Guest Post by Lawton Ballbach

Today’s post is from a guest blogger, my 12 year old son Lawton Ballbach. This weekend Lawton started writing a story for fun. He’s only written the first chapter so far, but I’m hooked! I love that he set the story in Mauritania and Morocco (and apparently Cornwall will be a third location in later chapters.) Happy reading!

Chavis Abara

Chapter 1

The day moved on slowly and so did Chavis.  The humid air attacked his lungs, making him wheeze out short subtle breaths.  His grubby pack jabbed into his weak shoulders.  Again Chavis’s mind drifted into the clouds.  It has been four years now, but Chavis was still not over it.  The flashbacks were harsh, they struck him like lightning.  Then there was her.  A tear rolled down Chavis’s face.  He soon pulled himself back together, he had to stay strong.  

Suddenly a voice echoed into Chavis’s ear.  He spun around rapidly and there in front of his was Kwame.  “Qu’est ce que tu veux?” Chavis’s voice was hoarse and croaky.  “Comment osez-vous partir.”  Kwame’s face burned with rage.  Kwame was a very vile man.  His grim teeth sprouted out of his mouth like mouldy plants.  His colourless eyes drooped downwards and his ruffled hair crawled with insects and maggots.  Kwame gripped Chavis’s limp arm tightly.  Chavis considered running but he knew better than to disobey Kwame.  So Chavis reluctantly followed.  He knew he didn’t have much left, so all he could so now was think, think until a glorious idea sprang into his mind.

It was a warm day in Rabat.  The blazing sun glistened onto the ‘Voyager,’ bobbing calmly against the Moroccan waves.  However, the inside of the Voyager was a very different story.  Jelani felt like he had millions of butterflies fluttering in his stomach.  Bryson Kenning had always make him very nervous, but never like this.

For a man in his early fifties, Kenning was very strong and very ruthless.   All of Kenning’s guards, including Jelani were standing in a perfectly straight line.  Each of them had AK-47s slung over their shoulders.  Thud!  Thud! Kenning had arrived.  His thunderous footsteps echoed throughout the Voyager.  Yelling, then a gunshot.  Jelani felt the pang vibrate through his quivering body.  Finally, Kenning entered, his eyes were gleaming with hunger and violence.  

“I presume you have what I have been asking for,” barked Kenning.  “Well, you see I …” Jelani stammered.  “Well you know what I do to people who don’t give me what I want” rasped Kenning.  And before Jelani knew it Kenning was aiming his gun straight at Jelani’s forehead.  “I know someone who can sort you out,”  sniggered Kenning.  Then everything went black.

50 years

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Today is my parents 50th wedding anniversary. I was able to fly home to Seattle to surprise them for their anniversary dinner. This was the toast I gave them. The other toasts that followed and my Dad’s in particular were so much better — which only makes me so much prouder to be their daughter.

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They say the path along the equator is roughly 25,000 miles. Assuming you were able to walk at a pace of 3 miles per hour for 8 hours a day it would take about 3 years to walk around the world. Ok so that’s the theory.

In 1970 (the year I was born) a guy from Minnesota named Dave Kunst set out to do just that and he became the first person verified to walk around the globe. It took him 4 years. Now that’s a college education for you.

Dave was no doubt a stud so let’s round up for the average human and call it 5 years. That means looking at your 50 years together, had you wanted to, you could have circled the globe 10 times.

Just imagine -   10 different times walking through Quito, Nariobi, Kuala Lumpur, Miami (with a little detour off the equator.) That’s how long 50 years is.

BUT Instead of circling the globe together, you have done something far more impressive over these past 50 years.  You’ve walked the path of kissing and making up thousands and thousands of time.

You have made a loving promise to stay together through times of closeness and through times of distance and you have kept it.  You have been our witness to what a committed, thriving, authentic, peace making marriage could look like.  All three of your children are trying to follow your lead. I’m half way there.

