Dia de los Muertos; and the Titanic!

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Now that rainy season is over, our sunsets are becoming more stunning every day!

Before we talk about Dia de los Muertos, I need to brag a bit on Leslie and her volunteer work with Culinary Arts Society of Ajijic — CASA. Every year, CASA auctions off a special themed dinner, prepared by CASA members, for eight people. Proceeds benefit Niños Incapacitados, which helps local disadvantaged children with medical issues. The person who won this year’s auction donated 70,000 pesos, or roughly $3,600 USD, for a very good cause.

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Leslie’s vegetable terrine. Yum!

This year’s theme was the menu for the last first-class dinner on the Titanic — the meal served on the night the ship sank. Eleven courses, all paired with wine. Leslie was asked to help another chef create one dish, a vegetable terrine in aspic. Because the other person had unavoidable issues, Leslie ended up making the dish herself. It got rave reviews! She also volunteered to be a server. CASA tried to be as authentic as possible with elegant place settings and flowers. But servers on the Titanic were men, so the eight serving ladies (one server per diner) wore tuxedo shirts with bow ties and added drawn-on mustaches!

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Leslie as a Titanic waiter.

Dinner was at the stately home of our friends Carol and David (also CASA members), with a sweeping view of Lake Chapala. The diners got into the act too, wearing Titanic-era clothing. Two of the men were even decked out in kilts with full regalia! And they raved about the dinner. To see the full menu, click on this link to the article in the Guadalajara Reporter (it’s in English!).

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Doesn’t it look like Mr. Carson from Downton Abbey set this table?
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These are the lucky recipients of CASA’s Titanic dinner.

I hope you watched the movie Coco to learn how important Dia de los Muertos is in México. Check out these two links to learn more: Mexperience newsletter offers general information, while Lakeside Guide has photos of last year’s celebration here in Ajijic. The main day was Nov. 2 with events in Ajijic as well as nearby communities Chapala and Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos (better known simply as isht-lah-wah-KAHN). Leslie was recovering from the big dinner (eight hours on her feet) and I just didn’t feel well, so we didn’t see the Ajijic parade or go on the cemetery tour as planned. Fortunately, I have some great photos and videos (some of which are at the end of this post) provided by three friends from my Spanish class — James, Lynn and Pamela. Gracias!

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One of the altars James photographed in nearby Ixtlahuacan.
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My friend Lynn joined other riders in putting on full Catrina makeup and riding horses to the Ajijic Cemetery.

Finally, Ajijic’s malecon (boardwalk), was the setting for Lakeside’s part in “Thrill The World,” the annual world-wide dance event. It’s not related to Dia de los Muertos at all, but it is held on the Saturday before Halloween every year. Dancers, made up as zombies, collected money from sponsors to perform to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” on Saturday, Oct. 26. Proceeds benefit Cruz Roja, the local Red Cross group.

For some reason, my video will not upload to WordPress, so here’s a link to the “official” video shot by our friend and videographer Kim. However, Kim says this longer version (runs 14 minutes) is more fun. Enjoy!

Hasta luego!

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Another altar in Ixtlahuacan.
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James took some shots of the Catrina contest in Ixtlahuacan.
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Very creative! The basket of calla lilies is from Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s most famous painting.
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Great design, especially since the Monarch butterflies are coming back to their winter home in Mexico.
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Even the kids got involved in the Catrina contest. We have no idea who won!
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These calaveras (skulls) are the work of local artist Efran Gonzales. They are displayed on this wall along Marcos Castellanos street in Ajijic, across from San Andres Catholic Church, as permanent memorials to deceased Ajijic residents. Every year on Dia de los Muertos, people light candles under each calavera. Thanks, Pamela, for this photo and the brief video of a candle being lit (below).

Back in the U.S.A. — briefly.

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Looking north from Petco Park just before the game started. See the brick building just above the woman in the orange shirt? That’s Park Lofts, where Stephanie lives.

Leslie and I are cat-sitting in beautiful downtown San Diego while daughter Stephanie is enjoying a well-deserved vacation on Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It’s sort of a vacation for us. We walked two blocks to Petco Park to see the San Diego Padres play the San Francisco Giants (Stephanie has a season ticket package).

