A slight delay

“Mom, if you wanted to stay with me longer all you had to do was ask,” said our daughter Stephanie as she and I hovered over Leslie’s bed in the emergency room.

No, we’re not in Costa Rica. There’s been a slight delay and we’re still in San Diego. But while I’m staying in Stephanie’s guest room, Leslie is a patient at Sharp Memorial Hospital on the city’s north side. I’ll try to make a complicated story as concise as possible.

After suffering with abdominal pain all day Monday (Jan. 29), Leslie asked me to take her to Urgent Care on Tuesday morning (Jan. 30), just to make sure she was OK to get on an airplane to Costa Rica the following day. Urgent Care did some tests and sent her to the ER at Sharp Memorial, where she was admitted with acute pancreatitis — probably caused by passing a gallstone Monday (hence the pain) — as well as pneumonia.

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Just one of the devices Leslie has been hooked up to. She would not agree to pose for a photo.

Since then they have pumped her full of antibiotics and other meds. As of Friday (Feb. 2) afternoon, her condition has improved to the point where a surgeon may be able to remove her gall bladder Saturday morning, tentatively at 9:30 a.m. The gastroenterologist who treated her in the ER said her gall bladder was “full of sludge” and she might have more stones in the future. We agreed that doing the surgery now will help avoid the possibility of throwing another gallstone while we’re on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean!

There are some positives here. First, we’re in San Diego where Stephanie can be with her mom, and where doctors and nurses speak English. Second, Leslie’s room is on the seventh floor of the acute care wing with an amazing view of the Pacific Ocean. Well, it’s several miles away, but you can see it if you look closely. And the sunsets are super!

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The view from Leslie’s hospital room. That’s California Highway 163 in the foreground. Across the freeway is the Kearney Mesa area of San Diego, and the ocean is in the distance.

We have cancelled the first part of our trip to Costa Rica, the house in Atenas, but everything else is unsettled. We hope to rearrange accommodations in the beach town of Jacó so we can arrive March 1 and leave April 10. That way we can still evaluate Costa Rica as a possible retirement location, but give Leslie plenty of time to heal and still take the cruise to Europe.

More to come…

 

 

We join thousands marching in San Diego

First, the good stuff. Leslie and I have completed our Costa Rica plans, renting a condo in the Pacific beach town of Jacó (ha-KOH) for five weeks in March and April. So we have solid plans through the end of April.

Here’s how it plays out: We fly from San Diego to San Jose, Costa Rica, on Wednesday, Jan. 31, arriving late in the evening. We’ll spend that night at the Hampton Inn (great breakfast!) and then move on to the Central Valley town of Atenas (ah-TAY-nas). We’ll be there until March 10, when we go to Jacó. International Living has named Costa Rica the top retirement destination of 2018, so we’re excited.

On April 11 we fly from San Jose to Miami, then take a shuttle up the coast to Fort Lauderdale to board the Celebrity Reflection. We set sail the afternoon of April 13, arriving in the port of Rome on April 27.

That’s where it gets fuzzy. The plan is to be tourists in Italy, like we were in the U.K. in October 2016, for two or three weeks before taking up residence in France. In the coming days, we plan to nail down some of that Italian tourist stuff and decide which city in France will be (hopefully) the final stop on the two-year Vagabond Tour. We’ll be in France until late July, when our 90-day tourist visas expire, and then back to the Chicago area.

Now on to the fun stuff, completely unrelated to our travels. On Saturday, Jan. 20, Leslie and I joined more than 37,000 of our closest friends for San Diego’s version of The Second Annual Women’s March in Waterfront Park. You already know about this if you’re Facebook friends with Leslie, and some of the photos below will be familiar.

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It was a bright, crisp morning. Cool in the shade, pleasant in the sun. Just about perfect. 

We took the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s trolley (light rail) from our condo to Waterfront Park. Walking there was an option, of course, but there’s something weird about walking to a march! Getting off at the Little Italy stop, we could’ve turned right to go to the weekly farmer’s market, as we have done several Saturdays since our arrival. Instead, we turned left and followed the crowd into the park.

We couldn’t get close enough to hear the speeches well, but we were there and supporting the cause. Progressive rallies and marches are lots of fun, in my opinion, because the signs are so creative. The signs also feature correct spelling and proper grammar (usually). However, halfway through the route, just as the crowd turned to head back to Waterfront Park along a different street, I said to Leslie, “I don’t know about you, but I’m ready for lunch.” She quickly agreed and our need for a burger won out over our desire to march for anything. Lots of other marchers had the same idea. We both had burgers at Barleymash (I highly recommend The Volcano burger!) in the Gaslamp Quarter, then went home and took naps!

