Where to Find the World’s Best Quality of Life in 2011

International Living’s Annual Quality of Life Index 2011

Where will you find the world’s best quality of life? Going by numbers alone, the winner is clear: the United States.

Statistics don’t tell the whole story, of course. But we’ll start by letting the numbers have their say. The U.S. has the biggest economy in the world and—when compared to the 191 other countries in our survey, earns the highest marks for infrastructure. It scores respectably across the rest of our nine categories as well—cost of living, culture, environment, freedom, health, and safety. And thus, on a strictly statistical basis, the U.S. is hard to beat. A clear, if uninspiring, winner.

After all, eleven months of the year, we consider where you can live well on the cheap, pay less tax, enjoy better weather and take advantage of emerging markets. Where you can best escape, retire, start over, take off on a grand adventure…

But every January, we take a different perspective. We look at almost every country on Earth and ask: How do they stack up against one another?

This year, we’ve extensively retooled this annual index. We’ve tapped new sources, bumped old ones, and generally cleaned house to ensure we’re bringing together the best range of stats available anywhere.

On a macro level, the numbers tell their story. The U.S. has more paved roads than anywhere else, more airports and a lot of cell phones, good Internet access. It’s got a huge economy, the world’s biggest (though not necessarily the best), and it’s got tens of thousands of doctors and hospitals (if you can afford them). The numbers say: The United States has a lot going for it.

But statistics don’t always reflect the reality in communities on the ground. The truth is: In dozens of other countries, ranked lower in the final count than the U.S., you can enjoy a life of equal quality — with the same levels of comfort — at a much lower cost.

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Admittedly, outside the States you may not get pizza delivered at all hours or find Wi-Fi in every café. But thousands of satisfied expats are living proof that, in return for sacrificing a little convenience, you can enjoy a truly healthy, happy and more affordable life overseas.

So yes, the size of an economy and the efficiency of a country’s infrastructure tell you a certain amount about what it’s like to live there. But how much will the GNP or the number of cell phones per capita affect your quality of life as a North American should you adopt another country as your home? Well, it depends.

Say, for example, you land in the colonial city of Cuenca, Ecuador, with the idea that you’ll stay and live on an income of $2,000 a month. Well in that case, your quality of life will be second to none. Because with that kind of bankroll in Ecuador, where the cost of living is quite low, you could afford to access very good health care, have as many cell phones as you like, eat out twice a day, employ a maid…and still have plenty leftover.

How We Do It…
Every year we rank and rate almost every country on earth to narrow down the search for that elusive place, the one where you’ll find the greatest quality of life.This is the only index of its kind and to produce it we consider nine categories: Cost of living, culture, economy, environment, freedom, health, infrastructure, safety and climate. We scour “official” sources and statistics, considering every number we can get our hands on, tapping into outfits like the World Health Organization, government departments, UNESCO and many more.This year we cleaned house on our data sources, adding brand new ones for our culture and health categories and revamped our environment category to make the most of in-depth new research from Yale.Bear in mind that the score of 100 does not indicate perfection. It just means that the country scored highest in the category. For example, the U.S. economy is not perfect (far from it), it’s just the highest scoring in that category. The rest of the countries are then arranged in a spread, the lower the score, the worse the country does.Every index is prone to a little “nonsense by numbers,” which is why we include some subjectivity in ours. Statistics obtained from officialdom are not always accurate or reliable. Since the stats we gather don’t always reflect our own experience, or yours either, we sometimes interject a subjective factor to fill the gaps. You can view the final score for every country here.

The point is, it’s hard to put a simple number on the “quality” in quality of life. If we were to give less weight to the economy and infrastructure categories in our survey, the final rankings would be very different. And the countries we write about most often would come out much closer to the top.

