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!
The crew has been hard at work since Oct. 20, and the outside walls are almost done for the new master bathroom. The guys should be starting on the plumbing in just a few days. Then the outside work will be finished and they can start converting the bathroom to a laundry room.
Architect Cristina Allera has been working closely with Leslie to make sure we get all the nice touches, like a vanity in the new bathroom where Leslie can sit to do her makeup. Similar to what we had in our Westmont master bath.
Our excellent carpenter, Heriberto, is building the kitchen cabinets in his Guadalajara shop. We’re excited about having more storage space and more counter space.
Here in Mexico there are no studs and no drywall. All walls are made of brick with cement/stucco over the brick. Trees are hard to come by here — bricks and concrete are cheap and easy. Plus, there’s no reason for termites to invade your home because there’s very little wood.
In another development, we both got Mexican driver’s licenses last week. Leslie’s Illinois license expired on her birthday (Oct. 16). There’s no chance we would go back to the States right now, so the option was to get a license from the state of Jalisco. So we both got brand new licenses, even though my Illinois license is good for a few more years.
We hired someone to get all the paperwork put together, then they walked us over to the license bureau where we took a 10-question test — all about road signs — in English on a computer. Then we got pictures made and in about 15 minutes we had our new licenses.
While the Lakeside area is still not seeing a lot of new COVID cases, the governor of Jalisco has clamped down because hospitalizations statewide are at a critical point. Leslie and I are still doing everything we can to stay safe — even avoiding friends we think are not being careful enough.
I will leave you with a few shots of the hummingbirds and butterflies that hang out in our yard. Our Canadian next-door neighbors Sharon and Quentin have two hummingbird feeders on their back patio. I’ve seen as many as 15 to 20 hummers over there, and most of them pause in our yard to dine on real flowers. They’re fun to watch.
Leslie and I are finally getting the renovation started on our house — six months later than planned. We hoped to have all the work done in April and May before we moved in. Because of the quarantine, our homeowner’s association did not allow workers into the neighborhood. Later, when that was allowed, we decided it was not a good idea to have people we don’t know coming into our house. We’re taking extra precautions during this pandemic.
Also, as we’ve lived in our new home, our small project grew bigger. The original plan was to get the washer and dryer out of the kitchen to gain more storage and counter space. We planned to get stackable machines and squeeze them into a space in the master bedroom closet, then update the kitchen cabinets with new doors and buy new appliances.
Over the last four-plus months we’ve started thinking bigger, especially after we found a few issues in the master bath. Now we’re adding a new master bathroom onto the front of the house, reworking and improving the closet and other storage, and putting side-by-side laundry units where the bathroom is now. We will also get a new linen closet and utility closet, neither of which exist now. And we’re gutting the 12-year-old kitchen down to the walls. All new cabinetry, all new appliances, more storage and more counter space.
In fact, the kitchen is already gutted and the bathroom will be gone in a few days. Everything was removed carefully by Fernando, who works as a gardener for at least two of our neighbors. Fernando is building a house for his family in Chapala on a shoestring budget, and he can use all the cabinets and appliances from our house.
We feel fortunate to have hired Juan Alera and his daughter Cristina as our architects. Juan has done home building and renovation for years in the Lakeside area. Cristina studied architecture at the university in Guadalajara (where one of her professors was her father) and for a year at a university in France. She speaks English and French in addition to her native Spanish.
Construction begins Oct. 19. Juan says it will take two months, but we’re allowing for three just in case. And since now we have no kitchen and no master bath, and things are about to get very dusty and dirty, we’ve moved out for the rest of this year. Again, we’re very fortunate to have rented a home right here in our neighborhood, just two streets down the hill. It will be easy to go back and get things we need, and to check on construction progress. We hope to be back in our house before Christmas.
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.