Last weekend (May 26-28), Leslie and I rented a car and drove back to Florence. That’s an eight-hour drive through two countries and lots of tunnels! But it was worth it to spend a whole day with our dear friends Julie and Dave Kronbach.
When Julie and Dave lived in Naperville, Ill., we all attended Grace United Methodist Church. Leslie and Julie became fast friends when they were roommates on the church’s annual youth mission trip. And Julie somehow convinced me to serve on the Stewardship & Finance Committee. (Can you imagine? ME on the finance committee?!?!) She and Dave moved to the Denver area several years ago to be closer to family. Leslie and I last saw them about five years ago when we drove to Prior Lake, Minn., to spend a few days with them at their lake house.
If you’re Facebook friends with Leslie, you’ve seen the picture of the four of us in front of the Duomo. Julie and Dave were in Florence with Julie’s sister Susie and husband Mike. The four of them took a Mediterranean cruise and had a few days on their own after it ended. We met Julie and Dave about 10 a.m. Sunday in front of the Duomo and looked around for a place to chat and get an espresso. We found a nice al fresco spot on the piazza and stayed there almost all day, talking and catching up.
At some point shortly after noon, I realized our waitress was looking at our table often. I imagined her thinking, “Are they ever going to leave?” It wasn’t long before one of us had a great idea: Let’s get some menus. So we enjoyed an excellent lunch there and kept talking until we decided to check out two possible dinner locations, both of which Leslie and I discovered during our initial visit to Florence.
After reviewing the menus in both restaurants, we chose Le Botteghe di Donatello for its diverse offerings, outdoor seating and view of the Duomo. Susie and Mike joined us for our goodbye meal, and we enjoyed meeting and getting to know them. Leslie and I got back in the car Monday morning for another eight-hour drive while they took a train to Rome for their flight home.
What a great day we had, sharing the events of the past few years and renewing our friendship with these delightful people. Now we’re back in Montpellier, learning more about living in France. Until next time…
Leslie and I have arrived in France, our sixth and (maybe) final candidate for a place to call home. For the next six weeks, we are living in Montpellier, capital of the Hérault department, which is in the Languedoc-Rousillon region. It’s just a little west of Marseille and about 10 kilometers from the Mediterranean coast.
Montpellier is the seventh largest city in France, and the nation’s fastest-growing city over the past 25 years. In 2014, the metropolitan population was 589,610, while 275,318 lived in the city itself. It’s a university city, so there are a lot of young people here — one estimate I saw said almost one-third of the population is university students. The city is old and charming, but the vibe is young and energetic.
Our one-bedroom apartment is on the fourth floor of a 16th-century building that overlooks Place Martyrs de la Résistance in the historic center of town. (If you’re thinking World War II French Resistance — you’re right!) The Prefecture, essentially the state police headquarters, is right across the street and so is the post office. There are lots of bars and restaurants within a two-minute walk, and several markets for fresh fruits and vegetables. Two grocery stores are an easy walk from our place — except when there’s an unexpected shower or thunderstorm!
So the location is excellent, but there is a downside — no elevator! I pictured us trying to navigate four flights of stairs and thought the exercise might be good for us.
Nothing prepared me, though, for the stairs. Not four regular flights — a spiral staircase that very well may be original. Feels like it, anyway.
Turn right just outside our front door and you’re on Rue de la Loge, which leads directly to the heart of Montpellier, Place de la Comédie, in less than five minutes. This huge open area is always covered with people of all stripes, including several street performers. There’s an historic fountain, lots of restaurants and bars, and a small antique carousel. Walk only a few more minutes and you go from old to new as you enter Polygone, a big American-style shopping mall on three levels. Then there’s the tree-lined Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, where I’ve been jogging in the morning.
Turn left as you leave our apartment and you’re on Rue Foch. In just a few minutes you’re walkingunder the Arc de Triomphe and going into a nice park called the Place du Peyrou with a statue of French King Louis XIV. We’ve been in this park twice now, and both times it’s been full of young people and families having picnics and playing games.
First impressions of Montpellier are good, but only when we’re on foot. Driving in this town is impossible with the narrow streets that are usually one-way but may change direction without warning. And it’s hard to get used to sunset after 9 p.m. Even at 8:45 p.m., it still seems like broad daylight.
There’s a lot to do and see in this city, and we’re just getting started. Next week, we plan to take a city tour, check out the history of this city and investigate cultural opportunities.
