.

Everyone will stink.

Re: getting lost.  Although 100+ teams all start from the same place, you spread out quickly and find yourself usually running without another runner anywhere in sight.  When the signage is good, the sun is up, and the shins aren’t screamin’ - it’s all good.  In the dead of night — we all know — things ain’t alway so magical.  This could and did happen to one of our teammates, Meredith (shared with permission), who happened to draw both the hardest and most complicated legs :

“Ohhh let me tell you about magical! It was the f*cking Blair Witch Project. I set off into the dark park ie woods. Following that blue dot. Took one wrong turn I’m in the middle of the park just a blue dot turning in circles. I’m flat out hyperventilating, running in circles, screeching and saying “Mommy mommy mommy.” I call, they try to help me. I end up down a dark path at a fence. Back track now I have no idea where I am. I seriously was off the deep end- it’s like every law and order episode I ever watched (the SVU ones). When it was clear I was not making it out alive  they had to send the rescue car to find me. So the rescue car drops me at the exit to the park where I proceed to finish the race about an hour late in tears. Remind me please to never volunteer for anything involving map reading, nature, headlamps-woods, dark parks. I need a stiff drink and a massage.”

With three legs each, everyone has at least one night run. Not everyone gets to run with the sheep. The sunrise is a welcome thing come Sunday morning.

Re: getting sick. Our bodies are creatures of habit and 36 hours of nut balls, Ramen noodles, and portable loos is hard on even the best of bowels.  When you train for a race like this, there are no guarantees that your body will give you what you need come race day.  We had a teammate -our Team Captain Roni - go down hard with the flu during the race.  While it could have been a cause of despair or dropping out in a normal race, the rules of a team relay meant we were allowed to pass the baton to another teammate and get support for the one in need. 

Re: stink.  You know how one dirty sock can ruin a car ride?  Multiple that minefield by 9 and throw in everything else worn.  Do not be fooled.  A van is not a temporary home.  It is a smelly van.

So why did we do this again?   Because:

That person will be found.

That person will be cared for. 

Everyone will eventually get a shower.

And because we can say that we finished running 170ISH MILES together.  


We of course didn’t all have the same views or same terrain or same distances. 

BUT we shared stories and photos from each of our “legs” to fill in the gaps.  And, most importantly, we did have the same swell of confidence and wonder that comes from accomplishing something hard.  The confrontation of a white cliff — or the scuffles of daily living — may chip away at our belief that we are made to pull off some things only we can do in this one life we’ve been given.  The courage needed to do that grows in lots of ways but perhaps most obviously when we push hard and push together. 

Because it is guaranteed that sometime down the road, whether it’s a road you chose to run or walk: 

You may be the one lost.

You may be the one in need.

There will never come a day when you don’t need a shower.

"Come on, let's get acididic!"

It’s a statement my youngest son says regularly. He made up the word about a year ago. To get acididic is to to have full intensity about the thing you are doing. So much so that you don’t think about what else is going on and don’t care how you look doing it.

It’s a word that can only be properly said while scrunching up your face, biting your tongue, and gathering the fingertips of both hands to one imaginary point and gesturing wildly. We know his acididic face well by now. What follows is never quiet. His appeal is to take what you are doing, ratchet up your commitment to it, and see what happens.

I’m the only family member he can count on to get acididic with. We speak a similar language of exuberance, though mine is often tired and not always keen to involve by whole body. But to be acididic is also to be relentless and so this summer I have been roped into getting acididic in a few ways.

Getting Tactile Eating a Plum. It may not be as glorious as a peach, but to take whatever fruit is growing in your yard and to inhale as many as you can and as messily as you can, sacrificing what you please for inspection or perfection, while in the shade of the tree’s canopy and with company at some non-sanctioned meal time is a thousand times sweeter than the best plum pudding. Yes, that’s a run on sentence and I don’t care.

Clowning Around Under Water. As adults, we think a good back float is a wonderful pleasure in the pool. And it is until an unsuspecting ball hits you in the face. Clowning Around Under Water, as I’ve been urged to do, however has no such hazards. It only requires you to put on goggles, drop your head below the surface of the water and start slapping your arms violently which makes both amazing bubbles for your visual pleasure and your own beats for your auditory pleasure. I was doubtful at first but how many other things allow you to simultaneously blow off steam, create your own music, and feel weightless.