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Stephanie has great seats!

The Padres lost, but it was a good game. On Independence Day, we watched fireworks from the crowded Embarcadero (a city park along the marina). Best of all, we’ve attended worship services at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church on Coronado Island, where our friend Tom exclaimed, “Welcome Home!” the first time we walked in.

Dining out is one of the best things about living in San Diego. We’ve already been to some of our favorite places, such as the East Village location of Breakfast Republic and The Blind Burro. We still have a few places on our go-to list, but Stephanie recommended a new spot on J Street called Whip Hand for burgers. Leslie had a glass of wine with her burger, but I had to try their Beer Bank — you get a card to use at any of about 20 different self-serve taps, mostly local craft beers. You can pour as much or as little as you like and pay by the ounce. I poured a healthy taste of five different IPAs and spent roughly the same as buying one brew. Burgers and beers were excellent. We’ll be back.

We’ve also done some shopping for things that are hard to come by in Ajijic, like the shampoo I use for thinning hair — can’t buy it in Mexico (except through Amazon) so we’re “importing” some. Also, an optometrist in Ajijic warned me that soft contact lenses, unlike most things in Mexico, are about double the price we pay in the U.S. So I got a year’s supply from the Costco optical shop here in San Diego.

You may be wondering if the two recent California earthquakes caused any problems for us. Only in the most minor way. We barely felt the first one, a 6.5. The epicenter was hundreds of miles away so all we noticed was a slight movement. A day later there was a 7.1 that happened while we were driving home from shopping in Carlsbad and dinner at the Del Mar location of The Brigantine seafood restaurant. When we got home, we pulled into the parking garage and found the elevators were out of order. We were glad Stephanie’s condo is on the second floor and her parking space is on B1!

San Diego isn’t close to any active fault lines, so it’s rare to feel a quake in this area. But this one was strong enough to trigger the earthquake protocol on the elevators in our building. As we came out of the garage stairwell onto the ground floor, a resident taking his dog for a walk asked excitedly, “Didja feel it?” But we didn’t, since we were on the freeway at the time. We were only slightly inconvenienced by walking up two flights.

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Lewis (top) and Piper enjoy their tree that gives them a great view of Island Avenue.

We’ve enjoyed taking care of Lewis and Piper, Stephanie’s two Maine Coon cats, and they seem to appreciate our attention. Lots more to do and see while we’re here. We’ll be driving to Los Angeles to pick up Stephanie on July 13 (for direct flights to and from Europe, LAX is better than SAN), then we have a few days to spend with her before we go home July 19. I must admit, I have enjoyed driving her BMW!

More to come…

See you later!

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Didn’t get to see the Cubs play this time, but we did enjoy the game. Thank you, Steph!

So many challenges!

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Our house at Andalusia 3 in Riviera Alta.

Leslie and I have arrived in our new Ajijic home and we’ve had multiple challenges. But after a day of dealing with one problem after another, we can have a glass of wine on our patio and watch an amazing sunset. And since we moved in, we’ve eaten nearly every meal outside. Every day is a good day in Ajijic!

Our furniture and household goods arrived safely – a little late, but without any serious issues. Just a few scratches and scrapes here and there. We haven’t unwrapped all the artwork yet but it appears everything is intact. No broken frames or broken glass that we know of. We have a little less storage space than expected, and in the unpacking process we have (several times) said, “why did we bring this?”

But here’s the main thing: Since we began this vagabond journey at the beginning of October 2016, Leslie and I have slept in nearly 50 different beds — some good, some not so good. (Leslie says she gets credit for one extra bed because she was in the hospital in San Diego!) Now we have our king-sized memory foam mattress, the one from our home in Westmont, and we’re both very happy.

Every box we open reveals some item we haven’t seen in three years. It’s like Christmas in May! I’ll share inside photos next post. If you were ever in our Westmont home, things will look familiar!

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The rear of the house with our Mexican style dining set, which is right in front of a sliding glass door into the living-dining area. The glass door to the left is the master bedroom.