Still, it can be useful to step back and see how each nation fares relative to others when we do consider these categories.  To come out ahead, a country must be an all-around good pick, not just a standout in one area or two. And that explains why the top finishers are developed nations like the U.S. and the rest of our top 10 — New Zealand, Malta, France, Monaco, Belgium, Japan, United Kingdom, Austria, and Germany.

None is among the most affordable nations on the planet. But they all offer other benefits. These nations are home to plenty of expats who are thrilled with life in their chosen havens and share their experiences below.

Originally from Indiana, Jennifer Tucker found her perfect work-life balance in New Zealand. Three generations of the Mulcare family discovered something to love about life in the French Pyrenees. Michelle Nott enjoys the real perks of life in Belgium (see below for all their stories).

Numbers are by their nature about quantity; they give an outline, but they don’t paint the picture. To get a more accurate sense for the rich tapestry of life around the world, you need to consider the reality on the ground.

Take Belarus, for example. Formerly a part of the Soviet Union, it has more doctors and hospital beds per person than anywhere else in the world, and so its health care score is pretty respectable. But that doesn’t mean it has the best health care. Do a little digging and you find out that while it had more than its share of medical colleges before the fall of the Berlin Wall—and still, today, many doctors—it’s nearly impossible to get specialized health care there.

By contrast, in Mexico, which earns the same score in the health category as Belarus, you have access to U.S.- and European-trained doctors and ultra-modern medical facilities. Many Mexican doctors speak excellent English, and their services cost less than half what you’d pay in the States.

Mexico scores well in other categories, too. It comes fourth in climate and 10th in culture— ahead of many developed countries including the U.S. Throw in a good score in cost of living and it’s obvious why it’s home to more expats than any other country in the world.

Look at a combination of categories and you’ll find some other attractive options. Zimbabwe and Malta tie for first place in climate. But they’re not cheap. When you take into account cost of living, then affordable Ecuador— which came in a close eighth in the climate category—starts to look very appealing.

Iceland, Switzerland and Costa Rica top our environment category. This year we ranked countries according to Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index. This ranks countries across 25 performance indicators, water quality, policy initiatives, biodiversity, air pollution, the effect of environmental factors on human health, and more. The U.S. didn’t do so well, coming in at only 61st.

Dozens of countries outperformed it, many of which are established or emerging retirement havens. Ranked 10th in environment, it’s no surprise Colombia is an emerging expat destination. It also scores well in the climate category, coming 20th, and it’s a really affordable option in terms of real estate and cost of living, too.

Now our Quality of Life Index can’t tell you where the best place is to buy beachfront or convert an old colonial into a guesthouse. What it can tell you is that with a warm, dry Mediterranean climate, low crime rates, good medical facilities and English-speaking population, Malta’s a good place to start looking.

It can tell you that New Zealand, this year’s runner-up, is a First World retirement haven. It can show you that Uruguay, 22nd this year, earns solid marks in infrastructure and health (which is partly why more and more wannabe expats consider it an attractive option). So where will you find your best quality of life? There is no answer. At least, no generic answer. It depends on what’s most important to you.

What’s Life Like There?
Not only did we crunch the numbers for this year’s Quality of Life Index, we also spoke to readers all over the world about life in their adopted homes. We asked them what makes life so good there…maybe it’s excellent health care, or safety and security. Perhaps it’s the low cost of living, a great scene and wonderful food. We’ve included their stories below.

Click here to see the complete final scores for each country in every category.

New Zealand—“The Easiest Decision of My Life”
By Chris Tell

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011After traveling to over 50 different countries and living in a half a dozen I had carefully refined my criteria for selecting a country to live in. Choosing New Zealand was one of the easiest decisions of my life.

It’s English speaking, somewhere I could raise and educate small children. For this I needed a safe and free place with a high quality of education.

I wanted an un-crowded and beautiful environment where I could enjoy the fruits of my labors without sacrificing a healthy lifestyle. As a keen snowboarder and sportsman with a love of the outdoors I wanted a climate where I could enjoy these things with friends and family.

