1. France. France takes first in our annual Quality of Life Index. No surprise. Its tiresome bureaucracy and high taxes are outweighed by an unsurpassable quality of life, including the world's best health care.
France always nets high scores in most categories. But you don't need number-crunchers to tell you its bon vivant lifestyle is special. Step off a plane and you'll experience it first-hand.
I always wish quality of life indicators could measure a country's heart and soul. But it's impossible to enumerate the joy of lingering for hours over dinner and a bottle of red wine in a Parisian brasserie. Or strolling beside the Seine on a spring morning, poking through the book vendors' wares. Or buying buttery croissants in bohemian Montmartre...hearing Notre Dame's bells...walking antique streets paved with poetry.
Romantic Paris offers the best of everything, but services don't fall away in Alsace's wine villages...in wild and lovely Corsica...in lavender-scented Provence. Or in the Languedoc of the troubadors, bathed in Mediterranean sunlight.
Provincial French properties are often keenly priced and lifestyles are less expensive than Paris. The Southwestern Midi-Pyrenees region is a particularly good hunting ground for village homes for less than $100,000—and classic three-course lunches for $14. Houses cascade with wisteria blossom; outdoor markets are everywhere. Foie gras, pink garlic, Armagnac, and crystallized violets aren't gourmet fare for locals. Rather, just another day's shopping.
2. Australia. They don't call it the "Lucky Country" for nothing. Australia is famous for its large beaches and temperate climate. Across the continent, Aussies and those who've chosen to emigrate there have access to an active and healthy lifestyle. But urban dwellers will find plenty of great culture and excellent food in Sydney and Melbourne, and a cost of living below that of some of the world's other great cities.
Australia's economy has managed to weather the Global Financial Crisis better than any other Western country. For tourists and travelers, this means you'll be dealing with a strong Aussie dollar, making your visit there more expensive. But if you plan to stay, you'll find that few English-speaking countries with quality health care and good infrastructure will benefit as much as Australia from the economic booms in Asia and China.
The Australian economy is powered by agricultural, mineral, and energy exports that feed the voracious appetite of rapidly industrializing populations in Asia. Housing in Australia remains expensive by global standards. But there are plenty of jobs for skilled expats who can ride the Asian boom from the sandy, sunny, and safe beaches of the land Down Under.
3. Switzerland. For Harry Lime, in Graham Greene's story The Third Man, all the Swiss have to show for five centuries of peaceful neutrality is the cuckoo clock. The rest of Europe, meanwhile, stumped on through rivers of blood to create art, history, and civilization.
This is rubbish. Switzerland is an award-winning country because it turned all its natural disadvantages to its own advantage, ending up as a super-efficient, high-tech society while still managing to play Alpine inn-keeper to the world. Moreover the cuckoo clock comes from the Black Forest in Germany.
Lacking natural frontiers or a unifying religion, and divided by five different languages, it sensibly decided that internationalism was its calling, quickly adding English to the French, German (two kinds), Italian, and Romansch (like ancient Latin) its people already speak so that foreigners of every linguistic persuasion could feel at home. Altruism followed from this and Geneva became home to the United Nations and the Red Cross.
Landlocked, mountainous, and without natural resources (except cheese), Switzerland still needed more than tourism to provide a living. So it developed secretive banks, whose potential clientele is numberless and efficient engineering and pharmaceutical industries whose appeal similarly knows no borders.
Such achievements reinforce each other. Tourists gladly clamber into Alpine cable cars because they trust their Swiss steel cables and electric motors. Jump on a Swiss train and you know you will arrive on time. Swallow a Swiss pill and you know it won't poison you. Likewise, you know the bank will always be discreet and the hotel room spotless. You also know everyone will speak your language. The Swiss succeeded because they made everything work.
4. Germany. Some Americans (often ex-military) retire to Germany. One forum poster mentioned being thrilled that youth culture hasn't taken over. Techno-throb Berlin and numerous summer rock festivals refute that, but this is the land of Goethe and Beethoven. Theater, art, and classical music concerts aren't considered elitist.
Will your medical insurance fund a health spa stay? Probably not, but it happens here with a doctor's recommendation. Despite the global downturn, Germans have it pretty good. Along with 30 days paid annual holiday, the average employee earns €41,509 ($61,433).
In Germany, everything works and works well. Its houses are built to last, and their legendary autobahns are still mostly without speed limits. If you enjoy sports, even small towns have numerous facilities. Some odd ones too—the Harz Mountains now has a specialist hiking trail for nudists. From spas to parks to North Sea beaches, Germany is arguably the world's most naturist-friendly country. Romantics adore its Christmas markets and fairytale towns of half-timbered houses. Some favorites are Quedlinburg and Wernigerode in Saxony, and the Black Forest spa town of Baden-Baden. The latter has a posh reputation, but you could buy a 55-sqaure-meter apartment for $160,000. Or rent for $673 monthly.
5. New Zealand. From Auckland's waterfront to the Southern Alps, English-speaking New Zealand boasts some of the most pristine landscapes on earth. Much of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy was filmed here. For younger migrants with the right skills, it's a wonderful place to relocate and raise a family. There's huge emphasis on sports, beach-life, and healthy lifestyles.
New Zealand's immigration department sums up the attractions perfectly. "In many ways it's not what we have that's important to our quality of life—it's what we don't have. We don't have high crime rates, our police don't carry guns and instances of corruption are virtually unheard of. We don't have abject poverty or hunger and we don't have the pollution, congestion, health issues and cramped city living that we see elsewhere."