While Costa Rica has a lot going for it, the downsides overshadow the positives for Leslie and me. The land of Pura Vida is no longer on the list of places we’ll consider living. It’s a close call, but we think Mexico is still in the lead.
On the plus side, Costa Rica is a beautiful country. The mountains are lush and green, and there’s an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. We didn’t get to see much of it because we didn’t do any of the touristy things, such as jungle treks and zip lines. Areas like the Central Valley and Lake Arenal have a nice climate with warm days and cool nights. The humidity in those places is relatively low. Beach towns are definitely out. Too hot, too humid.
There are a number of things we like about Costa Rica in general. It’s a politically stable country that just elected, by a fairly large margin, a center-left president who has great plans for his country. There has been no standing army since 1948, the 90 percent literacy rate is one of the highest in the world, there’s a growing middle class, and Costa Rica takes care of the environment. For example, almost 100 percent of the electricity generated in Costa Rica comes from five renewable sources: hydropower, wind, geothermal, biomass and solar.
But electricity is expensive, and the overall cost of living is only slightly lower than in the U.S., In some cases it’s on a par with North American and European countries. We’re looking for a place where our money goes a little farther.
Other downsides include:
There are no street addresses. We talked with a Canadian who rents a box at the post office to get mail. If he knows a package is coming, he calls the UPS or DHL delivery driver to meet them somewhere. Crazy.
And you get directions that assume you know where you are: “We’re 200 meters south of Pops Ice Cream.” Thanks — now where the heck is Pops?!?!
Even the highways are not very well marked. We used Waze and Google Maps on our two trips around the country and still got lost in places.
Driving is hideous. In cities and towns, you have to avoid hitting pedestrians and cyclists who just dart into traffic. In rural hilly areas, the twists and turns force me to slow down while the locals just barrel ahead. We saw several near-accidents from drivers passing against a double-yellow line.
Finally, we just don’t have good feelings for Costa Rica like we have for Spain and Mexico. The people are friendly, and there are a lot of ex-pats in the area to socialize with. But neither of us has developed warm fuzzies for this country.
So Costa Rica is off the list as a place to retire. But we would like to come back someday as tourists to do some of those things we passed on while we were here. Also, Horizon Church — the nondenominational we’ve been attending in Jacó — is building a new church. The walls are up already and the plans look terrific. We would love to see it after they have moved in, and reconnect with our new friends there.
Now we’re taking a short break to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, which was back on Feb. 6. Has it really been 25 years? Doesn’t seem like it. We are marking this auspicious occasion by taking a two-week cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Rome. While Italy is not really on our list of places to live in retirement, we’re taking this opportunity to visit Naples, Rome and Florence to see the historical sites and museums — places like Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the coliseum in Rome.
After Italy, we’ll move on to France, the last place (maybe) on our list of possible places to live. We’ve rented an apartment in the historic center of Montpelier, capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon area, for six weeks. Leslie is looking forward to finding a French cooking class, and I relish the idea of sipping cafe au lait at little French bistros.
We’ll be back in Chicago’s western suburbs by July 12. Then we have a decision to make.
Next post will be from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean — IF we have decent wi-fi on the ship!
Leslie and I finally made it to Costa Rica last week. This is a beautiful country, with a number of national parks and wildlife preserves. The national motto is, Pura Vida, which means “pure life,” or “simple life.” It’s more than just a saying or a greeting, it’s a way of life. This site gives you a brief explanation.
We’re living in the beach town of Jacó (ha-KOH) on the central Pacific coast. It’s a fairly small town, geared to touristas, very much like Playa del Carmen was in Mexico. It’s hot and humid, so we would probably not choose it as a place to live in retirement. But we rented a car so we could get to other parts of Costa Rica. Our original plan was to spend all of February in Atenas (ah-TAY-nahs), which is at about 2,000 feet elevation in the Central Valley. A long-weekend trip there, where the climate is probably more amenable, is in the works.
Driving in Jacó, and in most of Costa Rica, is difficult. There are a ton of bicycles on the road, some of which are motorized. Plus, pedestrians like to cross the street pretty much anywhere they like, since there are few actual street corners. Looking for a parking place is also a challenge. On our first full day here, we were searching like crazy for a particular restaurant that was highly rated on Trip Advisor. Couldn’t find the restaurant OR a parking place.
When I finally spotted a place to park, I was so hungry and frustrated I just dragged Leslie into the first place that looked like there was food available — a hole in the wall. Well, actually there were no walls. Just some tables and chairs and a bar. Fortunately, we had stumbled onto a traditional Costa Rican soda. This was our first taste of Costa Rican food. We both ordered casado, which is a plate with salad, rice and beans, fried plantain, and choice of meats (chicken, beef, pork or fish). Nothing fancy, but it all tasted great!