I demanded high-quality housing, fresh foods, infrastructure such as roads, power, clean drinking water and services. I expected fast efficient and honest services and wanted to be engaging with people who valued the same things as I did.

While it mattered less when I was single and carefree, I was cognizant of the need for high quality medical care both for my family as well as for elderly family members who may join me in the future.

Lastly I didn’t want to bankrupt myself in order to have this lifestyle. It was one of the easiest decisions of my life and I chose New Zealand

Editor’s Note: Chris Tell is the author of the New Zealand Retirement, Immigration and Lifestyle Guidebook. For more information see: Expatexploits.net.

New Zealand—“A Healthy Work-Life Balance”

By Jennifer Tucker

We left our home in Indiana for a job opportunity that presented itself to my husband.  We had always thought it would be fun to live overseas, and when this job became available, I thought, “Why not? The worst that can happen is they’ll tell you “no.” He flew to NZ for the interview and loved the country and the position. When they offered him the job, it took less than five seconds for me to say, “Absolutely!”

The best thing about the quality of life here is the emphasis on a healthy work-life balance. I was used to long hours and lots of overtime at my job as an ER nurse in the States. Moving to New Zealand gave me the opportunity to work part-time and see more of my husband. I love how considerate my employer is in regards to my schedule and the flexibility that my husband has with his job. I’m also a fan of the maternity leave policy. We’re expecting our first child, and I am able to take a year of leave from my job with my position guaranteed when I return.

We wanted to live in the heart of Auckland Central for commuting reasons. As a result, we pay more in rent, but are able to go without a car and avoid that expense. We have had to give up a few “extras,” such as dining out as often or going to the movies every week, but it’s worth it. With careful budgeting, we’ve been able to live on one salary and put the rest in savings.

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011Summers here are beautiful. The winter season is wet, cool, and rainy. You quickly learn not to go anywhere without an umbrella, and investing in a quality raincoat is a wise decision. However, the summers are beautiful.  It’s great to be able to barbecue on the beach for Christmas when all of your family is buried in the snow back in the States!

My husband’s employer covered most of the cost of our relocation—shipping our household goods, airfare, cost of medical exams for visas, and providing us with housing for the first few weeks.  They also set us up with a relocation firm to tour available properties on our arrival.

I highly recommend signing on with a relocation firm if you are able. As a result, we were able to tour multiple properties in one day and made a decision by that evening. We moved into our new home a week later, and the relocation agent managed all of the paperwork.  Because of this, I can say that the biggest challenges that we faced were adjusting to being so far from family.  It isn’t always easy, but we make a point of keeping in touch through Skype and e-mail.

Once I knew that we were moving to New Zealand, I made a point of reading the New Zealand Herald on a regular basis. Doing so helped me learn more about our new country, understand the politics, and become aware of current and recent events. I was able to enter into conversation with people once we moved, and I didn’t feel like as much of an outsider.  Also, do your research. Find other ex-pat blogs and don’t be shy about e-mailing and asking questions.  Make connections with people and be open to developing new friendships.

Malta—“Every Day is Like a Holiday”

By Barbara Bode

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011Could Americans find happiness on Malta and Gozo, the two major islands of the Maltese archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? Those who love history, sunshine, serene sailing and crashing waves along rocky shores certainly can.

Communication here is easy. Some 200 years of British rule taught most to speak English and it’s required in most schools.

I lived on Malta for several years and grew to love the lifestyle, food and quality of life. Although very different, both islands are welcoming and safe. Gozo’s 28,000 souls live in small villages. Primarily agricultural, that lifestyle creates a neighborly atmosphere.

For a change of pace, take the ferry to Malta where transportation waits.

About 500,000 Maltese live on this much larger, more sophisticated island. Most have a lively urban life. Many more travel abroad and enjoy sharing experiences. Modern homes and apartments attract an international set as do refurbished harbors and five-star hotels.