We both took lots of photos, and I leave you with some of my favorites. Next post from the land of Pura Vida: Costa Rica!

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Surprise! We’re back to Plan A.

You may recall that Leslie and I originally planned to go from San Diego to Costa Rica, but those plans changed because of scheduling issues. So we decided to take a cruise through the Panama Canal instead. A great way to celebrate our 25th anniversary, we thought. Well, we’re back to Plan A again!

It’s a long story — here’s the short version. The company we were working with to book the Panama Canal cruise failed miserably, so we called on USAA* for help. They quickly verified that canal cruises in the time frame we wanted were sold out. After some discussion about our options, they booked us on a repositioning cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome in mid-April. So we return to Europe in spring when temperatures are milder than in February!

That, in turn, caused us to take another look at Costa Rica, and we found what appears to be a good place — under budget — in the Central Valley town of Atenas (ah-TAY-nas). The plan is to be there for about five weeks, then head to a Pacific coast beach town for another five. Still working on the beach town. More on that in the next post.

The 14-night transatlantic cruise takes us from Fort Lauderdale to Civitavecchia, the port city of Rome, with stops in Tenerife, Canary Islands (Spain); Malaga, Cartagena and Barcelona, Spain; and Ajaccio, Corsica (France).

While we’re presently not sold on Italy as a place for us to live — at least not right now — Leslie and I would like to check it out and do some touristy stuff, like we did in Scotland and England when we started this journey in 2016. So the plan is to spend two or three weeks in various parts of Italy and then head to France for about six weeks, probably in Languedoc-Roussillon in southern France, or maybe in Provence. Details to come.

If all goes well, we will be back in the Chicago area in late July to see our doctors, catch up with friends and family, and make a decision on a retirement location. By the end of this year, we hope to be vagabonds no more!

Looking back at the last post, I’m afraid it may have left you with the impression that we don’t like San Diego. We love San Diego, but our focus is to live in another country. Plus, the cost of living in southern California is quite high, so things will have to change dramatically for us to retire here.

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Lots of Navy people attend this church. The design of the sanctuary is that of an old sailing vessel, upside down. The roof is the ship’s keel. 

There are lots of great things about San Diego, though. One of them is not even in San Diego — it’s St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, the “Church of the Voyager,” on Coronado Island. We’ve made some good friends at St. Paul’s and have learned a lot from Pastor Robb’s sermons, like his current thought-provoking series on the Gospel of John. Anytime we’re back in San Diego, we will return to St. Paul’s.

I’ll close with this: Stephanie’s Christmas gift to us was tickets to the musical “Hamilton”! All three of us went on Thursday, Jan. 11, to the San Diego Civic Theatre. Wow! This is the best show I’ve seen since “Les Miserables,” which is my all-time favorite. The music, the staging, the singing, the dancing — all just incredible. I’ll admit I was prepared not to like it because I’d heard some of it was in rap. But the rapping was like the recitative, or spoken words, in opera. It worked really well. I highly recommend “Hamilton.” Go see this one, it’s definitely worth the price!

The music is the real star: songs like My Shot, The Room Where it Happens, and Washington On Your Side, just to name a few. They’re not tunes you can hum while walking down the street, though. They are rich and complex, like fine wine. One of the most impressive things about this musical came after the last notes died away. The entire cast took a bow together. Curtain calls didn’t start with the minor characters and end up with the stars getting the most applause. No. The cast appeared at the end as equals, no matter what role they had. It made me think about Mr. Jefferson’s eloquent words, “…all men are created equal.” Too bad we have drifted so far away from that idea.

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The Civic Theatre is an excellent venue. Decent seats and good sight lines, even from the upper balcony. We could see the dance moves well from up above.

 

*We use San Antonio-based USAA (United Services Automobile Association) for car and home insurance, life insurance (Mike), banking and investments. In fact, I’ve never had any other brand of car insurance — over 45 years with the same company. The bank and investment services are available to anybody, but the insurance is sold only to current and former military officers and certain non-commissioned officers. The company offers many additional services to members, including a car buying service and a travel agency. If you ever served in the military, go to their website to see if you qualify to become a USAA member. And no, they didn’t pay me for this advertisement!

New year, new plan

Happy New Year, everybody! May this be a great one for all of you. Leslie and I have been sharing a bad cold since right before Christmas, so we’ve been staying pretty close to home and doing very little of interest. Nothing to post about. We both feel much better now but we still have lingering coughs that sound worse than they are.

