It’s official!

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These visas are the first stage in a two-step process to gain permanent resident status in Mexico.

Earlier today (Wednesday, Aug. 29), Leslie and I picked up our visas from the Mexican consulate here in Chicago. The folks there were very helpful and easy to work with. Thanks, Jorge, for all your assistance! Oh, sorry — I mean, gracias por todos, Jorge! Now we can purchase plane tickets for our flight to Guadalajara, probably on Oct. 31.

Once we arrive, we’ll have 30 days to appear at the immigration office in Chapala and complete the two-step process for our permanent resident cards. Those cards identify us as legal permanent residents of Mexico. We can come and go as we choose, and there’s no need to renew.

Last week, we sent in a deposit and signed a six-month lease on a casita in Ajijic. It’s new construction on Privada Independencia with three casitas. We got #1, which is closest to the street. We’re excited about moving into this place. There are two bedrooms, two baths, a nicely equipped kitchen, water filtration system, washer and dryer, and a mirador shared with the other casitas (remember, that’s an outdoor space on the roof, usually covered and with a view).

We’re looking forward to reconnecting with St. Andrew’s Anglican Church and the people we met there a year ago. Hope they still have our name tags! This is a vital church that does a lot of good work in the community, and we hope to find ways in which we can contribute.

Finally, Leslie had cataract surgery yesterday (Tuesday, Aug. 28) on her left eye and is really excited at how well she can see just a day after surgery. Her doctor is very pleased with her progress. Final step is a visit with an optometrist in about a month to see if she will need glasses for reading or driving. Hopefully not!

We’ll keep you posted as the time approaches for us to leave for our new home. The vagabond days are almost over!

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I took this about an hour post-surgery. Looks weird to have only one eye dilated.

Gettin’ stuff done

I know it’s been awhile since the last post, but there hasn’t been much to report on. Leslie and I have enjoyed seeing family and friends, dining at favored old haunts and being back at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville.

Once we decided on Ajijic, Mexico, as our new home, Leslie put the word out that we were looking for a place to rent, starting the first of November. It paid off in the form of a tip from our friend Anita about a two-bedroom house within budget that has a lot of amenities. It’s new construction in the heart of the village just a block from the shore of Lake Chapala. It’s easy walking distance to one of the weekly markets and many of our favorite restaurants. We should be signing a six-month lease within the week.

The rental agent says trees effectively block a view of the lake from the mirador, and that’s a downside. Also, it’s not in our preferred location, but the photos look great and we’ll be the first residents. The six-month lease gives us the flexibility to try out this spot while we look for something farther west that has a pool and maybe a lake view. If our “dream” location becomes available, we’ll move. If not, we’ll renew the lease and enjoy being in the village.

Leslie had her first cataract surgery Aug. 7. Everything went swimmingly and she’s back to normal activities. Dr. Lafayette will do the left eye Aug. 28, giving her a full two months recovery time before we head south. If all goes as planned, she won’t need contact lenses or glasses (except maybe reading glasses) anymore. She’s excited about that.

Finally, we have an appointment Friday, Aug. 24 to apply for our Residente Permanente Jubilado visas (Permanent Resident Retiree). That begins the process for the Mexican equivalent of a “green card.” We’ve heard good things about El Consulado General de México in Chicago. We’ve got all the required documents and we’re hoping the process will be simple and fast. More on that to come.

That’s all for now. I’ll post another update as needed!

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This may be our new home. There are three condos and we like the middle one with the blue facade.

And the winner is…

It was quite difficult and we did a lot of back-and-forth, but Leslie and I have decided on our new home. We had two excellent — and very different — choices. How did we choose between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France? Let’s look at the data.

First, what’s so good about Ajijic? I know, some of you think there’s nothing good about anywhere in Mexico. That’s probably because you’ve never been where we’ve been. A good friend and former work colleague was one of those people until recently. We had lunch a few days ago and he said he enjoyed reading this blog, saying, “You’ve made Mexico three-dimensional for me. It was always one-dimensional.”

Ajijic is close to the U.S., so we can get back easily if need be, and friends and family can visit. The cost of living in Ajijic is quite favorable. Coupled with the good dollar-peso exchange rate, that makes Mexico a great place for North American retirees. And the Mexican people are warm and friendly; pass a local on the street and you’ll always hear “buenos dias.” Here are some other Ajijic positives:

  • Furnished rental housing is easily available.
  • Climate is mild with few extremes.
  • There’s a thriving English-speaking faith community.
  • There are many other expats in the area.
  • The Lake Chapala Society offers lots of services and events.
  • There are volunteer opportunities to remain active.
  • We have established contacts to help with our transition.
  • Health care is good. Most doctors are trained at the medical school in Guadalajara, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins.
  • There are a number of cultural opportunities, both in the Lake Chapala area and in Guadalajara, which has its own symphony orchestra and opera company.