Intriguing for visitors are the prehistoric sites on both islands, the temples, the underground Hypogeum, and Gozo’s Ggantija, the oldest freestanding structure in the world, for example.  Imagine the thousands of years of changes that led to the arrival of the Knights who drove away invading Turks. To enhance their own protection and display their treasures, the Knights, now called “of Malta,” caused the 16th-century medieval capital of Valletta to be built.  The Pope provided the architects and Emperor Charles V gave them all Malta for the fee of one falcon a year.

Bargains like that aren’t found anymore. Real estate is pricey. Upscale stores carry what you want but also highly priced. You can save money and make new friends by shopping at the green grocers and butchers early in the morning.

Sunny, hot summers are marked by fireworks announcing Saints’ Day festivals of music, dancing, and food celebrating each village’s saint. Every day is like a holiday.

Malta—For Love or Money?
By Liz Ayling

I am a long-time expat in Malta, having moved to the Islands in the early ‘90s. I came because I married a British-Maltese who decided that a decade under London’s grey, cold skies was more than enough, excellent career or not. In short, the main reason to move was probably longings for warmth, outdoor living and a more sociable lifestyle. We’d seen our Maltese friends living in huge old stone houses clad in picture-postcard bougainvillea. Our reasons were more emotional than rationale.

We hadn’t really thought through the career-job issues. Salaries locally are still around two-thirds what they are back in the U.K. That said, I don’t think we feel worse off. I am now in that large stone house, with no mortgage, and contemplating putting in a pool. I have U.K. friends still on long commutes with large mortgages and more expensive but smaller houses.

Since EU membership in 2004, Malta seems to have found a new confidence, it’s more buoyant, it’s got broadband, and you can buy a Philippe Starck bathroom without massive tariffs slapped on.  It’s a far different place to set up home and work in than when I first arrived.

Having lived here in its raw years, coming out of what was akin to a period of strict socialism, I now want to reap the benefits that newly-arriving expats are attracted to here.

And they are coming in their droves.  According to some latest E.U. statistics, most of Malta’s recent population growth is attributable to incoming foreigners.  My eight-year-old son’s class, in a regular Maltese private school, has many nationalities in it from Russian to Czech, Swedish, French, Portuguese, British and Korean. I like that.

Malta is historically a melting pot, but never more so than now. Today, you are just as likely to hear Swedish, Russian or an Eastern European language on the streets as English or Maltese.

Of course, if you are seeking a go-native experience, then Malta isn’t for you.  That’s not to say the country doesn’t retain its own identity—think noisy summertime village parties. But expats will inevitably bump into expats given Malta’s size—roughly twice the size of Washington D.C.   It’s easy to socialize with your countrymen. A luxury lifestyle development at the tip of Malta’s main resort town Sliema, overlooking a harbor and the baroque capital Valletta, is dominated by Swedes, for example.

Inevitably the experience of the newly arrived makes me take stock. I remember making a list of the pros and cons of Malta before moving here. It proved futile. The pros were lifestyle; the cons were mostly work and financial.

Now though, I think it’s possible to square the circle because Malta is seeing a lot of overseas firms setting up shop, mainly in the online gaming industry and financial services both of which pay well over any local going rate.  Land a job in those and you’re smiling all the way to the bank and have enough cash to avoid getting “island fever”—the distress that sets in every three months if you don’t escape this small place which is now one of the most densely-populated countries in the world.

The standard of living in Malta is probably better than that in the U.K. There is a double-taxation agreement in place with most E.U. countries, and the U.S. expats who benefit most from living here are those who somehow retain some earnings from elsewhere that they then elect to get taxed in Malta, at a flat 15%.

Small here is both beautiful and its worst aspect. I agree with the textbook Malta upsides—its great climate, personal safety, proximity to Europe, its English-speaking culture, and excellent health-care. The downsides are mainly related to size and “’island-culture.” Some people can find it insular living in a melting-pot of around 410,000 plus around 1.2 million tourists a year. I know people who came here and found it too small, or lacking greenery and open spaces. Malta may stack up financially, but it can only be home if you “get it” emotionally.