A new year brings new plans. We will be here in San Diego until the end of January (longest we’ve been anywhere since this project began). Unless our circumstances change significantly, San Diego is not on our list of possible retirement locations.

The cost of living is stunningly high here. For example, there is a one-bedroom, one-bath condo for sale on the first floor of the building we live in right now. It’s 717 square feet and is listed at $398,000. A two-bedroom, which is what we would need, is closer to $500,000+ in the downtown area. In nearby towns like La Mesa, one of our favorites, you can find two-bedroom places under $500K, but they’re generally quite small. And rents are high throughout the area. I’m not going into detail about real estate because everything depends on location. Prices are affordable if you don’t mind owning a double-wide in El Cajon. Want to see water from your house? Now you’re looking at seven figures.

Groceries cost a lot more here in Southern California. Ralphs is the biggest and best grocery store in the downtown area, and it’s an easy 10-block walk from our condo. (An aside here for my editor colleague John: It’s Ralphs, not Ralph’s. No apostrophe — checked their website to be sure.) The best thing about Ralphs is getting 30 percent off all wine (mix and match) if you buy a minimum of six bottles! That’s a great deal. These prices, though, not so much:

  • gluten-free penne pasta, $2.79.
  • Classico pasta sauce, $2.99.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.92.
  • grape tomatoes, $3.99.
  • Silk almond milk, 1/2 gal., $3.49.

Across the street from us is Grocery Outlet Bargain Market, a discount food store. Prices are lower and the walk is less than a block, but they don’t carry the range of stuff Ralphs or Whole Foods does:

  • 5 limes, $1.00.
  • zucchini, 1.29 lbs., $1.02.
  • Quaker oats, 42 oz., $3.29.
  • Ritz crackers, $1.99.
  • pineapple, $1.99.

When we have a rental car, we go up to the hip Hillcrest neighborhood to Whole Foods. There are some things we can only get at Whole Paycheck, like our favorite Intelligensia House Blend coffee, which sets us back $13.99 for 12 ounces. It’s worth it. Some other stuff:

  • guacamole, .85 lb., $7.64.
  • romaine lettuce, $1.99.
  • coconut milk coffee creamer, $4.49
  • low-sodium bacon, $5.49.
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People-watching is great at the year-round Little Italy farmers market.

Then there are the Little Italy (Saturday morning) and North Park (Thursday afternoon) farmer’s markets. I have no idea what we spend there, but it’s dramatically more than at the tianguis in Ajijic, or the mercado in Mérida. For example, you may recall me bragging about getting 13 limes at the Santiago mercado in Mérida for about 75 cents. At the Little Italy market, one vendor was selling limes at three for a dollar. Sometimes, though, you get what you pay for, like free-range eggs from Three Sons Farm in Ramona, Calif. — expensive at $7 a dozen, but by far the best eggs I’ve ever had.

I looked back at cost-of-living posts from Mexico, and you should feel free to do the same if you like. The Orowheat whole wheat bread I enjoy, for example, is $3.49 at Ralphs. We paid $2.30 for the same loaf at Wal-Mart in Ajijic, Mexico. At Ralphs, a dozen large eggs is just a penny shy of four bucks. In Ajijic, less than two dollars.

Mexico still seems to be in the lead in our home search, and cost of living is a big factor. But we’re giving Europe — France and maybe Italy — another chance in the spring. More on that when plans firm up.

Finally, some sad news. We had to say goodbye to our cat Sam last week. He was only 10 and suffered from episodes of poor health about once a year since he was a kitten. Dr. Berg, the best vet in the world, would give him a B12 shot and some other treatment and he would bounce back as if nothing had happened. She did that several times while we still lived in Westmont.

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Sam

This time, after more than a year of excellent health, he didn’t respond to treatment as he had in the past. He stopped eating and his kidneys and liver were shutting down, so we consulted with Dr. Berg and with our dear friend Barbara, who was caring for Sam in our absence, and made the tough call to end his suffering. We deeply appreciate Barbara, who did all she could for him. She and Sam had bonded, and we know she feels the loss as we do. We bring these little creatures into our homes and into our lives knowing their life spans are shorter than ours, but it’s still hard to handle.

2018 started on a sad note as Leslie learned that her second cousin, Helen Thoman, died in New Jersey at the age of 99. She was a grand lady, and a lot of family history may have been lost with her death, especially information about Leslie’s Hungarian relatives.

