Early on, I realized that the quality of life is a function of the environment. If I don’t like my surroundings, everything else suffers. That includes my work, my relationships and my general sense of self. If I’m not satisfied in the present, I stop living in the present altogether: my point of reference shifts to the future, the future where I will have a comfortable life exactly how I wanted.
That’s a suboptimal situation. What you really want is to make your environment the foundation for everything else. A comfortable environment serves as an enabler for all your pursuits and goals. This has been my experience from being in great and growth-inducing environments as well as being in sub-par environments where I only experienced stagnation and degradation.
Last year, I spent three months living in Thailand, with the first two months in the northern city of Chiang Mai. I had a fantastic time in Chiang Mai, chiefly as a result of having an ideal setup. Before that, I lived in Bali, where, after a few false starts, I finally moved into an area where everything clicked. Last but not least, earlier this year, after bouncing around living in neighborhoods all over Kiev, I finally found a great apartment in a truly fantastic neighborhood. It’s an ideal setup I’ve had to date, or maybe in my entire life.
After experimenting with many different setups in many different locations over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two ideal environments depending on the location: large city lifestyle and small city/town lifestyle.
Let’s talk about the ideal large city setup. I’m a city guy, so I naturally love the hustle and bustle of a medium to large-sized city. The great part of living in a city is that you have access to a variety of interesting things: different cafes, restaurants, bars, clubs, as well as cultural attractions such as museums, theaters, and shows. Not to mention the ability to meet all kinds of different people from diverse backgrounds.
Here’s what my ideal large city setup looks like:
- Nice apartment in the center, preferably near a nice square or plaza
- View of the city (not the back garden, etc)
- Picturesque neighborhood (not decaying Soviet buildings)
- Located on a smaller street off the busy thoroughfare (less noise, etc)
- Walking distance to small and big grocery stores (without dealing with buses and taxis all the time)
- Walking distance to trendy cafes, restaurants, and bars
- Walking distance to a nice gym and/or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu training
- Easy access to public transportation (bonus points if there’s a close metro station for quickly getting to other parts of the city)
Essentially, this is a template for designing the perfect city life. The actual city matters less than what the city has to offer. So, if the city ticks all the checkboxes above, it’s pretty much a guarantee for a quality and comfortable life.
In fact, the above perfectly describes my setup in Kiev, Ukraine. Nice and comfortable apartment in an excellent location in one of the most desirable areas of the city. Check. Historic neighborhood with beautiful architecture and cobblestone streets. Check. Surrounded by nice cafes, delicious restaurants, and chic bars. Check. A mere block away, and there’s a picturesque square with a metro station. Check. Although Kiev is filled with a few pleasant neighborhoods, as far as I’m concerned, my search is over.
When it comes to smaller cities with a small and/or unimportant center, it may make more sense to follow a different strategy.
In Chiang Mai, Thailand, I didn’t live in the center. That’s because Chiang Mai isn’t a big city and doesn’t really have a center filled with hustle and bustle. The city is made of different neighborhoods that are very similar to each other. So, I rented a huge, furnished studio in an apartment complex on the Western part of the city. The apartment complex had everything I needed, including a beautiful rooftop pool which came very handy for decompressing after a long day.
Bali is similar to Chiang Mai. The city where I initially stayed (Ubud) had a small center with a few nice streets filled with trendy cafes and restaurants. Most, if not all, of the accommodations in the center, are guesthouses that are rented nightly or weekly so there aren’t many apartments you can rent. The real treat is outside the center. That’s where you can rent a beautiful house or an entire villa with a pool surrounded by lush green rice fields. That’s exactly where I based myself.
In the last two cities, the benefits of basing yourself just slightly outside the “center” made complete sense: you enjoy a more peaceful and quieter scene and—the best part of all—getting to the center or just about anywhere else usually took less than fifteen minutes by scooter. In fact, what’s so great in those two locales is how easy it is to get around by scooter anywhere.
The eight-minute commute
A meaningful life can be roughly defined as productive work and pleasant leisure. When I lived in SF Bay Area, my one-way commute to work lasted anywhere from one to two hours. The traffic jams were legendary. Just remembering that I used to waste 44–88 hours per month sitting still is truly mind-boggling. Not to mention wear and tear on my car (and an occasional speeding ticket).
In Chiang Mai, my commute was a whopping eight minutes from the amazing co-working spot to the front door of my apartment complex. While there are many ways to measure your life’s progress, witnessing my commute shrink for an unbearable hell to something that I actually looked forward to each morning and evening was a benchmark in my book. At that point, I realized I could see myself doing this commute for the rest of my life and probably never get tired of it. I was living a dream.
