Ukraine uses a different alphabet. So besides a language barrier, we can't read menus, street signs, or posters for upcoming ballets or concerts. We got around the problem by asking for help. Educated young people—those with the stylish clothes doing the public-face jobs in the higher-end places—often spoke English. Our favorite barman spoke German, which we could guess. We ate at "bistro" places, that is, cafeterias with steam tables. We could look at the food itself rather than menus. We also ate at a fine microbrew house across from the Hotel Lviv that had an English-language menu and a few English-speaking staff. Finally, we carried a small calculator in case we wanted to ask what something cost or to show someone our shoe size or to check on a bus we wanted, say. A smartphone with a translator app would have been handy, too. As for housing costs, let's start with our hotel. We stayed in a luxury room at the center-city Hotel Lviv for a special weekly rate of US$280 (US$40 a night). That price included Wi-Fi, breakfast for both of us every day, maid service, the works. So a month in a hotel costs US$1,200, or even less if you can negotiate a monthly discount. Hotels offer a big advantage: You only pay when you're there. While you're traveling around Eastern Europe, you check out of the hotel and eliminate that cost. In Lviv's central plaza we ran into a Ukrainian American, a retired school teacher from Chicago, who comes to see relatives in Lviv every year or two. On this visit he rented a furnished studio apartment in center city for US$320 all in, including utilities and Wi-Fi. He lucked into the unit because a friend of a friend had just moved out. You and I, with neither contacts nor language skills, might have a tougher time getting that great price, at least at first. Still, we can get lucky, too. Lviv Today, a local English-expat magazine with both printed and online editions, advertised a furnished three-room apartment, renovated, great view, across from city hall, for US$900 a month. We also saw ads for an apart-hotel at about US$35 a night. A half-liter of draft beer in an outdoor cafe costs less than a dollar, lunch at one of the bistros maybe two or three dollars. (Girls attending the bistro counter tended to weigh the food over and over, as portions were often priced by weight.) A bus or tram ride costs 20 cents, ballet tickets US$8, a half-liter of local "cognac" US$7, and a bus to Poland US$2. Several places offered a two-course lunch deal for a couple of bucks, served from noon to 5 p.m. Eat a late lunch and you can segue directly from the blue-plate special into happy hour. We saw many locals who appeared to do exactly that. Lvivians love their vodka—something like US$6 a liter—and beer. Why so cheap? Recent political unrest in Kiev, followed by war in the east, tanked the currency. The exchange rate went from 8:1 a few years ago to 12:1 today. I was in Ukraine three years ago and found it cheap back then. Now it's dirt cheap. One final note: Center-city Lviv street signs show arrows pointing to Ukraine's capital, Kiev, several hundred miles away. In my experience Europeans refuse to use north, south, east, and west. Years ago a girl on a London sidewalk, after I'd asked if I was heading east, assured me, "We don't have east around here." So, consistent with European attitudes, Lviv signs showed "Kiev" as a surrogate for "east" or "northeast" or even "this way out of town." I got a kick out of the concept. Imagine someone trying to navigate Chicago's Loop, say, relying on helpful street signs that point to Washington, D.C. Paul Terhorst
Asia Correspondents Wendy and David Justice: Hanoi, Vietnam Of all the places we could pick from in our travels, Hanoi, Vietnam, is the city we have chosen to call home. The city is an energetic and chaotic jumble of ancient neighborhoods, tranquil parks and lakes, modern high-rises, and centuries-old pagodas. It is also home to one of the most healthy and varied cuisines in the world. In more than two years of living in Hanoi, we are still discovering delicious and exotic new foods. Even more important to us are the people. They are curious, polite, friendly, and generous to a fault. They really want to get to know you and to make friends. Friendships we've formed here have lasted many years. There are always other foreigners to socialize with if we want, and there is always something to do. And the cost of living is so affordable. Here in Hanoi—anywhere in Vietnam, for that matter—we don't have to worry about money. We know that Hanoi isn't the right place for everyone, but we can easily imagine living here for many more years. If we ever had to leave Vietnam, we would probably head over to Pai, Thailand. Its funky, mountain-town ambiance reminds us of the small towns we knew in the Colorado Rockies. If we developed ongoing health problems or became too elderly and frail to tolerate the stimulation of Hanoi, we would strongly consider moving to Hua Hin, Thailand. Asia