And we were shocked just after Christmas to learn of the unexpected death of our former neighbor Dan Smith. Dan and Zdenka were the best neighbors we ever had. I remember Dan shoveling his own driveway, then shoveling ours, then shoveling Monica’s driveway across the street, after her husband Ed died. Dan was one of those really big men who was never without a smile. Except, maybe, when the Chicago Blackhawks lost a hockey game! He was truly a gentleman, and a gentle man. Z, you and Christopher are in our prayers.

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We miss you, Dan. So glad we had this dinner together last summer.

 

Looking at options in San Diego County

In the last post, I said one part of the plan for San Diego was to spend the holidays with our daughter Stephanie. Another part was to continue being warm — or at least warmer than we would be if we were still in the Chicago area. So far, so good.

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One of the upsides to living in California. Great wines!

It was over 80° F. on Thanksgiving Day here in San Diego. Leslie and I enjoyed a great Thanksgiving dinner with Stephanie. The list of things we’re thankful for begins with Steph. Being here in San Diego to share the holidays with her ranks right up there. And leftovers, of course. I’m always thankful for leftovers!

We got the festivities started a little early. On Nov. 18 (the Saturday before Thanksgiving), we enjoyed a “Friendsgiving” celebration with Stephanie and more than 40 of her closest friends. The hosts provided a roast turkey and a turducken. All the women brought a side dish and all the men brought two bottles of wine. There was a lot of great food, and a lot of wine! Leslie made her famous home-made cranberry sauce (way better than that gelatin stuff out of a can) and Stephanie made some amazing mashed potatoes. The party was on the rooftop of a condo building where one of Steph’s friends lives. Long walk for us — almost a whole block from where we’re living now.

Plans for Christmas Day haven’t been formalized yet, but we had dinner with Stephanie last weekend and helped her put up her Christmas tree. In keeping with tradition, we watched the 2003 Will Ferrell movie “Elf.”

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A small part of the crowd at “Friendsgiving.” We were the second- and third-oldest at the party. One other set of parents was there: David (he’s 70) and Patty, a neat couple we enjoyed meeting.

This week Leslie and I have been going to a number of communities in and near San Diego to see if maybe we could live here. We still plan to live outside the U.S., but San Diego has always been “Plan B.” There may come a time when we would need to be closer to Stephanie — driving distance rather than a potentially long flight.

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There’s a Farmers Market every Saturday morning, year-round, in the Little Italy neighborhood of San Diego. Lots more than just fruits and vegetables: hummus, sauces, jellies, bread, cheese, you name it.

So far we have visited places as close as North Park, La Mesa and El Cajon, as well as farther-flung haunts such as Carlsbad, Temecula and Poway. We also drove through the coastal villages of Solana Beach and Encinitas, both of which are very similar to Carlsbad. And we have a few other places to check out.

The leading candidates appear to be Carlsbad (a quaint beach town) and Temecula (inland, lots of wineries). It’s jarring, though, to look at tiny apartments — two-bedrooms, about 850 square feet — that would cost us three, four, even five times as much as a nice furnished home or condo would in Mexico.

And so far, all the independent senior housing we’ve seen has been at a very high price and includes three meals a day in the facility dining room. We’re not interested in that — not yet, anyway. We want to cook most of our own meals. If you’ve tasted Leslie’s cooking, you understand.

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One of the desserts we enjoyed at Friendsgiving. Couldn’t resist including this! Leslie says the turkey is made of fondant, a type of decorative icing for cakes.

UPDATE: We’ve been struggling with where to go after San Diego. The original plan was to spend some time in Costa Rica before heading back to Europe to check out France and Italy. But we couldn’t seem to find appropriate housing in our preferred area of Costa Rica, the Central Valley. The other problem was how to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which is Feb. 6, 2018.

We always try to be flexible, so here’s the new plan: A Panama Canal cruise for late January and early February. That would allow us to see a bit of Costa Rica, as well as some of Panama and Colombia. It would also get us from the west coast to the east coast while crossing the Panama Canal transit off both our bucket lists!

Getting to the east coast (Florida) sets us up to take a repositioning cruise to Europe (up to four weeks). That should make for a nice vacation — like the one we did last year in the U.K. — and it’s a little less expensive than airfare. Plus it gets us to Europe in spring when the temperatures are more amenable. Yes, we’re still leaning toward Mexico for our retirement home, but we need to give Europe another shot.

More on that later. I leave you with photos of Stephanie’s cats, Louis and Piper. They’re both Maine Coons, which is the third most popular breed in the U.S. right now.

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This is Louis. He’s the senior cat in the house.
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This is Piper. Her markings are really dramatic.