Grunting like a Tennis Player while Playing Badminton. Unlike tennis that requires more skill and technique, badminton is kind to beginners and makes you feel like you have more game than you do. With a long racket to reach those over your head shots and the weirdly satisfying feeling of sending a birdie flying through the air, the only way to play badminton with Lawton is to dive (him only), grunt (both of us), and contest line calls like it was Wimbledon (guess who?) No one likes to be around us when we are channeling our inner animal on the court but oh does it feel good.

It’s easy to get fired up about things that make us mad. Getting acididic about little things like a plum, leaving your comfy pool side chair, or playing a leisure game with total abandon takes a little more effort and while it won’t fix the things that make us mad, it’s the kind of explosion of life that has the possibility of moving us in a different direction.

I’m now being called to a Badminton game in the pouring rain … because apparently getting acididic means you aren't bothered by a passing shower or two.

Caution: Deer Delight

There are many beautiful animals you are likely never to chance upon. Take the tiger. Unless you traveled to India, southeast Asia, or Siberia - with serious intention - you would never catch a glimpse of one in the wild. Add endangered to that mix, and your only real hope for a spotting would be standing three people and two strollers deep at a city zoo.

All it not lost however. There are other magnificent animals, like the deer, that hang out in so many different kinds of ecosystems that your chances are good for seeing one in it’s natural habitat. Just hopefully not through your windshield.

To see one of the leggy, well proportioned animals out in a thick forest, in the mountains, on the savanna, or in your garden (just hopefully not nibbling away at your plants) is one of nature’s calls to be still. Alert but daring, deer stand close enough to be admired so long as you keep your end of bargain by staying quiet. It’s hard to imagine any deer being mean. They even come across as an animal that wouldn’t smell.

Whether foraging or passing through there is something graceful and effortless in a deer’s movements. So serene they make our daily work by comparison look like a motorcyclist revving up their engine at a stop light.

If it’s not you, something else will soon startle the deer, and so the posture of stillness is never really that long. But it’s enough. And while you’re sorry to see it go, it is something to watch a deer run and jump as if there were no physical barriers between it and the world.

No fence is too high, no terrain too rough for it to fully accelerate once it’s decided to take that first step. It reminds you of the ancient wisdom that says we too can be agile and make progress upon the high places.

Now that we have a house in the French countryside, we see enough deer in our own yard to consider it routine. I still like to see them but admittedly I don’t always stop what I’m doing to watch them anymore.

My husband, on the other hand, still does. Every single time, And every time he sees one, you’d think it was the first time. He flickers with the excitement of an 8 year old boy, quietly motioning to whoever is nearby to gather an audience. He exchanges texts and photos with his Mom. His delight in them is never-ending and it’s adorable. It's the way delight should be. It never dims.

And while it’s corny, and I am clumsy, sometimes not nice and nothing like a deer, he gives me that same level of attentiveness every single day. Like each day with me is another potential day for delight.

Today is our 27th wedding anniversary. My husband is in London and I’m in France. I’ll be on the lookout. Happy anniversary, my dear.

Do You Have an Open Hand?

You know it’s not been your finest day when you end it with strained vocal cords, not because you were at an exciting game or excessively talking or inhaling smoke, but because you live with children. Yesterday was that kind of the day.

The reasons for the yelling were understandable: losing one of the few things I asked them not to lose, the same sibling squabble from yesterday, a new but equally sorry excuse for doing the same thing I asked them not to do approximately eighty-eight times, and the “sure I see your mountain of laundry, but where is my bathing suit?” All stuff justified for correction, but delivered in a cloud of anger. And while the message(s) might have been received, by the end of the day, I felt drained.

