03 July 2019

FI Chautauqua and the Cost of Living on a Boat in the South of France

So I spent last week at FI - Chautauqua, in the UK.

You know, the whole FIRE movement - "Financial Independence Retire Early" thing. 
This get-together was in Shakespeare's home, Stratford-upon-Avon. 
At a pretty spiffy ol' mansion, Ettington Park. 

A friend of mine, JL Collins, started the idea years ago, and it took off.  

There were about 30 attendees and a half dozen FIRE movement bloggers, including Brandon, The Mad FIentist, Kristy and Bryce from Millennial Revolution, Alan and Katie and Simon and Henry of Pop Up Business School, Carl - Mr. 1500, and Jillian from Montana Money Adventures.
And Jane and - Jim Collins, who wrote "The Simple Path to Wealth". (and I did the cover art!)

Beautiful location, well organized, and - a perfect time to be in the UK. 
It was fun - there was a murder mystery, a Shakespeare play, Oxford nearby, sticky toffee pudding - and the library had a proper secret door. 

Everyone seemed to be talking ALL the time.

When I mentioned that living on a boat is low cost, I got some weird looks. 
"Isn't a boat a hole where you pour in money?" was a frequent comment. 

But - really? Compared to a HOUSE?

For those who don't know, Stan and I spent this past winter getting rid of all of our STUFF. 

Selling the house. The cars. The motorized bicycles. Antiques. Rugs.
Giving away tools. The cat. Guitars. Clothes. Art. 
Books (many carloads of books-). 

One corner of the house - before.
We kept in our minds the vision of leaving.
Just the backpack, hopping onto a train (all cars sold-). 

Taking off, waving to the new owners of the house. 
Hittin' the road.

And - it happened pretty much just like that. 
But it was a LOT of work.

The same corner of the house - after.
So now, our only "home" is a canal boat. Off the grid. 

The idea was to continue traveling, which we've been doing for the past 5 years. 
Without needing to return to a house to maintain things. 

We wanted a place where we could easily close up and leave. 
A "turnkey operation". 

A boat works. 
It's simple. 

And it's cool. 
I like it.

It was accidental that it turned out to be inexpensive. 
That wasn't our main reason for doing it.

I mentioned at this FI seminar that a boat, a canal barge, is low cost living. 

So I got to thinking about it. 
Just how much does it cost? 

Then again - when this post appeared on reddit,  people were asking - so how much?

So in the spirit of the Chautauqua, where people are pretty open about financial stuff, here are the numbers. (I put it in dollars - so the comparison is easier) 

We weren't trying to live cheaply. 
This is roughly what it cost. 

Here's what I was paying to maintain the house in New Mexico:

Per Year:
$1200 home insurance
$3100 property tax
$2300 electricity and gas (ok, we had a pool)
$900 water and waste (it's NM. Water can be $$)
$1500 wi-fi (Xfinity. SO expensive. So annoying.)

So basic costs of the house were about $9000 a year. 

Here's what the boat looks like on an annual basis:

Per Year:
$600 boat insurance
$1000 mooring fees (calculated by boat length. Our boat is 14m long. 80€ a month.)
$120 for water - waste is free. We fill the water tank about once a month.
$120 propane
$300 wi-fi
$600 canal usage fee. The French waterways system charges us to use the canal.

So that comes to $2740 a year. Less than $230 a month.

We're off the grid, so no utilities as such. 
We have solar panels, which work GREAT.

Granted, it was a pretty sweet house. 
My dream house. 

A 100+ year old adobe in the Rio Grande valley. 

And - a house also requires a LOT more general maintenance stuff. 

Garden hoses and plants and parts and tools and cleaning supplies. 

We had a big yard. Gardens. Ponds. A pool. 
That is in addition to the numbers above. 

I know we spent a LOT of time at Home Depot.

Yes, you do need a visa to live in France as an American.

Here's more info on getting the original long-term visas
(It gets a bit easier after the first time.)  

Also, we're on the French health system, which is free. 

(I was paying $650 a month in the US for insurance. 
That - was the cheapest I could find, with a $7000 deductible. 

If you count the health insurance, it doubles the cost of living in NM.
-Don't get me started.)

Back to the boat: 
Obviously, there's the cost of the Boat itself. 

This is ours, Maggie May. 

She's a beauty.