This promise to live out our days in relationship with another person is not easy.  We all know that. But we also know what it is to experience the mystery when we allow our hearts to be wedded together ... when we are still fully ourselves but also now part of a “we” ... this wholly other personality and adventure road map to discover.  This part of you that becomes more alive in the we.

You don’t take a girl from New Jersey and a boy from Kansas - who barely knew each other - without expectation that “we” will be in for an exciting ride.

The very last words Jesus spoke - his last and final promise - was this: “I am with you always.”  To be accompanied therefore is something he thought was kind of important.  That of all the parting words he could have said - work hard or chase your dreams or remember to take the trash out - he talked about company for the journey.

And while none of us could pull off something as audacious as permanently accompanying someone —- it makes me think that marriage is our closest, albeit imperfect, proxy.

The destinations and the milestones are special - and Mom and Dad you’ve had many - but it’s the fact that you had someone there with you the whole time that is the greatest gift.  And that gift doesn’t end even when your passports expire or your longest walk of the day is to the mailbox.

It’s the gift you can keep on giving each other for years to come.

So here’s to 50 years of David and Jessica and the beautiful “we” your marriage has created. We love you.

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Amazon Wonder Women

A couple of weeks ago I was having lunch with a group of Amazon women. We are not large women. We are five women who do battle with Alexa and prime membership in multiple countries - and pretty much everything else - so our husbands can do their jobs with Amazon here in London.

While none of us knew each other in Seattle, the Seattle spider web of connections is strong and we had all been daisy chained over email and social media by various mutual friends. Three of the women are new to London this fall (the “Amazon Freshmen”), I am in my second year and Megan is in her third year AND third house in London … the original Wonder Woman wielding her way through the logistics of a providing a soft landing for her family in a foreign country.

Collectively our group is responsible for more than a dozen children. However, for the most part, none of us has met each other’s children. The reason is mostly practical. We live in five different neighbourhoods and have kids at four different schools but we talk a lot about parenting over our monthly lunches. I could tell you an Awesome Mom story about each one of them. Now that we’ve added monthly cocktails to our calendars, we’ve started to touch on Awesome Wife stories too.

We have kids roughly the same age although with my 21 year old outlier, I’ve been in the teen trenches a little longer. You’d think then I would have a few “teen parenting wins” to offer when the question came up at lunch but … no. I needed a think about.

Teen parenting wins are not as easy as sending in a mouthful of broccoli to a toddler pretending it’s an airplane. Although it makes me wonder if this tip from podcaster and writer Hillary Frank, “to wipe an ornery kid’s nose, put a sock on your hand and pretend it’s a puppet trying to give her kisses,” might have application in getting my pre-teen to remember to apply deodorant. “Ewww… even this puppet smells you….”

Anyway. I decided the best answer to the question might come from going directly to my teen source. So I casually asked my 15 year old a few days later: “So hey, I was just wondering … ummm….like….what are the things that Dad and I do well in parenting you as a teenager?” Then he did that thing where he vanished from the room. An in-the-flesh ghosting.

So not casual, Kate. I was resigned to coming up with an answer on my own when a solid ten minutes later we crossed paths again in another room. With a half smile and a full look in my eyes he said: “You let me follow my passions and you don’t let me quit.”

Ahh. Yes! I thought maybe that was a win too but it’s not always easy seeing it from the trenches. And this was a trench we’d only been out of for a short time. I wanted to ask a follow up question but I held back and let the win stand on it’s own.

I’ll tell you the details of that story another time. For now, be reminded that we as Moms of Teens continue to do great things even if they are harder to name … and sharing our stories helps to keep all our lamps burning. Thank you Megan Ainsworth MarineAnn Kerby SharmaCynthia Johnson, and Kim Stone for “adding to my cart” during this season of our shared London adventure. Xo

Le Marche: The John Doe Region in Italy you should put on your Travel List

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I’m staring at my cookbook Jamie Cooks ITALY and it has me remembering I spent two weeks in Italy last summer (July 2018) that I haven’t written about yet.  If it had been a trip to Rome, it’s unlikely I would have anything interesting to add but since this trip was to a region of Italy you’ve probably never heard of - it  seemed worthy of some virtual ink … even if the details have become fuzzy with time and our folder for Le Marche is mostly a wasteland of restaurant receipts.

