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
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.