You can find a good live aboard boat anywhere between $5,000 and $200,000.  
I suppose you could pay more - or even less. 

There are always a LOT of boats for sale. 
Pretty much any price.

Prices range widely. 

There's a single guy down the canal from us on an old sailboat. 
You could probably buy one like it for $3000. 

However, he usually finds a girlfriend to live with. 
So he doesn't spend all that much time on the boat. 

Works for him.

I'm not talking budget living here. 
I did that in the 70's. 
Had the ol' self-sufficient farm, off the grid. 

Catching fish and rabbits, growing potatoes. 
Kept chickens and collected mussels. 
Out in the West of Ireland. 

Hitchhiking around Europe, sleeping on the ground or in haystacks. 
I'm not living that way now. 
There's a time for everything. 

That's JL Collins. Digging turf at our place in Ireland with the landlord. 1975. He was a good sport about it.

You can do all of this for much less. 
And it would be just as much fun. 

Yes, there are also very inexpensive houses in the French countryside. 
Roll up your sleeves, those can be serious work - and time. 

If that's how you want to spend your days, fine. 
Our goal was to make our lives simpler. 
Have more time for art, music, and exploring the world. 

That it was also less expensive was a plus, not the original intention. 

Here's a place to start. Try looking for canal barges.

Our boat has 3 cabins and 3 bathrooms. 
This is pretty ridiculous, and more than we need. 
But - we have kids and friends and family who visit. 
Since Stan and I are not boat specialists, we wanted one where all the systems were integrated. 

Another question I get a lot - do you have to know your way around boats? 
Not really. Here's how much we really didn't know. 

Sure, it helps to be mechanical. Doesn't it always? 

But the canals and ports are filled with people who know all about boats. 
They've built their own boats. 
Sailed around the world with them. 
These are people who grew up with boats. 

Most are more than willing to share their knowledge. 
It's a good community. 

More about the boat hunt here. And finding a boat

So that's the basic financial picture. 

Plus, when you sell a house, there's a nice chunk of money to invest. 
FI types like that. Your income grows, too. 

Also - did I mention wine? 
Do you know how good the wine is in France - and how cheap, compared to the US?

Sometimes I wonder just how much we save on the wine alone...
I know a boat isn't for everyone. 
It's just - another possibility. 
Like van dwelling, but somehow - way cooler. 

It gives us the chance to spend more time on the things we love doing. 

With the plus side of working out way less expensive than we'd planned. 

05 June 2019

What's it Like - Living on a Canal Boat in the South of France?

If you're not used to the concept, it's kind of hard to picture it.

There's Maggie May, in her regular mooring spot.

How do you get power? 
Do you have neighbors? 
Where ARE you? 

What kind of boat do you have? 
Do you sail all the time? 

And - WHY are you there?

Why a boat?
Boats are great in some ways.
Less so in others. 

A boat is easy to lock up and leave. 
A turnkey operation.
Empty the fridge and go.

Since we still plan to continue to travel a lot - this is a major factor.

No house sitters. No pool service.
No tweaking the garden drip system before leaving.
No cat.

It's simple
No utilities or property taxes.

Mooring fees are low. 
Insurance isn't hard to find. 
And - if you don't like your neighbors, you just loosen the ropes and - go.

You have 360° views. 
From the galley and salon, we can see in all directions. 
It's living outside as much as inside.

It's still a bit romantic.
The water reflections on the wood ceilings at dawn. 
Fish jumping in the evening. 
The sound of the ropes straining in the wind.

It's sociable. 
Friends on boats. 
Friends in the village.

It's comfortable. 
Everything has its place, and is within reach. 
Having a boat prevents you from collecting too much stuff. 

It's off the grid.
I always liked the idea of being off the grid.

I even had an (almost!) self-sufficient farmhouse in the West of Ireland when I was 20.
Using solar energy is very satisfying - and surprisingly efficient.

(More about power and water - and solar panels on the boat.)

There are almost 30,000 km of rivers and canals in Europe. 
France alone has over 8000 km.

They're beautiful.

Our canal, the Canal du Midi, was built in the 1600's.
It's a handmade canal that connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean.  
It's also called "The Canal Between Two Oceans".

Some odd details about the Canal du Midi here.

See that tiny blue line at the bottom? By the number 4? That's where we are. 
In theory, we could be cruising for years and never explore everything. 

But - canal boating is slow. 
Very slow. 
Going through the hundreds of locks takes patience. 

