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Can Europeans Be Happy Living in New York After Covid? Will the City Recover?

We spoke with a number of transplanted Europeans to discover their true thoughts and feelings about the city that attracted them and what it's like now

by Lenka White

Manhattan seen from Roosevelt Island on a spring day, April 2021. Photo: Terry W. Sanders

The idea of reporting on Europeans living in New York City in the wake of the pandemic came when New York was still under lockdown. Many of the advantages that New York City has to offer, such as cultural events, a dynamic job market, international cuisines and vibrant environment, were gone. People were stuck at home and the only thing they could do was to admire their own accommodation; the environment surrounding their homes and stay within the social circles they had established prior to that. But these are not points that NYC excels in. NYC is known to be dirty and people feel crammed in their small apartments because of the high rents. Manhattan also lacks parks and most of the area is full of skyscrapers but not trees. Many people also don’t have deep friendships unless they’ve been in New York since their childhood. So, the question arose: how can the New York City lifestyle make Europeans living here happy when they compare it with their experience in Europe?  We therefore had the idea  of posing this very question to a number of Europeans now residing in New York to learn how they feel.

Christian Jagenberg, EVP & General Manager Helaba, American & German, 61 years old 

Christian came to the US in 1985 as an undergraduate exchange student; he stayed to get his MBA. After graduating, Christian decided to gain some work experience with a plan to return to Germany. While advancing his work in banking, he finally married his American girlfriend, and after six and a half years in New York, he decided to make the US his home. He left New York in 1994 for Los Angeles, lived there 15 years and returned to New York in 2009, working as  General Manager at NORD/LB New York Branch. In 2018 he joined Helaba, New York Branch where he is working in the same role to date.  Christian likes New York because it is one of the biggest financial hubs and has a unique cultural scene.

“New York is a very dynamic and ever-changing place, but more importantly in my field, it’s the number one financial center in the world,” Christian said. The US market offers phenomenal opportunities, and if one wants to hire the best people in finance, they have to come to New York. It is where most of the talent is in finance.

Besides the booming banking industry, Christian likes that the city offers fantastic entertainment, dining, theater, and shows. But despite adoring New York, he says that for family and kids, it is not his preferred place, which is why in normal times he commutes daily from Connecticut. “After having children, we wanted to have more space around us,” he said.

Christian also acknowledges that the city has changed with the pandemic. “Pre-COVID it was a safer place.” He noted that since the COVID pandemic started, more homeless and people are in the streets and subways in the center of Manhattan. The rise in crime and attacks on locals are contributing to the reluctance of commuters to return to offices in New York. At the moment, he and his colleagues have been working remotely. Helaba initially planned to return all staff back to the office on October 12, however, they recently decided to push this back to early January of next year. It will be a hybrid operating model, allowing up to 50% to work from home. Christian believes that with all the reopening, including schools and restaurants, we will return to normalcy. “NYC will be back to its vibrant self within a year or so,” he said.

When asked to compare the US and Germany, Christian said he thinks that in the US people have more freedom and the country has much more cultural, climate, and geographical diversity. He does not enjoy, however, the political polarization and lingering issues surrounding racism that were brought to the forefront with the killing of George Floyd. Christian obtained his green card through his wife. In 2005, he received his citizenship and he applied for it because of inheritance taxes and the possibility of losing his green card if he would stay abroad for an extended period of time. He believes visa applications take longer, require more justification and the post-Trump Administration process has not improved as a whole. “COVID, not America first – may be the explanation under the new administration.” He concluded with, “This is my chosen home…This country has given me many opportunities”.

Stephan Steiner, Real Estate, Savills Studley, Austrian, 47 years old

Stephan Steiner is a managing director in Savills Studley’s office in New York, which provides global real estate services. Steiner was born in Austria, but his parents brought him to the US in 1986 at the age of 6. Now Stephan lives with his wife Ewa, who is originally from Poland, and their two kids. He thinks that New York gives people better opportunities and more freedom than Austria, which tends to be hierarchical. “It’s a tricky space because everyone’s driven by work all the time,” said Stephan. Stephan noted that to have a good life in New York, one has to make at least $600,000 because you pay almost 50% in taxes. It also gets worse if you have kids – you pay about $65,000 per kid in a private NYC school.  “I think about leaving New York all the time.. it is a heartless place, but if you work hard, you can move up here,” he said. “But in Austria, you are born into your place.” Stephan’s father was born in Austria and his mother in Switzerland; they never went to college. Steiner earned a degree from an Ivy League School – Columbia Law School, and became a “relatively” wealthy man.

“If you want to really make money and test yourself against the smartest people – you stay in New York.” But work comes first. In Europe, you can have a comfortable life, and you don’t have to work very hard. Steiner also spoke about relationships in New York, noting that while one can meet fascinating people, relationships are often “transactional.” It matters where your kids go to school because the parents often do business with others. “Parents can come to you and say: Your kid looks great. And by the way, can I do a lease transaction with you?”