Just remember, that when the Knights of St John were given Malta by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, they thought it a barren, impoverished place. They went on to call it home for 265 years.

Editor’s note: Liz is the editor of Maltainsideout.com.

France—The Perfect Place to Raise a Family”
By Lucy Culpepper

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011High up in the French Pyrenees lies the thermal spa town and ski resort of Cauterets. It’s the kind of town featured on postcards; staggeringly beautiful mountains tower above chocolate-box Victorian buildings, a rushing river runs through the center, and there are meadows nearby, full of flowers and cows with clonking bells; perfectly idyllic.

Cauterets is in the Hautes-Pyrenees department of south west France and has been on the discerning tourists’ trail for some 400 years. In the mid 1500s Queen Marguerite of Navarre visited with her court to take, and bathe in, the mineral rich waters. The town grew and at its peak of popularity, at the end of the 19th century, had 150 hotels. Many of the Victorian buildings with their balustrades and fine balconies have been restored giving the town a delightfully old time feel.

Living here since 2007 are three generations of the Mulcare family. The middle generation were intent on leaving the rat race and wanted to raise their young families in a calm, safe, natural environment; the older generation had sold their own business and always wanted to retire to France and the youngest generation… well he just wanted to learn to ski!

What Makes a Healthy Country?
By Adrian Leeds
This year’s winner in the health category is France. I’m not surprised. Between the cost of health insurance and the quality of care, there is no contest. Sure, the World Health Organization ranks France number one in their World Health Report, but that doesn’t tell you what day-to-day care is like. You can call SOS Médecins for an at home visit by a doctor who arrives within 30 minutes of your call all for the cost of a normal office visit. Or, call SAMU to be rushed to the nearest hospital and no one asks to see your proof of medical insurance prior to treatment. And the doctors actually use their knowledge and experience to treat their patients rather than over-prescribing tests because their malpractice liability isn’t so great. Drugs are so inexpensive, it’s a joke by comparison. So, all in all, it’s a pleasure to get sick!
Editor’s Note: To read more from Adrian about life in France, see: Adrianleeds.com/parlerparis.

At first they all lived together in one big house while they found their own homes and the ideal property for their business-to-be: Seven self-catering holiday apartments right in the old town overlooking the Gave de Cauterets River simply called ‘Mulcares’ (See: Mulcares.com).

I asked James Mulcare, who runs the business with his sister Louise and wife Ruth, how the family had benefited from the move to Cauterets and what the main difference between life today and life three years ago:

“Everyone’s lives have changes vastly,” he says. “Our parents are now retired and enjoy walking in the mountains and visiting the region. I have more time with my family and can pursue my passion for outdoor sports. It is the perfect place to raise a family; there’s an inexpensive but very good crèche, great schools, skiing lessons as part of the school day, there are endless outdoor activities and it’s a safe, small town where everyone knows each other.”

“The pace of life is so much slower here. At first it was hard to adjust to the long lunch hours with the shops closed. Far more emphasis is placed on family life and making the most of living on a beautiful mountain.”

If living part time in a French mountain town appeals to you there are plenty of small, lock and leave,pied-a-terre apartments. For instance, I saw a stone-clad, one-bedroom studio with wooden interior, in a quiet residential area with big mountain views for $66,000.

Belgium—“Quality of Life the Biggest Reward”
By Michelle Nott

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011I had always dreamed of living in France. Seven years ago, I picked up my baby from day care and arrived home to find my husband already in the living room. I propped our daughter next to me on the couch and heard the most beautiful words since our wedding day, “We’re moving to Belgium.” …Close enough! I jumped up as high as a lottery winner.

In a very real sense, we were. The cost of living in Belgium is significantly lower than in New Jersey. For the first six years, my husband received a semi-expat package from his company. Given that he is a European citizen, we did not receive the “perks” that full expats do. Nevertheless, our standard of living improved despite losing my salary.