Being on the move is like this.

We move sometimes.
Not often.
Usually we enjoy where we're moored.

So - what are the boats like? Sailboats?

Some are sailboats.
But most are not.
The bridges are very small. Very low.

So they have to take down the mast.

This is one of the smallest bridges, in Capestang. This boat got stuck.

A lot of canal boats are restored barges - built over 100 years ago.

Some are fancy "Hotel Barges" that take paying guests. 

Plus, there are loads of "drive-yourself" boats you can rent.
Locaboat, Le Boat, Canalous, Nichols, Minervois Cruisers.

All sizes. All prices.  

We rented this boat with the kids in 2014, before Maggie May.  And - later cruised the lovely Lot River. That story is here.

However, all over the thousands of km of canals, there are small communities of private boats.

Some are weekenders.

Some visit their boat for a few weeks in summer.

Some live all year round.

And some boats - become homes for ducks. 

I like that the boats are all different.
Each boat has a different story.

The port at Capestang, the next town over. Where we get our mail.

This is our boat, Maggie May.
Built of strong Durham steel, she weighs about 25 tons.

3 cabins. And 3 bathrooms, which is very unusual.
2 helms, inside and out.

The inside helm. 2 cabins and 2 baths behind Stan. At 6'4", he can still stand up inside.
She's about 15m (50') long, and over 4m (13') wide.
She's very comfortable.

The galley - on both sides of the boat. Main bedroom and bath behind.
But the best space is the aft deck, where we spend a LOT of time.

Friends Ron and Fiona, who live on The Swan. Cruising the canals at 80.
The flat bottom on Maggie May is great for canals. 
On the other hand, it's not a good boat for the sea.  

Our mooring is in Poilhés, a small French village about 2 hours north of Barcelona.
Between Montpellier and Toulouse.

The "lavoir", originally used for laundry. From the aft deck.

People living on boats in Poilhés come from France. 
Argentina. New Zealand. Scotland. England. Germany. Belgium. 

Sunday morning at the market in Capestang with Luc and Anton. Sailed in on Luc's boat, Marolis. 

Why the south of France?

People in Europe assume it's because the weather is better.
But New Mexico has great weather.
Four seasons, dry, clear, good skiing.
And sunshine almost every day.

So why leave a comfy house, pool, garden - to live on - even a large and comfy - boat?
People assume we're "retiring" here.
But that doesn't really explain it.

When I was younger, my motto was:
"All life is an experiment. The more you make, the better."

I wound up living and working in about a dozen countries.

Teaching helicopter maintenance in Iran.
Bush pilot in West Africa.
Airport Manager for Pan Am in Zurich. Geneva.
Ambassador's Secretary at the Japanese Embassy in Liberia.
Owning and running an international import-export company in New Mexico.
And more.

Some of those stories are in the book, "Meanwhile Back in Los Ranchos".

I like the idea of a base somewhere, and then exploring from there.
Learning about the region.
The people. The language, the food.

Being part of the scene.

Similar to what's now called "long term slow travel".

Being "on the road" with just the backpack - is a wonderful feeling.
Having all you need in a compact little bag.
You don't really need anything more.

It makes you feel anything is possible.
Oddly, having fewer choices - can make life feel easier.

This - Maggie May and the south of France - is a good base.
It's beautiful.
Between the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean.

Great food.
Excellent wine.

A small, simple, compact home.

It may not be the last base.
But it's easy to close up and - go.

These days, simpler is almost always better.
Fewer things = more freedom.

So - rather than being a "retirement destination", it's more of a "step along the way".
It's not necessarily a final chapter.

We could still wind up anywhere.

It's a continuation of an adventure that began decades ago.
Exploring the world.

Being amazed by the beauty.
Puzzled by the mysteries.
Touched by the culture.

Living each day - kind of making it up as we go along.

As they say here - "La vie est belle."

Life is wonderful.

09 May 2019

The Queen Mary, Amtrak and Eurostar - USA to Europe without Flying.

No Airplanes, Please - 

New Mexico to the South of France
by Train and Ship

We just crossed over the Missouri River. 
On a train. 

We have a small sleeper compartment.
Private bathroom. 

Stan's playing guitar. 

Stan's happy - there's a self-serve coffee stand at the end of our coach. 

All meals are included on the 28 hour train trip from Albuquerque to Chicago. 