There are some  downsides to Ajijic, though. Area roads are not as good as in Europe, and in most places you must drink bottled water. One big complaint is that in some parts of the Lake Chapala area you cannot flush toilet paper. It goes in a trash can instead. We would need housing in the newer areas where this is not an issue. A few other not-so-good things:

  • Intercity roads are limited.
  • Public transportation is not great. Intercity bus service is great, though.
  • Are there too many gringos in the area?
  • Right now there is uncertainty about the future of the Mexican government. The new president does not take office until December.
  • Locally grown vegetables must be treated before eating. It’s simple but time-consuming.
  • Infrastructure in the village is not great, and there is limited parking.

Montpellier also has lots of positives, most notably its energy. There’s a great vibe in this fast-growing city. Cultural opportunities abound — concerts, festivals, plays and other forms of entertainment. Food from local markets is of a higher quality than in the U.S., and there are great markets all over town. Leslie was able to eat cheese and bread in France. Her system has had a problem with both for years, and she was in heaven! Some other good points:

  • Public transportation is excellent.
  • It’s easy to reach other European countries we want to visit.
  • It’s close to some nice Mediterranean beaches.
  • We have established contacts with people who can help with our transition.
  • France is a first-world country with excellent infrastructure.
  • History is pretty much everywhere.
  • The World Health Organization ranks French health care as the best in the world.

But the cost of living in Montpellier is higher than in Mexico and with the unfavorable dollar-euro exchange rate, the dollar doesn’t go as far. Also, getting to France is a little more difficult and time-consuming, so we might get fewer visits from family and friends. And there’s this:

  • Furnished housing may be limited, and two-bedroom apartments are expensive and rare.
  • It gets a little chilly in winter. Last winter they had some snow, although it melted two days later.
  • There’s a seven-hour time difference from Chicago; nine from Stephanie in San Diego.

We took all that — and more — into consideration and agreed that by Nov. 1, we hope to be full-time residents of Ajijic, Mexico. We’ve already begun getting paperwork together for our permanent resident (retiree) visa application.

There were several factors, but mostly we think it will be easier to transition into living long-term in Mexico than anywhere else we’ve been. We’ve spent a lot of time there over the past two years and we have a network of friends to provide help and advice. Location and cost of living were also big factors. We’ll actually be closer to Stephanie than we were in the Chicago area, and friends and family have an easier time traveling to Mexico for visits. Plus, the dollar goes a lot further in Mexico, and the climate seems to be better. While we loved living in Montpellier, we simply felt Ajijic would be the best bet for our first attempt at being true expats.

That doesn’t necessarily mean we will live in Ajijic forever. Remember, we might decide at some point to get a change of scenery and relocate. Montpellier would probably be at the top of our list.

This blog, of course, will continue! We’ll keep you posted as the process develops.

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Strike up the band! We’re on our way to Ajijic.

Decision time!

 

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Will we be shopping for fresh fruits and vegetables at Ajijic’s weekly tianguis?

We’re back in the U.S.A. for the summer to see family and friends, get some routine medical procedures done and decide where we’re going to live as non-vagabonds. Just like last year, we are lodging at the Hyatt House in Warrenville, Ill. They must be glad to have us back. They even gave us the same suite we had last year!

Our two-year quest for a new home is over — or is it? Leslie and I have lived as locals (or as close as we can get) in Spain, Malta, Costa Rica, France and five cities in Mexico. And, of course, San Diego, which was always Plan B.

As I noted in an earlier post, our worst fears have come true — it’s a tie! We’re trying to decide between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France. Two very different places with lots of pros and very few cons. We rejected Malta and Costa Rica, as well as Mérida and Playa del Carmen in Mexico. Also-rans are (not in any particular order) San Miguel de Allende and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and Spain’s southern coast: Alicante, Malaga and Cartagena (or maybe Valencia on the eastern coast). Any of those places would be just fine if the first choices don’t work out, or if we need some variety.

I think the most important thing we’ve learned over the last two years is that we don’t have to pick one place and live there forever. If we go to Ajijic, for example, and decide a year from now that we don’t like it, or if things change so much that it’s no longer good for us, then we can pack up and move. Our preference, of course, would be to assimilate into our new community — pick new doctors, volunteer in the community, make new friends, learn the language and generally immerse ourselves in our new home. But we’re retired, remember? We can go anywhere.

To do that, though, we need resident visas. Either a temporary or permanent visa that lets us live in another country indefinitely. It will take time to get visas, at either the Mexican or French consulate in Chicago, so we need to start that process soon. We hope to begin our relocation by Nov. 1.

Do you have an opinion on where we should live? If so, post a comment with your favorite — and why it’s your favorite. Then watch this space for the big decision!

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Or will we shop for olives and cherries under Montpellier’s 18th-century aqueduct?

 

Fairies and leprechauns and witches, oh my!

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The Molly Malone statue on Suffolk Street is the meeting point for most tours. In Dublin, she’s known as “the tart with a cart.”

Dia dhuit!

Leslie and I are excited to be in a country where they speak English. (Irish too, such as the “hello” greeting above and “goodbye” at the end, but mainly English.) We decided to close our second European visit with a few days as tourists in Dublin. We’ve learned a lot about the home of some of our ancestors (Mike: Ireland, Scotland, Wales; Leslie: Ireland, Scotland, Hungary).