Being responsible for people can be exhausting. What I most wanted was to go bed and start over tomorrow. Instead, to make it through dinner, I called for a family huddle and apologised for the yelling. I felt marginally better but my throat still ached and my desire to serve had temporarily expired. That night my youngest and soon to be teenager wanted to sleep with me since my husband is away. Bless his heart, this was not exactly my plan for a good, recovery night’s sleep. Nevertheless …

Minutes after I thought he was already asleep, he whispered: “Do you have an open hand?” When I said yes and offered it up, he clasped my hand and pulled my arm tightly around his chest. After a few more beats, he breathed out: “I love you, Mom.” Not the cheap, rhetorical “I love you” but the muscular kind that deposits something intangible but true in your heart.

Staying in that cradled position long enough to lose feeling in my arm and watch him drift off to a deep sleep, I received the only thing big enough to take away the lingering ache. Not just his love but a deeper love that speaks gently, forgives our shortcomings and renews our resolve.

I’m up early today. It’s a new day. There will surely be new (and old) reasons to get frustrated today but I believe that last night’s dose of love has the potential to create a pattern different from before.

Love is the stitch that mends both our private and public impasses and gets us out from under the clouds of anger or despair. But in order for it to be realized, it must first be received. “Do you have an open hand?” If we know that a data packet can travel the globe in a second, surely we can believe that love can do circles around that.

Mice, Ants, Lizards, Flies, Mosquitoes and an Open Door Policy

There is no better way to remember the world is full of living things than to spend the summer with doors open in an old French farmhouse.  There are mice.  Ants marching.  Lizards lounging.  Flies frenzying.  And mosquitoes looking for blood.

Modern conveniences like A/C are rare, window screens like a needle in a haystack, and so the only way to cope is to learn how to co-exist.  You can’t have a 100% open door policy but without open doors and windows some of the time, you won’t survive the heat.  And, one of the best perks of summer is the blurring of indoor/outdoor living.  I can’t help but notice how each of these little critters is teaching me something not only about country living but living in general.

The mice made their debut in the winter.  I’ve laid at least a dozen of them to rest.  It’s virtually impossible to secure every nook and cranny of an old stone farmhouse.  Mortar gives way after years of service. Plus, old farmhouses require an acceptance of living with some dust and so a little extra chewing on the stone walls is hardly a reason for alarm.  Mouse droppings and the pathogens it carries, along with the late night scampering, is however good reason to fight to keep them out.  

Shifty and nimble, mice excel at hiding with the slightest noise or light.  The only way you’d ever see them face to face is if you were to come upon them with surprise or set a trap.  So when it comes to evicting mice, the best and only defense is a good offense.  In a similar way, we are good at hiding deep seated resentments or hurts.  They only surface when we are provoked or cornered.  But without a good offence for them, like rodents, the virus their droppings leave behind risk becoming airborne.  And resentments, like mice, are breeding machines. 

The ants are a different story.  They have absolutely no problem being seen.   They are happy to march in, at any time, in any room for the smallest morsel left behind.  It didn’t take long to figure out that trash cans without lids was like inviting the entire congregation.  Sure there are chemical solutions like ant spray to make them go away but the easiest solution for keeping the ants outside where they belong is much more basic.  Keep a lid on it.  Get a plate.  Wipe the table.  Sweep the floor.  Unfinished business has a way of attracting critters you’d rather not have.  Failure to tidy up after a big meal or small snack — or a project or relationship of any size — doesn’t always result in an ant show, but better to hedge your bets with a broom and avoid the toxicity later.  

Oh, the lizards.  So many lizards.  Always on the run, climbing the walls, squeezing into tight places.  They really aren’t that interested in coming inside, but if you’ve left your doors wide open and they dart in, it’s hard to get them to leave. I’ve tried to coax them out, spray them with cold water, but everyone I’ve talked to has said the same thing: “Oh, don’t mind the lizards.”  Because not only are the lizards harmless, their pursuit is not to reek havoc in your house. They will eventually find an exit.  I’ve taken the advice.  I’ve kept my doors open and stopped worrying about the lizards.  Makes me think about how we all have things about ourselves or our loved ones that drives us up the wall, but when they carry no ill will, the best strategy is to ignore them.

