I’ve never thought much of these “quality of life” tables which rank cities worldwide on imagined quality of expatriate life. They’re all a lot of rot. Many of them put Vienna at the top and I’m not sure why because although it’s full of culture it’s hideously expensive and quite boring, particularly after dark. You can wonder round the streets of central Vienna on a Friday evening and wonder where everyone has gone. The Austrians are quiet people, you see, and they live temperate, sensible lives. So Vienna is beautiful and all that, but it’s not much fun. Then you find some Swiss cities in these lists, and yes these places are beautifully clean and everything works like clockwork but what they don’t mention is that, like Vienna, these are some of the most expensive cities in the world. Then there are some cities like London, Melbourne, Singapore and the like - but London often also appears amongst lists of the worst cities in the world to live in. I don’t really know who drafts these lists but I think they are designed for billionaires to read, and I’m not one of them.
I would place Lviv, in wartime western Ukraine, as amongst one of the best places to live in the world. And I’ve lived in a lot of cities all over the world, some on these unusual lists and many not. So I want to tell you why, if I were writing a list of this kind, I would put Lviv up near the top, even though it has some distinct disadvantages such as the fact that it’s in a war zone.
So let’s begin with the downsides, because they really aren’t that bad. The biggest downside is the winter and I’m living through it right now. There is snow everywhere and we are all huddled inside buildings in these icy months and whenever you step outside you go quickly and with determination and you don’t stop and you wear multiple layers and hats and gloves and socks and boots because you may be tramping through snow and slipping on ice and all the rest. However all these things are true of the Viennese winter and I am reliably told by all these surveys of billionaires that Vienna is the best place to live in the world. It’s also true of Geneva and Zurich, by the way: snow plays a big role in those cities in the winter. However today is bright if frosty outside, a nippy -6 degrees celsius, and that’s why I am writing this to you now rather than going out to work. We all hibernate a little in the winter in Lviv. However it’s not as cold as Helsinki, and I’ve seen that city on these billionaires’ lists.
The next real problem with Lviv is getting in and out of it. It has an airport but of course it’s closed because all Ukrainian air space is closed. The nearest big airport is in Kraków, which is seven hours away by bus. It shouldn’t be seven hours away but the Ukrainian border with Poland is kind of slow and this is something Ukraine needs to work on and so do the Polish authorities. That’s because Ukraine needs to normalise and progress towards EU integration and membership even while the war is continuing, because she and Europe and the world have no other choice. So I hope the length of that bus journey will decrease, and I hope someone will start up direct trains from Lviv to Kraków because that seems to have been an oversight and they ought to be running several times a day. Surely this would be an easy thing to achieve.
That said, it’s probably easier, and certainly cheaper, to get from my home town in northern England to Lviv than it is to get to central London, and certainly less stressful. Lviv is in fact a very calm, placid, beautiful and stress-free city, in which as a comparatively affluent foreigner you can afford to live right in the middle of the bustling and historical Old Town with all its quirky cafes and restaurants and bars and silly things going on at a fraction of the price of Vienna or Geneva or Zurich or London or Helsinki. You are overwhelmed with culture and history and architecture. I have been living here over a month I think (the days just fly by) and I have still barely scraped the surface of the city’s history and cultural offerings.
Lviv feels busy, bustling and thronging. Unlike Vienna, the streets are teeming with people, day and night. Yes there is a curfew, but it’s a short one, from Midnight until 5am, and you can break it if you really want to as there are still bars and nightclubs open of various dubious varieties for those in the know. But there isn’t really a need to go to these silly places and I am perfectly happy getting home for Midnight and going to bed. Even Lviv’s youngsters have got used to this routine. There are nightclubs that open early in the evening and chuck you out at 11pm after a solid evening of dancing, and bars swilling with kids drinking cheap booze and plenty of opportunities for alcohol-sodden merriment if that’s what you want.
The city is also amazingly friendly. Due to its unique history as a city of culture in the heart of Galicia amidst the swaying frontiers of miscellaneous empires, Lviv is used to accommodating with open arms foreigners of every conceivable hue and it is an amazingly tolerant place to live in which all sorts of languages are spoken and everyone is pleased to see you. The Ukrainian people are amazingly grateful for all the western support and assistance they are receiving and you hear words of gratitude and appreciation all the time. This in turn means that people are always willing to talk to you and you need never feel lonely. I live on my own here, but I know that at any time I want I can go out and meet someone or other for a bit of a chat. Any woman can go to a bar here on her own without being harassed - at least I haven’t seen it - and it’s common for people to eat out or drink out or attend social events here on their own, because families and friends have been torn apart by war so a lot of people are very lonely.
I think what I am trying to say is that Lviv is a very good place for single people to live. A lot of the volunteers who come from abroad to help the Ukrainian people are single, and a lot of the Ukrainians living here as internally displaced people or otherwise are single too. And single people want to be sociable and they want to get to know one-another. That’s why it’s all so fun. Try to avoid the public transport (although it’s not that bad once you get the hang of it); learn the Cyrillic alphabet; try your best with your clumsy phrases in Ukrainian (we foreigners all goof this up); and remember also that the winter doesn’t last that long. By the end of February people will be discarding their multiple layers of clothes and the summers here are positively scorching. Lviv scores number #1 in my quality of life index, even in the middle of a war.