You know it’s a place less traveled when AFTER spending two weeks there you still say “Le Marche” with hesitation because not everyone has gotten the memo on the proper way to pronounce it.  This region on Italy’s eastern coast, bracketed by Florence in the north and Rome in the south west or mid calf of the “boot,” I have heard pronounced both “MAR-kay” and “LE MARK.”  I’m still confused.

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It’s a region that desperately needs some marketing but here’s my advice: if relaxation is your goal, go here in the height of summer when Tuscany and Venice and the Cinque Terre are getting trampled by people that look like you.  You’ve come all this way for the real Italy after all.  Overcrowding doesn’t look good on any city, especially ones which make garlic sweat a public hazard.

I read somewhere Le Marche described as “Italy in miniature.”  It has it all: coast, mountains, walled cities, great food, wine you can’t say no to, but not one single thing to make it famous.  The city you fly into is Ancona.  I know, I’d never heard of it either! This does means Ryanair or easyJet for direct flights from London and I’m sorry for that or you can connect in Germany or Switzerland via Lufthansa or Swiss. Or, rent a car in Rome and drive.  There are worse things than driving in Italy - I just can’t think of them at the moment.

But remember the upside:  places that are harder to get to are harder to get to for everyone and so if you are willing to persevere, you will be rewarded.  For example, watching a World Cup game in a local bar with passionate French & Croatian supporters because the villa we stayed in didn’t feel the need to have satellite TV (and we agreed.) Or walking down to a nearby family run winery for a scheduled wine-tasting which turned out to be a full meal with wine because in Italy, food always comes first.

One of the region’s most popular grapes is called pecorino, which is tough when you have to share your reputation with the name of much more famous cheese. Pecorino wine - described as “red wine dressed in white” - is so treasured that it is usually consumed all within Le Marche. We did our part.

I’ve written a post with tips for renting a villa in Europe with rental websites I have used in France, Italy and Spain.  That list has expanded with a fourth rental website I used for our trip to Mauritius. For our two weeks in Le Marche, I was on the hunt for similar lodging. The search took a little longer.

I finally stumbled on a website called Italian Idyll run by David and Fiona Sheppard. The English couple specialise in villa rentals in the lesser known regions of Italy, including Le Marche. The website is not slick and impressive, it’s actually quite old school, but Fiona is attentive and knows a lot about the region. In truth, the unflashy website and one-to-one interaction reflects the ethos of the region.

The first house we rented was this secluded, stylish farmhouse set in national mountain park near the town of Amandola and a 90 minute drive from the Ancona airport.  You can rightly infer from the photos that we absolutely loved our stay at Casa Coletta. The house is stunning and the pool setting and kitchen/outdoor seating area were our favourite parts. The owners are clearly cooks as the kitchen was well stocked with all the right equipment and a great collection of cookbooks.  Plus a huge basket of produce waiting for us!

So with the exception of two nights at Restaurant Bella Napoli (no website because why would they need one?) in Amandola (a charming hill town of about 4,000 residents), we ate in and ate well and made very few decisions about anything. The big boys climbed the Sibillini mountains on their road bikes during the day while Lawton and I - and the local lizards - had the pool and ping pong table to ourselves. On a few cycling rest days, we had some awesome hikes.

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The second week, joined by Brett’s parents, we traveled 30 kilometers west into the province of Ascoli Piceno near the town of Montalto.  The second house we stayed in is no longer available for rental as it was recently sold. In truth, it was one of our few rental disappointments as the shine and attention to details faded with the pending ownership change (which neither we nor Fiona knew about.) However, the hilltop setting with wide vistas and nearby walkable towns was beautiful and the change of location gave entirely different landscape for the boys to cycle.

