Ajijic, our new hometown

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One of many Catrinas on the plaza, this one with a cornhusk skirt.

Leslie and I arrived safely in our new home about a week ago, right in the middle of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations. We like this Mexican tradition. It’s far better than what Halloween has become in the U.S. There’s a fun element to this three-day holiday, but much of it is sacred. The link above takes you to a very good National Geographic piece, and there’s more in this link to Trip Savvy. I encourage you to learn more.

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The largest altar on the plaza. You can see a photo of the honored family members on top.

Even though we were sharing a bad cold, we walked through the Día de los Muertos displays in Ajijic’s central plaza. Families set up altars to honor deceased relatives, and organizations like the Lake Chapala Society also participate. Most of the altars are made with dried flowers — primarily marigolds — so they look a little like Rose Parade floats. And everywhere you see the iconic skeletal character Catrina. Even the gringos get their faces painted to look like Catrina. We saw one woman with full Catrina make-up. She even put make-up on her dog, who seemed to enjoy the attention he got!

There are many other events here, such as parades and an outdoor screening of the movie “Coco.” Illness kept us from participating, but we’re looking forward to next year!

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Family members start on their altar by drawing the outline in chalk. Then they fill in with dried flowers, like the completed altar in the foreground. Some of these altars were quite moving.

We like our new place. It’s a townhome on the west side of downtown Ajijic, a short walk to the lake, to the central plaza, and to many of our favorite restaurants and shops. This is new construction. We are the first residents, so we’ve found a few little glitches that our property manager is fixing. We’ve found it’s also much quieter here than where we lived last year. We have yet to hear any bottle rockets going off at 5 a.m.

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Driving in Ajijic can be challenging. You can see the cobblestone streets, and here’s a minor traffic jam with a golf cart (ahead) and a guy on a horse. Normal.

Yesterday we went to the immigration office in nearby Chapala to start the second part of the process to get our permanent resident cards. More paperwork to fill out, more ID-style photos to take and more money to pay. It shouldn’t take us long to pull everything together, but we’ve heard it can take several weeks to get our cards. When you live in Mexico, it’s very important to be patient!

Leslie and I went to church Sunday at St. Andrews Anglican, and we were welcomed back. We saw some familiar faces and met several new friends. The greeter even helped us find our old name tags from last year. They knew we’d be back!

We’ve also been to the weekly Wednesday street market, known as the tianguis. We can walk there easily, but walking back home with a load of fruits and veggies is not so easy. Fortunately, parking is adequate. Next week, we’ll hit the organic market on Tuesday, and a new Monday market we just learned about last weekend.

So we’ve begun the third year of The Vagabond Retirees, but we plan to stay in Ajijic for that entire year, and possibly longer. Stayed tuned, there’s more to come…

Hasta luego!

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We were greeted on our first night by this stunning sunset. You can see lots of people, mostly locals, on the malecon (right).
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Leslie liked this Catrina because she’s in a sexy pose. “She’s showing a little leg!”

Goodbye, U.S.A.!

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We looked out the window Saturday, Oct. 20, and saw this — just flurries, but with a blizzard-like appearance. Our reaction was to say, in unison, “We’ve stayed here too long!” 

The vagabond years are over. Leslie and I are headed for our new home — Ajijic, Mexico. As the temperatures dropped here in Chicago’s western suburbs over the past few weeks, we have enjoyed seeing the beautiful fall colors. However, we didn’t expect to see snow flurries. It’s a sure sign we stayed in the Frozen North too long!

We’ve been in the U.S. since mid-July, and we’ve accomplished a lot. For example, Leslie has excellent vision now, thanks to Dr. Lafayette’s cataract surgery, and she was able to spend quality time with her two sisters and daughter Stephanie. The best thing about being here so long is that we were able to have great breakfasts, lunches and dinners, some at old “favorite” places, with our many friends in the western suburbs. And we can both hit the road with excellent haircuts! Thanks, Traci!

We also enjoyed worshipping with our friends at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville, where Director of Music Dan Wagner has begun a monthly Evensong. If you like great choral music, you will love the Grace Evensong series. And we had a ball visiting The Morton Arboretum in Lisle to see the trolls. If you live in Chicagoland — or if you plan to visit here — you gotta go see the trolls! (See big photos below.) This terrific, slightly quirky, display of art will be at the Arboretum until the end of 2018 and possibly longer.

People who learn of our plans often ask, “When are you coming back?” We’ve been approved for Permanent Resident status in Mexico, so we don’t expect to come back! We may return to the U.S. for a two-week vacation next summer to see family and friends. We might also vacation in Europe. Realistically, though, we’ll remain at least one full year in Ajijic and evaluate after we’ve experienced all the seasons.

Many of you have asked if the blog will continue. Definitely, yes! And I hope you’ll continue to follow us. Leslie and I already have plans to join friends in Léon, Mexico, for an international hot-air balloon festival in mid-November, so we expect to have lots of things to tell you about during our first full year of non-vagabondness. (That may not be an actual word, but it’s really descriptive!) And, of course, all our friends have a standing invitation to visit us south of the border.

Now it’s goodbye to the U.S.A. Next post from Ajijic!

Hasta luego!

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We enjoyed seeing the gorgeous fall colors. Nice, but it’s time to leave now.
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Leslie with Joe The Guardian. You can see this huge work of art from Interstate 88, with the westbound lanes giving you the best view. There are usually lots of people around Joe. It was a little quiet on a chilly Tuesday morning.
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We think the car was threatening the beautiful trees, so Rocky Bardur is just being protective. The rock on the car, by the way, is real. The one Rocky is about to hurl, is not. 

 

 

 

Mexico!

Three weeks from today (Nov. 1), Leslie and I will become full-time ex-pats in the town of Ajijic, Mexico. We’re getting so excited that I’ve had a song going through my head lately — James Taylor’s “Mexico.” Click on that link to see a You Tube video of a live performance that will get you out of your chair. You may even feel the need to have a margarita, or some chips and guacamole!

Leslie regularly visits the “Ajijic Newbies” Facebook page. It’s a terrific resource and will help us learn more about our new home. Here’s a great article from Forbes magazine on some of the misconceptions many people have about living in Mexico. Somebody posted this article on the “Newbies” page.

As for our time here in the U.S., we’ve just about wrapped up all our appointments with physicians, and we’re continuing to have lunches and dinners with family and friends. But temperatures are starting to drop — frost advisory tonight — and that means we’ve been here too long already.

We’re watching two hurricanes that bear our names! Yesterday, Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida panhandle at just-below Category 5 strength. Hurricane Leslie, on the other hand, is ravaging the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean and is no threat to any land mass. Well, where we’re going (5,020 feet above sea level) we won’t have to worry about tropical storms, whether they’re named for us or not.

More as we draw closer to departure.

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Sunset over Lake Chapala. We hope to enjoy many more of these.

 

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.