Ciao, Malta!

So we bid farewell to the island nation of Malta. (The Maltese say “ciao” for goodbye. Their language borrows heavily from Italian as well as Arabic.) Lacking any temporary-residence visas, we can only stay in the Schengen Zone for 90 days. Tomorrow is the 90th day since we boarded a train in London and headed for Spain.

So we’re headed back to the New World to check out more possible retirement homes. First stop, later this week, is San Miguel de Allende in the mountains of Mexico’s Guanajuato province, about a three-hour drive north of Mexico City. It’s over 6,000 feet above sea level. Since we’ve been living for the past month at about six feet above sea level, this will take some getting used to!

We’re excited about being warm again. Malta is in the Mediterranean Sea, just about as far south as you can get and still be in Europe. But this winter has been unusually cold. It’s been that way all over Europe. The mountain air of San Miguel promises to be drier. While at night it’s in the low 40s F. right now, daytime temperatures are in the mid 70s. Can’t wait to have a margarita on the rooftop terrace of our apartment!

Right now, the plan is to be in San Miguel until March 1, then move on to Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast. Both towns have huge expat populations. Puerto Vallarta’s expat community is active and vibrant. We’ve already gotten a ton of emails inviting us to their social events. After about six weeks in PV, we plan to try Mèrida, at the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula, then possibly Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun. We’re back in the Chicago area, probably by mid-July. Hope to see many of you then.

International Living magazine rates Mexico as the Number One retirement destination in the world for 2017. It’s partly the warm climate, partly the warm people. We’re hearing lots of great things about Mexico. Now, I know somebody is saying, “Gee, isn’t Mexico dangerous?” Well, it’s not nearly as dangerous as Chicago!  Seriously, there are places in Mexico you should not go, like the Mexican states along the U.S. border and the state of Sinaloa. The drug cartels aren’t active in the areas we plan to visit. If they were, the tourists and expats would leave, taking their money with them. Then lots of good folks would lose their jobs. Where we’re going, it’s very safe. More on that later.

I leave you with a photo I took in Teatro Manoel in Valletta. It’s the third oldest theater in Europe, and the oldest in the former British Commonwealth. The concert we attended was titled, “Gallic Music for Cello and Piano.” The cellist was a young French artist, Sébastien Hurtaud. He was accompanied by Italian pianist Bruno Canino. We heard works by DeBussy, Fauré and Saint-Saëns. Leslie and I both enjoyed the performance, but spent the whole time thinking of our dear friend and outstanding cellist, Jo-Jo Murphy.

Next post from Mexico!

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Sorry, it’s a little dark at intermission of a concert we attended in the very small Teatro Manoel, built in 1731 by the Portuguese Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena of the Knights of St. John. 

 

 

Malta: Maybe, Maybe Not

We have fewer than 10 days left here on Malta, so it’s time to start evaluating. There are a lot of good things to say about Malta. The biggest plus so far has been the ease of meeting other expats. We’ve enjoyed going to church at St.Andrews

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Here we are with the Rev. Kim Hurst, pastor of St. Andrews and a methodist minister from the U.K.

and have met some lovely people. In fact, Leslie and I had dinner last night at the home of our Canadian friends, Frank and Judy Wilmot.

Another plus is that most Maltese speak English, some better than others. Most signage is in English or a mix of English and Maltese. It’s generally pretty easy to make ourselves understood.

Culture is a big deal here — yet another plus. In fact, Malta will be the European Union Capital of Culture in 2018. They’re already promoting it. Beginning next week is the Valletta International Baroque Festival, a series of 25 classical concerts at various places around the capital city. We may get to see two or three before we leave. Malta also has an annual jazz festival and many opportunities to see theater and dance performances.

Leslie and I attended the President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on New Year’s Eve at the Mediterranean Conference Center, which was built in the 16th Century by the Knights of St. John as a hospital. The orchestra was pretty good, as was the featured soloist, a young Maltese soprano, Nicola Said; the program mostly light classics and show tunes. And the president was there!

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The blond woman with glasses in the center of the photo is President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca. We were that close to her. Everybody talks about her with genuine affection and respect. What a concept!

We were in the same room with the president of Malta, and we never saw any security. No metal detectors, no cops or soldiers with guns. Granted, the real political power here rests in the prime minister rather than the president. But she is far from a figurehead, being heavily involved in social issues of all kinds. I think it speaks well for this island nation that the president can mingle easily with the people.