It also led to a week of dining out experiences. Our most memorable was a multi-course meal at Ristorante Piceni. (Confession: we actually went twice.) The restaurant, which is also a bed and breakfast, has a fabulous outdoor terrace with a view not even the most restrained guests can help but pull out their phone to take a photo. We grabbed this one right before talking to the people on our right. As "Italy in miniature” would have it, they were the only Americans we saw the entire trip AND they happened to live in Sun Valley, Idaho where my inlaws also live. The once snow birds now turned full-time retirees have since gotten together in Sun Valley.

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The light summer footprint in Le Marche means we were able to get bookings in all the restaurants we wanted to try, from a members-only restaurant (where anyone can become a member!) on an organic farm called La Biblioteca to an outdoor table at Osteria Cantina in the main square of Offida. It also means that there isn’t always a back up around the corner in these small towns when a reservation goes bust.  That happened once when we thought we had booked a table for Tuesday night, only to turn up on the confirmed Tuesday night to find the restaurant closed and our next best option 15 hangry kilometres away. 

Pizzeria Mamma Rosa, an award winning pizzeria in the middle of nowhere, cured the hangries. (Confession: we went twice here too.)

In both locations, we were less than an hour from the coast. We are terrible beach people and so we never bothered to go until our last day when we stayed along the coast for one night at the very nice Hotel Emilia. The hotel is perched high in a natural setting with views down to Portonovo Bay with a huge pool and a great lawn.

Unlike where we had been, the footprint is heavy along the coast (as you would expect in July) but mostly with Italians. We found out when we couldn’t park in Portonovo for lunch or dinner without having pre-booked parking months before … or eat without having booked reservations weeks before … but where there is a will and a smile, there’s always a way in Italy. The fish was lip smacking good. Inland was just much more our way in terms of travel … but I’m sure someone else can make a strong coastal case for adding Le Marche to your bucket list.

New Year's Resolutions

In this season of New Year’s resolutions, we set out to grow by lunging towards a goal.  Forward progress or drying out bad habits is the focal point.   We bury the past, stay mindful enough of the present but soldier on towards a new and improved future.  It’s a well worn path navigated best by the self disciplined.  At 30 days in, with energy waning, a few can double down but most of us redraw goal lines or give up.


We are primed to live with expectation but we also need a rich remembrance of our history.  While it’s not healthy to dwell on the past, most of us don’t spend enough quality time excavating it for treasure.  All of our histories are dotted with a mixture of the mundane, milestone events, and meteors of various sizes.  Your pile of rubble may be bigger than my pile of rubble but I suspect neither of us has fully mined it for what else was left there to teach us.  


We have experience with that good thing that welled up unexpectedly in a place of pain or mess or disappointment - that mysterious sense of peace or joy - that strengthened us for the road ahead.  But what about the good thing forgotten?  The good thing never identified?  I wonder when we run dry after 30 days if we looked into the well of our own life experience, we would find hidden pockets of grace - rich with fuel - to keep us living into the future with sustained energy.  


It’s a small example but someone asked me recently what ever happened to that screenplay I wrote 7 years ago.  “Nothing” was the answer.  While over the years of reflection I’ve collected some good things that came out of that investment of time and energy, it still largely looms as a failure.   This time however I heard it as a nudge - not to try to resurrect the project - but to revisit that season of my life and ask what gifts did I miss that would be of valuable service towards my purpose today - here in 2019.  


I’m certain there are more jewels to dig up from all my years but especially 1984 (the year my parents moved me across the country at the start of 9th grade as a late bloomer with braces), 1997 (the year I got pregnant when I didn’t want to get pregnant,) 2010 (my worst year of parenting) or 2013 (my first year in the idyllic but not always easy country of Luxembourg.)  Perhaps there is something my 2019 self would be empowered by in the remembering.


I don’t buy the idea that “everything we need is already there” because I think we need plans and to do lists and people to help us and keep us accountable.  But I also think we try to muscle through on our latest gas up without remembering all the reserves we haven’t fully tapped into yet.  Connecting the dots of your own life reveals all sorts of patterns you couldn’t have seen otherwise.  