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Some very old books on the shelves behind us, and busts of important people such as Plato and Sir Isaac Newton.

We started out at Trinity College Dublin to see The Book of Kells, a ninth-century illuminated version, in Latin, of the four New Testament gospels. It’s hard to believe, as you gaze upon this treasure, that someone did this intricate work over 1,000 years ago. It’s beautiful. After you see the book, you can wander in The Long Room section of the college’s Old Library and see books that date back hundreds of years.

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The Cliffs of Moher, after the fog had lifted just a bit. There are many species of bird living among these cliffs, but we only saw a few sea gulls.

From Dublin it’s a very long bus ride to the Cliffs of Moher, a stunning display of God’s handiwork along Ireland’s wild west coast. The visitor center has videos to watch and displays to peruse. This can be helpful when it’s cold and rainy and the clouds drift down toward the sea, restricting visibility. We spent a few minutes checking out the center, then wandered outside to find “peeks of sun,” as we say in Chicago. It wasn’t long before the clouds parted and the views were awesome! We were forced to take off our rain gear because it was getting too hot. Just like Chicago — if you don’t like the weather, wait. It’ll change.

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A monument to the 400 rebels who died defending the Hill of Tara in the Irish Rebellion of 1789.

Then we visited the Hill of Tara, the political center of ancient Ireland, and also Uisneach, the spiritual center. Tara is where the Irish High King ruled. We saw a neolithic burial mound as well as a ring fort where the High King’s family may have lived. Our guide, John, said the Irish kings were chosen to be tribal leaders. It was not necessarily a hereditary office. The king was merely the best person for the job at the time. The Hill of Tara is important to Irish politics because it was central to the Irish Rebellion of 1789. British forces won a battle at the Hill of Tara, killing almost 400 rebels. A plaque commemorates their loss.

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An artist’s concept of Eriu, from whom Ireland gets its name.

Uisneach is on private land, owned by the family that runs the largest dairy farm in Ireland. Here we were joined by Simon, whose knowledge of Irish mythology and folklore is amazing. He loves telling the old stories of Lough and Èriu. Uisneach is also the site of an annual fire celebration, such as the 2017 event in the video on this site. Watch the video carefully at the :36 mark and again at :57 to get a glimpse of a very short man with white hair on the sides of his head and none at all on top. That’s Michael Higgins, president of Ireland.

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Simon tells stories of the fairy trees, while standing under a fairy tree. 

In Ireland, fairies are an important part of the culture and the folklore, but they’re nothing at all like Tinker Bell. Simon showed us a fairy tree, which is merely a hawthorn tree standing in a field by itself, sometimes with large stones underneath. Simon said the Irish are not superstitious, but they will never cut down a fairy tree. He told us two stories. One was about a motorway (we call it a tollway) the government wanted to build. But the plan required cutting down a fairy tree, and none of the site workers would do it. Eventually they changed the motorway route and the tree still stands today.

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Legend says Lough was killed in this lake, nearly dry now because of the drought. Behind the lake is a mound, which Simon says is scheduled to be excavated soon.

The other story is about how a fairy tree was actually cut down to build the DeLorean Motor Co. plant in Ireland. Is DeLorean still in business? Of course not, and the Irish say it’s because the company cut down a fairy tree. No, the people of Ireland are not superstitious, but they will not mess with fairies. Better to be on the safe side.

They don’t mess with leprechauns either, and while we didn’t get much instruction in these little fellows, Simon did say that they cannot be trusted. If you catch one, he must give you his crock o’ gold. But they’re crafty and will try to cheat you out of it. Simon’s advice was: If you see a little man in a field or a wood repairing shoes, just keep walking.

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The Hag’s Bench at Cairn T. It’s a long climb up a hill to get here, but the view is great!

Loughcrew is yet another spot that evokes ancient Ireland. We had to climb a sizable hill, dodging sheep (and sheep droppings) on the way up, to see Cairn T, also known as Hag’s Cairn. It’s called that because of a large stone bench used by a giant witch who wanted to rule all of Ireland. The people agreed, provided she could leap from one mountain to another carrying rocks in her skirt. She failed, and you can see where she spilled the rocks all over what’s now Hag’s Cairn. Our guide, John, said many burial sites have been robbed of stones over the centuries, mostly by people who simply wanted to build a stone fence and were unaware of the historical significance of these tombs. But all the stones are still on the Hag’s Cairn. Remember, Irish people aren’t superstitious. They just won’t do anything that might make the witch mad. Why take a chance?

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When the sun hits the entrance to the Cairn T burial chamber on an equinox, it moves from one symbol to another, straight up.

We squeezed into the small megalithic burial chamber under the mound to see symbols carved into the rock. As dawn breaks on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the sun’s rays fall perfectly on the the first symbol, then move up the rock to the next ones. John said this was a calendar for the ancient people. It told them when to plant and when to harvest.