Kiev, where I’ve been living on and off for about two years is completely different. First of all, I would never live outside the center. Venturing outside certain radius and you’re in depressive-villa with old and decaying Soviet-era buildings, broken roads and questionable characters drinking beer and vodka. This probably applies to most of Eastern and Central European cities.
That’s also the case in North America. For instance in New York City, if you venture outside Manhattan and Northern Brooklyn (e.g., the trendy neighborhoods of Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg), you’ll either find yourself deep in the so-called “sleeping boroughs” with unending apartment buildings that all look the same or outright suburbia with houses and white picket fences that you’ve seen in movies (but not as nice). I’ve lived in Southern Brooklyn long enough to know that it’s certainly not an ideal setup for great, quality living.
If you’re in a medium to a large-sized city like Riga, Vilnius, Kiev, Budapest, Prague, New York City, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Odessa and others, you must do everything in your power to base yourself in the city center. Living in the center puts you squarely within walking distance to anything interesting; messing around with buses or taxis on a daily basis by living somewhere in a less desirable location wears you down quick and negates the entire experience of living abroad in the first place (more on that later). Although, it’s totally fine to grab a taxi or bus every now and then.
On the other hand, if you find yourself in a place like Bali, Chiang Mai, Cali, Phuket, Playa del Carmen, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and others, where the center is small and mostly irrelevant (maybe it has a government building or two and nothing else), and getting around is quick and hassle-free, you’re free to settle anywhere you choose, whether it’s right next to a beautiful white sand beach or in the middle of lush rice paddies.
In Rio de Janeiro, I lived near the beach. Living in the center was pointless because the city isn’t very compact and, furthermore, everything about the city is optimized for the beach. Besides, since Rio de Janeiro is a big city, I still needed to cover large distances no matter where I lived, so I still took buses and taxis to get around my own neighborhood.
In Odessa, a southern Ukrainian city by the Black Sea, the only viable option for quality living in the center. For an ex-Soviet city, the center is actually postcard-worthy and relatively compact (you can cross it in about 30 minutes). Speaking as someone who’s from there, I can tell you that beyond the center, things get depressing real quick, so if, for whatever reason, you can’t live in the center, there’s little point to living there at all. Another option is to live near the sea, but in those areas, infrastructure is woefully lacking and, besides the sea, there isn’t much to do there anyway.
In a megapolis like Mexico City, living in the center is an option, but there are tons of other more enjoyable neighborhoods like Condesa, Roma, and Polanco. I lived in Condesa and loved every minute of it.
Never compromise on location
I try to never compromise on location. The type of apartment matters a lot, sure, but if it comes down to a choice between a small but still nice apartment in the center or a much bigger apartment that’s half an hour from the center, I would always pick the first option.
When I first moved to Kiev, I lived all over the city, with some neighborhoods being anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes away from the center. I figured that given Kiev’s excellent transportation, I could always hop on a bus or taxi and get to the center. Plus, I’ll save myself some money on rent. Well, I can tell you that “commuting” to the center gets tiring real quick and that means most of the time you’re stuck in some neighborhood that you don’t like and don’t want to be in.
Remember, the objective is to lower your cost of living without lowering your quality of life. As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t make much sense to embrace the location-independent lifestyle by moving to a city with a much lower cost-of-living, only to start living in some far away neighborhood like a local who’s earning almost nothing (in hard-currency terms). If your goal is to save yourself few hundred bucks per month by suffering in a less desirable neighborhood, then stay at home, save some money and then move so that you can enjoy your life.
This is what lifestyle design is all about. Thanks to geo-arbitrage, you can leverage the best things the world has to offer for only a fraction of the cost in some super expensive city. Essentially, you have your cake and to get to eat it, too. It’s the fact that you can work in a chic neighborhood, enjoy fantastic food and then either walk home or enjoy an eight-minute commute to your apartment door. I bet that’s a hell of a lot more fun than what you’re doing now.
Many argue that happiness is driven from within. That it doesn’t matter where you live; it’s really up to you to make it work and be happy. There’s truth to that, but a big part of happiness is also assuming responsibility for making the important changes in your life. That’s the source of unhappiness for many: the inability to assume ownership and implement the proper changes, whether it’s starting a new business or redesigning their life altogether by moving to a new place where a higher quality of life can be had for a fraction of the cost back home.