The one euro I spent on three flyswatters might be my best summer purchase. Flies are fast and have 360 degree vision but armed with a flyswatter, your odds are better than theirs.  Wait and whack.  Not that you couldn’t use a rolled up newspaper, but who has any of those lying around these days? They may not bite but they annoy with their high pitch flapping and invasion of personal space.   We can live with flies just like we can live with the annoying things that buzz through our brains.  Swatting at the air however hoping they go away isn’t going to get the job down.  You need a lightweight, flexible and vented instrument - or a prayer or manta - to give you the added acceleration you need to hit the bugger.  And then not to get discouraged when they come back to disturb the peace.

If it were easy to eradicate mosquitoes, it would have been done by now.  Mosquitoes are a fact of life and the only mitigation is candles, long sleeves, and before and after sprays.  They remind us that there are some things in life that we are indefensible against but it’s a small price to pay for the privilege of living in a world of beauty.

Happy summer and cheers to living with the doors open.

Take-Out, the Terrace, and the Long Tail of Desperation

We’ve all been there.  A loved one is sick or in need but because you live across the country or in another country, you feel helpless to provide any practical support.  It’s a desperate feeling.  

This past fall I got a FB message from the wife of a old work colleague who had taken that desperate feeling in Seattle and turned it into virtual action.  Her Dad was going through prostate cancer treatment in London and so she reached out to the handful of people she knew living in London and asked if any of us might be willing to bring him a meal.  Take-out was fine, text was not.  A proper phone call would be best.  People responded immediately. 

That’s how I met John and his partner George.  It was a quick drop off of Syrian food at their flat in Covent Garden, but even in the eye of the treatment storm, they beamed with appreciativeness and interest.  It was late October and I had just recently come back from signing the papers on our new holiday house in France and mentioned it in passing. Through a few follow up questions - Condom as our nearest town always gets a rise - we discovered that they had a very close English friend who also had a holiday house in the same region (the Gers) of South West France.

Fast forward to last Tuesday when my phone rang as I was driving on the outskirts of Condom.  It was John.  The connection wasn’t good but through his more tech savvy daughter, I knew he and George were in the Gers visiting their friend Allison.  After playing cell phone coverage cat and mouse, they invited me over to Allison’s house the next day.  They kindly invited the boys too but with the combination of their cycling plans and the tangential line connecting this 60+ crowd to any person they remotely knew, I let them coast pass this invitation.

This time I showed up with a bottle of Rose.  Allison’s house was only a 15 minute drive from my house, which in the French countryside, is to say we are nearly neighbours.  The first stroke of serendipity.  

As I was introducing myself to Allison in her beautifully renovated farmhouse at the edge of a countryside hamlet, she asked whereabouts in London I lived.  As I started to geolocate my London house with landmarks very unlike the open fields we were looking at, she flashed with recognition. She had lived in the same neighbourhood years ago.  But when she said the name of the street, I nearly choked on my Rose.  In a city of nearly 9 million people, we lived on the exact same small terrace street of only 22 houses, only 15 years apart.  She lived in #2 and I now live in #20. Needless to say, the second stroke of serendipity came in with swagger.

It was delightful to spend time with John, George and Allison - who are all fascinating and warm people — and talk about further get togethers both in London and France.  They sent me off with the fill of some wonderful stories, including tales of John’s 70th destination birthday party in India now 10 years in the rear view mirror.  They also sent me with directions to a farmer down the road whose fresh basil was not to be missed.  Serendipity made sure I got their last bunch plus a free melon because “I was a friend of Allison.”

I couldn’t help but think that the compounding delight of the day started from a place of desperation.  How an email from a worried daughter in Seattle could be used to help someone meet their neighbour in the countryside of France.  This was a thread we could follow but there are so many unseen threads when someone rises up in love to help. 

Yesterday was the annual garden party for our terrace in London.  Having been the past two summers, I was sorry to miss it this year.   But then again, being with a terrace alumni in a garden of box-hedges, lavender and roses, maybe I didn’t miss it entirely.

