Language Learning and Energy Drain

Moving to a new country is exciting, yes, but it’s also incredibly tiring to live somewhere where you don’t (yet) speak the language. You need time to learn, obviously – and I’ve been short on that – which means every encounter has to be planned and prepared for. This makes so many of the little things we do day-to-day extremely tiring and time consuming, things we totally take for granted when we’re a native or fluent non-native speaker. Things like going to the bank, the post office, the school. The shop, even. Even if you’ve been in this situation before you still have to rehearse, to check yourself, to brush up a bit, to ensure you correct any mistakes or answer any unanswered questions left over from the last visit.

And then there are entirely new situations where you need to learn new vocabulary. Like my recent trip to the docs for my slightly overdue smear test. In a second language that I’m currently a bit hopeless at it was pretty interesting inasmuch as I spent the whole appointment more embarrassed about my terrible French than the act of having the smear test. (It’s called a le frottis vaginal, if you’re interested, and is just as undignified with a French doctor as an English one.) It was a little overdue because there’s only so much I can do admin-wise and it took me ages to get round to booking a doctor’s appointment. On the one hand I didn’t have the confidence to do it over the phone but then I never seemed to have the time to pop in and do it face-to-face. In the end I braved a phone call just to get it done – and it went just fine, thankfully! But that in itself is an example of the extra mental load of being a language learner living in a foreign country. You can’t just pick up the phone and sort shit out!

And then there’s the headspace all this takes up. I realised the other day as I was driving to school to collect DD that possibly one of the reasons I feel so tired some days is because of the extra mental load this whole language learning process requires. On that particular day I was driving to the school but first had to pop to the bank to pick up a cheque book and pay some cash in. Ordinarily I’d just be driving the car, minding my own business, watching the road, maybe singing along to something on the radio, doing a mental check about whether I’d picked up my wallet or my phone, but this particular day I was running a conversation in my head along the lines of…

“What’s the verb for collect? Okay, er, so I want to collect my cheque book. Cheque book is probably un livre de cheque. Yes, that will work. So maybe, “Je besoin de colliere ma livre de cheque.” Is that right?? Is it ma or mon livre. Maybe I should say “Est-ce vous-avez ma livre de cheque?” Is that better. Have they got our new address? I should probably check that too. I’ll have to check it on my phone when I stop. So I’ll say…”

And on and on and on the conversation went in my head.

I got to the bank, went in, said something that may or not have been correct but was the best I could do, picked up my cheque book (so whatever I said worked), checked the address on the account then got back in the car – feeling very pleased with myself indeed. But it doesn’t end there, you see, because now there’s a new conversation to be had: the post-discussion analysis which goes along the lines of…

Did I say that right? What did they say? Did I understand that right? Next time I should say X instead of Y. Or would Z work better? What was that verb they used? So the past is.. Oh, I can’t remember. I’ll have to remember to look that up.” 

And so on. It’s exhausting! On the upside, the fact that I am actually having these conversations in my head – and using my terrible French out loud in the real world whenever I have to get the chance – is evidence that I’m making progress, but I can already see how greatly life will be improved once I have a good handle on many of the everyday interactions that we normally take for granted.

It’s given me a new perspective on the lot of an immigrant and I really feel for them. When talking about immigration the lack of language is something that people often whinge about but now I totally get how people who move to a country manage not to learn the language, especially when the natives tend to be hostile to immigrants and not particularly helpful. Because it will always be easier to hang around with other first-language native speakers. Of course it will. To put yourself into situations where you are struggling is not all that pleasant. There’s the mental toll before and after and the high-probability that you will humiliate yourself in between. But that’s how we learn. Kids don’t learn to walk or talk by imprisoning themselves in their comfort zones. They learn because it’s really frustrating to be stuck on the floor in one place staring across the room at your favourite toy, or having someone feed you apple when what you really want is carrot and a drink. So I take my inspiration from my kids. Both of them. Both of them are busy learning French and they don’t even know they’re doing it. DD is at maternelle and DS is at creche. Neither of these places have English speakers so they really are immersed in the truest sense of the word. DD has embraced it so well that she now says, proudly, “I’m French, not English.” She watches all her movies in French and  I’m pleased to say that the last time I watched Happy Feet with her I found myself listening to the audio more than reading the subtitles. So I can take all the extra hours it takes to figure out how to ask for my cheque book or book an appointment with the doctor over the phone. To learn the language is one of the reasons we came here, after all!