Unless you buy your way in as an investor, it's difficult for retirees to get permanent residency. But you could rent or purchase a home and live there part-time. Seasons are reversed, so it's possible to enjoy two summers a year. However, property prices are rebounding. Taken nationally, latest figures show the average home costs $274,881.
6. Luxembourg. If we judged quality of life by a nation's Michelin-starred restaurants per square mile, the winner would be the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. A founder member of the EU, its national motto is Mir wëlle bleiwe wat mir sin (we want to remain what we are).
Only 51 miles long and 35 miles wide, landlocked Luxembourg is relatively unknown to Americans. Yet with per capita GDP of $88,000, it's among the world's richest countries. Most apartments in its postcard-pretty capital—also called Luxembourg—cost at least $7,400 per square meter. But they come with an operetta scene of medieval turrets, bridges, and flower-filled squares.
Ruled by a Grand Duke, a third of Luxembourg's 420,000 inhabitants were born elsewhere. Add cross-border workers, and foreigners account for 60% of its labor force. Although the official language is Lëtzebuergesch, English, French, and standard German are widely spoken—cosmopolitan Luxembourg is an international finance center and tax haven. However, its bank secrecy laws are now under scrutiny.
7. United States. From Florida's palm-lined coasts to Alaska's snow-covered crags…from the dazzle of New York to the big skies of Montana…the U.S. has, arguably, something to offer everyone.
And no question: It is the land of convenience. No place else on Earth is it easier to get what you want, when you want it.
The U.S. is safe. It's comfortable. It can even be affordable. It's possible to rent a place in central Nebraska for the same price you'll pay in Merida, Mexico. (Though that does beg the question: There amid the cornfields, can you see the opera, enjoy the café culture, or be at the beach in half an hour?)
It's hard to beat the day-to-day ease you enjoy in the U.S. You can buy eye drops at a pharmacy at 3 a.m. and have dinner delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less. We are efficient. (And, if you've ever tried to shop on a Sunday in France or get a driver's license in Italy in under 45 days, you appreciate the merits in that.) But—as our editors and readers living overseas are quick to point out—convenience (and the frenetic pace that comes with it) is often overrated.
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8. BELGUIM. Divided into Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia, Belgium also boasts high scores. Since medieval times, its merchant cities have prospered. The capital, Brussels, grabs most attention, but Bruges and Antwerp (famed for diamond trading) also flaunt stepped-gable houses and splendid guildhalls.
Employing thousands of foreign staff, Brussels is the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. A dreary place of paper-shuffling bureaucrats? Not at all.
Ringed with parks, it's Europe's greenest capital. Along with many international schools, it delivers all an expat could desire: theater, English-language cinema, sports centers, great public transport, Trappist-brewed beers, numerous gourmet and ethnic restaurants, and fast trains to London, Paris, and Amsterdam. As they rarely plan to stay, most expats rent. In central Brussels, one-bedroom apartments start at $740 monthly.
Like its delectable chocolates, Brussels has a soft-centered heart. The municipality not only sterilizes stray cats, it appoints someone to feed them. Its main library offers storytelling in sign language for deaf children. And disadvantaged citizens can attend cultural events at hefty discounts.
9. Canada. Stretching from the islands of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia in the east to Vancouver Island in the west and north to the Arctic Circle, Canada is a diverse country of incredible natural beauty and resources.
Health care and living standards are among the highest in the world. Canada's economy is based on vast natural resources, a robust financial industry, and innovative manufacturing including the renewable energy sector. Canada has remained resilient through the global financial crises. The banks are considered "more Swiss than the Swiss banks," and property markets are "on fire."
Canada's major cities (like Toronto and Vancouver) offer fantastic entertainment. Sports, theater, and concerts are widely accessible and affordable and there's a rich offering of free festivals.
Cost of living is affordable, although the strong currency has made it relatively more expensive in recent times. Canada's real attraction comes in the form of nature and outdoor activities. In summer, there's hiking, boating, golf, and fishing. Winter offers outdoor activities like skiing, snow mobiling, and ice fishing. Canadians are warm, welcoming, and fun, and the country still retains many of the charms brought by her early visitors from Europe.
10. Italy. What Italians don't know about la dolce vita (the sweet life) isn't worth knowing.
OK, trains are often in ritardo (late), workers frequently strike, corruption isn't unknown, and red tape comes in slow-moving triplicate. But balance that against Rome, Venice, and Florence...against mountains reflected in sapphire lakes...against golden beaches and hill towns cobbled with secrets.
Then throw in 60% of the world's art treasures. A national health care system rated second in the world by the WHO. Sunflowers, vineyards, and opera. And the best espresso, pizza, and ice cream you'll ever taste.
Admittedly, major cities and tourist hotspots are expensive. But the Mezzogiorno, Italy's deep south, is different. Although unemployment is high and incomes far less than in the north, it's just as colorful. As historic, too. Phoenicians, Greeks, and Saracens all left traces of their passing.
Southern winters are short and mild, summers are scorching hot, and jugs of wine cost $6.50. On Sicily and in slow-paced regions like Puglia, Basilicata, and Campania, affordable homes abound. Even farmhouses with a couple of acres surface for $60,000. Many village houses cost even less. Decent rentals start at $550 monthly.
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