Leslie and I are still settling into our new digs with challenges on a near-daily basis, mostly due to poor workmanship or cheapest-possible materials used in construction (e.g., broken toilet seats, broken shower head). We’ve harbored thoughts of bailing out and trying to find something better. But that would mean moving all our stuff again, so we’ve decided to do what we can to make the place habitable. So no photos yet. Please be patient. We still have work to do.
There is news, though. Last week, Leslie did a “presentation” at the monthly meeting of the Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic — better known as CASA. Members must present a dish at least three times a year but are encouraged to do more. Presentations are judged by three local food service professionals — chefs, restaurant owners, etc. Attendees get to sample everything and vote on the People’s Choice award.
There are two categories: entrees and desserts. For May the entree category was cold soups or salads, and the dessert category was bar cookies. Leslie presented “Ajo Blanco (AH-hoe BLAHN-koh),” or white gazpacho. It’s a Spanish dish with Moorish influences. Ingredients include almonds, cucumbers, garlic and grapes. Her soup was one of 10 entree entries…and the professional panel awarded her third place!
I’ve never been a big gazpacho fan, but this was an outstanding soup. Fortunately, there was some leftover to bring home.
May is Lakeside’s hottest month. Daytime highs have been in the upper 80s to lower 90s F., but humidity is usually less than 20 percent. That’s why most of the white pelicans have migrated north. The dry air and the constant breeze keep things fairly comfortable, even without air conditioning. But rainy season is coming, and we’re looking forward to watching the mountainside turn from brown to lush green.
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.
If you’ve been following us since the beginning of this sojourn, almost eight months ago, you know Leslie and I are looking for a place to live in retirement where we will “never be cold again.” So imagine my surprise when my lovely wife said to me: “I’ve learned one thing living in Mérida. It is possible to be too hot.” Yep. And, I might add, too humid.
It is incredibly hot here. Oppressive heat. Excessive sweating heat. Two showers a day heat. And we’ve been asked to use the air conditioners in the house sparingly because they use a ton of electricity and it’s supposedly quite expensive. If a house uses too much electricity, the state government can charge a higher rate. But what prompted Leslie’s comment is the amount of fun we had on Tuesday (May 23).
We had finished breakfast and were planning our day when the power went out. AC was not on in any room at the time, but we checked to make sure no breakers had been tripped. They had not. We contacted the rental agent for this house and she said it was a city-wide power failure. Later in the day, we learned that the entire Yucatan Peninsula was affected, from Cancún to Campeche. We heard that even parts of Mexico City were affected. This, on a day when the high in Mérida was forecast to be over 100° F. and the heat index around 105°. We spent most of the day in the pool.
So even though we have about two weeks left here, Mérida is officially off our list. I still want to tell you about the cost of living here, because it seems to cost less to live here than in the other two Mexican cities we have tried. That makes it hard to eliminate this city, but there are reasons other than the heat and I’ll explain them in the final post from here.
This is strictly anecdotal, but taxis seem to charge less here than in Puerto Vallarta, for example. A ride I would have expected to pay $70 to $80 pesos for in PV was only $50 pesos here. Leslie bought two new pair of shoes a few days ago for about half what the same shoes would have cost in the U.S. There’s a small farmacia (drug store) right off Santiago Park where I bought some Advil, 24 tablets, for $2.70 USD.
Restaurant prices seem generally lower here — even lower than in other Mexican cities. I took Leslie out for dinner on Mother’s Day (even though she’s not my mother) at Apoala, a nice place that features food from the Mexican state of Oaxaca (wah-HAH-kah). Leslie had sea bass and I had a roast pork dish with black beans. Dinner for two, with wine, was about $60 USD. We would easily have paid over $100 in the U.S. for that meal. And we enjoyed breakfast this morning at Maize, Canela (cinnamon) y Cilantro. I had Mexican-style eggs (scrambled with tomatoes, onions, serrano peppers and chorizo) and refried black beans while Leslie had an omelet stuffed with chaya (a Yucatan green, similar to spinach). With one hibiscus tea and one cup of coffee, the total bill was $170 pesos — less than $10 USD.
Grocery store prices vary somewhat, as usual, depending on the store. Here’s a brief list of purchases at the three supermercados we’ve been to so far — Mega, Soriana and Wal-Mart:
premium OJ, 1L, $1.14
oatmeal, 800g, $1.62
rice, 900g, $.85
medium red onion, $.33
gluten-free bread, $5.17
almond milk, 946ml, $2.49
bacon, 227g, $4.18
1 dozen eggs, $1.07
boneless, skinless chicken breasts, 1K, $4.73
paper towel roll, $1.41
coffee, 340g, $5.00
cilantro bunch, $.36
Contrast that with the mercado near Santiago Park, where lots of locals shop. A bag of limes — 13 of them — cost five pesos. Five. That’s only 27 cents USD at today’s exchange rate. At Nature’s Best in Westmont, where we used to shop regularly, you might get five-for-a-dollar on special. We also bought two nice Mexican squash and two large zucchini, all for 38 pesos, or two dollars.
At the other end of the market spectrum is the weekly Slow Food Market, where prices are higher but so is the quality. We pay roughly $30 pesos ($1.62 USD) for a bundle of lettuce — several different kinds — that usually lasts all week. Another vendor sells homemade hummus for $50 pesos, which is $2.71 USD. Closer to prices in U.S. stores, but frankly some of the best hummus we’ve tasted. Then there’s the sausage lady, the tamale guy, the gringo couple selling smoked meats, and the woman who sells various cuts of lamb. All high quality but on the pricey side — relatively.
And tonight we’re going to a performance by the Yucatan Symphony Orchestra at Teatro José Peón Contrearas. I paid $400 pesos for two main-floor seats. That’s about $22 USD for two tickets. The cheapest orchestra-level seats at Symphony Center for a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert are $56 a pop. Okay, that’s like comparing a nice Honda Accord to a BMW 7-series, I know. But you get the idea.
As for real estate, it’s a mixed bag. We’ve walked past a lot of really nice updated homes in the Santiago neighborhood sitting right next to a run-down rat hole. Sometimes between two run-down rat holes or empty shells. And we haven’t seen much outside our neighborhood. I’ll do a little more research and report on real estate prices next post.