How (the Idea of) A Rebel Book Club Helped me Find the Jet Stream

Sometimes finding the jet stream or seeing an old challenge in a new light be like this: 

  1. You browse through (last week’s edition of) Time Out London because better late than never.

  2. You see an article titled “Eight Bloody Brilliant London Book Clubs.”

  3. Before you can even finish the bloody article, you’ve already started the google search “Rebel Book Club” - the editors pick for Best Book Club for non-fiction fans.

  4. Within 90 seconds, you’ve decided that you will apply to join.

  5. You shove the website under your husband’s nose and he says, “Why would anyone pay a monthly fee to read a book?”

  6. You meekly say something about community and cocktails, but then within 90 more seconds, you have a new plan that involves printing out the library of 48 book titles the group has already read.  

  7. Armed now with the list so you can read like thinkers & doers, you pull up an app you’ve already paid for called Blinkist to start getting the book summaries.  After all, you are a doer even if you have chosen to lay forth and conquer.

  8. Since it’s too early for a cocktail, you make yourself a second cup of coffee, wish for a donut, and settle in to the first book summary: Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth.  

  9. You are intrigued enough by the key messages of the book to send your Economics major son a WhatsApp about the book suggesting *he* read the full thing.   

  10. Since you need to set your sights on something more doable than building an economic system that encourages growth while also preserving the environment, you move on to the second book summary: Atomic Habits by James Clear.

And there it was.  The actionable thing I wasn’t actively looking for but needed to hear.  

The main idea in Atomic Habits is that small changes in behaviour done over time can have a big impact.  The author described it with this analogy:  if a pilot of a plane taking off from LA to NYC decided to move the nose of the plane 3.5 degrees to the south - a change so small that it would not be felt by passengers -  at the end of the flight, you’d be in Washington DC not NYC.  Small change, big impact. 

Patience then is having confidence that though you may not be seeing immediate results, you know you are on the right trajectory.  Habits are one way to get yourself on that trajectory.  I may still jiggle in the middle but I’ve got enough of a habit around exercise that should I stay the course (and manage my chocolate intake), things will eventually firm up.  

Things however have not been looking so good in regard to my getting any closer to having a basic conversation in French. With a French home, car, and bills to pay, I have an incentive to learn.  I have plenty of learning materials.  I have had fits and starts with using them but absolutely no habits that have stuck.  I have tutors - who can’t charge me - living in my house.  But I have had this massive mental block. “Bordeaux, we have a problem. We can’t figure out how to take off.”

Since the whole point of personal growth book is to do something, I decided to apply the principles described in summary on Blinkist to my challenge of learning French.  The first thing I did is reframe my goal.   It’s no longer “Learn how to speak French,” my first goal is “Learn how to be more comfortable and not panic when someone is talking to you in French.”  Along with a more realistic goal, I’ve set a smaller daily habit of 10 minutes a day and bundled it with my use of my laptop.  Now when I fire up my laptop, I made a rule that the first thing I force myself to do is go to one of my paid online programs and listen to one audio conversation in French with subtitles, on repeat, for 10 minutes.  That’s it for now.

We are still in the very early days but another thing they tell you to do is to us trackers, make contracts or in my case - write about it - as a way of making you more accountable.  I was telling my youngest son about my breakthrough and he said: “Isn’t that just common sense?”  Probably. But dude, I wanted to tell him, sometimes you need to travel a curvy road, take a pass on a Rebel Book Club, and relax into something you kind of knew but didn’t know how to start. 

It seemed apropos that todays’ conversation included this:  “Ah ben ! Ce n'est pas simple, hein. Mais on essaie.” Translation: “Oh well ! It's not simple, is it ? But we try !”

Meeting Ottolenghi and the Case for Cauliflower

It actually happened.  I met one of my heroes last week.  Thursday, April 25 to be exact.  It didn’t unfold as I had scripted it in my mind, casually bumping into him at our neighbourhood green grocer while evaluating some broccoli rabe or reaching for a packet of sumac.  Instead, I met Yotam Ottolenghi at a book signing after hearing him speak as part of a panel at the British Library on the topic “Taste: How Does it Work?”