One rather challenging thing about Costa Rica is that they do not have addresses or street signs. For example, here’s the “address” for the church we attended Sunday, right from their website: “Horizon Church is located 200 meters south of Pops Road on the Costanera (main highway) in front of Auto Tica.” Now, Pops Road is NOT the actual street name, and it is NOT marked — you have to know that it’s the road that runs past Helados Pops, or Pops Ice Cream Shop. See? Challenging.
More on Costa Rica once we’ve seen a bit more of it! I’ll leave you with a shot of the beach I jogged on this morning.
I know it’s been awhile since the last post. Leslie and I have learned a lot about Lakeside recently. For example, there’s a lot to do here! You can be as busy or sedate as you like. We’ve been busy.
We made “history” recently. We rented a car, which is something we have not done except for the brief time we were in Illinois over the summer, but that doesn’t count.
Why a car? Ajijic centro is walkable but there’s a lot more to Lakeside than the centro, and some things require a car or a generous friend with a car. For example, we’ve been attending St.Andrew’s Anglican Church in the Riberas del Pilar neighborhood of San Antonio Tlayacapan (tuhlay-ah-kah-PAN). On our first visit we took a taxi there and got a ride home from our Canadian friend Libby, who lives right around the corner from us. She graciously picked us up the next week. But she did not plan to attend the following Sunday, so we had to make other arrangements. Also, the Tuesday organic market is a few miles west on the carretera, or main road. We took a taxi one week and managed to catch a bus back, but it took longer than expected and we missed an event at The Lake Chapala Society that we had planned to attend.
Taxis are less than dependable here in Ajijic. You cannot hail a cab as you can in most other Mexican cities in which we’ve lived. Here you must call or go to the sito (taxi stand) in Ajijic Plaza. We could use the buses. They’re only eight pesos per person and fairly dependable. But not all bus stops are clearly marked, and you often have to wait 15 to 20 minutes for a bus.
And there’s a lot to see outside of Ajijic, like Chapala and Jocotepec (ho-KOH-teh-peck), for example. You need a car to reach those towns, or to get to Costco in Guadalajara. So we got a little Nissan March for a couple of weeks.
One of the first things we did with our new wheels was to take a Saturday drive east to the town of Chapala, which is the largest Lakeside town and the seat of government for the Municipality of Chapala. It’s like a county or a township in the U.S. The Chapala municipality includes Chapala, Ajijic, San Antonio Tlayacapan and smaller towns, but not Jocotepec, the westernmost Lakeside town.
Chapala has more than 21,000 residents. Its malecon, or boardwalk, is longer and more commercial than Ajijic’s malecon, which is mostly a park. There’s a pier and a restaurant or two — that’s about it. It’s a quiet place to jog in the morning, or to walk your dog. In Chapala, though, we saw lots of vendors selling food and other items (ice cream!), and there were a number of hotels and restaurants with nice lake views. There are also small boats you can hire to take you out into the lake to visit one of the small islands.
Leslie and I were excited to see sailboats on the water at Chapala. The only watercraft near Ajijic are small fishing boats and kayaks. Leslie, who grew up in Tower Lakes just north of Barrington, Ill., remembers lots of Sunfish and Butterflies on a dramatically smaller lake. So it was good to see sails. A few days ago we learned why the sailboats steer clear of our end of the lake — it’s too shallow. The lake is deeper east of the town of Chapala.
This fact, and many more, came out of a program at The Lake Chapala Society called “Introduction to Lakeside.” Our leader was Rachel, who is Australian but came here from Canada seven years ago. She speaks Canadian with an Australian accent! Here are some other tidbits:
Mexicans celebrate a number of religious festivals, most of which involve fireworks at odd times, like in the middle of the night. The message: If late-night/early-morning noise is a problem for you, find a house that’s nowhere close to any local churches!
Health care in Mexico is highly rated — as good as, or better than, the U.S. Most Mexican docs graduated from the University of Guadalajara Medical School, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins. Not too shabby.
The total population of Lakeside (from Chapala west to Jocotepec) is about 110,000.