Families receive monthly allowances from the government—typically $115.07 for the first child, $212.92 for the second and $317.91 for the third and any subsequent child. Top quality health care costs are kept incredibly low, as taxes already pay into the system. To encourage legal payment for domestic help, service companies provide assistance in exchange for titre-services or dienstencheques (service checks). Each hourly payment coupon costs $10.14. Yet the true cost is just $7.44 after tax deduction.

As our Belgian assignment was to last two to three years, renting a house made more sense. Closing costs on a home can reach up to 20% of its value. To be worth the investment, buyers needs to stay five years minimum. Why have we not yet bought a house? Rental contracts are valid for either three or nine years. A three-year contract sounded more sane, but in the event that we were to stay longer (which we have), it would only have been possible to renew the lease one time. A nine-year agreement lets us pay continuously the same rent and have more flexibility to move out. The longer a tenant stays, the less notice he has to give and the less unnecessary rent he would have to pay. Leases do vary slightly by region—be it Brussels, Flanders, Wallonia, or German.

Belgium is comprised of the above-mentioned regions and their governments. The three official languages are French, Dutch and German (yet only spoken close to the border). Regardless, English-speaking expats can feel reassured. American and British companies, the European Union and NATO guarantee plenty of anglophones in and around Brussels.

Many English-speakers live in Flanders. The Flemish do tend to speak English quite well, Dutch and English being Germanic languages. A 60 year-old Flemish woman informed me that her generation was required to learn French, German and English to graduate secondary school. The expat should realize, nonetheless, that many Flemish towns require residents to speak Dutch. Luckily, classes are offered in community centers and for much less than a language school would charge.

The scenic villages in French Wallonia proved a calming change for us.  Greeting neighbors and the same friendly faces in the shops, cafés and marketplaces is a highlight of every day. English is not, however, so widely spoken except for in and around Waterloo. Napoleon lost this famous battle in 1815 and the English seem to have been coming ever since.

In many ways, Belgium is an ideal international location. Brussels airport is centrally-located on the continent, making world-wide destinations possible and convenient. The international community with its numerous social clubs offers a world of people in one small country. Plus, language courses are abundantly offered in public and private schools for children and adults. Our Belgian adventure is a winning situation for us. The quality of life has proven to be the biggest reward.

Japan—“Easy-going, Safe and Secure”

By Jeff Allan

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011I have always had a bold streak to me. After leaving the Marine Corps in 1992, I spent a couple of years looking for fulfillment in an unfulfilling civilian lifestyle. By 1994, I sold every possession I had, opened an atlas, pointed to a random Asian country and bought a one-way ticket to adventure. I arrived in Indonesia with $800 to my name, no language skills and a desire to do things that other people only dream.

During the next 11 years in Asia, I went from living on instant noodles and tea to becoming a six-figure executive in the global technology industry. During my tenure as an expatriate, I married and had two wonderful daughters. I felt my family deserved some stability and a place to call home. I also desired a quieter life with less travel. In late 2004, I decided to pack it in, and return home to Boston.

Fast forward five years and the story changes. I found myself newly divorced, and in need of change. I made the decision to return to Asia, where so many years ago, I had been able to define myself.

For some time, I had been doing freelance writing on the side. I was now going to make it a full-time endeavor. Since my areas of expertise are technology and global business, I wanted a new home that would provide me the opportunity to write about these topics. I chose Japan since it is a leader in both areas.

Once again, I sold my worldly possessions and bought a ticket. I was less reckless this time than I had been with my first foray into the expatriate lifestyle. I came better prepared with about $10,000 in savings and a return ticket—just in case.

