South African journalist
Chené Koscielny – South African journalist and digital marketing consultant – examines what makes you fall in love with a city and why Barcelona is one of the best places in the world to live.
What makes you fall in love with a city? How do you decide that this is the best place in the world to live – a place where you’d like to grow roots after many years of drifting around the globe as an expat?
Infrastructure, wealth, natural beauty and healthcare are important factors, but what about other dimensions such as creativity, culture, diversity in people, food and ideas?
Whether there is a chemistry with a city – depends on who you are, where you come from, your attitude to life and what you’re looking – it’s deeply personal.
Why I lost my heart to Barcelona
After living in some of the world’s most beautiful cities – including London and Paris – as well as Berlin, Geneva and Cape Town, I’ve lost my heart to Barcelona after only a few months. I’m not alone. Barcelona rates among the top 10 world places to live in the world and frequently beats cities such as London and Paris in best world city listings and this year is no exception.
What foreigners like and dislike about Barcelona – is the focus of the International Talent Monitor (ITM) – an extensive biennial survey of expats living and working in the city– organized by Barcelona Global.
Now in its fifth year, the 2021 edition of the survey probes the loves and gripes of expats to help the organization lobby for improvements. It will be available online in May. Sign up to our newsletter to get your link to the survey and to have your say.
Looking at the survey criteria, I believe Barcelona beats the likes of London and Paris hands down.
Why life in Barcelona is better than London, Paris and other world cities
No miserable grey skies and actual fun things to do
For me quality of life has a lot to do with how easy it is to enjoy yourself for free – such as access to Barcelona’s many beaches, hikes in the Collserola and other nearby natural parks. And if you do happen to fancy a glass of wine or a bite to eat, the prices are reasonable enough – Euros 2.50 for a glass of wine and around Euros 12 for a very edible 3-course lunch menu, often including wine.
The city reminds me of Cape Town, where the beaches and beautiful landscape – at least after the end of apartheid – are accessible to all.
In London weekends involve a lot of shopping and drinking
In London, apart from walks along the marvelous Thames or strolls in the much-loved, but to me rather uninspiring, (sorry…) natural heritage parks during the two nice days of the year, weekends seem to involve a lot of shopping and drinking. Visits to the spectacular museums and galleries are fun, but unless you live in the city center it could take you half a day to get there. You couldn’t easily combine that with doing anything else – like going to the beach!
You need a handsome expat package to enjoy Paris’s offerings
Paris’s tourist sights are beautiful beyond compare, but eye-wateringly expensive and you need a pretty handsome expat package to enjoy the best offerings of the city of light. An average set menu at a non-touristy restaurant costs closer to Euros 20 and Euros 5 for a smallish glass of red wine.
A meal will set you back half a month’s salary in Geneva
In Geneva you’re surrounded by beauty and although a dip in the lake is free, enjoying a glass of wine and a rather unappetizing meal at a café will set you back half a month’s salary. You’re looking at around CHF 30 for a menu in a very average restaurant and a very, very tiny glass of wine costs around CHF 7. My favorite tipple – Prosecco – costs CHF 15 per glass in many Swiss bars, compared to Euros 6 in Barcelona. Need I say more?
Geneva is 88 percent more expensive than Barcelona – no wonder we’ve been feeling flush lately. As for skiing in the Alps, it’s mostly reserved for the wealthy – let’s not kid ourselves.
SAFETY – can you sleep soundly at night?
One of the reasons I left South Africa is the unacceptable level of violent crime
No amount of natural beauty can make up for the risk of losing your life over a mobile phone. There are break-ins and worse in every world city, but I’ve never gone to bed with the fear of being killed in my own home anywhere else in the world.
In Barcelona, we’ve had our car broken into in our street and there have been reports of mobile phone thefts from cars around the school, but the city is still considered to be safe enough to let our teenage children roam around freely.
Concerns about political unrest are increasingly worrying foreigners, according to the results of the 2019 ITM but locals say the sporadic unrest doesn’t pose a real threat.
Making good money and living the life
The importance of having the chance to build a career and earn a good salary goes without saying and here the likes of London and New York still outperform Barcelona, depending on your age, rung on the career ladder, industry and ambition.
The cost of living in Barcelona is relatively low and if you’re lucky enough to be a salaried worker here, you may benefit from tax incentives such as the Beckham Law aimed at attracting foreign talent. Barcelona Global is working to extend these incentives to other groups of professionals who currently choose to go elsewhere because taxes are too high.
This is one of the key areas for improvement repeatedly noted by expats in previous ITM reports.
Having said this – as an expat trailing spouse who’s always worked, Barcelona is one of the first cities where freelance doors opened quickly and easily, despite my limited Spanish.
In Paris, a lack of French apparently made me unemployable and in London exorbitant costs of childcare and travel consumed most of my salary.
In Geneva, my age and sex – a woman over 40 – counted against me and in the end made me start my own company, which was not easy by any means.
Barcelona is clearly a start-up-friendly city with great connectivity and less age and sex discrimination from what I can tell so far, though it’s early days.
I’m also wiser, tougher, more experienced, better at networking, more relaxed and no longer need childcare – all of which may have helped to open doors.
Creativity, friendly faces and joie-de-vivre
Everyone has their own definition of culture – beyond museums and swanky galleries – but for me it also has to do with a creative spark, joie-de-vivre, an openness to life and willingness to share and connect.
This is one of the reasons why I love Barcelona – even in Covid-times.
Anyone who has lived in Paris will know Parisians are anything but welcoming and as the only foreigners living in a conservative British neighborhood near London, we never quite felt that we cut the mustard, even after 10 years.
In Geneva, we were confined to the expat bubble, despite our best attempts to integrate..’
Contrast this with Barcelona, and so far, my impression is that people are friendly, helpful and warm. I’ve had more contact with locals than in all my time in Paris or Geneva after 8 months in the city – despite Covid restrictions. Like me, the Spanish love to be outside and enjoy good food and wine. They are sporty and love the outdoors. Add to that the affordability of a good meal, a good dose of Mediterranean sun and beautiful beaches and this for me, is as good as it gets.
To good health!
As we’re getting on a bit, my husband and I are more concerned about access to decent health care – and Barcelona is known for its excellent hospitals and public health system.
Most expats have private health care, but access to public health care is available to all and although you will need a friendly local to help you navigate the system at first – it offers everything you need at a very high quality.
Education and family life
Barcelona has a good choice of international schools and Barcelona Global is working on include more affordable options too. The standard of education – also at university level is excellent.
So, is Barcelona perfect?
Typical expat frustrations include bureaucracy, a slower pace – though I actually appreciate this too now, unaffordable accommodation and low salaries.
No place is perfect, but at this stage of my life and for what I’m looking for – it feels as if it offers me and my family the opportunity to enjoy life to the full – we can’t really ask for more.
SHARE YOUR OPINION
Why not help to make Barcelona an even better place to live for expats – by completing this year’s International Talent Monitor survey.
Sign up to our newsletter to receive your link to the survey in May.
Results will be published in September.