Leslie and I got our fill of great Irish food in a few Dublin pubs John recommended on the bus ride back from Loughcrew. The Oak dates to 1860, and Stag’s Head (which has an actual stag’s head over the bar) is in Dame Court where a pub has stood, in one form or another, since the 18th century. I admired the wood, mostly original, used to build the bars in these two pubs. Outstanding craftsmanship. But if you ever get to Dublin, go to the Temple Bar area and look for Boxty House. Best corned beef I ever ate.

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Tourists gather at The Oak for a pint and some history. The wood in this pub was beautiful.

We head back to the U.S. to visit family and friends, see some doctors and decide where we’re going to live now that the two-year Vagabond mission is over. What will our choice be? Looks like it’s down to two very different cities. It’s not going to be an easy decision. We’ll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, enjoy more photos of Ireland.

Slán!

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The banquet hall at 12th-century Castle Trim. There would have been a roof, of course, over the open area. The stairway at the bottom of the photo leads to what was essentially a 12th-century refrigerator.
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Castle Trim, where several scenes of the movie, “Braveheart” were filmed.
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The Oak pub, the newer part of which is on the corner. The red building is the older bar. Leslie and I had dinner there one night.
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Stag’s Head has an actual stag’s head over the bar.
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Neolithic carvings inside a burial chamber at the Hill of Tara.
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Our day at the Cliffs of Moher began like this, with fog, rain and chilly temps. After just about an hour, the sun peeked through the clouds and it was a nice day. Many species of bird and waterfowl live here, but they must’ve been hiding. We saw a few seagulls.

A childhood dream becomes reality

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Leslie always wanted to see Mont Saint-Michel. 

When she was young, Leslie had a poster on the wall of her room. It was a picture of the iconic French abbey Mont Saint-Michel (MOAN san-me-SHELL), showing the awesome structure poised at the top of an immense rock with sunset (sunrise?) colors all around. She called it “ephemeral,” and has wanted to see the place ever since. So we did. No sunsets, though.

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Looking down on the causeway that leads to the abbey. At high tide, all those people would be swimming.

Seen from a distance, this 10th-century structure rises up like a fortress out of the landscape. When you get closer, it’s truly awesome — there’s the abbey way up on the top of an immense rock, and a village around the lower part. We were there at low tide so we saw people walking in the sand below. At high tide, the rock is an island. There’s a causeway now that leads to the entrance, but in ancient times you needed a boat or patience (waiting for low tide) to get there.

“I’ve always wanted to see Mont Saint-Michel up close,” Leslie said as we were headed back to our group tour van. “I never thought I would see the inside. It’s just amazing!”

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The sanctuary. See the rope on the left side? That’s how they ring the bells.

What she didn’t count on was all the steps we had to climb to reach the actual church where the monks worship. Lots of steps! But it’s worth the climb because you get to see the inside of a structure that was built over 1,000 years ago. We saw the sanctuary where the monks and nuns worship, and the cloisters where they go to meditate — or they did, before thousands of tourists started pouring in daily. There have been changes to the abbey over the centuries, including installation of a statue of Saint Michel himself on the pinnacle. It looks great, but its real purpose is a lightning rod. I’ll add more photos below.

The are only seven monks and five nuns now. Our guide, Caroline, said this is a plum assignment for servants of the Church. This iconic abbey is only inhabited by the best of the best, and only for three years at a time. We saw one nun walking around in a gray habit talking to people.

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Saint Michel gazes over the abbey that bears his name.

The last stop in our tour around Normandy was seeing the Bayeux Tapestry. Formerly housed in the Bayeux Cathedral, it’s now in a museum. The audio guide explains the whole story. The tapestry is an account of events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 when William Duke of Normandy seized the English throne from King Harold (who was, in truth, a usurper) in what we know as the Norman Conquest. We know William, the first Norman king of England, as William the Conquerer.

They didn’t allow photography in the exhibit, so click on the link above to see some of the scenes, or Google “Bayeux Tapestry” for more information.

Now it’s on to Ireland! We’re in Dublin for a few days, then back to Chicago. See you soon!

 

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Caroline explained that some of the artwork in the abbey, like this pieta, was defaced during the French Revolution.
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A model of the Saint Michel statue. This one overlooks the ticket counter.
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The front of the Bayeux Cathedral, where the Bayeux Tapestry was once housed. We stepped in after dinner at the restaurant on the right, and were treated to organ music. An organist was rehearsing for a concert scheduled for the following evening.
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The back of the Bayeux Cathedral, which was undamaged in World War II because the Allies did not bomb the town of Bayeux.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normandy: We spend a day in 1944.

Leslie and I celebrated Independence Day in Normandy, wearing red, white and blue. We visited Sainte-Mère-Église, where paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division spearheaded the D-Day invasion on the night of June 5, 1944. We walked on Utah and Omaha beaches where the American army poured out of little flat-bottomed boats and helped take back a continent. We stood on sacred ground in the American cemetery in Colleville, surrounded by the graves of those who died in that operation, some of whom never made it off the beaches.

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This dummy shows where John Steele got hung up on the church steeple. Except it was actually on the other side, which is not as viewable as this side.

