Today (Nov. 17) marks four weeks of construction and the new master bathroom is taking shape in our Mexican casa. It may not be quite as large as we expected but it will have two sinks with lighted mirrors, a walk-in shower with a rain-style shower head, and a vanity area for Leslie, with a nice boveda ceiling.
The crew is putting in the plumbing and electrical, which means the floor is still dirt. They’re starting on the new laundry room and the new kitchen, too. We think everything is on schedule.
We’re selecting tile, faucets, fixtures and kitchen appliances now. So many choices!
One huge change has already happened. The new master bathroom and kitchen renovation was Phase One. Changes to the front wall and entry into the courtyard was to be part of Phase Two. But our architect, Juan Allera, proposed doing all the work to the front entrance now because it made sense. I asked how much that would add to the total project. The figure was fairly low because it’s mostly labor, so we gave the green light. Most of the front wall is gone now!
We still hope to be back in our house by Christmas, but some of the appliances are going to take a few weeks to deliver. Fingers crossed!
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!
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.
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.
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.
Yes, we are now in London. Tried an Airbnb in North London — a one-bedroom flat that turned out to be much too far from things we wanted to see. We managed to do some laundry and cook some of our meals, but the Tube ride into central London was long, and the flat was just a little inconvenient. So we’ve moved on to a small hotel close to the train station where we will board a train on Oct. 19 headed for Spain.
This hotel is also close to The British Museum (above), where we saw tons of archeological treasures, including the Rosetta Stone.
Today, we were at the Tower of London. Steve, our Yeoman Warder tour guide (left), showed us where Sir Thomas More was imprisoned before he was beheaded by Henry VIII. Henry had a lot of people executed, and most of them were held and killed at the Tower of London.
The place is very impressive, even if one of the buildings is called “Bloody Tower.” There has been a fortification there since the Norman Conquest around 1000 CE. The Tower’s claim to fame is that the Crown Jewels are here, on display in a building several hundred years old, guarded by those British soldiers with the big furry hats. Got lucky enough to see a changing of the guard there. It’s not as impressive as the one at Buckingham Palace, though. The jewels, on the other hand, are very impressive. Some of the stuff on display dates to the 1200s.
We ended our tour in a little chapel where Anne Boylen, another of Henry’s victims, is buried. It’s still an active church. Our guide Steve is the sexton!
But maybe the best part of the Tower of London is the amazing view you have of the Tower Bridge. This is the one everybody thinks of as “London Bridge,” but it’s really Tower Bridge. London Bridge is the next bridge to the west. See what you think about this view:
Finally, we happened upon a little church next to the Tower of London: All Hallows by the Tower. We were amazed that there has been a Christian church on this site since 675 CE! John Quincy Adams was married there in 1797. The building doesn’t date back very far, since the Germans bombed it in 1940. But it has the feel of being very, very old. They were having some kind of celebration there today, with lots of people in academic gowns. We didn’t want to intrude, so we headed for the last stop of the day: a pint (for me) and a glass of wine (for Leslie) at the Hung, Drawn and Quartered pub, just around the corner from the church. I found this quote posted on the building’s outside wall, and almost fell over laughing in the street:
We started the day standing on the bonny, bonny banks of Loch Lomond, just a short drive outside Glasgow. But soon the 16-passenger bus was winding its way up into the Scottish Highlands, and the scenery started to look like what we saw on the TV series “Outlander,” which we binge-watched before leaving our Willowbrook apartment. We saw Fort William and had lunch in the town of Fort Augustus. The show’s characters are seen in both places. George, our guide, played the show’s theme music on the sound system in the bus. Then he played the Highland folk song it’s based upon. Same music, different lyrics. We saw no standing stones, but there was a lone bagpiper wearing traditional tartan. It was not the Fraser tartan, though. No Jaimie. No Clare.
No worries, because the highlight of the day was an hour-long sail on Loch Ness. No monster, either. But great views of Urquhart Castle along the banks, and interesting commentary from a very knowledgeable guide with Jacobite Tours.
Taking a train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, we did even more sightseeing. We went to Evensong at St. Mary’s Cathedral, which is part of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The choir was very good, and we enjoyed the service in the cathedral, built in the 1800s. But the real treat was arriving by chance at St. Giles Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile about noon on a Saturday. This is the home of the Church of Scotland, and it’s even older. In addition to several Sunday services, there is a brief service at noon every weekday. At the end of that service, the cathedral choir sings for the tourists. With the men in kilts and women in traditional dresses with tartan shawls, this was absolutely the finest a cappella group I have ever heard. Rich tones, perfect pitch. I thought I was listening to the angels. But I imagine the angels stop by every so often to marvel at this group.
We could’ve spent most of the day in the National Museum of Scotland. Part of it was more like Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, but we were more interested in Scottish history, and it did not disappoint. The view was stunning from the museum’s roof. We could see the whole city, including Edinburgh Castle. That’s it, high on the hill behind us.
Now we’re in London, trying out an Airb&b apartment for a little over a week. This is the first place we’ll be able to live like a local. There’s no chance we would actually live here in England, but it’s good practice for Spain.
Leslie and I left Chicago on the afternoon of Oct. 4. After a smooth flight on Aer Lingus, it’s now early on Wednesday, Oct. 5 and we are in Dublin waiting on our connection to Glasgow. It’s almost a four-hour layover, so I’m trying to get started on keeping this up to date. They have free wi-fi here, so it’s easy.
Many thanks to our friends who gave us such a great send-off, especially all our friends at Grace United Methodist Church in Naperville. And special thanks to Leslie’s sister Laura and her husband Paul. They made their downtown Chicago condo available for us to stay in during those days we were home-free. Laura gave us a ride to O’Hare. Thanks!
We feel like we have the world in our hands! More updates coming soon!