I first mentioned this in another post a couple of months back but as with everything there hardly seems to be time and most days it feels as though we’ve been busy-busy but accomplished very little. Perhaps energy drain is part of that equation? I won’t know I’ve cracked it until the first time that I manage to march into the bank or the doctors or wait at the school gate without all the mental chatter before, during and after. I have a feeling it will feel like being on holiday – mentally, at least. Until then I’ll just have to keep working at it.


The featured image used for this post is “help” by Patrick.
Terms of Use: This work is licensed under the Non-Commercial Share-Alike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) Creative Commons License.

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One Year On

Yesterday marked 12 months since we left the UK and started our adventure on the continent. We weren’t sure where we’d be a year from now – whether we’d be back in the UK or staying put in France, but here we are.

On the day we arrived, driving from the north to the south of the country, it was 37 degrees and perfect clear blue sky. Today the blue sky is back, for the most part, but the temperature, at 17 degrees C is more reminiscent of the Manchester weather we gladly left behind.

I should really be marking this anniversary with a recap post, looking back to reflect on what we have learned and accomplished in those last 12 months but we’re having one of Those weeks. You know, the ones where things happen and it seems it impossible to get anything done. This week we’re dealing with overdue health checks for me (just routine stuff but nonetheless a challenge in a non-native language), an injured cat (our gentle-giant was bitten badly in the throat by a long-term resident male who spends his days beating up the other cats in the village), an extra day with DD off school as the teachers are all striking today (Macron is threatening to cut the funding to village schools, which will force many of them to close), and a broken car (who knew that moving firewood could do so much damage!). I’ve also been busy back and forward to the creche as we try to settle DS in after our pretty futile attempt before the holiday. So the recap post will have to wait along with a bunch of other things on my to-do list (like getting my business website and CV set up!)

What we have managed to do today is some fabulous painting. Both DD and DS had a great time and I used photos of their paintings to make birthday cards for my nephew and brother-in-law, who both have birthdays next week. That’s one thing ticked off my list – success! Right now I have enough breathing space to rattle this out while DD and DS sleep (jackpot!!) and James it out with the car at the garage. I have the kettle on. Time to relax and soak up the silence.

 

A picture of a kid's painting table

My Little Artists’ Workspace

A child's painting

One of DS’s Creations (c) 2017 🙂

A child's painting

One of DD’s Creations (c) 2017 🙂

 

Wasp? Pft. Fear is relative.

The other day this not so little critter put it’s sting into the soft, delicate foot of my DS. Yes, there was screaming and also a small amount of panicking.

European Hornet

A Very Dead European Hornet

We quickly spotted the culprit  – a European Hornet (frelon, en français) –  as DS was standing right next to it when the screaming started). The quick-thinking James placed it under house arrest under an upturned PlayDoh bucket, where it would remain until one of us could get out to buy some RAID. It was a one way ticket.

We figured this was one of the two that we’d seen early today, sniffing around the main beam in the house. When we saw them thought, as it was from a distance, that they were two large wasps and, as we didn’t want them deciding to make a nest then heading off to tell mates about this fantastic new beam we’d found, we kept an eye on them then shut the windows when we thought they’d found a way out.

Or so we thought. There seemed to be a few flying around outside and another one came in but soon fled when confronted by an angry mummy (me) with a fresh can of RAID. That evening James found another one over by the fire (also dead – we had fleas a few weeks ago and the house is generally an A1 danger zone for insects, even before the RAID arrived) and DD spotted one on the windowsill. We dealt with those, figuring they’d come in with the one that stung DS or during the day, before we battened down the hatches, and went on with our lives.

The next morning I opened the door onto the terrace and another one flew straight in, like it had been waiting for the door to open. RAID to hand, it didn’t stand a chance and was soon under house arrest, this time under a large jam jar usually reserved for rescuing lizards the cat has brought in.

That put the hornet (in the house) count to four, which is exactly three more than I had seen in my entire life up to that point.

I sat on the terrace for a while to see whether any more were around and, yes, before long there was another. It seemed very interested in the wood around the upstairs window and at the top of the door but, after dabbing around for a while, it bobbed up the wall and made its way over the roof and was gone.