This was kind of a “bucket list” trip for me. I had brief affiliations with the 82nd and the 1st Infantry Division during my time in uniform, and I thought of this as similar to a pilgrimage. Our excellent guide, Francois, told us the 1962 film “The Longest Day” was filmed mostly in places where the historic events took place, such as in Sainte-Mère-Église. If you’ve seen the movie, you may remember a solider, Pvt. John Steele, whose parachute got caught on the steeple of the town’s church. He was stranded there with German soldiers shooting at him. There’s a dummy hanging there now — in the wrong place. Francois explained that the movie showed Steele, played by Red Buttons, dangling from a steeple overlooking the town square. But in reality, he was on the other side of the building. A minor distinction — except to John Steele.

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Looking across the English Channel from Utah Beach.

We went to Utah Beach, where Francois apologized that we arrived at high tide. The invasion happened at low tide, and he wanted us to see how far the soldiers had to move across the beach. We had to visualize how they left flat-bottomed Higgins boats — named for their American inventor — and made their way inland. He said this landing had success in part because aerial bombardment was more accurate than in other sectors, and because most of the Sherman tanks made it onto the beach to support ground troops.

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Looking west from Pointe du Hoc. The cliffs you see are similar to what Rangers had to climb to accomplish their mission.

Pointe du Hoc is a spot between Utah and Omaha beaches where U.S. Army Rangers, led by Lt. Col. James Rudder of Texas, had to scale 100-foot cliffs to destroy artillery emplacements that were part of Germany’s impressive Atlantic Wall defense. As Francois explained, the Germans had removed all the 155mm howitzers (big cannons) to protect them from Allied bombardment. But two Rangers found the weapons hidden in a wooded area and the mission became a success. We saw the craters from Allied bombs, and we climbed over and through what’s left of the concrete German bunkers.

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A German observation post at Pointe du Hoc.

The views from this place are incredible. We could see other cliffs in the distance and got a feel for what these young men had to deal with. Casualties were heavy. Of the 225 Rangers who hit the beach that morning, 80 were killed in the assault and only 90 were still able to continue at the end of the day.

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A French lifeguard watches over a peaceful Omaha Beach. See the yellow buoy to his left, just past the waves? That was where the beach began the morning of June 6, 1944. American GIs had to make it that far without being shot. Many didn’t.

The American army met the stiffest resistance at Omaha Beach, where aerial bombardment was less effective and most of the tanks didn’t make it to shore. Francois described how bomber pilots were instructed to fly above the clouds to avoid antiaircraft fire. Only a small percentage of bombs reached their target, and the landing force walked right into a devastating crossfire. Because the assault happened at low tide, some of the landing craft hit sandbars and deposited soldiers too early. Many were forced to traverse a distance of three or four football fields, sometimes wading in neck-deep water wearing full combat gear. More than 1,000 men died on this beach.

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Some of the more than 9,000 graves at the American Cemetery in Colleville, France.

We ended the day at the cemetery, which is literally American soil — given to the U.S. in gratitude by the French government. Thanks to Francois’ excellent driving, we arrived just in time to see the 5 p.m. flag-lowering ceremony. Every day, two American flags are lowered and “taps” is played as the second one comes down. I’ll admit I got a little choked up. After the ceremony, I was able to stroll the main walkway and look down the rows of white crosses, with a few Stars of David in the mix too. They’ve been gone for 74 years, but as a U.S. Army veteran I still see them as my brothers. They make me proud to have worn the uniform.

Next time, Leslie fulfills a childhood dream.

UPDATE: Mexico has been knocked out of World Cup competition, but France won its quarterfinal final match against Uruguay, 2-0, so they’re still in the hunt. We’re pulling for France, but no, the World Cup winner won’t determine where we’ll be living six months from now!

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Our guide, Francois, explains a map in the 82nd Airborne Division Museum in Sainte-Mer-Eglise 
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Fighting in the town of Sainte-Mer-Eglise destroyed the church’s stained glass windows. This is one of the replacement windows, showing American paratroopers as angels protecting Mary and the infant Jesus.

Montpellier: C’est très bien!

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Just a few of the many good things about France: Great cheese, bread, sausages, tapenade, and of course, wine!

Year Two of this journey is almost over as Leslie and I head back to the Chicago area in mid-July. A decision looms: Of all the places we’ve been since October 2016, where will we live as non-vagabonds? The past six weeks in France made that choice a bit tougher.

France has a lot of upsides. There’s great food, history and culture, excellent health care (best in the world according to the World Health Organization), great food, friendly people, a pleasant climate (here in the south, at least), great food, and easy access to terrific beaches (here in the south, at least). Did I mention the great food? And, of course, France has some mighty fine wine! Living in France would make it easier — and less expensive — to see parts of Europe we haven’t gotten to yet, such as Budapest and Vienna, and revisit parts of Spain, Italy and the U.K. It’s a first-world country, so you can drink the tap water and flush the toilet paper (both are issues in Mexico).

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One of our favorite produce vendors.Most of this good stuff is grown in France, but some comes from Spain and Italy.

