Comparing Life in Three World Cities
I grew up in Sydney, lived in London for five years (from 2007-09 and 2014-17) and am now in my third year in Paris. What is life like in these three world cities?
Broadly speaking, London is a city for partying, Paris for socialising and Sydney for settling down. I expand on these crude descriptions below, addressing each city in turn.
Sydney is, in my opinion, the most naturally beautiful city in the world, with the possible exception of Rio de Janeiro, and along with the Brazilian metropolis and LA is one of the world’s few genuine beach cities.
The weather is basically perfect. In the five weeks I was in Sydney recently it was sunny and 22 degrees every day and a light jacket was always sufficient. A reminder this is in the middle of winter.
But the view that many have of people in Sydney going to the beach before and after work is the reality for a vanishingly small proportion of people. Rent is high everywhere, but especially if you want to live by the coast and near the centre (in places like Bondi).
In fact, everything in Sydney is expensive, especially things which are fun. A ‘schooner’ (between a pint and a half pint) of beer costs around $8 (about 50% more expensive than Paris and London), while cigarettes cost about $40 a packet ($11 in Paris). And if you want to have a cigarette, you better do it at home, because smoking is now banned in Sydney basically everywhere, with some councils banning smoking anywhere in public.
Indeed, Sydney is approaching Singapore levels of regulation, a fact which will surprise many who think of Australia as a kind of Mad Max frontier. From voting to jaywalking to helmets and bells (yes, bells) on bicycles, Australians loves a good fine, and Sydney is the capital offender.
About five years ago, the government of New South Wales introduced laws to regulate the sale and consumption of alcohol. Today, no one can enter licensed premises after 1.30am, and no drinks may be served after 3am.
These laws don’t just affect those who want to go out. Alcohol, which is only sold in what is called “bottle shops”, can now only be bought in Sydney before 10pm. So if you’ve left the office late and want a bottle of wine to unwind, it is bad luck unless you’ve planned ahead of time.
If you’re anything like me, you will find all of this to be an unacceptable overreach on the part of the state into people's lives. And the liquor laws (sounds like 1920s Chicago) have caused a massive wave of closures of licensed premises across the city.
Sydney had a small but vibrant nightlife scene when I was 18, all of which is gone now. Walking through King’s Cross and Oxford Street recently, I noticed how many of the places I used to frequent have shut their doors and become retail stores or await redevelopment.
Meanwhile, the “Star” casino (the backdrop of my next novel) can serve alcohol at any time, despite being a launderer of dirty money, the most violent venue in Sydney and a haven for the city’s many gambling addicts (a huge problem in Australia). It doesn’t surprise me that the government acts in this way. It surprises me that people accept it.
The rest of Sydney’s cultural scene leaves a lot to be desired too. Like many of its bimbo and golden boy inhabitants, Sydney is a victim of its good looks, so pretty that people will always line up for a piece of it no matter how it behaves. But look behind the façade and you’ll find there’s little there.
Geography is also relevant here. The Australian dream is a quarter-acre block behind a white picket fence. So the city extends forever outwards. It is about the same size as London—itself a massive, sprawling city—but has around half the population. The Central Business District has an impressive skyline, but the rest of Sydney is not so much a city as a collection of suburbs with ever diminishing vibrancy as you head further away from the centre.
With such large distances and so few people, the rail system resembles those used between rather than within cities in France and England: large passenger trains covering long distances and running infrequently. The other option is to drive or take the bus and deal with the Los Angeles style congestion.
I may have painted a slightly unflattering portrait of life in Sydney. But actually it is one of the best places to live if you want a comfortable life, to eat well, to have safety and security, to live in a good climate and enjoy natural beauty. The coffee is great too.
In short, Sydney is great if you want to settle down. But if you want to go out, meet new people and see new things, it is not the city for you.
London is the most diverse, dynamic and vibrant of the three cities discussed here. Nowhere is there more people from more different places than in London, a fact which has made it a centre for arts, fashion, commerce and trade to rival anywhere on the planet. London is an ancient city that is constantly reinventing itself, forever at the cutting edge.
But these facts tell you little about what it’s like to actually live there, so allow me to break it down.
First, there’s the cost. Food, booze and bills are cheaper than in Sydney, but rent is a lot higher. One or two bankers and lawyers live by themselves. The lucky ones live with their partner in an apartment. Everyone else is crammed into terrace houses, shitting and pouring cups of tea all over each other with little hope of ever getting onto the property ladder.
High rents have seen many iconic venues close, but this has not been on the same scale as what has occurred in Sydney. London has a mayor dedicated to nightlife, and the Tube—which is clean, fast, comprehensive (and insanely expensive – up to £5 one way)—now runs 24 hours on weekends.
