Le Couloume

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 !”

Six Months in Le Couloume

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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.

What I've Been Up to Lately (in the South of France)

Last year I followed my heart to Spain to check out a piece of property. Though I wanted the house more than the 47 years I’ve wished for silky hair, I couldn’t deny the not so small whisper after the visit saying “not here, not now.”

As is often the case with decisions led by intuition, there was no residual regret.  Not the next time I went out for tapas, or it rained sideways in London, or even when I heard the house sold a couple of weeks later.  In fact, it took no concerted effort to prune web surfing of holiday homes from my regular online activity.

In the time since, a couple of notable things happened.  That first summer after the Spain expedition we sold our house in Seattle.  Goodbye mortgage! Then this summer, Brett’s work contract in London got extended by two years. Cheers to July 2020!

With no owned property (we rent in London) and the prospect of being in Europe for another couple of years, the door to the possibility of a holiday house nudged open again. It didn’t take the shape of an active pursuit. More like a thought bubble that lingered long enough for Brett and I to have a general conversation about it.

One day this past May I was casually browsing a property website when I stumbled on a listing for a “Magnificent Stone Farmhouse.” The photos and prose literally shimmered from the screen.

The description began like this:

Our first glimpse of the property is from the top of a long private driveway, down a leafy country lane, far from neighbouring properties.  
 
The alleyway to the property is so long, there is just a hint of house, barn and rooftop; a promise of tranquility and countryside bliss against the backdrop of a stunning view.  
 
The old stone farmhouse has privileged views over the valley in what is the heart of Gascony’s most beautiful countryside, in an area renowned for its undulating fields of sunflower and corn so reminiscent of the Tuscan countryside.  
 
Here we are close to the popular market towns of Condom and Lectoure, with Toulouse international airport and regular flights to the Uk and Europe just over an hour away.

The views are uninterrupted by telegraph poles, or other modern blights to the landscape, enhancing our sense of rural beauty and that feeling of stepping back in time.  
 
The estate comprises the main farm house, and a non-adjacent barn, with another small outbuilding in stone.  
 
The acquisition of additional plots of land around the property by the current owner has ensured that the private park (5 hectares) is pesticide free, creating a protective barrier around the house.  
 
From a distance nothing appears to have changed since its construction in 1700. Only an internal inspection can reveal the extent of the work that has been carried out to ensure every modern comfort, from: solar heating, underfloor heating, thick insulation, a new roof, a perfectly functioning state of the art boiler, etc.

The house was reminiscent of the Hilltop Farmhouse, one of the first houses we rented in France and one of the few places we’ve returned to. The house was also in a part of France we had spent enough time in to know we liked it.

I sent the link to Brett at work with the subject line: “A better version of the Hilltop Farmhouse.” My only added comments were: “Wow. Check out the video too.” No exclamation point. No typical female flourish. This was the first photo.

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In our relationship, I am the excitable one.  My husband is the measured one.  So when he called - not emailed - 10 minutes after I sent the link, I naturally assumed it was for another reason.  When I picked up the phone, his first words were: “You HAVE to go see this!!!” 

With my husband’s exclamation point endorsement, I sent a blind email query to the realtor marketing the property.  I was fortunate the realtor I reached out to (turns out there were 3 realtors working on the property) was a British woman who had been living in France for the last 20 years.  Without any language barrier, I was able to get a lot of our questions answered over email.  I soon learned she is also a published writer which explained why I connected to her description of the house as much as I did the photos.

We arranged for me to visit “Le Couloume” (it has it’s own name!) two weeks later.  That was in early June. My son Quinn, who had accompanied me on the Spain expedition, happened to be back in London for the summer and agreed to go with me.

It seemed highly probable I was going to like the house.  The looming question not easily answerable by a visit was still whether a house so far from the USA made any long term sense for us.  Quinn was highly doubtful, rewinding many of the same conversations we had already had in Spain.

This time my on-site visit felt very different.  It was rainy and ugly outside so the views were obstructed.  The house was amazing.  Better than the photos. But it wasn’t just the wood beams and stone walls that drew me in, it was a feeling I had being at the property.  The “yes now” whisper.  I felt it in my bones.  Like Le Couloume was somehow meant to fit into our story.  The more striking thing was Quinn felt it too.

After a couple of hours at the house, connecting with both Karen the realtor/writer and Annie the French/American owner whose background as an interior designer and chef shown through the meticulous renovation, we all seemed to have a sense that this turn of the page might be the start of a new chapter.  The reality however was that someone else had seen the house the day before with another realtor and an offer was very likely the next morning. 