Montpellier would be a terrific place to live. It’s got great energy, a moderate climate, tons of cultural activities of all stripes, friendly people, good public transportation, an English-speaking faith community, and excellent markets for fresh meats and produce. We feel safe here. There’s a reason it’s been the fastest growing city in France for the past 25 years. There’s a thriving ex-pat community in Montpellier. Recently, we met a woman at church who told us about an organization that helps English-speaking ex-pats find housing and resolve some of the issues of moving to a new country. It would be most helpful to have that resource available.

There are negatives, though, as with everywhere we’ve been. France is not cheap, for one thing, and the dollar-euro exchange rate is not favorable to those whose income is in dollars (like us). Our money won’t go as far here as it does in other places. Getting to France from the U.S., and vice-versa, can be expensive. That could be an issue for anyone coming to visit us in our new home, or for us going back to visit family and friends. And it’s a very long flight. Also, there’s a seven-hour time difference between Montpellier and the U.S. central time zone, where most of our friends and family live — that’s a nine-hour difference between us and our daughter, Stephanie, in San Diego. We have to take that into consideration when calling or FaceTiming. Another big issue for us is that lots of people here smoke. Smoking is not allowed inside restaurants, but it’s fine in the outdoor seating. Many times we’ve been enjoying our lunch and gotten a whiff of cigarette smoke — takes us back to the ’70s.

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There are fountains everywhere, like this one in Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. I jog nearly every morning through the esplanade.

As much as we like it, even Montpellier has some issues. Driving, especially in the historic center, is a major challenge because of one-way streets and roads designed for horses. It would take awhile to get accustomed to driving here. The climate is generally good, but the past few days it’s been really hot. It’s 31° C. right now (that’s 88° F., but using Celsius makes it feel cooler) and it’s expected to climb past 33° C. (92° F.) tomorrow. On the other hand, we heard that last winter Montpellier got some snow. So there are some extremes that may be less of a problem elsewhere.

Those are some of the pros and cons. So what’s our choice? Looks like it’s coming down to a tie between Ajijic, Mexico, and Montpellier, France. Two very different places, but a tough choice. Tell you what: If Mexico wins the World Cup, we move to Mexico; if France wins, we live in France. That sound good? (OK, I hear you saying, “What if Japan wins? What if Russia wins? What if…? Did I say it’s a perfect selection tool?)

Stay tuned — more adventures to come. We’re becoming tourists again briefly before the flight back to O’Hare. Where? I’ll let you know in the next post. Until then, I will leave you with some photos and videos from our time in Montpellier that haven’t made it into previous posts.

Au revoir!

MOVIE TIME! I’ve mentioned the market Halles Castellane. Well, here’s a look at one small part of it on a busy Saturday morning:

And here’s Marion, our favorite vendor in the market, slicing some wonderful aged comté cheese for Leslie (you may need to go full-screen to see it all):

We did our “last night” celebration early because we leave on Tuesday morning, and many nice restaurants are closed on Sunday and Monday nights. So we did Maison de la Lozère and discovered aligot (AH-lee-go), a regional dish that’s a mixture of mashed potatoes, cheese and garlic. If you get hungry watching the video, here’s an English version of the recipe. This restaurant makes quite a show of serving it:

 

Now, some still photos you should see:

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There’s a carousel on the Place de la Comedie that dates to 1889. It’s even a double-decker. Leslie wouldn’t let me ride it.
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One of the horses on the 1889 Carousel du Comedie.
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An example of Haussmannien style, made popular in Paris by architect Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-1800s. Locals called this building “the diving helmet” for obvious reasons.
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Montpellier has expansive newer neighborhoods, too. 
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I’ve mentioned it several times. Can’t believe I haven’t provided a photo of the Arc de Triomph. A little smaller than the one in Paris. This is the entrance into the city’s historic center.
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The area known as Antigone, modern buildings in classic Greek architecture. If we return to Montpellier, this could be a target location for a modern apartment.

 

 

 

So what does it cost?

Cost of living is an important factor in our choice of where to live. It’s not the most important, but I think we must give stronger consideration to countries and cities where our dollar goes further. So let’s look at what we’ve been spending to live like the locals here in Montpellier, France.

After housing, food probably takes the biggest chunk of our budget. For most items, we go to the French grocer Monoprix, which has a store in nearby Place de la Comédie (all amounts in USD):

  • canned white tuna, 3.28 oz., $2.32.
  • facial tissue, $2.51.
  • almond milk, 1L, $3.48.
  • basmati rice, 17.6 oz., $2.04.
  • gluten-free bread, $5.13.
  • Colgate toothpaste, 2.5 oz., $2.90.
  • olive oil, 16.9 oz., $6.98.
  • President butter, 8.8 oz., $5,47.
  • one dozen eggs, $3.48.
  • Barilla pasta sauce, 12.8 oz., $2.27.