The dots aren’t going to map it all out.  And there will still be loads of crazy outliers because we all roll with some non sequiturs.  But also don’t be surprised if you make out the faint outline of a crown amidst the pattern. The Psalmist boldly says: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?  Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”  That’s one of those promises if you are willing to believe that’s bigger and better than our best and boldest New Year’s resolution.


So breathe deep and know that if 2019 turns out to be your best year or a bust, you can count on there being lots of dots to connect down the road.  And psst, remember your crown.

l'œuf, Le Bab and other delights

The first time he said it I thought it was a passing comment, the sort of thing young boys sometimes say to satisfy a mother’s never ending need to be appreciated.  The second time he said it, I paused to register the genuineness of the idea until Mother Practicality piped up to gently enumerate all the reasons it wasn’t possible.

At twelve, a child knows all our Mother voices, and can discern the ones that are weighted down with an overprotectiveness of the downside. And so before I could finish, he interrupted:

“But Mom, wouldn’t it be fun to open a restaurant together?  You’d be the chef and I’d be the one who talks to the customers.  And did you hear me?  It’s only a brunch place.  Maybe even a food stall.  So we don’t have to work nights.”

If “a great leader has a presence that make other people bigger” and “if we have the possibility to always be growing” then his question was my cue to act like a Great Mom by allowing the idea to percolate.  He wasn’t asking me to make a cash investment on the spot, he was simply asking me to dream a dream with him.  Not just any dream but a dream where Mom has a starring role!

“Yes, it would be fun!” I answered with feeling.  “Good,” he said with possibility, “because I already know what my signature dish is going to be.”  

Over Christmas break my partner worked on his signature dish: toasted sourdough toast with eggs fried to your liking in a cast iron skillet, grilled pancetta (or halloumi cheese) infused with fennel seeds, topped with smashed avocado and arugula.  He made some variation of it most mornings for his brothers, enough days in a row to experience the fatigue of satisfying hungry customers every 24 hours, some with very precise ideas of over easy, medium, and hard.

No doubt inspired by his signature dish and our visit to France, my partner ruminated that the name of our restaurant should be: l'œuf.  A nod to both the French word for egg and his first initial.  And from a design aesthetic, the name should be all lower case and the “oe” mashed together as it is in French.

After New Years, we had a fun lunch at a restaurant back in London called Le Bab.  (The “Le” bit being a total coincidence.) Le Bab is a modern twist on the kebab - I imagine what happened to the humble hamburger years ago — and the food is delicious.  Better yet was the long conversation we had with one of the charming owners, made possible because we were their last lunch table of the day.  The owner treated us to a free sample of their signature dish which we failed to order (the Paneer Kebab with beetroot chutney, crispy onion, picked celery and curry mayo - amazebabs!) and many stories of the restaurant’s beginnings and ongoing expansion.  He’s dreaming about starting one in Los Angeles … though it’s a long shot …

Recognising a kindred spirt, Lawton shared his plans for l'œuf.  With flourish.  His animated description, along with his seriously battered and beet-rooted up napkin, were maybe not evidence of a fully baked business plan but they certainly communicated a passion for food.  As a practical, though woken up, Mother would hope, the owner - without any dumbing down for him being pint sized - offered some advice and wished him luck. 

Post Le Bab, Lawton got working on fresh juice menu ideas.  It’s likely that plans may stall now that we are back to school, but I will continue doing my part to develop dishes that one day might be worthy of l'œuf. 

Some days are over easy, others are medium and some are hard but isn’t batting around a dream — with someone you love — a sure recipe for delight.

Thanksgiving and Eugene Peterson

It’s unusual to have deep affection for someone you’ve never met but we all have people whose writing has made us feel like kin. Eugene Peterson, the beloved theologian and author, who died last month at the age of 85 was one those people for me. So it seems fitting this Thanksgiving (since I won't be sitting around a turkey dinner tonight here in London which is also known as a normal Thursday) to express my gratitude for the gift Eugene’s words have been to me.