There are frustrating things about the house, some of which are typical of Mexican building practices and some of which are simply due to the owner’s builder cutting corners and going with the cheapest stuff possible. We’ve been promised some upgrades over the next few months. Stay tuned for updates. Then there are other issues, like going a full week without wifi! That’s a long story, but it has a happy ending because we finally got a much better wifi than I originally thought was available.

Our home is in Ajijic’s Riviera Alta development. It’s a three-bedroom, three-bath home but relatively small and a bit more open than most traditional Mexican casas. We are at roughly 5,000 feet elevation. From the patio we have a view of Lake Chapala and the mountains on its southern shore. The house faces north, with a great view of the San Juan Cosalá Mountains. But this is fire season in the Lake Chapala area, and our views this week have been impaired by smoke. One day the smoke was so bad we could not see the other side of the lake.

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Smoke rises from a fire on the southern side of Lake Chapala. The white rectangles you see are berry farms. 

This time of year, local farmers traditionally prepare for new planting by burning off last year’s crops from the fields. It hasn’t rained here since the end of January, and that was less than one-half inch. So it’s very dry, and sometimes the fire gets away from the farmer so we see smoke billowing up from just on the other side of the mountain, or on the other side of the lake. We’ve also heard that people camp up in the mountains and burn their trash rather than packing it out. That’s a problem too. Driving home one night, I saw flames on our side of the mountain — very high up. Apparently that’s the first time it’s happened in decades.

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We watched this helicopter make multiple runs to gather lake water for use on the fires.

For several days we saw a helicopter with a huge bucket hanging about 30 or 40 feet below the skids. The chopper flies from the north over our house to Lake Chapala, dips down (too low for us to see), then comes back up with a bucket full of water and heads back north, which is where most of the fires are.

The fires began April 27. As of May 12, most are either out or controlled. Rainy season begins roughly in mid-June, and the mountains will become a gorgeous green. Right now, Leslie and I are learning that May is the hottest month in this area. Most gringos go back to Canada or the U.S. for several weeks to escape the heat. We may do some European travel next year, if only to avoid smoke from the fires.

Actually, the heat is not that bad. It gets into the upper 80s to near-90° F. during the day, but the humidity is low — sometimes as low as 10 to 20 percent. And there’s usually a nice breeze off the lake. At night, that breeze sometimes intensifies and the temperature drops to the upper 50s F. Right now, at 7 p.m. on a Sunday evening, it’s 83° F. with 17 percent humidity. Perfect for dining alfresco and watching the hummingbirds and swallows.

Next time, a wrap-up on the move and more photos!

Hasta luego!

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Tonight’s sunset was just okay. Really great ones coming soon!

Househunting success, lasagna and gas lines

Apologies. It’s been awhile since the last post, but there hasn’t been much to report until this past week or two. Now we’re very busy and getting things done!

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We may be living in this new home for at least the next year — maybe two.

The big news first: We may have found our new home! A few days ago Leslie and I looked at a new 3-bedroom, 3-bath home in Riviera Alta, one of our favorite communities in the Lake Chapala area. It has a great view of the lake to the south and the mountains to the north and west, so we’ll see amazing sunsets. It’s outside the central village of Ajijic so it’ll be a bit quieter, and some Canadian friends from church live right down the hill. Best of all, it’s unfurnished so we can bring all our furniture and household goods to Ajijic. We expect to sign a one-year lease next week, so nothing’s definite until then. More as things start to happen, but we are excited.

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Leslie’s lasagna. She cooked for 75 people!

Leslie had a major role in the annual Italian Dinner fundraiser at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church on Feb. 1. She made her authentic Italian sauce, which is Stephanie’s favorite, for the featured lasagna. Not only did Leslie get a round of applause at the dinner, but one person spoke up Sunday morning during “parish time” after the service. This person was thrilled to have had a gluten-free vegetarian version of the lasagna and raved about how good it was. For everybody else, there were meatballs and Italian sausage. We learned Tuesday morning at the organic market that our friend Gregor, the sausage king of Lake Chapala, sold some Italian sausage to people who enjoyed the dinner so much they wanted to buy some. No, we didn’t get a commission.