Correspondents Vicki and Paul Terhorst: Lviv, Ukraine Vicki and I are perpetual travelers, which means we wander around the world without a fixed home base. By default, therefore, wherever we are at the moment becomes our favorite place. Otherwise, why would we be here? I'm writing this in Chiang Mai, Thailand, which makes Chiang Mai a favorite place. Recently, we chose to spend time in Lviv, Ukraine, because of its combination of European culture (historic buildings and churches, art museums, opera and ballet, convenient public transportation, cafe society, hearty food, robust wine) and low prices. Lviv also makes a useful base for exploration to the rest of Eastern Europe, with six international borders within 200 kilometers or so. Just jump on a train or bus and you can get to Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, or Belarus. The rest of Europe lies just a bit farther along. Ukraine's pro-Russia rebel insurgency remains far to the east of Lviv, more than 800 miles away. Your biggest day-to-day problem in Lviv will be the language. Ukraine uses a different alphabet, making it hard even to guess at street names or menu offerings. Along with Lviv and Chiang Mai, I'd choose Paris as our third favorite place. Having three favorite places makes it easy to avoid running into trouble with 90-day visa rules in any one of them. Asia Correspondent Robert Carry: Cambodia Cambodia might seem an unusual number-one pick, but it has some serious strikes in its favor. First up is cost of living. Put simply, this is the cheapest place I've ever been to. You can get a great apartment in a city center location for less than US$400 a month. A Cambodian-style meal in a local eatery will run you less than a dollar and some of my favorite watering holes charge 75 cents a beer (and as little as 25 cents during happy hour). Everything here is just unfathomably inexpensive. Then there's convenience. You can turn up at the airport unannounced and get a one-year visa, renewable at the end of the 12 months, on arrival. It's almost too easy. Plus, the U.S. dollar is the main currency here, English is widely spoken, and there's a sizable expat community in place. However, Cambodia's real draw is its people. After decades of war and continuing poverty, the Khmers have somehow managed to keep their smiles. They're warm, welcoming, and infectiously optimistic. Cambodia's enchanting culture and Buddhist ethos underpins its peoples' relaxed, live-and-let-live way of life. When I retire, Cambodia is where you'll find me. Tomorrow, top picks from key correspondents in Europe and the Americas... Kathleen Peddicord Editor's Note: Want to learn more about what Live and Invest Overseas correspondents really think about living and retiring overseas? Join us for three days of live discussions next month when we'll be convening with dozens of our normally far-flung experts and expat friends for this year's Retire Overseas Conference taking place in Nashville Aug. 29–31. You have four days remaining to register for what will be the biggest retire-overseas event of the year taking advantage of the Early Bird Discount. This discount, which can save you up to US$300 off the cost of registration, expires this Thursday, July 31, at midnight. Complete details of the event are here, and you can register online here.
Saying "thank you" to a waiter, in whatever language you speak, can mean "keep the change," even if you're due quite a large sum. On long-distance trains the bar car offers air conditioning and the most comfortable seats. Yet except for Vicki and me, no one rode there. Now and again someone would enter, order a Coke or whatever, and drink it. But then he/she promptly left. Most of the time Vicki and I were alone in the comfortable surroundings. Poles follow rules. At crosswalks they wait for the green light even with no cars in sight. They pay their fares on buses, which run the fare box on the honor system, with spot checks. Eight-year-old kids must prove their age before conductors will permit under-18 travel. Without ID they get fined, even if they're small children who obviously meet the rules. Poles climb stairs. Museums, hotels, train stations, and more provide only stairs to get up and down. Vicki and I travel with smallish backpacks; we each carry our own stuff. We can walk up four flights to a hotel room when necessary. But those who pull oversized luggage cases on wheels strain to get up all those stairs. If you're disabled, with weak legs, you have very limited range. Taxis linger at airports, train and bus stations, and other tourist sites to rip off travelers. These scammers stay strictly legal, for example, by posting their outrageous fares on the window—in Polish zloties. I've run into crooked cabs all over the world. I'm sure you have, too. But in my experience drivers in Poland, and Eastern Europe generally, lead others in the race to unconscionable charges. Polish banks try to, and often do, convert credit card charges to dollars at a rate