For fruits and vegetables, there’s the Halle Castellane market right next door to our building. There are a number of vendors for fruits and vegetables, chicken and meat, seafood, cheese, even wine:

  • aged comté cheese, 10 oz., $11.63.
  • broccoli, 10.9 oz., $1.01.
  • head of romaine lettuce, $1.52.
  • asparagus, 12 oz., $3.83.
  • eggplant, 9.3 oz., $.91.
  • zucchini, 11.1 oz., $1.02.
  • Roma tomatoes, 12 oz., $1.90.
  • carrots, 19 oz., $1.63.
  • white onions, 12 oz., $.80.
  • boneless chicken breasts, 11.5 oz., $6.54.
  • beef tenderloin, 10.2 oz., $14.85.

There’s also a good boucherie (butcher shop) close by. We got a 1.3-pound pork roast there for $9.18, and 2.2 pounds of ground beef for $14.99 — and they ground it fresh while we watched!

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Heirloom tomatoes at the Saturday morning open-air market.

We’ve also been to the open-air market under the 18th-century aqueduct, but the vendors don’t always provide receipts and I can’t remember what we spent. We pay cash for all those transactions. I sense it’s slightly less than at Halle Castellane. The open-air market is only on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, and it’s a bit of a hike. We’ve only been twice.

Wine appears to be the best bargain, and I guess we should expect that since we’re in the largest wine-producing region in France. We’ve found excellent local wines for $12 or less — even less than $10.

Dining out seems to cost roughly the same here in Montpellier as it does in Chicago’s western suburbs. I think we’ve been spending slightly less for dinner but more for lunch. For example, after church Sunday we stopped at a restaurant on the Place du Marché aux Fleurs (Flower Market Square) that features burgers and ratatouille. I had a burger with a nice German beer and Leslie had salmon with rice and ratatouille and a glass of rosé  — total of $47.05. Their basic burger was over $15. A few weeks ago we tried an Argentine restaurant that features empanadas. (I was looking forward to this because I used to enjoy empanadas from a food truck in the Loop.) We each had two empanadas. Granted, we had dessert and enjoyed two glasses of malbec each, but the total was $49.04.

Dinner, on the other hand, seems a bit more affordable. We cook at home most nights, though, so the sample size is small. We’ve been to three of the four places our host, Anne-Marie, recommended. On our first night in Montpellier, we went to Bistro d’Alco and enjoyed three-course meals that included some very fine foie gras as an appetizer. Can’t recall what the main courses were, but they both just blew us away. This is a highly rated farm-to-table restaurant with an ever-changing menu, and our total bill with wine was $79.18.

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Leslie admires the ceiling of the 13th-century building that houses a fine-dining restaurant. A bit on the pricey side, but the wine was fantastic!

The second restaurant was L’Artichaut (The Artichoke), where we spent $84.22. This place has earned the Michelin Bib Gourmand award for good, simple cooking at prices under $46. Leslie had the three-course meal (including a chocolate dessert that we shared), while I enjoyed a very nice fish. And of course there was wine. (One of our favorite quotes: “A meal without wine is — breakfast.”) I remember spending more on dinner for two at some of our favorite “special occasion” places in Westmont, Naperville and Oak Brook. So dinner can be a bit of a bargain, in my opinion — lunch, not so much. We did one fine dining experience at Restaurant 1789 in a 13th century building with Gothic ceilings. Pricey, but with amazing food and outstanding service.

I’m getting hungry now, so let’s move on to real estate, starting with the rental market. Based on what I’ve seen online and in handouts from some of the immobiliers (real estate agencies) in our area, the market seems geared toward university students and young singles. You can rent a studio for less than $600 per month (real estate amounts in USD too). You’ll pay more if you want an actual bedroom. For example, a one-bedroom on the city’s north side is $719, and one in the Beaux Arts neighborhood, closer to the historic center, is $812. Both are unfurnished.

That would not be adequate for Leslie and me. We need a two-bedroom because we hope some of you are going to come for a visit — wherever we eventually land. At the very least, we need a place for Stephanie when she comes. I went on one website that listed hundreds of rental properties. When I clicked on the filter for two bedrooms, I got back six. And four of those were unfurnished. Another site, though, offered a two-bedroom with a private garden in the Arceaux neighborhood for $1,350.

Sale prices, as usual, depend on location. One agency had a flyer that listed a two-bedroom apartment with a terrace and parking near the newer suburb of Port Marianne for just $180,646. On the high end, there’s an air-conditioned three-bedroom apartment in Place de la Comédie for $503,479. Great location, but it would be noisy. The place is the largest pedestrian square in Europe! I saw lower sale prices in outlying communities, such as Palavas-les-Flots, and Pezenas.

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We saw lots of new construction outside the city center. Montpellier is still the fastest growing city in France.

Being in the historic center is nice, but Leslie says that if we were to live here long-term she would want something more modern. Recently we took the Montpellier City Tour, a red bus that goes through some of the newer parts of this town. Modern can be found easily in places like Port Marianne and Odysseum, suburbs built in the 1990s while Montpellier was growing from the 28th largest city in France to its seventh largest. And there’s building underway. Looks like the state bird here is the construction crane. Live in one of these areas and you’re just a quick, inexpensive tram ride into the historic center and the main train station. Closer to the historic district is the Antigone neighborhood, which Leslie says she likes because of the classical Greek architecture. Different from the historic center, but with the same walkability — shops and restaurants everywhere.