Salmon, fillet steak, NY cheesecake. 
A small bottle of merlot. 

The attendant brings hot water for tea to our compartment between meals. 
And makes up the beds.


We weren't necessarily being "carbon conscious" by not flying.
I had retina surgery, and wasn't allowed to fly.

Okay, I thought - fine.
There has to be another way to get to France.
And - there is.

A pretty cool way, too.

Booked an Amtrak train from Albuquerque to Chicago. Overnight.
Another one from Chicago to New York. Also overnight. 

Then, the Queen Mary from New York to Southhampton in England.
It takes a week.

From there, via Eurostar train London to Paris, under the English Channel.
And on by train to Béziers and "Maggie May".

The entire transit took about 3 weeks.
No jet lag. Arrived relaxed and rested.

Even got to see a show in London on the way.

But back to the trip:

New Mexico is beautiful from the train.
Mountains and mesas.

(Did you know - the Santa Fe Railway never went to Santa Fe. 
The terrain was too tough. So it stopped in nearby Lamy.)

Across Kansas. Missouri.

Crossing a small corner of Iowa, and into Illinois.
Fields and farms and quiet towns. 

Over the Mississippi River.
Lots of water up here.
Still snow in some places!

Looks like it was a wet and wild winter in the Midwest. 

Finally - the train pulls into Chicago.

Clean, cool architecture, friendly folks, and a killer location right on the lake. 

Museums, clubs, shows, parks. 
One of the better world-class cities. A bit unsung.

And - the Art Institute, which is always a treat.

My mother was a Chicago girl.
And I was born there.

Then, a new destination. 
Up along Lake Michigan to Wisconsin to visit Jim and Jane (and Jessica) Collins.

Also by train. 

The weather didn't cooperate. Freezing! 
So we had to discuss Everything Under the Sun - indoors.
Which - we did. 

Solving world problems left and right. 

(Jane, by the way, is a heck of a cook-!)

During the previous 5 months, we sold our house in New Mexico.

Sold the cars. 16 bicycles. Furniture. Antiques.
Gave away books, clothes, linens, kitchenware. 
Dozens of guitars. Rugs.

Art materials, art. Tons of tools.
-Untold  treasures.

And 1 cat. (who is probably happier now)

The goal was to get rid of everything. 
Aiming toward a "toothbrush and a credit card" life.

Lightening the load a bit. 

After that job, this long slow trip was welcome.

From Chicago, another train - the Lake Shore Limited. 
Sleeper compartment to New York.

Along the edges of Lake Michigan and Lake Erie.

Past Buffalo, where my Dad was born in 1910. 

The Queen Mary II is our next step - for the transatlantic portion of our trip back to France. 

Always wanted to take the Queen Mary.
It's not a cruise ship, it's an ocean liner.

Transport, rather than entertainment. 

Between New York and Southhampton, UK. 

And: It IS beautiful. Luxurious. Spacious. Elegant. 

Our stateroom has loads of space.

Even a fridge. An electric kettle. 
A private balcony, a king bed, and a comfortable sitting area. 

With a complimentary bottle of champagne.

Turn down service.
With chocolates. 

Evenings are quite formal - most men in tuxedos, most women in sparkly dresses. 
Lots of ballroom dancing and live music in the evenings.

Shows. Speakers.
A planetarium.

(You can hang out in your stateroom, and go to the buffet or the pub if you want to stay casual.)

The ship's library is the largest afloat - it's impressive. 

Stan is still happy - he's got his guitar and a view.

(I thought this might be some sort of modern art sculpture. 
Turns out it's a spare propeller blade. Yikes.)

I love just watching the water glide by.
No responsibilities. 
Being amazed that there is NOTHING around us - in any direction.
Just water. 
(Ok, maybe an iceberg or two up by Labrador-)

And we have so little idea of what is UNDER the water out here. 

After 7 nights' crossing, London-! 
We find last minute tickets to a West End show, and go out for dinner after.

TGV (the Train of Great Speed) from London to Paris. 
The Eurostar. Upstairs. Quiet.

Under the English Channel. Fast. 

Change stations in Paris. 
Passing over the Seine.

Through the fields and villages of France - way down to the south.

To Béziers overnight, before returning to the boat.

Then - finally, after a trip that took us 3 weeks:

It's time to open the champagne.

On the aft deck of Maggie May.