A short time after another one appeared but this did much the same. I didn’t see one go in anywhere and announced as much to James.

Because we didn’t want any of them coming in again but we’d decided to keep all the windows closed until we could get some mosquito nets up – a good idea even without the hornets as there are plenty of wasps around and also some very determined mosquitoes! Saturday came and our mission was clear. We left the house all sealed up and came back with the netting and some insecticide spray that would supposedly act as a barrier when sprayed around window and door frames. James wasn’t convinced it would work but bought it anyway, just in case.

So how was it that when we came in there were two more hornety house guests having a jolly old time in the bedroom? With sll doors and windows sealed it could mean only one thing, so where was the hole they were exploiting?

I sat outside with the littlies while James stayed inside to valiantly battle our foes. He’d said to wait outside making sure his exit was clear in case he had to make a run for it. He emerged a short while later telling me he was fine. It was quite comical listening from outside as the pshhhhhh, pshhhhhhh, pshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh of the RAID can gave a fairly visual picture of the state of play. They’re quite robust creatures but he got there in the end.

We gave those two (taking the hornet count to six) enough time to properly die then sent James in to block up what looked to be their entry point: a giant hole by one of the upstairs windows. I can’t believe I hadn’t noticed it before given it was large enough for a couple of cats to curl up in. Really it could do with being properly filled and sealed but, given we’re renting, we went for the bodge so one inseticide-drenched blanket later and the hole was no more – but, hang on, what was that buzzing noise!?

In the time between taking out the first two and having a breather outside, another one had made it in from somewhere. Maybe that wasn’t the right hole. Maybe there was another hole? Oh boy.

With the hole bunged up James turned his attention to the windows and got the netting sorted out. Surprisingly, the question, “what good is sticky-backed velcro that doesn’t stick to anything,” has not yet been asked on Quora. It should be. I mean… anyway. Wood glue to the rescue. Now we just had to hope that our 4 euro solution was going to be cat resistant.

With all doors locked and all windows either sealed to all airborne creatures or closed, now we could find out whether we were officially on hornet lockdown.

Day 1. No hornets. Not many flies either. Result.

Day 2. Still no hornets. A few more flies owing to our becoming more relaxed about leaving the doors open.

Day 3. Still no hornets.

And that’s it, maybe we’ve cracked it. But what has this to do with things being relative?

Well, in short, I’m no longer one of those people that jumps up and runs around flapping their arms and screeching when a wasp starts buzzing around. And I was that person. To my mind now wasps are teeny tiny little comedy bad guys with a silly high-pitched whine that barely registers. I first observed this change in perception while helping M prepare the pears while sitting in her garden (blog post on this to come). There were a fair few buzzing around while we chopped pairs and I was idly batting them away. Be gone, minor irritant.

Hornets on the other hand. My God, I am not happy about them at all.

And as for DS? He was lucky, we were all lucky; he’s not anaphylactic, thank goodness. We treated it with After Pick® and got him into a paddling pool filled with cold water and ice as soon as he was calm enough to leave my lap. Thirty minutes later he was laughing with his sister and splashing around. But it hurt him a lot. For him, having lived his first 16 months without fear, without pain (except for the odd toddler tumble or his routing injections) it was traumatic, to the extent that he now stops dead, points, and then screams his little head off if there’s anything unidentified – fluff, plant material, an insect – in his field of vision. It’s all relative and I feel terrible that he had to go through that. If only it had been a wasp.

A first taste of hate

It happened. James said it would sooner or later. I was always more optimistic but now the shine has come come off and I’m awake to it.

It started because I tried to buy a secondhand bike. DD is now well into her third year and I’m wracking my brains trying to think up interesting projects we can work on together over the summer holiday. The obvious one, given she’s not really old enough to sustain interest in the kinds of projects older kids could perhaps be persuaded to engage with, is learning to ride a bike with pedals. She’ll love that and I think in the 8 weeks we can get her really going strong. But first I have to find a bike.

I’ve been using the minutes I grab at the computer to scour LeBonCoin for bikes. I’d really like to get her a nice, shiny one but we can’t justify that financially right now and since it’s not her birthday (or Christmas anytime soon) it’s not really the time to give her an expensive, shiny present, and a good secondhand steed will do perfectly well. I searched eBay.co.uk and there are tonnes of great bikes being sold in the UK but it’s harder to find one around here.