That’s all on the dollars and cents angle. In the next post — our last from Montpellier — I’ll explain whether or not Leslie and I would consider living in this little corner of the south of France.

Bonne journée!

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A better look at the Gothic ceiling in 1789, a Michelin-rated restaurant next door to our apartment. Somebody worked all day on that ceiling — 500 years before the French Revolution, which was in…right, 1789.

 

We’re close to the coast and vineyards

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Here we are on a Mediterranean beach in the town of Carnos. We got lost that afternoon, but it led to us having a fine lunch: mussels provencal with a nice rose wine. Yum!

While Montpellier is a little over six miles inland, it’s easy to reach some of the beach towns along the Mediterranean. Leslie and I have been to Carnos and Palavas-les-Flots.

Palavas is home to our new friends Patrick and Anne-Marie. We’re renting the Montpellier apartment from Anne-Marie, probably the most helpful host we’ve had in any of our Airbnb or VRBO experiences in seven countries. She invited us to come to Palavas for lunch, then we walked around this little beach town that’s a bit on the quirky side.

We were lucky to catch some of that quirkiness when we watched a joute, or water jousting match, late in the afternoon. It’s a traditional sport in the Languedoc region of France, dating back to the 17th century. It’s also practiced in other parts of France and Switzerland. Water jousting is done in boats, in this case on the canal that bisects downtown Palavas. Two teams fight it out, each with eight men rowing, one steering, two or three playing traditional music on oboes and drums, and one with lance and shield doing the jousting. Actually, each boat has five or six jousters sitting in the tail who alternate fighting. They don’t wear armor. All they have is white shirt and pants, a blue or red scarf, and a wooden shield.

There’s a page on water jousting on the Palavas tourist office’s website but they don’t offer it in English, so here’s the Google translation: “The knights of the sea perpetuate the tradition of medieval jousting. Red boat and blue boat, champions dressed in white and oboe sound, here are the Languedoc jousts. Perched on the ‘tintaine’ at the back of the boat, the jouster launches in hand targets the bulwark of his opponent and tries to make him fall. A powerful symbol of belonging to a community, the spirit and passion of games are transmitted from generation to generation.”

We were fascinated. Here are three short videos I shot with my phone. In the first two, you get a good look at the boats. The first video shows how far they row before the actual battle, and you get a look at the crowd, too. The second is from a different perspective. There is no winner in either clip. The third video I shot from a bridge looking straight down the canal. Even though it’s pretty far away, you can see the red boat wins. Anne-Marie said the blue boat was the Palavas team. She didn’t know where the other crew was from. Everybody cheered anyway.

We also “enjoyed” a Montpellier tradition a few nights ago — one that Anne-Marie warned us about. Féte de Musique is an annual one-night music festival that goes on until the wee hours. It’s all kinds of music played all over town. There was a big stage set up in the Place de Comédie, but we didn’t get down there. We didn’t have to. The restaurant next door had a huge party with loud, thumping electronic music until about 2 a.m. If that wasn’t enough, a drum corps came through our neighborhood about midnight. And thousands of mostly young people were dancing in the streets and having a good time until 4 or 5 a.m.

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A small portion of the crowd outside our window. The revelry went on pretty much all night.

We tasted wine at two more vineyards in the Pic Saint Loup area, which is about a 20- to 30-minute drive from Montpellier. Our guide, Bertrand (bear-TRAHND), explained the appellation, which is in the far north of the broader Languedoc region.  French rules about wine are extensive and detailed. Winemakers in Pic Saint Loup, for example, can grow whatever they like, but the “approved” grapes are syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. To put the coveted “Pic Saint Loup” designation on a label, the wine must be red or rosé and must be a blend of at least two of these three grapes. Vintners also grow cinsault and carignan, but these grapes cannot be more than 10 percent of a blend. They can produce any wines they like — a 100 percent syrah, for example, or a white. But the label must show it comes from the broader Languedoc appellation rather than the more prestigious Pic Saint Loup.

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Bertrand shows us mildew on some of the grape leaves as our new Swedish friends Bjorn and Lydia watch. In the background is Bertrand’s friend from the vineyard.

When Leslie and I arrived in Montpellier, it seemed to rain almost every afternoon. That’s a bit unusual and not good for grapes. As a consequence, as Bertrand explained, some of the area’s vineyards are now dealing with mildew on the vines. That’s not good, as you would expect. He spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of Pic Saint Loup wines, saying they are consistently rated as the best in Languedoc. “But I’m from here,” he admitted. “I grew up in Pic Saint Loup, So I think these wines are the best.” Even if he’s a bit biased, we agree. Wish we could taste them all, but there’s not enough time. Guess we’ll have to come back.

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This map shows where wine is produced in Languedoc. Pic Saint Loup is north of Montpellier.

Leslie and I are almost ready to move on, so it’s time to talk about how much it costs to live in this part of the world. More on that next time.

Bonne journée!

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You probably can’t find this in the U.S., but if you can — buy it! One of our favorites!