There are also some things that aren’t that great. We noticed pretty quickly that it gets quite chilly here in December and January — and many Maltese don’t have heating or air conditioning in their homes. We have a dehumidifier in this 400-year-old house, which makes it feel more comfortable. Today’s high was only 50º F. with light rain and even some sleet, and tonight’s forecast low is 41º F. Up until today, it’s been more like 60º to 65º F. most days. Our neighbor came by this morning and said this is the coldest winter she can remember. Newer construction and renovated spaces often include heat and air conditioning, but running them costs quite a bit — electricity is expensive on Malta.

That’s just one part of what we’ve determined to be a slighter higher cost of living than what we found in Spain. Renting or buying property would be more expensive here. The biggest real estate agency lists apartments in Valletta for upwards of $315,000, and some of the better properties are well over $1 million. Here, on the older more historic side of The Grand Harbour, an area known locally as The Three Cities, some apartments are listed for under $160,000, and about the same in other parts of the island.

Surprisingly, we found some rentals available in St. Angelo Mansions, built recently just outside the walls of Fort St. Angelo — the only Malta fortification that withstood The Great Siege of 1565. We could rent a three-bedroom with water view there for anywhere from $1,100 to $1,600 a month. And in Valletta, we found rental listings for as little as $1350 a month for a two-bedroom. In communities nearer the center of the island, we found monthly rentals as low as $600 a month, also for two bedrooms. So there is some affordable real estate all over Malta.

Then there’s the cost of food. Just a few items from last week’s grocery list, all converted from grams and liters into U.S. measurements, and from euros to dollars at the current exchange rate. Bear in mind that without a car we don’t have easy access to an American-style supermarket. Our neighbor Marthese, who takes care of this house for the owner, took Leslie to the supermarket one day a few weeks ago, but most of our food comes from The Convenience Store (yes, that’s the name — it’s a local chain). With that in mind, here are the costs for you to compare:

  • peanut butter, 12.3 ounces, $2.88.
  • eggs, one dozen, $2.31.
  • orange juice, 67.6 ounces, $3.56.
  • olive oil, 8.4 ounces, $3.35.
  • coffee, 17.6 ounces, $3.03.

Leslie says the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables from the greengrocer on Victory Street is slightly more than we paid at Central Mercado in Alicante. Same with meat and poultry. So in general, food costs are slightly higher here. Eating out in a restaurant is also a bit more expensive than in Alicante, with dinner menu prices rivaling what we paid at our favorite restaurants in DuPage County.

In general, we both believe Malta deserves continued consideration as a retirement home. We may come back to see how it is in a warmer season.

Our time in Europe is over for now. Next stop, Mexico. More on that next post.

I leave you with a photo of the nave and elaborately painted barrel vault of St. John’s Co-Cathderal, the number one tourist attraction in Valletta, built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577, and dedicated to St. John the Baptist. In the 17th Century, the interior was redecorated in the Baroque style by Italian artist Mattia Preti and others. The church is considered one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world’s great cathedrals. The artwork alone is awesome.img_1318

Different Parts of Malta, Part Two

In the last post I forgot to say Leslie and I had a great Christmas with our daughter, Stephanie. We enjoyed Christmas Eve dinner in our house and went to church Sunday at St. Andrews, where we sang carols and heard an excellent message from Pastor Kim Hurst.

After the service, we feasted on Christmas dinner with about 40 people from the church and the community. There were people from the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Australia, Libya, Egypt, Nigeria and Malta, of course. Maybe a few others. We didn’t get to talk to everyone.

Our new friends Franklin and Judy cooked turkey and dressing with lots of potatoes and vegetables. Since they are Canadian, Judy called it, “a traditional North American Christmas dinner.” Here we are:img_1297

 

Now, Part Two of our private guided tours of Malta, conducted by Victoria, who did a great job. In the last post I detailed our visits to the Blue Grotto, two of the island’s megalithic temples and Casa Bernard. But there’s more!

We had  a “Taste of Malta” experience that started with some Maltese coffee and traditional pastries. Didn’t like the coffee. It has anise in it, and I don’t like that flavor. Leslie liked it, but not enough to make it at home. The pastries, on the other hand, were very nice. We each had something different, and we also tried traditional nougat treats. For lunch, we dined at Diar Il-Bniet in the town of Dingli, a restaurant featuring food from a nearby farm. We asked Victoria about the menu and she said, “Everything they serve is food that Maltese people prepare at home.” Baked macaroni with minced beef, beef marrows, beef olive with Maltese sausage, and cauliflower lasagne. Probably the best meal we have had in quite some time. Maltese food is very flavorful!