Though I didn’t think ahead to bring one of my many marked up cookbooks for him to sign, I waited in line with a post-it note.  He was as generous and engaging as I imagined he would be, seemingly delighted to hear my story about feeding three hungry boys (he having two boys himself) who now refer to “Ottolenghi” as either a verb or food group category.   We then talked about being neighbours — I told him what street I lived on and he told me which street he lived on, though it was a detail I already knew.  We all have a little stalker in us.

And while it was fun to meet a celebrity chef who has single handedly up’ed my cooking game, I’ve actually been thinking more about the topic of the talk that night — taste and why it matters — more than I have been daydreaming about my famous neighbour bumping into me, remembering my name and our delightful conversation and then casually extending a dinner invite.   My brain has been tied up and my kitchen in varying states of experimentation to get too far into my Yotam Delusion.

It’s a given we need food for survival.  It’s also well understood that we need certain kinds of foods to deliver nutritional value.  Receptors in our mouth help check for poison and pause for kimchi.  But taste and flavor is that elusive thing we don’t have a great vocabulary for and yet are also wired to need.  The wired bit has to do with the fact that many of our 26,000 genes are geared towards our senses.  Taste then is that deeply personal experience in our nose and mouth (and to a lesser degree our stomach) that makes us either want or reject a second bite.

Perhaps most interestingly, taste isn’t something that’s static. Though we each start in different places (and different parts of the world with different food options), it is up to us to develop.  We can moderate our tastes like a dimmer switch through exposure.  Receptors drop off if we don’t use them.  It’s why you can hate mushrooms as a kid and learn to like them as an adult. 

It was a stimulating conversation, but it’s been swirling around in my head because it’s interlocked with this equally mysterious verse from the Bible: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  I’m not talking in a literal communion wafers and grape juice kind of way (because that would be tragic), but in a metaphorical kind of way.

We were taught the four basic food groups to deliver nutritional value in the same way that faith has been reduced to a basic moral framework.  We count our good deeds like calories.  But faith, like food, is only absorbed when you let it pass from lips to your gut.   And like taste, which is so specific because it’s tied to our individual memory centers, we don’t have a lot of useful language to explain the phenomena of faith.  We just know it’s the thing that moves us to want or reject a second bite.

It makes me think of the many people I know who had an early bite of religion and thought it was not very good.   But if taste is truly dynamic, is it possible that what we put in our mouth or heart one or two times isn’t the final word?  If converts have been made out of the Case for Cauliflower then isn’t the Case for Christ worth a few more tries?  In the same way it’s not useful to label a child a “picky eater” when eating is one of the few things you have true agency over as a child, it also seems hasty to accept an early decision you made on something as delicious as avocados because you weren’t into “anything green” back then.

One of the other interesting things that Yotam and the taste panel talked about was the danger of the movement towards homogeneity. It’s not only the sweetening of the global palette through packaged products that condition people to crave more sweetness and softness that is alarming, or the many known diet related diseases, but it’s the movement towards the “flattening out” of taste that poses the greatest threat.  It’s a threat because one size does not fill all and because our gut requires variety.  Sounds a lot like the danger happening in many churches. 

Anyone who cooks knows that sometimes it’s a labor of love.  But when you watch someone’s reaction to something you’ve made — and you know it’s good — and then you see their eyes roll back and they make that “mmmmm” sound,  there is pleasure going both ways.  Maybe it’s a little like that verse that keeps urging us to try new things: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Six Months in Le Couloume


It was the day I took Brett back to the Toulouse airport, after a longer than expected IKEA stock up, that I arrived back to Le Couloume late.  It was October 16th, eleven days after we had closed on the house.  I hadn’t thought to leave any exterior lights on, not yet familiar with how dark the French countryside can be after sun down.  I nervously fumbled trying to unlock my particularly French antique door by only the light of my iPhone.

Unnerved by my darkened welcome for my first night alone at Le Couloume, I locked and relocked all the doors - and the front door shutter for double protection - and headed straight for bed. The howling wind and a couple of mice having a party behind the wall only added to my disquiet.   But it was seeing the “pas de service”on my iPhone — no cell phone service, no wifi, no neighbour — that it finally hit me that we had really, really just bought a house in the country in another country.  