The dinner was a big success, both in being a treat for taste buds and in raising funds for special projects around the church. Leslie and several other women on the Social and Hospitality Committee worked on the meal for three days straight. There was some leftover lasagna, which several people happily purchased to take home — that’s para llevar (PAR-ah yeah-VAHR) in Spanish.

I managed to stay out of the way by helping my friend Al tend bar, which is an important job! It was easy, though. We sold wine, beer, soda and water. The hard part for me was making change but I don’t think I shorted anybody. Wine, 40 pesos ($2 USD). Beer 25 pesos. Bottled water 10 pesos. I think Al said we went through almost 20 bottles of wine!

The Mexican fuel crisis, which you may have heard about, seems to be over. It reminded me of the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo that created shortages and long lines at U.S. gas stations. This gas shortage was caused by the Mexican government’s attempt to stop the theft of gasoline. For years, thieves have siphoned gas — lots of it — from government-owned pipelines, then sold it to the gas stations at a lower price than Pemex charged. It’s been going on for a long time, but new president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as “AMLO”) is trying to root out corruption.

I shot this brief video of a line at the Pemex (the government-run oil company) station on Ajijic’s carretera (main road) about two weeks ago. I was eastbound at the time. You can see the line on the other side of the westbound lane of traffic. It’s a little hard to see until there’s a break in traffic, but there are probably 20 to 30 cars waiting. Here it is:

This is a very short line, comparatively. About a week before I shot this, I waited 45 minutes in line at the BP station on the libramiento (bypass). By the time I got to the pump, they only had premium and I could get just 500 pesos worth (about $26 USD). That gave me half a tank, but I continued to look for opportunities to fill up. One day when I was taking Leslie to a friend’s house, we noticed the BP station west of Ajijic was pumping. And there weren’t even 10 cars in line. Then we saw a tanker truck at the Pemex station just down the road and I knew I was in luck. On my way back home, I pulled into the Pemex station with only two cars ahead of me.

The traffic is horrible here and the roads are bad, so this added insult to injury. But if this is the biggest problem we have — well, we can have a glass of wine and watch the sunset! Even if January was fraught with the gas crisis, the Lakeside Weather website shows the lowest overnight low temperature so far in 2019 is 54.1°F. and the daytime high so far this year is 78.8°F. To our friends in the Chicago area: Come on down! If you just want to feel cold, we’ll use the Celsius scale and say it’s 25° (77° F.).

Finally, we’re both working on our Spanish and looking forward to the Northern Lights Festival, which begins this week. It’s a series of classical music concerts by talented young performers from around the world. We bought tickets for four concerts. More on that next time.

Hasta luego!

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I see this fisherman nearly every morning on my sunrise jog along the malecon. There’s usually a bunch of white pelicans hanging around waiting for a treat. As the temperature warms up, these pelicans will go north for the summer.

 

Now we hear the bottle rockets!

This first month in our new home has been fraught with illness and the pains of settling in. But Leslie and I have kicked our colds and are both healthy now. We’ve accomplished our biggest goal — getting the paperwork started for our permanent resident cards. Just two more steps to go. We hope to have our cards before Christmas.

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Javier from Chiapas had some beautiful rugs for sale. Next year, for sure!

This is a busy time in Ajijic — it’s party central until the end of the year. For example, recently we went to the annual Feria Maestros del Arte in nearby Chapala. It’s more than just an art show, it’s a celebration of more than 80 highly talented Mexican artists in a variety of fields: pottery, textiles, baskets, jewelry, etc. It’s a way for artisans to sell their work, but it also raises awareness about the nature of Mexican folk art. The artists use local materials in their art, using techniques that have been handed down through many generations. The Feria is about saving this art and helping the artisans.

Following Día de los Muertos is Día de Revolucion on Nov. 20. This celebrates the 1910 revolution that toppled Army general Porfirio Diaz and brought democracy to Mexico. We missed the parade. On Nov. 21, a fiesta began in honor of St. Andrew the Apostle, the city’s patron saint. We heard some of the late-night partying and wandered through a bazaar set up on the malecon (boardwalk). Then I happened upon some locals in the main square one afternoon where a band was playing (fairly well) and a guy was singing (pretty badly). There were several caballeros (people on horseback) watching. One man’s white horse was dancing to the music, but no humans were.