We talked to Brett by phone that night.  Quinn sent him videos he painstakingly took of every room.  I told him about the whisper.  Karen laid out the facts.  Highly unusual for a holiday house in a rural part of France, she said that if we wanted this house we had to make an offer the next morning. We decided to sleep on it.

In our relationship, neither of us are risk takers.  Buying a house in a country you don’t live in would certainly qualify as a risk.  But after 26 years of marriage, my husband has learned to listen through my excitability knowing that sometimes I’m on to something before he has done his due diligence.  He was willing - even with a big price tag attached - to forgo his normal approach to big decisions and trust me.

So when he called the next morning, I was not entirely surprised when he said: “Let’s do it.” We made an offer that morning. It was the first offer.  It was accepted.  Brett saw the house the following week (after we had committed to it) and came away with all the feelings.

“Yes nows” may come with nudges that get amplified and then confirmed by another person but they are not immune to roadblocks.  In fact “now” is a complete misnomer for the protracted and herculean process that is buying a holiday house as a non-resident foreigner.  Friends: whatever Google tells you, if you are getting a loan in a country that is not your own and in a country that takes the month of August off, it’s harder and way more paperwork than that. 

There have been roadblocks, headaches and sleepless nights but every gut check has come back with the same refrain.  For both of us.  There have been other things that have amazingly fallen into place.  Like finding the right bank contact through my running group friend Meredith.  Or finding the perfect car from my friend Jannine who recently moved from Luxembourg to London and was looking to sell theirs. Or having our families get behind us without hesitation. 

We are on the home stretch now.  We finalised the sale and I am here in France today, October 5, to pick up the keys to Le Couloume. (Brett would have been here too except he is heading to Switzerland to run a full marathon this weekend.  He hasn’t run one for over 12 years and he’s been training months for it.  Timing isn’t always perfect.) If I’m honest, anxiety had its way with me in the last 48 hours due to some important details that only finalised at the 11th hour.  It took Brett and prayer to crawl out of the hole and remember again.

The bottom line of this whole process is that we don’t consider this simply buying a holiday house.  It feels like we are making an investment in a project.  

This project isn’t about restoring an old farmhouse in France.  That was Annie’s story.  We get to pick up the story after that.  Our project is about finding a way to share a lovingly restored farmhouse in France with people who never thought about France as an option.  It’s about paying forward the gift that travel has been to our family.  And it’s about passing on our favourite kind of travel — a destination that won’t make the Top 10 Travel List or most popular Instagram feeds. 

The house is out in the country in a region called Gascony sandwiched between Bordeaux (2 hours north) and Toulouse (1.5 hours south.)  There is a high speed train from Paris to Agen that takes just over 3 hours and the house is then a 45 minute drive from there.  It’s far enough South that the Pyrenees are only 100 kms away, San Sebastian a 3 hour drive and Barcelona 5 hours.  You won’t find many user reviews of Gascony but you are sure to find rest and inspiration. 

In a 2017 New York Times article “Is Gascony the Most Delicious Corner of France?”, the writer describes the region: “Gascony is not merely distinct from Provence and the Côte d’Azur. It is, in my estimation, better. Gascony is more open, more soulful, more deeply French, and, in its un-self-conscious devotion to tradition, more pleasurably frozen in time.”

The project will only be a success if it’s used.  We will go as much as we can while we are still living in London.  But there will be a lot of dates in the calendar to fill.  We don’t have any plans to rent it out.

We simply want to give back in some small way the unmerited generosity we’ve received.  So ATTENTION writers, teachers, retirees, families, artists, people on sabbatical, digital nomads.  This is not an invitation to the world wide web.  This is an invitation to people who know us.  Come and use it.  Please.

It’s a place that has lots of room.  It sits on 12 acres and has 5 bedrooms with 5 in suite bathrooms making it ideal for large families or groups.  The kitchen is the hub of the house.  It has a pool.  The cycling in the area is amazing.

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What is doesn’t have just yet is furniture (it’s being sold unfurnished) so there’s a lot for us to do before people show up.  That will be my project.  Beds and a ping pong table are high on the priority list.  I hope my gut and willingness to learn French is up to the next task.

Nothing gets us more excited than imagining the creativity and connection that a place like Le Couloume might make room for.  What words might be written, art that might be created, relationships that might be nourished.

We have no idea how this project will play out but there is one thing we are confident of: this is a place we whole-heartedly want to share. 

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