Weekly Local Biography

  Annabel Coulet

On a recent cool evening Annabel Coulet curled up on the sofa and nursed a cup of coffee while we talked about her life. She is gracious and gentle, intelligent and creative, but she wondered why anybody would want to know about her.

As we began talking, she told me all about growing up in Paris. Her mother is French, and her father is Vietnamese. They met when he came to Paris to study, and theirs was a very avant-garde relationship. A racially mixed marriage was rare in those days, and made difficult both by cultural differences and the lack of acceptance in the west. When they finally separated, Annabel’s mother went to work for the French Civil Service. She had three little girls to raise, and she worked hard. As the girls began to graduate from high school and become independent, she thought of early retirement.

The family has an obvious flair for languages. Annabel’s older sister studied many of them, but completed certification in Japanese. Annabel, the middle child, went off to England to the British Institute and studied English. She eventually became fluent in Spanish, English and Thai as well as her native French. The younger sister made her way to the Meridian Hotel, and used her language skills with guests. But none of them spoke Vietnamese. They knew little about their father, and nothing at all about his family.

Annabel found a job with the Meridian Hotel and stayed there for five years. The daughters obviously had the grace and good manners to function well in a five star hotel.

Her older sister moved to Mexico City, and Annabel followed. She found work at a big Sheraton hotel, but she didn’t like Mexico City. She was floundering when her mother took early retirement and moved to the warm beaches of Acapulco. Annabel followed her mother, and worked as a conference hostess. She spoke French, Spanish, and English with the conferences of dentists, lawyers and architects who came there, and with the Miss Universe participants. Her life was full of interesting people, and she flourished. She did seasonal work with World Air, a Canadian company. Tourists from colder countries would flock to Mexico during the wintertime. She made friends with other hostesses, but through a series of serendipitous events, ended up in Thailand in 1984 - alone.

She says that she immediately knew it was her destiny, that Thailand elicited a “very powerful feeling”. She came for three weeks and didn’t return to France for eleven years. She didn’t believe that she was here by accident, but she knew she needed to find a way to support herself. Quickly. She went on a trek and met her future husband, who owned a trekking and tour company. Everyone she met agreed that she would love Chiang Mai, and she did. She went to work for her husband’s company in a marketing capacity. Her family grew with a baby girl in 1987, quickly followed by a baby boy in 1989. She didn’t want to leave her babies to work, and stayed home with them for several years. Then the need to work again, to earn money, became pressing.

She again met someone, a woman who worked part time for Siam Gallery. She was leaving and needed to replace herself, and she thought Annabel would like the job. Annabel interviewed, and loved the idea. In art and antique showrooms all over town, all of the best pieces were marked “Reserved for Richard”. She was eager to learn from Richard. She fell in love with the art and antiques of Thailand, and went to work in the office and with sales at the company. She learned from Richard, but more than she thought she would. It was difficult raising children and working, but he was a positive person and she began to think a little more like him. When he left Siam Gallery and opened another business, they became partners. She still only admits to “small ideas” in the design division of the business, but she knows every piece of inventory. She loves her work.

She met her Vietnamese stepbrother, and he and his wife took her to Vietnam. They met aunts and uncles, and visited the ancestral tombs. It gave her a connection to her father, whom she had not seen since she was a small child.

But then the unthinkable happened. Her young teenaged daughter became ill, and was diagnosed with cancer. The local community that knew them rallied around her, and the word went out that she needed blood. Posters were everywhere, and emails flew across the internet. She rallied, then became desperately ill again as many cancer patients do. Still there was hope, help and incredible support. The medical care was expensive and exhausted the family financially. Annabel says that many people don’t realize that children, too, get cancer. And like all catastrophic illnesses, cancer affects the whole family. One morning it became obvious that she was leaving, and that there was no rally in sight. That afternoon, after her death, Annabel says that she felt an incredible spiritual closeness to the little girl. “Open your heart to me”, she seemed to be saying.

So Annabel opened her heart to the healing spiritual arts of Asia, although it was difficult for her as a western person. And through her study she has managed to find a connection to her daughter as well as to herself. It sustains her.

After her funeral, Annabel simply wanted to go home to France. She and her husband had separated, so she packed up her son and went back to her family. Her grief was so deep that she doesn’t remember the first year after her daughter’s death. She stayed with her family and was nurtured, then came home to Thailand and went back to work. Her husband and son were also profoundly grieved. Time has gradually helped to ease the pain. The darkness has lifted. Annabel looks up from her coffee. “I believe in life”, she says.