But we did more than eat. We also walked through the walled city of Mdina, founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th Century and Malta’s capital until medieval times. Only a few hundred people live within the walls, mostly members of Malta’s noble class.

The biggest attraction in Mdina is St. Paul’s Cathedral. Originally built in the 12th and 13th Centuries, the cathedral was severely damaged in a rare earthquake in 1693. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style we see today. img_1400

The Apostle Paul was shipwrecked on Malta while being taken to Rome to stand trial before Cesar, his right as a Roman citizen (see Acts 21-26 for the whole story). The cathedral is dedicated to him, and most of the art is about Paul, including a beautiful frescoe above and just behind the altar depicting the shipwreck.

St. Paul’s Cathedral is known for its Christmas “crib,” what we in the U.S. would call a nativity scene. Only this one is massive. There are so many people and animals in this crib that it’s hard to even find Mary and Joseph! It’s probably 12 to 15 feet across. This is a Maltese tradition. Many of the faithful have cribs in their homes, or in a display case right beside their front doors.

Here’s the cathedral’s crib — shepherds on the left, angels descending from Heaven:img_1410

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the close-up (below) you can barely see Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Look near the center, then see the Magi just to the right of the baby:img_1411

We left the cathedral to visit the Mdina Glass factory, which is actually in the village of Ta’ Qali. Each piece the company sells is hand-made. We watched glassmakers working, effortlessly creating items like the ones on display in the shop. Leslie and Stephanie both contributed to the economy of Malta!

If you want to know more about the art they produce, click on the link in the previous paragraph.

Finally we visited Meridiana Wine Estate, also in Ta’ Qali, where we got a tour of the winery and did some tasting. This winery, and its vineyards, are on land that was a British airfield during World War II (see photo, below). Vines were planted and the winery built in the 1980s. Click the link above to learn more.img_1426

Leslie and I had tried some Meridiana wine at a wine shop in Valletta a few weeks earlier. We were surprised at how good Maltese wines are. Meridiana is our favorite, but there are other excellent wines here.

Our good friend Sean Chaudry at Hinsdale Wine Shop really needs to try and score some of their Isis Chardonnay. It’s one of the best chardonnays I have ever tasted, but I doubt it’s available to distributors in the States. Sean, your next trip should be to Malta! You won’t regret it. img_1423

This photo (left) shows Leslie and Stephanie in the barrel room. We descended a tightly wound spiral staircase into the cellar and learned how their wine is fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged in French oak barrels, like these.

All their wines are named after Phoenician gods, such as the goddess Isis, previously mentioned. I know what you’re thinking — Isis was an Egyptian goddess! Well, it seems folks here on Malta think she was a Phoencian goddess first, and the Egyptians borrowed her. Either way, the wine named for her is stunning. Crisp and citrusy. Great with Maltese seafood.

Steph bought a few bottles, some red and some white, to ship home to San Diego. Leslie and I got a few bottles for ourselves because the winery price was lower than the Valletta wine shop price.

Since we don’t have a rental car, these tours gave Leslie and me a great chance to see more of Malta. And it was super entertainment for Steph. We all learned a lot.

But then it was time to say goodbye to our beautiful daughter. She took a very early morning flight to  London on Dec. 29, and arrived safely — much to the delight of her two cats, Louis and Piper. Fortunately there was no hijacking this time!

Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve by attending The President’s New Year Concert by the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. Then we will watch the fireworks. We haven’t decided where to go yet; there are several possibilities. We may join the crowds in Valletta’s St. George’s Square or watch from Upper Barrakka Gardens, near the underground bunkers where the Allies planned the Mediterranean campaign in World War II. Or, if it’s too cold, we may head back home to watch the fireworks from the Three Cities side of The Grand Harbour. We’ll let you know.

Happy New Year!

Seeing different parts of Malta

img_1323This is a view from above of the famous Blue Grotto on Malta’s southeastern coast, one of the places our daughter Stephanie wanted to see while she was here for Christmas. Leslie found a private tour company to help us all get a better look at parts of the island we haven’t seen.

See that itty-bitty boat down there? We got in one of those little boats (it only holds nine passengers, and you have to wear a life jacket) for a close-up view of an amazing place. Stephanie got a great selfie of the three of us:img_0035There are several caves and limestone structures on the 20-minute tour, but Blue Grotto is the star. Take a look at the incredible color of the water:img_1343

From the Blue Grotto, we drove past a rather large, somewhat isolated home that is often rented to the rich and famous who come to Malta for privacy. Our guide Victoria said the current occupant is Tom Hanks, although she did not know if he’s here to film a movie or just for vacation. Too bad he didn’t come out so we could say Merry Christmas!