Then there’s the famous English weather. Contrary to the common misconception, rain is not the problem. The problem is that, for around seven months of the year, the sky, when it is not shrouded in darkness (the days go from around 9.30am to 3.30pm in winter) is blanketed with a layer of cold metallic cloud. In these months the city has no colour, only different shades of grey.
By April, you feel sure you will never see the sun again, that walking around in a t-shirt is the stuff of a cruel and incredible dream. You feel the life draining away from you the longer it goes on.
Then there are the people. British people tend to have just a couple of close friends and freeze everyone else out (a big problem in Sydney too). And there is an off-putting aspect to the concept of politeness, which in England means being tolerant, pretending you like something when in fact you cannot stand it, nodding and smiling as diabolical thoughts pass through your mind. In other words, politeness means saying not what you really think.
Perhaps this is why the British complain all the time. I challenge anyone to listen in on any conversation between two people in London. Nine times out of ten they will be complaining about someone else. This is not surprising. When you can’t broach a problem with someone directly you need to release the tension another way.
The consequences of these three negative aspects of London—the expense, the bleak weather and the coldness of the people—is that living there is not sustainable in the long term. That is not to say you shouldn't go there. You should. But you’re better off doing so in your 20s or 30s, having a good time, enjoying the culture and diverse mix of people and then leaving.
It’s a great city. But as my father used to say (much to my annoyance), it is a place for pleasure, not happiness.
I never planned to move to Paris. I always thought that the people would be too self important, the culture too intolerant to be an enjoyable place to live. I was right, in a sense. The people are self important (as they are, I might add, in Sydney). And the culture is intolerant. In Paris, you get looks for speaking a foreign language in a bar or restaurant, something which is almost unheard of in London and Sydney, at least in their inner cities.
Then there is the administration. Everything requires a signed and stamped document. Sometimes you need a signed and stamped document to apply for a document which must then be stamped and signed. You feel at times you’re in a closed loop nightmare contrived by a dark master of human psychology.
Crime is also problem here. The city has thousands of heroin and crack addicts stalking the streets, and all of my female friends report being harassed by men at some point.
All of this takes getting used to. But once you do and learn a bit of the language it is an amazing place to live. London is a city you learn to hate. Paris you learn to love.
First and most obviously is the city’s aesthetic beauty. Each of the twenty arrondissements has its own personality. You notice when you exit one and enter another on a seemingly unconscious level. Yet the city has a coherent overarching aspect too.
This is only possible because of its relatively small proportions. I live at the very northern tip of Paris, and can cycle into the centre in twenty minutes. This, along with the comprehensive transport network (the Métro is dirty but cheap, fast and runs until 2am every night) makes it easier to see people, which is one of the reasons Paris is such a social city.
I estimate that people in Paris go out around four or five nights a week on average. In London it is two or three. In Sydney one or two.
Maybe this is why there are more problems with alcohol in the English speaking countries. I drink more in Paris than I did in London, but I rarely get drunk. Here booze is enjoyed frequently but moderately, and usually with food.
On the food, the wine and bread and cheese really are the best in the world, and not too expensive. You can sit in a bistro in Paris and have a planche (cured meats, cheeses and bread) and a glass of wine for about 10 euros per person.
You can smoke everywhere, cycle without a helmet and basically do what you want so long as you don’t bother anyone else. I am not saying it is good to do any of these things. But I appreciate (to put it mildly) having the choice to do as I please.
The nightlife is nothing like London, but this doesn’t bother me. I am in my 30s now, and rarely feel the desire to go out to a club. On the rare occasions I have gone out, I have found some fairly interesting places both within and outside the city limits.
Regarding the cultural scene more generally, needless to say it is world class. The French have a real commitment to the arts. You get the sense that you could never go to all of the galleries or good book stores in Paris.
This is reflected in their broader mindset towards life. I work part time, and not at all for most of summer so that I can work on things I think are meaningful. This would be frowned upon in Sydney and impossible in London, but it is accepted if not applauded in Paris.
Regarding the people, I have already said the French have a superiority complex. But in my experience, when you meet a French person, they will initially be cold, but things can quickly change.
If you have good chemistry with someone you will soon be invited to dinner or for a holiday at the family home. Friendships with the French take time, but once you crack the icy exterior you end up with something genuine that you sense could last a long time.
Overall, I feel that I have enjoyed each of these cities at different stages of my life. Sydney was great to grow up in. London was great in my 20s. Paris is great now.
It is a struggle to move to a new city, but in my experience it's always worth it.
What’s your take on these cities? Have I got something wrong? Left something out? Let me know in the comments below.