of their choosing, between 4% and 20% off the regular bank rate. For example, I ran into ATMs that asked if I wanted to fix my rate in dollars. If you're careless and click yes, you'll pay 4% to 20% more for your time in Poland. Ditto at hotels; we were told we MUST accept credit card charges in dollars rather than zloties. We refused and paid instead with cash. My advice: Never accept a credit card chit in dollars, anywhere in the world, in countries that use other currencies. Insist you want to pay in Polish zloties, or whatever the local currency, like everybody else. Poland is flat, seemingly blanketed with arable land. We traveled long distances by train and bus and saw fields of beans, corn, and wheat, more or less continuously. Wonderful. Farmers seem to practice low-tech agriculture. We saw little equipment, very few vehicles, and no irrigation. Our next stop: Ukraine, a war zone. We plan to stay in the far west of Ukraine, more than 800 miles from the fighting between Russians and Ukrainians in the east. Many people have warned us to stay away. But I think we'll go anyway. More later. Paul Terhorst
Still, more than any others, musicians capture the Polish soul.Chopin's popularity in Poland seems a bit surprising, at least to me. Chopin's father was French. As soon as Chopin became of age, he moved to Paris. He worked and played there, and never returned to Poland. You could be forgiven for assuming that Chopin considered himself French, especially as at the time (mid-1800s) Poland didn't even exist. By the end of 1795 Poland had been partitioned among Germany, Austria, and Russia. Poland only returned to the map some 120 years later, after World War I.But in spite of Poland losing its statehood—or perhaps because of Poland losing its statehood—and in spite of Chopin writing his best stuff in France, Chopin considered himself Polish. The French and Poles consider him Polish. Count on it. Chopin was Polish. Vicki and I came to Poland mainly for the history, from medieval castles and moats to cobblestone streets, battlefields, cemeteries, and 20th-century carnage. Poland has a major-league city, Krakow, that offers all we sought after. But Krakow was overrun with tourists, especially now, in summer. We dislike tourist hordes, high prices, long lines, crying babies, rip-off taxis, crowded hotels and bars, and the pickpockets who take advantage. We found Krakow to be a fine place, especially the castle with its feudal walls and its tiny, gorgeous cathedral. And we never saw a pickpocket or even heard of any pickpockets. But our patience quickly wore out. So we went to town B: Przemyśl. Forget about pronouncing it, call it Prez.We first hit on the town A/town B concept years ago in Austria and Hungary. To appreciate the Hapsburg Empire—Mozart and Franz Joseph—most people go to Vienna. Vicki and I like Vienna. But Vienna gets crowded, expensive, tiring, and overdone. So we chose to spend more time in Budapest. In those days few tourists went to Budapest. We pretty much had the town to ourselves. We got Hayden instead of Mozart. But I think we had more fun with less cost, less hassle, than in Vienna. For the same reasons we decided on town B, Prez, instead of Krakow. We spent several days in Prez, the only tourists there, viewing cemeteries, cathedrals, castles, and the town square. I say cathedrals; we saw both a Roman Catholic and a Greek Catholic version. Prez's museum displays a fine collection of sacred icons from churches in the area. In town B our huge hotel suite cost half that of a tiny room in town A Krakow. Exchange dealers offered a reasonable spread, while sharp dealers in Krakow hit careless tourists with a 25% to 35% vig. Prez is Poland's second-oldest city, after Krakow. In World War I Prez became a major battle ground between Austria and Russia. In the end Prez fell to Russian invaders, with some 100,000 dead in the two armies. We saw the bridge the Russians blew up, the military cemeteries, the remains of the forts. There's a castle on the hill, an old town, a Jewish quarter later wiped out by the Nazis, a river through the center.Our hotel, two blocks from the train station and on the edge of the old town, had a pub in the basement. We repaired daily to the basement pub after long days wandering the streets. Perfect. Take my advice: In your travels consider town B, prefer second best. You'll often have a better time. Paul Terhorst
"Kathleen, just a quick note to tell you that our family is moving from Heredia, Costa Rica, to Panama in the next 60 to 90 days. The benefits of Panama are just too good, and they fit our lifestyle much better than Costa Rica. We can't wait to get over to the Boquete area! I know you love Panama, too. "If you ever need anything from me as an expat, speaker, promoter, etc., please just let me know." --Daniel D., Costa Rica
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Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.
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