Japan has a reputation of being closed and unwelcoming to expatriates. I can understand how this perception would perpetuate among those with little experience as expats. Personally, I have found Japan to be the least intimidating country I have lived in so far. Language issues aside, what I have found in Japan is a very easy-going and cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Surprisingly, I have been able to transition into creative areas with relative ease while living in Japan. Back home in the United States, I had tried several times to make the transition to full-time creative professional. Each time, I found that my previous professional success hindered my transition. I had been pigeon-holed as a corporate suit since my years in Singapore. The best I had been able to do was part-time writing, while keeping a full-time corporate position.

Soon after I arrived in Japan that dynamic changed dramatically. Not only did I find it easy to pursue the creative areas I wanted, I also found new, unexpected opportunities around every corner. To date, I have appeared on countless Japanese television programs, done voice-overs for major networks like CNBC, produced my own web-video series and run a successful blog about living in Japan. New opportunities continue to emerge almost daily.

As of late 2010, the cost of living in Japan is higher than I would like. The recent “currency wars” have decreased the dollar’s spending power by about 20% since arrival. Since my clients pay me in dollars, this has been a minor setback. The good news is that the yen is now trending in the opposite direction. The dollar is gaining strength, so with luck, life will become a lot more affordable in the near future. On the opposite side of that spectrum, expatriates who earn yen-based salaries tell me that the strong yen has been great for converting back to their home currencies.

Tokyo’s climate is far less harsh than my home region of New England in the northeastern United States. It allows me to enjoy the seasons for longer than I am accustomed to. The natural beauty of Japan offers visitors and expatriates a unique experience. The cherry blossoms and hot springs are two of these well-known features that no other country can rival.

Japan’s reputation for safety and the lack of violent crime remains intact. The joke among foreigners here is that if you are a victim of a crime, another foreigner will almost certainly be the one to commit it. The safety and security found throughout Japan is what I would cite as my favorite part of life here. Tokyo at its worst is still safer than my home city of Boston at its best.

Germany— “Liberated from the 9-to-5 Grind”
By Robert Persiko

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011We live in one of the most beautiful areas of Europe. Our home is in the small town of Bretzenheim, a satellite of the city of Mainz. Just north and west of Mainz is the most picturesque stretch of the Rhine, with castles and quaint towns along the shores.

Home for most of my adult life was the Washington, DC area. When I was eligible for retirement, I seized the moment as an opportunity to do something different while still in my productive years. I saw retirement as the beginning of a new and exciting chapter.

My wife grew up in Germany, where her family live. We decided to move to Germany for two years to be closer to my in-laws and to give our two boys the chance to learn German.

The major difference for me is that I’ve been liberated from the nine-to-five grind. In this new chapter of my life, I can control how much and how often I work. I have found a niche teaching and we travel within Europe every chance we get. Just this year we’ve spent time in Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, the Canary Islands, France, and Lebanon, not to mention time spent exploring Germany. Our original two-year experiment has turned into a stay of indeterminate length.

I get around by bicycle, which gives me more exercise than I used to have and is a much more convenient mode of transportation than in the U.S., where we had to travel everywhere by car. I can do much of my food shopping by bike and can take advantage of the abundance of farms that sell directly to consumers to get fresh produce and eggs daily. And then there is the wonderful bread.

We have six bakeries just in and around Bretzenheim! I always enjoyed singing, and I took on the challenge of joining a very high-quality choir in Mainz. I often feel I am the weakest link, but I love the experience of singing in such a great ensemble. The opportunities here are my daily inspiration.

Mainz sits in the middle of two major wine-producing regions, and it is a treat to drive through rolling, vineyard-covered hills, or sip a glass of sparkling wine while watching barges plying the Rhine. We can drive to the Alsace region of France in oneand- a-half hours and to the Netherlands in three hours. We sometimes kiddingly say: “Let’s have lunch in France today!” And we have actually done just that. There are days when I think it just doesn’t get any better than this!