Speaking of health care, we got yet another chance to experience health care in Mexico, and it is very good. Leslie’s eyes were irritated and the problem wasn’t responding to normal home treatment. She saw Dr. Rios, an ophthalmologist who said the problem was environmental — there are a lot of allergens floating around right now. He gave her two medications and will do a follow-up just before we leave town. The exam was 700 pesos — about $36 USD. That’s not the co-pay or deductible. That’s the total cost of the exam. We paid another 1,000 pesos (about $52 USD) for two medications, and that’s less than if we had gone to a farmacia. She’s already improving.
And it’s not just people health care. Last weekend, we had to take one of “our” cats, Doris Day, to the vet because she also appeared to have an eye infection. Total bill was 460 pesos — 150 for the examination and 310 pesos for eye drops. That’s less than $25 USD total, and the exam itself was less than $10 USD.
Sunday, we spent a terrific afternoon with Dale and Don, new friends from St. Andrew’s. They have a beautiful home with great views in the Puerta Arroyo subdivision on the western edge of Ajijic. Dale showed us some other houses in their neighborhood, including one under construction, then took us on a tour of other subdivisions she thinks we might consider renting if we come here permanently.
Are we leaning closer to Lakeside as our “permanent” home? Maybe.
Leslie and I have been back in the States for two weeks. We are officially halfway through our search for an overseas home in retirement. This time next year, we’ll be making a choice — or at least narrowing it down to two finalists, which we will then try out for at least six months each. There could be a third year of this escapade.
We’ve enjoyed seeing friends and family, going to our church and visiting some of our old haunts. We’ve already been to our favorite farmers market on Saturday morning in Downers Grove, and we’ve dined at a couple of our favorite restaurants. We’ve even gotten a few physician appointments done. Okay, Leslie has done that. I’ll get to it soon.
One common question is whether we’re experiencing culture shock after being in Europe and Mexico for almost 10 months. Well, yeah! We’ve been living in places where we could walk or take public transportation (along with taxis and Ubers) for almost everything we needed. Here in the western suburbs of Chicago, things are spread out. We have to drive everywhere.
So we tried to rent an “intermediate” size car, thinking we would need a little more room than the smallest thing available. Imagine our surprise when they upgraded us to a Cadillac XTS! It’s got more bells and whistles than Leslie’s former car, an Acura RDX.
The last time either of us drove a car was back in September when we turned in the RDX. Seems we’re both still able to drive on U.S. streets and highways. I guess it’s just like falling off a bicycle.
And it’s nice to see green trees and green grass again. We’re also thoroughly enjoying cooler temperatures and lower humidities. Summer is great in Chicagoland. It’s just those winters that make us want to live somewhere else.
Finally, we traded in our worn Jake’s Country Meats bag for a new one. For many years, Leslie and I have bought pork from Nate and Lou Ann Robinson (owners of Jake’s Country Meats and seventh-generation pig farmers in Cassopolis, Mich.) at the Downers Grove farmers market and throughout the winter, too.
As we began our vagabond journey last October, Leslie used our insulated Jake’s bag — which we formerly used to take our farmers market produce home — as the carrier for prescription meds and medical supplies. The bag made it easy to keep some medications cool, and it kept all our meds in one place. That’s good organization, but it also helps in security lines at airports. Plus, we’ve advertised for Jake’s Country Meats in six different countries — seven if you count Scotland as a country, which it may be very soon.
But over the past 10 months, the Jake’s bag has suffered from over-use. It has been through 12 international airports and seven train stations as we made our way from O’Hare to Dublin to the U.K., through France to Spain, to Malta, to four cities in Mexico and back to Chicago. Leslie has repaired it with duct tape more than once and it has remained serviceable. But today, Nate presented us with a brand-new insulated Jake’s bag. Of course, we promptly used it for breakfast sausages, bratwurst and pork tenderloin! Nate raises pigs the way his grandfather, and his great-grandfather, did. We’ve been buying pork and other meats in grocery stores and meat markets, but have not found anything as good as what Nate sells.
Our friends Linda and Bill are putting us up for a few weeks at their beautiful home in Glen Ellyn, and last week Leslie introduced them to Nate and Lou Ann’s outstanding pork products. She cooked some smoked pork chops, which were a huge hit. This morning, Linda joined us at the farmers market to meet Nate, and once the bag replacement ceremony was over she decided she wanted our old bag, which Nate was just going to throw away. I always say recycling is better!
We have a lot of work to do before Year Two begins in September, and we need to connect with lots of folks while we’re in Chicagoland. Some of you have already heard from us regarding when and where to meet for lunch, dinner or drinks. If we haven’t gotten in touch yet, we will soon!