The San Andres Fiesta lasts until the end of the month. Every day there are bands playing, church bells ringing and cohetes (bottle rockets) going off at all hours to announce masses being held in local churches. There are several parades, too. We can hear band music at 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., as well as during the day. Streets around the main square are blocked by carnival rides and food stands. One of our new friends here told us that when November ends, then the locals start celebrating Christmas. These are apparently two very noisy months!

Leslie and I are trying to establish some routines in our new home. She’s already involved in the book group that meets monthly at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church, and I plan to attend the monthly men’s group lunch later this week. We’re looking forward to a pot-luck dinner and Christmas carol singing event on Dec. 7. We had dinner with new friends Carol and David, and they invited us to join an already big group at their home for Thanksgiving dinner. There were nine in all, and the food was fantastic.

We’ve also signed up for the “Introduction to Lakeside” class offered by The Lake Chapala Society on Dec. 13. We attended the class last year when we were here for six weeks, but going through it again — now that we’re full-fledged LCS members — will get us updated on banking, health care, housing, traffic and other important topics.

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Sunrise on Lake Chapala, taken during a morning jog.

Oh, and while the Chicago area endures its first big snowstorm of the season, Leslie and I enjoyed a glass of wine and some charcuterie on our patio yesterday while we watched the sunset wearing T-shirts. It was about 75° F. It’s not perfect, though. A few weeks ago the daytime highs were around 68° and unusually windy. The forecast for the coming week calls for some rain and a couple of days in the mid-60s. It’s in the low-50s around sunrise when I go out for my daily jog on the malecon, so I just toss on a sweatshirt and I’m fine.

More to come. We’re just getting started!

Hasta luego!

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Ernesto from Zacatecas did some amazing work with colored pencils. We thought of our good friend Linda, who works in the same medium.
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Pottery is a common form of Mexican art. Leslie admired this artisan’s work in green glaze.

 

So what does it cost?

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!

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Heirloom tomatoes at the Saturday morning open-air market.

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.

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Leslie admires the ceiling of the 13th-century building that houses a fine-dining restaurant. A bit on the pricey side, but the wine was fantastic!

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.

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We saw lots of new construction outside the city center. Montpellier is still the fastest growing city in France.

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.

Bonne journée!

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A better look at the Gothic ceiling in 1789, a Michelin-rated restaurant next door to our apartment. Somebody worked all day on that ceiling — 500 years before the French Revolution, which was in…right, 1789.

 

We’re close to the coast and vineyards

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Here we are on a Mediterranean beach in the town of Carnos. We got lost that afternoon, but it led to us having a fine lunch: mussels provencal with a nice rose wine. Yum!

While Montpellier is a little over six miles inland, it’s easy to reach some of the beach towns along the Mediterranean. Leslie and I have been to Carnos and Palavas-les-Flots.

Palavas is home to our new friends Patrick and Anne-Marie. We’re renting the Montpellier apartment from Anne-Marie, probably the most helpful host we’ve had in any of our Airbnb or VRBO experiences in seven countries. She invited us to come to Palavas for lunch, then we walked around this little beach town that’s a bit on the quirky side.

We were lucky to catch some of that quirkiness when we watched a joute, or water jousting match, late in the afternoon. It’s a traditional sport in the Languedoc region of France, dating back to the 17th century. It’s also practiced in other parts of France and Switzerland. Water jousting is done in boats, in this case on the canal that bisects downtown Palavas. Two teams fight it out, each with eight men rowing, one steering, two or three playing traditional music on oboes and drums, and one with lance and shield doing the jousting. Actually, each boat has five or six jousters sitting in the tail who alternate fighting. They don’t wear armor. All they have is white shirt and pants, a blue or red scarf, and a wooden shield.

There’s a page on water jousting on the Palavas tourist office’s website but they don’t offer it in English, so here’s the Google translation: “The knights of the sea perpetuate the tradition of medieval jousting. Red boat and blue boat, champions dressed in white and oboe sound, here are the Languedoc jousts. Perched on the ‘tintaine’ at the back of the boat, the jouster launches in hand targets the bulwark of his opponent and tries to make him fall. A powerful symbol of belonging to a community, the spirit and passion of games are transmitted from generation to generation.”