Then we moved on to see the Hagar Qim temples, just two of the 23 megalithic temples found on Malta. They are the oldest free-standing structures in the world — 1,000 years older than the pyramids! This (below) is what the temple sites look like, covered by a tent to prevent damage from the elements. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site.img_1378

Unlike at Stonehenge, which is 2,000 years younger, the temple builders here used locally quarried limestone rock. There are two types in the area: a hard limestone and a softer limestone. Builders mainly used the soft variety because it’s easier to decorate. They also used it to draw their plans. Look at the two photos below. In the first, you see what might be considered an architect’s drawing. In the second, what the temple entrance looks like today.
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Maybe my friend and international architect Larry Hartman can weigh in on the “blueprint”!

Just one more site to discuss in this post. We visited Casa Bernard in the village of Rabat. Built in the 16th Century, this was the home of a Maltese noble family of French origin. The current owners, Georges and Josette Magri, are not nobility but they have owned the house for many years and they still live in it. They open a portion to the public on a limited basis, but this is their home. They had a family Christmas dinner in the formal dining room. I think Josette said they had 40 for dinner, and yes, she had it catered!img_1391

She and Georges are collectors, as were both sets of parents. The place is like an antique shop. A very high-class antique shop! They have lots of small items to show off — pill boxes, match boxes, jewelry, china, silver services and other items. But there are also paintings on the walls that date to the 17th and 18th Centuries. A few are portraits of some of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John.

Our tour with Victoria continued to the walled city of Mdina with its glorious cathedral, to the famous glass factory outside of Mdina, and to the Meridiana Wine Estate. Malta has some outstanding wines. We tasted some at Meridiana. Stephanie bought half a case to be shipped to her home in San Diego. She will have the only Maltese wine in San Diego — maybe in all of California!

More on that next time! Happy New Year!

Merry Christmas from Malta!

We had a little excitement today. As Leslie and I prepared for our daughter Stephanie’s arrival for Christmas, we heard about a hijacked airplane that had landed at the Malta International Airport. There was a possible hostage situation and the airport was closed. It turned out to be a Libyan airliner, hijacked while on a domestic route. Apparently this was a political act by supporters of the former dictator. It was not terrorism, and no one was killed or injured. The good news is, Stephanie’s flight from London Heathrow was only about 15 minutes late.

So she arrived safely and will be with us for a few days to celebrate Christmas. Leslie has a lot planned — we’re doing a walking tour of Valletta, the capital city, and a wine tasting, among other things. Maltese wines are very good — we’re trying to sample as many as we can!

Christmas Day we plan to worship at St.Andrew’s Church in Valletta, then join our new friends in the congregation for Christmas dinner. img_1273Our Canadian friends Franklin and Judy are preparing traditional turkey and dressing with all the trimmings. This is a fun group, so it should be a great Christmas. So far we’ve met people from Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, the U.K. and the U.S. Quite an international group.

Here’s a look at the sanctuary (right). I think the building dates to the early 1800s.

There are Christmas decorations all over this island. The city of Mdina is known for works of art in blown glass. Just inside the city gates of Valletta, in front of the Parliament building, stands a Christmas tree made of Mdina glass balls — big ones, little ones, all kinds of sizes. It’s quite festive, and about 30 feet tall. Timg_1288here are also lots of nativity scenes around Malta, some done by churches, some by businesses, some in front of private homes.

I saw an article — can’t remember where — in which Malta was touted as one of the best places in the world to spend Christmas. Makes sense, since better than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic. Nobody here says “Happy Holidays”!

Stephanie heads back home to San Diego after Christmas, but Leslie and I plan to celebrate New Year’s Eve here. Instead of joining the crowd in the square on Republic Street at midnight, though, we will be at the Mediterranean Conference Center for the President’s New Year Concert, featuring the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra. There are a couple of other concerts in the first two weeks of the new year that we hope to attend.

We’re here until Jan. 16, then we have to leave Europe because we don’t have the visa necessary to stay longer than 90 days. I explained the Schengen Agreement in an earlier post. It just means we will be heading to Mexico next, to the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende. More on that later, too.

It will be sad to leave our new neighbors here in Malta, though, especially our new best friends who live here, on these tiny boats, just across the harbor from us:img_1279

The one on the left is bigger than our house in Westmont was!

The boats on our side of the harbor are a lot smaller. We were chagrined, however, to learn that the American Dream is not dead, it’s for sale:img_1275

Merry Christmas!