It’s been six months since that “this is real” moment.  Our wifi - inclusive of two additional networked routers to deal with the stone walls - is up and running (and miraculously of excellent quality!) after a convoluted sequence of steps I could never walk anyone through.  The mice have quieted down now that we know where to leave the bait and though the French antique door key remains special, we scarcely keep the doors locked when we are home. 

And starting from zero, the house is according to my husband and credit card bills to Westwing France (an online French homewares marketplace for flash sales) fully furnished.  I agree until I visit Didier’s brocante (antique) shop called Un Coin du Passe in Castera Verduzan … most recently I found two 19th century fencing masks to use as light sconces … which is squarely in the miscelleanous/want to have category. And of course we have kept Amazon France very busy filling our house with all the things you need but can’t fit into your checked luggage.

To keep my chin up during these last six months of figuring it all out, I read Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence.  The book was written thirty years ago but many of the trials, hilarities and missteps of a foreigner setting up a home in France - be it Provence or the Gers - are exactly the same in 2019.  The important differences for us however being a) we were fortunate to have bought a house that didn’t need work and the help of local contractors and b) the technological advances of Google Translate (my pocket BFF) and online shopping (<ajouter au panier>). We have also used our boys a lot to help with translation.

No one can write more winningly than Mr. Mayle on the subject of what it’s like to become new owners of a old farmhouse in France.  I don’t think he covered the need to burn dangerous caterpillar nests in the spring or how not to lock yourself out of your own house. Our experience hasn’t been near as colourful or challenged, but there have been a few notable highlights and wins over the past six months:

  • A holiday house needs a house alarm.   What a holiday house owner doesn’t need is a middle of the night call every 48 hours for the first three weeks because the alarm keeps going off.  And then a follow up call 90 minutes to confirm - after sending security - that yes, it was indeed another false alarm.  We may not have a pet but as owners of a holiday farmhouse, mice and spiders are like your pets and alarm systems *must* be calibrated with them in mind. 

  • We have a working, very sophisticated furnace after finally understanding, three service calls with Michel later, the only 5 buttons of the 850 settings we should be touching. In what can only be related news, we’ve had three 1,000 litre deliveries of oil to our oil tank. This could be normal if we had been living in the house full time but since we don’t, a) someone siphoned our oil or b) we misunderstood Michel’s “holiday mode” instruction. There’s some evidence pointing towards b). 

  • We have water but no water contract.  This after seven calls and currying favours with every French native speaker I know kind enough to call on my behalf.  The company is “upgrading to a new system” but I am not to worry because we are in the queue!

  • We *believe* we have completed our file with the dozen plus documents and local stamps to register our car in France, which feels as certain as how many digits are there after the decimal point in pi.

  • We have troubleshooted our own electrical problem over a holiday weekend.   If you can’t get an electrician to come out to troubleshoot a blown circuit that happens to run your furnace and all kitchen appliances, try unplugging the lame toaster you had your doubts about from the very beginning.  Who in France even uses a toaster?  Case closed!

  • We have already had our first septic tank dig.  Nothing says “welcome to the countryside”  like shit coming up your shower drain 12 hours before departure.  The fix was in last week … phew, phew, phew.

Far outweighing the hassles and headaches, the joys have been pouring in.  We have been able to spend Christmas, a week in February, and the April school break at Le Couloume.  It was our hope that Le Couloume, though remote in terms of geography, might be not just a personal pitstop for refreshment (and lots of cycling) but also a place of connection making.  A few stories of how that is already happening:

  • The trickiest part of having a house in another country is finding reliable people you can trust to take care of it.  We have that with the person who mows the grass, signs for delayed deliveries, fixes odds and ends as well as the amazing cleaning lady we found through a referral.  They along with the fantastic stone mason who rebuilt the house for the previous owner and is now building us a terrace garden table and benches give us confidence in our absence. The table is going in this week …

  • The first people to use our house were a young couple from the USA.  He is serving in the military, spending extended time apart from his young family, and he and his wife were able to use our house for a long overdue vacation.  It also just so happens that he is the son of the first people to ever have hosted me in Europe when I was 19 years old.  A full circle gift 30 years in the making.