We were fascinated. Here are three short videos I shot with my phone. In the first two, you get a good look at the boats. The first video shows how far they row before the actual battle, and you get a look at the crowd, too. The second is from a different perspective. There is no winner in either clip. The third video I shot from a bridge looking straight down the canal. Even though it’s pretty far away, you can see the red boat wins. Anne-Marie said the blue boat was the Palavas team. She didn’t know where the other crew was from. Everybody cheered anyway.

We also “enjoyed” a Montpellier tradition a few nights ago — one that Anne-Marie warned us about. Féte de Musique is an annual one-night music festival that goes on until the wee hours. It’s all kinds of music played all over town. There was a big stage set up in the Place de Comédie, but we didn’t get down there. We didn’t have to. The restaurant next door had a huge party with loud, thumping electronic music until about 2 a.m. If that wasn’t enough, a drum corps came through our neighborhood about midnight. And thousands of mostly young people were dancing in the streets and having a good time until 4 or 5 a.m.

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A small portion of the crowd outside our window. The revelry went on pretty much all night.

We tasted wine at two more vineyards in the Pic Saint Loup area, which is about a 20- to 30-minute drive from Montpellier. Our guide, Bertrand (bear-TRAHND), explained the appellation, which is in the far north of the broader Languedoc region.  French rules about wine are extensive and detailed. Winemakers in Pic Saint Loup, for example, can grow whatever they like, but the “approved” grapes are syrah, grenache and mourvèdre. To put the coveted “Pic Saint Loup” designation on a label, the wine must be red or rosé and must be a blend of at least two of these three grapes. Vintners also grow cinsault and carignan, but these grapes cannot be more than 10 percent of a blend. They can produce any wines they like — a 100 percent syrah, for example, or a white. But the label must show it comes from the broader Languedoc appellation rather than the more prestigious Pic Saint Loup.

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Bertrand shows us mildew on some of the grape leaves as our new Swedish friends Bjorn and Lydia watch. In the background is Bertrand’s friend from the vineyard.

When Leslie and I arrived in Montpellier, it seemed to rain almost every afternoon. That’s a bit unusual and not good for grapes. As a consequence, as Bertrand explained, some of the area’s vineyards are now dealing with mildew on the vines. That’s not good, as you would expect. He spent a lot of time extolling the virtues of Pic Saint Loup wines, saying they are consistently rated as the best in Languedoc. “But I’m from here,” he admitted. “I grew up in Pic Saint Loup, So I think these wines are the best.” Even if he’s a bit biased, we agree. Wish we could taste them all, but there’s not enough time. Guess we’ll have to come back.

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This map shows where wine is produced in Languedoc. Pic Saint Loup is north of Montpellier.

Leslie and I are almost ready to move on, so it’s time to talk about how much it costs to live in this part of the world. More on that next time.

Bonne journée!

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You probably can’t find this in the U.S., but if you can — buy it! One of our favorites!

 

Learning how to live like the French

Apologies, all. I neglected to provide a pronunciation for this energetic city in which we’re living through the end of June. If you took any French classes in high school or college, you probably know Montpellier is pronounced: moan-pell-YEA.

Leslie and I are getting into the French lifestyle, and it has its advantages. Notably, the idea of joie de vivre (zwah-du-VEEV-ruh), or “joy of living.” Leslie has done a bit of research on this concept. It’s all about enjoying life, nature, good food, fine wine. Work is less important than having a leisurely meal with friends, and it’s fine if that’s a two-hour lunch. Actually, work is less important than just about everything, which is counter to the culture we left behind in the States and we like it a lot.

Through Airbnb, we have a nice one-bedroom apartment with a comfortable bed, a big-screen TV and a decent kitchen. The refrigerator, however, is quite small. Once at the nearby grocery store I commented on something that looked delicious. “There’s no room in the fridge,” Leslie responded. So I stopped suggesting. Anyway, she picks the food, I’m just the pack mule.

So we’re adjusting to how the French live. They visit the markets almost daily, buying food for tonight’s dinner and maybe tomorrow’s breakfast. But many shops are closed (or have limited hours) Sunday, and many restaurants are closed Sunday and Monday. You have to plan appropriately.