And then I found one. Two, actually, but the newer and slightly more expensive one has already been reserved so I continued my search and found another one, closer to home too; older but also a better make (Orbea).

We were heading that way the next day and, as it was the first chance I’d had, I dug out my phone and sent a text message. The owner had said no e-mail, which was a pain, but I can’t manage the phone without James’s ears as backup and James can’t manage it while driving – and he was driving. Text was the next best thing. A few minutes later I checked my messages and was happy to see that I’d just had a call from the owner. I’d missed the ring because my phone is often on silent but we were in the car so I wasn’t going to be able to manage a conversation and I couldn’t call back until we’d stopped. So I sent another text.

My French is now at a level where I can as least figure out what I want to say in French then put the English into a translate programme to see whether I’m anywhere near close. Sometimes I am, sometimes I’m not, but I’m learning all the time and it works. Of course translate programmes don’t deliver perfect French and sometimes they get it quite wrong but as we were really close to the owner’s location I didn’t want to put off the conversation until I got home and then have to go out again. So I used the translate app on my phone and embarked on a conversation that went like this:

A screenshot of an SMS message between me and the seller.

IMG_9704

It all goes wrong fairly early on when I accidentally copy the English from the translate app instead of the French. I was in a rush, on the phone (small screen, stupidly small keyboard) and I didn’t notice until – after the question, “are you English?” and my answer “yes!” – he came back with this:

“Yes, and well go elsewhere, because once you spoke french and one other time English, so you don’t care about me.”

Er, WTF? Then I saw it – drat! But hey, it was an honest mistake! Foolishly I’d hoped that the question, are you English, would lead to a “hey, me too” – not this madness. One the first thoughts I had was, of course I don’t care about him – I just want to buy his old bike, not marry one of his children. Anyway, I really don’t have enough French for an argument and really, I just wanted to buy his stupid bike, so I tried to fix it. “I’m learning French, sorry”, I said, but it was too late. Monsieur Front National – as I’m calling him – was flying into one.

“Yes, and when I call I get you no.” 

Which I think means I didn’t answer when he called. Just to clarify, he goes on…

“I don’t time to write SMS all day – it irritates me, bye.”

At least I’m assuming that last bit was bye. It came through as baye, which I can’t find a translation for, so either he was so pissed that he could no longer be bothered to text properly or it’s some traditional insult that can’t easily be translated. If the latter, I’m happy not to know!

Honestly, it upset me. I’m nice! I’m here with my family to work, to pay tax, to start a new life! I don’t deserve shit from a nasty angry person who says the has an old kids bike to sell for 20 euros! So I block the caller and that’s that. I hope he spent the next 20 minutes writing a really long and insulting message that will never get to me. Hah.

And there it is. Just like the Polish, the Romanians, the Germans and many other EU citizens making the most of their right to free movement, travelling or working in the UK, or indeed anyone making a new life in a foreign land, I have felt the wrath of a bigoted fool. I guess it was my turn. At least it wasn’t a brick through the window or worse because there are always people capable of worse. It’s sad though because my parents – like many other Leave voters – don’t want all those other people coming to Britain and taking “our” jobs (never mind they’re retired etc.) so I wonder what they’ll make of their French equivalents having a dig at me for, assumedly, similar reason. I look forward to telling them to see what they make of it, how they’ll excuse their casual racism towards others but sympathise with my experience. Seriously.

As it happens, today I’m over it – and I still don’t have a bike for DD, which is a shame. Hopefully the other one I was interested in will become available again. I wouldn’t want my beautiful, innocent DD riding his racist old bike anyway.