  • The next person to use our house is a college friend who has a spiritual coaching small business.  She is just starting up a year long coaching program but had been looking for a place to use as a kick-off spiritual retreat … and next month she’ll be doing that at Le Couloume.

  • Another college friend, moved by our desire to share our house with others, sent an email not asking to use the house but asking if she might gift us a logo.  She recently finished a second degree in Advertising and Graphic design, and gave herself the project of designing two logos for Le Couloume … just because.  It was her way of vicariously participating and paying it forward.  We picked the beautiful one with the sunflower above.

  • Over Christmas, we were invited by a Seattle colleague of my father-in-law to come round to his French’s girlfriend’s family’s home in a nearby village.  Nothing says “welcome” like being invited to a huge extended French family gathering over a holiday and leaving with the 92 year French patriarch’s business card urging us to stay in touch so we an get together again this summer.

  •  Our realtor Karen Pegg who owns Bliss is also a writer who just published her first book of a three part series.  So after reading Peter Mayle’s book, I had the pleasure of reading another memoir set in France but this time written by someone I know!  A Stranger in Paris is a great read that I would highly recommend.  Karen also hosts these writing retreats in France called A Chapter Away.  Who knows how Le Couloume might be able to support her writing retreats?

  • On our most recent visit, I met another American women in the small village of Lectoure.  Upon hearing that I was originally from Seattle, she mentioned another Seattleite who owned a well-known Seattle restaurant had also recently moved to the area to start a cooking school called l'Abattoir.   Susan and I have already connected over email and plan to meet next time I’m in town.  Who knows how Le Couloume might be able to support her cooking school?  

When you believe that everything you have is a gift, it is easier to keep those gifts in circulation.  The hassles of an old farmhouse in France make for good storytelling, but since that’s a story that’s already been told and told better, I’ll keep my ear to the ground for other stories of connection like these.  La vie est belle.

Video Ready ...

I know there’s an easier way to do it — in the same way I know I can speak my texts — but it’s hard to teach an old Blackberry user new iPhone tricks.    And so when I want to free up storage space on my iPhone, out comes my laptop and cables.  Excuse me, my MacBook Pro.

I’m making room on my phone this morning in anticipation of taking some videos later this week. My youngest son has a role in his all school play.  There will be 3 performances this week and so 3 opportunities for me to take poor quality, zoomed out, shaky hand iPhone videos that only a grandparent can love.  I’m sure I’ll give you the chance to like them on social media too.  Best of luck finding him.

As I was clearing off some videos on my phone, I couldn’t help but notice how bad so many of them were.  The videos where you start recording 20-30 seconds too early and still nothing very interesting happens.  The videos where you start recording too late and miss the goal or save.   The ones where your subject is altogether not happy about you videoing.  The ones where a random head enters your frame and obstructs your view.  The ones where you try to capture a moment that has passed and it’s so..not..looking..natural. 

Sometimes we do get the timing right and we are able to capture a moment.  It’s rare when it happens but the authenticity of the moment makes those videos instantly shareable.  This video of my son serenading me with this of-the-cuff beat box six years ago was on of those moments.

It got me thinking however that we don’t have to wait for the iPhone to be turned on at just the right moment.   We are the official storytellers of our lives.   We are the only ones with the full length footage and we are the only ones with exclusive editing rights on how we share our experiences.  There are some bad experiences but most of our experiences have a shareable moment and it’s our job to mine it.  Not just for the world, or our friends, but mostly for ourselves.  We get to decide where the close ups will be and where to fade out.   Your best stuff probably won’t have the Eiffel Tower in the background or you in a duet with Bradley Cooper. But it will have some gold.

It’s an awesome creative task to decide what bits to leave in and what bits to cut out.  We can replay all the borings bits, or the missed opportunities, or the obstacles in the viewfinder, or the conflicts, or chose to tell the put ons rather than the naked truth.  Any story finds an audience but the ones that have an impact, the ones worth sharing, are the ones where something authentic was able to shine through.  

You don’t need a laptop or cable to make room in your heart,  but you may need to siphon off some garbage saved in anticipation of moments ahead you won’t want to miss.  And good news is you’ve got a front row seat.