Health care is much cheaper in Germany. My wife required major surgery soon after our arrival and the cost was half of what it would have been in the U.S. Surprisingly, we find that most food is cheaper than in the U.S. When we last visited the U.S. in the summer of 2009, we experienced sticker shock at the supermarkets. In the U.S. we had to put the kids in private schools to get the quality of education we desired. Here they attend public schools where the quality of education is very high.

Italy—“Living My Dream in Florence”
By Karen L. Mills

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011Is it all a dream? Well, yes it is, a dream come true.

In 2006, bored and frustrated with my job I made a New Year’s resolution to “do something different, and live somewhere else.”  I was debt free, and had equity from my house to allow for a modest, but comfortable year in Italy. My company agreed, although there was no guarantee of a job when I returned.  So I left my home town of Nashville, Tennessee,

I chose Florence, Italy. The Italian language was born in Florence, so it seemed a fitting place to live and learn the language.

The friendliness of the Italian people, the culture, history, art, architecture, food, wine, life style, and the beautiful romantic language won me over forever. However, having come to the end of the money I had allotted, it was time to get back to “real life.”  I returned to my previous company for a position in Boston, but my heart stayed in Italy.

Living in Florence had taught me a lot about life, and how little money it can take to make you happy. I set my target date and worked hard. I cut down on my daily living expenses, sold my car, stayed debt free, saved my annual bonuses, and after almost three years, I was ready to make the move back.

This time, I took a short-term apartment to get acclimated, get my documents in order, and look for a longer term housing solution. I packed my personal belongings for shipping and put them in storage until I located permanent housing, and also obtained documents for my two cats to accompany me.

Now, every morning, I rise to the sound of tolling church bells and the clatter of the stalls being taken to market. I throw open the windows and take in the scents of fresh bread baking and espresso brewing from nearby panetterie and bars. I walk the cobblestone streets and shop in individual markets for fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, bread, and wine. Scooters race by, and people gather in outside cafes to socialize and dine. In the afternoon, there is a pause for lunch and the streets are quieter with the stores closed. In the evening, when they reopen, people shop for the evening meal, stroll the piazzas for entertainment, and listen to street musicians under the glow of the street lamps. I pinch myself often to insure it’s all real!

It didn’t happen overnight, and I am still quite surprised…very pleasantly surprised.

Editor’s note: To read Karen’s blog go to: Karensitalianadventure.blogspot.com.

Austria–“My Life Here is Simpler”

By Patti McCracken

Where to Find the World's Best Quality of Life in 2011The choice to live in Austria was more an evolution than a decision. I had been working in nearby Bratislava, Slovakia, as part of a team of American journalists and educators hired to start a journalism program at a Central European university.

Once the contract was finished, I wanted to stay in the region but didn’t want to live in Bratislava. But I did like that charming medieval village across the border in Austria, the one the bus drove through on the way to the Vienna Airport. Thus, I settled in Hainburg, Austria. I didn’t speak German and knew no one, but for the most part, I have found Austrians to be warm and welcoming.

My life here is simpler. My career makes up a good part of who I am: a writer, a reporter. I spend a lot of time immersed in vastly different cultures. So returning to my house in my adopted medieval home town is a joy. When I’m back home in Austria, the quiet of the countryside, the ease of life, the high quality of life, allows me to regain a sense of balance. There is a feeling of being taken care of here, and that equals comfort to me.

I value in Austrians their connection with nature. It has taught me a tremendous amount. For that, I will always be deeply grateful. Each day I go out walking with my Jack Russell terrier. She sits excitedly by my side as we watch families of deer dart across the fields. I watch as she sprints after rabbits, or pounces on a gathering of pheasants (no worries, no one ever gets hurt). As a former suburbanite the vivid yellow of rapeseed and the deep green of young wheat are miraculous.

I don’t really consider myself an expat, although I know I am one. What gave me the courage to seek other shores was asking myself how I would feel if I didn’t do it. Ask yourself the question: what if I don’t go?  Sometimes it really is as easy as listening to yourself.

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