Nine months (and a bit) later…

It’s just over nine months since we left our old home and relocated to France so how are we getting on? Since the 6 months review we’ve moved house to a new, long-term rental, making the move official in the sense that we now have a rental contract and have bills to pay. It’s great to be living somewhere without holes in the walls, a good stove, and a safe outside space for the children and cats. Since this move we’ve been feeling much more settled than we were three months ago. We’re still checking the property pages but aren’t feeling the intense pressure of those first months. And we’ve learned a lot; not only about the do’s and don’ts of house/land buying but also about what we do and don’t like and what need as individuals and a family. For example, when we first came we were worried about being too out on a limb, too remote and in the sticks. There’s a lot of remote about here! Coming from Manchester, where we had access to everything, it’s taken a while to wean us off having more immediate access to things we need (or want) and to other people. It’s taken 9 months but I’d say now we’re over it and are slowing down, finally. The first six months were intense, living in a tiny hameau, dominated by a few home schooling families; too much for us. Now we’re in a hameau, yes, but there’s more space simply because the people here also like to have their own space. There’s no “thing” going on, just neighbours living their lives. Our new neighbours definite look out for each other and those relationships are important, yes – we speak to at least one of our neighbours every day – but we’re not in each others pockets or trying to live some sort of shared life, which was how it felt in the last place. We’re happy to be out of there.

So, time for a progress report. The five areas to report on are:

  • House buying
  • Settling into daily life
  • Sorting out the paperwork
  • Learning the French language
  • Earning some money

Here’s the low down.

House Buying Progress = 3/10

I’ve moved this up to a 3/10. No, we don’t have a house and we’ve only looked at a couple since we moved into this new rental place but we have made some progress in the sense that we’re learning all the time what we do and don’t want and what too look for when buying land or property. Of the places we’ve looked at all were overpriced and some were over our budget, so no good. Some we’d be interested in if we had more money, others we wouldn’t pay all the money in the world for. It’s nice to feel like we’re in the driving seat now whereas before, when we were staring down the barrel of homelessness, it all felt a bit desperate. We’ll find something or we won’t. Either way I’m loving life here and without that intense pressure it feels like we can make the right decision and find something that’s right for us. The best bit of advice we received when we came out here was from a fellow Brit who said: “remember what you came for and what it is that you want.” The hunt continues but we’re both convinced we’ll know it when we see it.

Settle Into Daily Life = 8/10

I think we’re all feeling vastly more settled than we were three months ago. DD is still going to the maternelle but is enjoying it so much she asked to go full time so now she does two full days and then the rest half days. That’s great for us as we’re starting to have more time to work, to focus on admin, to getting things done generally, and just to have a bit of a break (one child is definitely less work than two!) DS has started at the creche too. He starts properly next week – just two short afternoons – then we’ll add a few more hours from September. He’s still my baby so I’m not in a rush for him to spend too much time in someone else’s care.

Of course, the school holidays start in just three weeks so the timetable we’re starting to work too will all be thrown in the air for 8 weeks after that, which is why, even though I’m now registered as an auto-entrepreneur (business website and info coming soon), I’m not anticipating getting anything meaningful done until September at the earliest. A few hours a week is the most time I’m likely to have. (James is busy, of course, and his work takes priority right now.) But as this is our first summer in the south of France I don’t intend to feel guilty about taking more time off and enjoying it with the kiddies.

Sort Out the Paperwork = 8/10

Slowly, but I am at last getting there. I have mail redirects in place, my tax return is sorted out, I’m about 90% of the way through my address change list, and – with becoming an auto-entrepreneur – I have a social security number, meaning myself the little ones have health care (within the terms of the French system.) At a later date I’ll probably bother to sort out a French driving license but that’s not necessary at the moment. Just having an hour or so every other day has made an enormous difference – and, of course, fast internet. I never ever want be without fast internet for the rest of my days.

Learn the French Language = 5/10

It’s still early days and I’m by no means fluent so 5/10 may seem overly optimistic but… and it’s a big but… I’m feel like I’m at least capable now of getting by. It really helps that our new neighbours are French and have limited or non-existent English: one of them doesn’t speak English at all but loves to chat, forcing me to dig deep both on the listening and speaking front, and our other neighbour speaks French but, along with his wife, is a keen student of English, so when we often talk about language, comparing differences and similarities, and I learn a lot from those conversations.

In terms of speaking when I’m out and about, just last week I managed to go into the bank and talk with the bank manager, about opening a business account, changing our address, and ordering a cheque book – all in French. Absolutely I could not have done that nine or even three months ago. I’m so happy with myself!!! As someone who didn’t speak a word (beyond ordering a coffee) when we arrived and was nervous about conversing with anyone, that’s real progress.