Last month, the day before leaving London for France, I went in search of one of Eugene’s books. I wanted to leave a second copy of The Message (Eugene’s translation of The Bible into contemporary language) at our new house in France. Too last minute for an Amazon order, I checked several local bookstores - none of which had a copy in stock. I aborted the search by early afternoon when I had to be in Regents Hall on Oxford Street for a school event. As it turns out, Regents Hall is an event venue AND the home of London’s Salvation Army Centre. And as providence would have it, there in the lobby was a small Salvation Army bookstore with exactly one copy of The Message left. My France bookshelves are mostly bare but Eugene is there. From Oxford Street to rural France.

It was only a few days later that I read in the news that Eugene was under hospice care. It was as if something in me knew that I would want his company in his last days.

I have learned a lot through Eugene’s writing but his most profound impact came from an interview I heard him do more than a year ago. In the interview he talked about his practice of reading the Psalms (the prayers and poems of the Bible). He described his attraction to the Psalms in this way: “Poets tell us what our eyes, blurred with too much gawking, and our ears, dulled with too much chatter, miss around and within us. Poetry grabs us by the jugular. Far from being cosmetic language, it is intestinal.”

Eugene had picked seven Psalms he described as “covering the waterfront” of what it means to be human in a spiritual world and committed himself to them - over his entire adult life. His practice wasn’t about figuring them out but rather “entering in” and allowing them to work on him. Over and over again. He spoke about his practice in what I can only describe as being a “small voice” - shy, humble, awestruck. There was no specific formula, no right way of doing it, only a commitment to listen ... and keep listening.

Stirred by his small voice in a time where loud voices dominant, I decided to give the practice a try. Since Eugene was far from prescriptive on which Psalm to use, I landed on Psalm 119. I picked it for the simple reason that it is the longest Psalm. I reasoned that it would both cover a lot of ground and do double duty in expanding my ever diminishing attention span. When my mind was regularly drifting during the solid 15 minutes to read the whole bit out loud (think of all the things you could accomplish in 15 minutes!), I thought I might have made a rookie mistake. That first month was mostly about staying awake. But somehow, I stayed with it.

I heard that same interview with Eugene rebroadcast this past September and when I went back through my journal, I couldn’t believe how much Psalm 119 has showed up. I’ve “entered into” Psalm 119 hundreds of times now. I read it, sometimes with attention and sometimes with lots of doubt. I listen to it as I walk or have it on in the background when I’m getting dressed or cleaning the house. When I’m feeling blah, I reach for it before I reach for anything else. And I really love coffee, chocolate and wine. It’s like Psalm 119 has become my secret best friend who always says what I need to hear even when I don’t know the question I’m asking.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that by allowing my mind to stretch over and over these words that have been spoken for generations, my heart now instinctually responds differently to things. The circumstances are the same but the way I relate to my own thoughts has changed. I know it sounds completely goofy but the words of Psalm 119 have become my new mantras. Now when I see something beautiful, my inner voice often responds with: “You are good and what you do is good.” Or when I’m feeling small and insignificant, my inner voice counters with: “Your hands made me and formed me.” Or when I’m dealing with a rude person, I hear: “Let your compassion come to me the I may live.” Or when I’m heading down a rabbit hole of wasted time and energy, I think “Turn my eyes away from worthless things.” Or when I think the world is a mess (I double down on that thought for another beat) but then the whisper always comes: “The earth is filled with your love.” And on and on ... because I still have a lot more listening left to do.

In the same way it’s unusual to have affection for someone you’ve never met, it’s also unusual to share a personal practice with a public audience. But it’s not every day you meet your secret best friend through the small voice of an 85 year old man on a podcast. Thank you Eugene for pointing me not to yourself, or to a program, but to deep truth and wisdom which you knew would do its gentle rehabilitation work if I allowed my imagination and heart to simply enter in.


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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All In

“All In” may have long ago crossed over from a general expression to an overused one but it’s the only way I can explain this spreadsheet.