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A great assortment of olives at the market. One of the benefits of living near the Mediterranean.

And the markets are amazing. Across the street from our apartment is the Halles Castellane, an enclosed market that’s open daily with stalls for a variety of vendors: fruits and vegetables, meat and chicken, cheese, fresh fish, dried fruits, pastries, even wine. One produce vendor sells fresh-squeezed orange juice — 5.90 euros ($6.94 USD) for a liter. Expensive, but it’s the best OJ in town! There are a couple of cheese vendors, but we like Les Marie because the young woman who runs the stand speaks a little English and is helping us try different French cheeses, like comté and appenzeller. Leslie was over the moon when she found her all-time favorite roquefort — the real stuff.

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Strawberries, ripe all the way to the center. Yum!

The Marché des Arceaux, a short walk away, is an open-air market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. It’s more like our favorite Saturday morning farmers market in Downers Grove — and just as crowded. You can buy almost anything here. In addition to fruits and vegetables, we got some gallettes (like a potato pancake — great lunch), some pâte de fruit (fruit candies), and a nice chunk of smoked ham with roasted vegetables. We also bought a bottle of wine and some olive oil from a woman who told us she grows the olives and presses the oil herself. Vendors set up their tents under the 18th-century aqueduct that once brought the city’s water 14 kilometers (8.7 miles) from the Saint-Clément spring to the water tower in Place Royale du Peyrou.

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Lots of people shop at the Tuesday and Saturday morning markets under the aqueduct.

We’ve also learned more about the wines made in Languedoc-Rousillion, which is an area of more than 700,000 acres under vines. It is the single biggest wine region in the world, producing more than a third of France’s total wine production. You can get Languedoc-Rousillion wines in the States (see our friend Sean at Hinsdale Wine Shop!) but Leslie and I are focusing on wineries near Montpellier — especially from Pic Saint Loup (a mountain about 15 minutes northeast of Montpellier). There’s a wine shop right around the corner from our place, Maison Regionale des Vins, where they speak a little English and are eager to help us find great local wines, many of which come from the Pic Saint Loup appellation.

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We enjoyed a glass of rose among the vines.

We spent a morning recently at Domaine Haut-Lirou, riding in a 4X4 with new friend Nicholas to see the vineyards and taste their wines. The vines are bright green and growing like crazy right now. There’s been a lot of rain lately, which is good. Most of the vines have already set fruit, and we could see the beginnings of grapes. Their wines are excellent. We came home with four bottles! We’re planning more wine tours over the next few weeks.

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Nicholas explained pruning and how important it is for the vines.

Finally, we’ve found an English-speaking non-denominational church. When I stumbled upon the website for International Chapel I thought most of the photos showed young people — college-age or slightly older. And highly diverse. Not many people that look like me or Leslie. It’s about a 15-minute walk from our place, so we went. Yep, mostly students and no old people. But this was one of the warmest, most outgoing congregations we’ve encountered yet. We met a couple with three kids from The Netherlands, here because of his job. We met a young woman from Papua who’s just wrapping up her Ph.D. We met a guy who grew up in Montpellier but is now married to a Chinese woman and they have a baby. Diverse? Yep again. Black, white, brown, yellow and mixtures of the above, from lots of different countries. It truly is an international church.

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There’s a lot of energy in this little non-denominational church, with young people from all over the world.

We talked extensively with Pastor John and his wife Robyn, who have been serving International Chapel for 14 years. Turns out John grew up in Hinsdale! The church is in a very small space on the ground floor of an apartment building just outside the historic district. Their services don’t include much liturgy. Just several songs, some prayer, a sermon and a closing song. We like the church, the people, and the energy. We’ll go back over the coming weeks.

Next time, I’ll tell you more about the history of Montpellier and about some of the places  Leslie and I have been able to visit — like the 13th-century Jewish ritual bath.

A bientôt!

 

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Red wine ages in French oak barrels. Haut-Lirou’s red wines are very nice!
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Some of Haut-Lirou’s vineyards. Nicholas told us that on clear mornings, he could sometimes see the Alps in the distance. Not today, unfortunately.