There’s still a long way to go, of course. I know what I know but there’s still plenty I don’t know, like how to say anything about what I did (past tense) or what I’m going to do (future tense) but what I’m doing right now, I’m good with). I’m terrible at asking questions so conversations are not really flowing yet, but I’m learning all the time. Once DS starts at the creche, once DD is back at school, I should have enough hours to not only work but also to study a little. I’m building a foundation for sure but in order to ever reach fluency some effort will be needed. Getting by is good for now but not good enough in the long run. I’m definitely happy with my progress though.

Earn some money = 2/10

I haven’t earned a bean yet, no, but I’ve taken steps towards that so am happy that things are afoot and it won’t be long now. It’s good to be thinking along those lines again. Does that count as progress?

Conclusion

We’re back on our feet and feeling much more balanced and focused. It’s starting to feel like we have a life here. The next few months will most likely be filled with distractions again as it’s the summer holidays. I expect we’ll be socialising more than working in this time but why not enjoy ourselves! We’re getting used to the pace of life (hot and slow – it’s summer!) and settling into our new routines and, who knows, maybe the right piece of land will turn up when we’re not expecting it to? We’re not where we thought we’d be at this point but we’ve dodged many bullets along the way so where we are right now is definitely the right place.

Most days I marvel at the fact that we’re here to live not just for a holiday. Then I hear DD speaking in French with other children and I’m blown away by the whole experience. We might be blowing our savings, living in a rented house with no end to that in sight, but it’s worth it. Our quality of life is fantastic and I’m excited to be learning a new language. It’s a good place and every day I think to myself that I’m so glad we made this move. I mean, who wouldn’t want to live somewhere as beautiful as this!?

Busy, busy

There’s so much going on right now I have no time to blog about it! What with the classic Easter cold, taking us all down one by one, and a visit from my parents I’m only just starting to catch up on all things computer-based. I’ve got a bunch of part-written or planned and not started blog posts so plenty to keep me busy when I do find the time to sit down and write/think for any amount of time. For now though, here’s a list of some of the things that I’ve been doing since I last posted:

  • Herding goats
  • Planting up more of the garden
  • Sewing
  • Finessing the worm bin setup
  • Picking cherries
  • Thinking of things to do with a gazillion fresh cherries!
  • Horse riding with DD
  • Swimming
  • Settling DD into her first full days at the maternelle
  • Settling DS into the créche
  • Setting myself up as an auto-entrepreneur
  • Land and house viewings

That’s pretty much all the fun/interesting stuff, which doesn’t look like a lot but when crammed in amongst everything else it feels like a lifetime’s worth of achievements!

So, more blog posts to follow – but for now, bed. Zzzzzz.

21-Day Challenge: No Complaints

Earlier today a friend posted a link to the Calmer You 21-day Complaint Free Challenge, encouraging us to become aware of just how much we complain. It’s said that you need to keep at something for 21 days before it becomes a new habit, so that’s also the point of this challenge: to reprogramme the sunnier side of ourselves and put that old whinging git that occasionally takes centre stage back in it’s box. I need this challenge. Furthermore, James needs this challenge (if you’ve seen the film Paddington, think Mr. Brown.) I’m not going suggested directly that he does it but, if I can do it, my sunny disposition may just rub off on those around me. Whether that works or not, especially on a three-year-old, it will be good for the littlies to have one whinge-free parent, even if it’s only for a short while.

The rules of the challenge are simple: no whinging! If a single whinge or whine passes your lips, you’re straight back to Day 1. No ifs,  no buts, and… no whinging!!

I have a feeling it’s going to be tough. I like the idea of it being a time-limited challenge. It’s in-keeping with a general rule I’ve been trying to follow (with mixed success) inspired by a blog post I read somewhere (I’ve no idea where) a while ago with regard to focusing on positives, so before speaking think:

  • Is it kind?
  • Is it true?
  • Is it necessary?

It’s surprising how many thoughts are not worthy of being articulated once you start filtering them through those three criteria. I often like to remind James of them when he’s in a negative one but am probably not so good at moderating my own mutterings. I think for both of us the last year has been hard and it has felt like there have been a lot of challenges which have taken their toll and while we’ve had some real doom and gloom days – and who needs those – we have a whole lot to be thankful for. It feels like being busy and tired seems has become an excuse for being miserable!

So, who’s in? 21-days of sunny, positive blog posts coming up!