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This is my 15 year old’s spreadsheet. It is NOT for anything to do with school. It has to do with football. It’s a 4 page spreadsheet with all the teams in the top 4 English football leagues (with annotations to the left of teams promoted and relegated) and games he has attended in the 2017/2018 season in green and games he has attended in the 2018/2019 season in blue with tick marks for teams he has seen home or away.

The boy does not have other tracking spreadsheets related to schoolwork. I know this because I not so subtly asked.

He’s seen 22 teams play in 8 different stadiums. He checks games he wants to see with our shared family Google calendar and then buys all his tickets online in advance (for usually a student discounted price of £2), adding them to the calendar. He then finds his way there and back on public transportation. Sometimes he goes with a friend or his brother but a lot of time he goes on his own. It’s one of his London hobbies. He has 4 more stadiums to hit in the London area.

When our friend Nate Frank was recently in town, he appreciated the spreadsheet at first glance. (It took a lot of patient explaining for me to simply understand the names of the 4 divisions.) Nate told Colin he had to read Nick Hornby’s memoir “Fever Pitch” about the author’s similar childhood obsession with football. We bought the book the next day. One however can’t be fully committed to every aspect of an obsession -- so his energy reserve after game attendance is moderate enthusiasm for finishing the book before the end of the 2018/19 season.

Recently Colin showed us his growing collection of game tickets and programs. Noticing that one of the programs was a little roughed up, Brettasked: “What happened here?”

Colin: “Oh yeah. That one accidentally fell in the urinal. But don’t worry. I washed it off in the sink with some soap and then dried it in the hand dryer.”

ALL IN. ALL BOY.

Tell Me More

Tomorrow the kids go back to school. I knew we were coming to the end of our summer parental energy when we twisted our 11 year old’s arm into watching the new Amazon series “Jack Ryan” for Monday night family movie night.  He said: “It’s going to be scary.”  We said: “Nah, it’s sweet-faced John Krasinski from The Office!”  Spoiler alert and alert to any other veteran parents thinking of bypassing their kid’s internal violence-o-meter:  a weapon gets extracted from a cadaver in Episode 1.   Ewwwwww.

I had to take him to bed and promise to stay with him until he feel asleep.  My presence in the dark was enough for him to fell safe and rewind the gore of what he witnessed on screen.  As we hugged, he nuzzled into me and said: “Mom, don’t you love it when you close your eyes and you see all those red and blue lights?”  When I told him I only saw black/darkness when I closed my eyes he was genuinely perplexed: “Really?  You don’t see all those coloured lights?!  Wow.  I thought everyone did.”  I asked him about the purple lights and then to tell me more but soon he was fast asleep.  

On the eve of Back to School, like all parents I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help my kids have a great year.   Asking them regularly: “Tell Me More” is one thing I keep coming back to.  Kids are still in the process of making up their minds about what is possible and what is not and discovering - sometimes gently and sometimes not — that not everyone experiences all the same things.  “Tell Me More” gives them space to keep exploring at a time when they are perfectly wired for it.

The next morning my same son said he had a bad dream.  When I asked him to “Tell Me More”, he said I had signed him up for swim team and told all the instructors he was an excellent swimmer.   (This premise was not an initial cause for reflection as every member of my family is an unskilled swimmer who would lose to a camel in the water.) Anyway, because of what I said, the teachers kept moving him up into the more advanced groups and into deeper water.  No one cared that he didn’t really know how to swim.  (Oh. Scanning now for terrestrial applications…)  When it came time for the first meet, not only was he last but he couldn’t finish the race.  He was humiliated.  I, he said, was surprised and disappointed. (Ouch.)

I’m glad he told me.  It’s another thing I and all us parents can do for our kids to help them have a great year: be realistic with our expectations.   “Tell Me More” might actually be a great tool for recalibrating what those expectations might be.

Tomorrow I am expecting my boys to set the alarm, put on a clean school uniform that fits, and pose for a photo.  I know it’s not realistic for me to hope that the youngest will make his own lunch because I missed the window on that lesson — but I am expecting to be surprised by them in new ways this school year.