Water, water everywhere

It’s been smooth sailing (relatively) as Leslie and I head for Europe the old-fashioned way — by ship. One of those random thoughts I’ve had on this trip is about people like my ancestor John Rogers who left his home in Laugharne, Wales, in 1635 and sailed west to find his fortune in Surrey County, Virginia.

He sailed on a ship called George. I’m sure it was quite small, probably less than one-quarter the size of Celebrity’s Reflection, and I’ll bet the North Atlantic waves bounced that little ship around fairly well. We started out in five- to eight-foot waves, but for the last two days and nights it’s been more like 11- to 18-foot waves. The captain promises that will change tomorrow. This is a huge ship, but there are some big waves out there that sometimes make passengers (crew, too) walk like drunken sailors. So far, my motion-sickness patch is working perfectly.

I doubt my ancestor’s ship had a huge international crew, as this one does, to serve the passengers and meet all their needs. I’m willing to bet the facilities were quite limited: No pool, no library, no fitness center or jogging track, no shore excursion options, and likely no restaurants. In some cases, passengers on 17th century ships sailing to and from the New World had to bring their own food for the journey, which could take a month or longer. Our ship has 15 different restaurants, and we’ll be in Europe in less than two weeks. Plus, we have all the amenities mentioned — and then some.

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Our stateroom on Deck 9.

It’s quite possible John Rogers didn’t have a private stateroom with his own bath, and he most certainly didn’t get room service for any meals. We not only have a nice stateroom, we opted for one with a king-size bed and a private veranda, from which we can see the Atlantic Ocean — and nothing else. A few days ago we had breakfast on our veranda, which seemed decadent. But we’ll just ignore that and do it again soon.

There’s a pool and a solarium, with deck chairs and lounges on all the upper decks. Leslie and I have both gotten haircuts, and she’s made use of something called “The Persian Garden” several times. They have a room full of tiled chaise-like loungers that are heated. Great place to meditate or nap. Crew members are from many different countries. We’ve been served by crew from Mexico, Jamaica, Honduras, Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Malaysia, St. Lucia and South Africa. They all smile and say “good morning,” and they do a great job.

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Great view from our veranda. We’ve only seen two or three other ships on the horizon, and those were very far away. This is our normal view. Look at the color of that water. No, it doesn’t get boring.

If we had a complaint it would be that we are required to reset our watches one hour ahead almost every night during the passage. That means we lose an hour of sleep, but it also means we gradually adjust to European time. I think we have one more “spring forward” to put us seven hours ahead of Chicago time. We’ll be in that time zone until we head back to the U.S. in mid-July.

Celebrity tries to keep the passengers entertained. There’s a show every night in Reflection Theater and musicians perform at various spots around the ship, mostly near the bars. There are games, lectures and special sales in the many shops that line Decks 3 and 4. Leslie and I enjoyed a wine tasting a few days ago. We tried reds and whites from the U.S., Austria, Spain, South Africa, Argentina, Chile, Australia and New Zealand. A few were just okay, but two or three of them are now on our list of, “buy this wine whenever you can find it.”

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Fellow wine lovers sample a Spanish red blend and a terrific Austrian riesling. This event was quite popular.

It’s interesting that many of our fellow passengers are from Europe. We met a lovely British couple at dinner a few nights ago, and we’ve encountered people from Canada, France and Italy. That gave me a second weird thought: I wonder how many of these folks are just going home from a long vacation and they’re afraid of flying? Hmmm.

Not much else to relate. I’ll try  to post again after we’ve visited our first port, which is Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands.

Ciao!

 

UPDATE 4

Good news! Leslie saw her surgeon today (Thursday, Feb. 27) for a follow-up. He says she is “good to go.” Her recovery is actually a bit ahead of schedule, as he sees it. She’s really looking forward to a glass of wine with dinner tonight!

Now we can reschedule our Costa Rica trip and get this show back on the road. It’s just a matter of working with the airline to find a good date for heading south, and I will do that soon. We have accommodations lined up beginning March 10, so we’ll be shooting for something between now and March 9.

I’ll post when we have a departure date. Thanks again for your prayers!