Opinion | The Price of Paradise

In this increasingly globalized age, we are obsessed with finding the best place to “live.” We are constantly being told that the world is our oyster and that we are the pearls; that with the advances in technology, transportation and communication, we inhabit a global playground.

No limits. No barriers. Life is less about putting down roots and more about being a “citizen of the world,” ticking items o that list of 100 places to see before we die. Perhaps in this age of an surplus of information, goods and people, we like to refer to lists and rankings as a way of navigating through the excess.

This year Vienna placed number one for the seventh year in a row on the Mercer Consulting Quality Living Survey, number two for the fifth year in a row on the Economist Intelligence Unit Global Livability Ranking, and has jumped from number six to number two on the Monocle Magazine Global Livability survey. These surveys are mainly geared towards potential expatriates. They are conducted in order to assist international companies and organizations in relocating or placing their employees.

The experiences of one or two years can never measure up to ten years or a lifetime. Whether it’s a person, place or thing, what may initially feel like love might turn into hate, or vice versa. In the end, experience delivers a multitude of levels and influences, creating a complicated mix of love and hate.

In the first few years that I lived in Vienna, I met an Austrian woman who gave me a staunch warning as a new expat: “Don’t get too comfortable. Vienna is a honey pot. Once you have settled in, you will never leave.” She herself had relocated to Istanbul, preferring to take on the challenges of a more “real” metropolis. For her the challenge was part of the allure. Her warning was warranted – I have now been here for ten years. Vienna is home.

Her words have stayed with me, causing me to observe Vienna with an ounce of skepticism, or at least caution. Viennese are renowned for a pastime referred to as “jammern” or “raunzen” – whinging or groaning. How ironic that this phenomenon prevails in the statistically most desirable location in the world. We expats are no exceptions. As we freely absorb the perks this city has to offer, we don’t hesitate to lament its limitations.

“All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”
– Monty Python’s Life of Brian


So pardon my skepticism, Mercer and Co. While the inherent benefits abound, I’m painfully aware of the shortcomings. In the criteria used for these surveys, certain themes are consistent: safety, security, comfort, functionality and sustainability. Those who criticize these lists have pointed out how they overlook qualities like excitement or dynamism, immediately evoking metropolises like New York or London. But in the end, the question is: Where do we want to live? Living is an “Alltag” business, conducted in the everyday and based in reality.

In a six-part series, we will look at how these surveys determined their criteria, and examine why Vienna consistently ranks so highly. What do we give up for what we gain? Does the reality in Vienna always fit the flying colors of its rankings? What are the benefits and trade-offs of residing in this perceived paradise? The aim is to cast a critical eye on how Vienna met the criteria and find out how much of the successes are felt by both natives and expats.

Janima Nam
Janima Nam is a freelance journalist, translator, and editor living in Vienna. She has a BFA in film from New York University and a Masters degree (MA) from the London Consortium in Interdisciplinary Studies.

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