Also, given that life is all about work, people lack free time. “Unless you’re lucky and you find a beautiful man/woman with whom you do a lot of business and can have an intimate relationship at the same time, then you have to pick and choose….The system forces you to be pragmatic… If you lose your job in Europe, you will still have your apartment, good education, good healthcare. If you lose your job here, you’re done. Your life is over.” But COVID19, according to him, has not affected NYC in any positive way. “Many of my friends left for good. That said, many left during the financial crisis and after September 11, 2001. The city seems to always bounce back.”

Maria Fariello, Columbia University, Swiss, 27 years old

Maria Fariello fell in love with New York during her modeling career when she was 19 years old. But already at that point, she had set as her goal to return and study at Columbia University. A couple of years later, she was working in finance and finishing her finance degree at Columbia. Even though Maria moved here during the pandemic, the city has outperformed her expectations. “I value how multicultural and diverse the city is… It is like a melting pot for people from all over the world,” she said.

Maria finds that the structure of relationships in New York and her home country, Switzerland, is different.

“It’s very easy to connect with people and meet them, but then to really make sure they’re your really good friends and they’re going to be there – that’s a different story,” she said. “In Switzerland, it’s completely the opposite,” it’s harder to break into a circle as people are friends from high school or even kindergarten, but once you break in, they are your friends for life. The dynamic of New York is something she had to learn consciously and adjust to and now, she tries to cherish her smaller circle of friends.

The other important aspect of life in NY for Maria is her focus on finance. “It’s the place to be for finance… Zurich is also big for finance, but it does not compare to New York.”  She believes that New York, despite going through bad times due to COVID, is coming back to life. “It was fascinating to witness how resilient New Yorkers are-many were dining outdoor in restaurants…even though temperatures were freezing.” According to her, it was symbolic and reconfirmed that New York will always come back.

The visa situation has also not been easy for her friends, who are having, unlike her, working visas. When leaving the country, the reentry is not guaranteed for them. But Maria has a student visa and because of the pandemic, students are recognized as “national interest exceptions” so she was able to visit her family in Switzerland.

In the future, she would like to split her time between Switzerland and New York. But the most important reason for her to question her life in the US. is the weak healthcare, educational, and at the moment, the political system. “One of the things Switzerland has is a strong focus on meritocracy, and social mobility is possible…Here it does not seem to be the case.”

Nikolay Pakhomov, Founder of The New York Consulting Bureau, Russian, 39 years old

Nikolay Pakhomov, who works as a Global Political and Strategic consultant in New York, grew up in Moscow, Russia. After completing his Ph.D., Nikolay came to New York for work and  has been living here for the past 13 years.

Apart from his work, Nikolay says that there are two main reasons why he likes New York: international cuisine and music. Thanks to the multicultural environment, one can find many exotic dishes and products for any meal. Nikolay also listens to jazz music, and New York is a place where there are many excellent jazz musicians. But he admits that during the pandemic, New York was less appealing because the social life was curtailed.  However, he sees the city as not very family-friendly. “New York punishes people who decide to have family, and Moscow is ten times better for this.”

He believes that as a result of the worsening relations between the US and Russia, there is not much potential in his career. These developments make him more likely to consider leaving New York.

“If by any chance I am offered tomorrow a good employment opportunity in Moscow or in some place in Europe, I will go easily.”  He finds it hard to understand why a European who is successful in their home country would choose to come to New York City because the quality of his life has deteriorated here. “Moscow has changed for the better, but unfortunately, in New York, we can see the only degradation….” In his view

if you work in certain areas, such as fashion, finance, or the arts, it is more understandable. Although he enjoys the sunlight during the fall and throughout the year—something that is not so prevalent in certain cities in Europe–he does not enjoy the high temperatures. “All the movies portray New York City as something beautiful and romantic, but then you come into the subway, smell the environment and you realize it is not a dream….” And finally, comparing the city to the pre-Covid days Nikolay believes that, “Life became more complicated because of COVID restrictions, many things got and remained closed. The city also feels less safe. I hardly see NYC coming back to what it was anytime soon.”

Valeria Robecco, Reporter “Il Giornale” and President of the UN Correspondents Association 

In 2005, Valeria started her career as a lawyer in her hometown, Reggio Emilia, in Italy. She first moved to New York for a couple of months in 2010 but finally, she decided to stay and pursue a career in journalism. She started working with the Italian news source,  Quotidiano Nazionale, in the United Nations. Valeria has also worked with other major Italian media, such as La Stampa, concentrating on American politics. Changing her career and staying in NYC, was complicated but more stimulating. “The balance is positive, even if there are obstacles…After more than 11 years, despite the difficulties, I am very happy to have made that choice.”

Valeria enjoys the city for its energy and opportunities. She says there is so much to discover. She is always happy to visit her home in Reggio Emilia, but feels at home in New York. “I believe that the beauty of this city is that often it gives you the chance to pursue your dreams, and if you fail you can get up and try again.” As one who likes cooking and trying out new cuisines, she appreciates the diversity of cuisines available.

But she also admits that New York is not an easy city to live in. According to her, it’s expensive, dirty and noisy. She knows people who couldn’t keep up with the pace and left within a few months. But it’s important to find the balance and not to get sucked into the vortex. The city has also become more dangerous in comparison to 11 years ago, when she arrived and she is hoping for a change with the a mayor. Nevertheless, Valeria is happy enough in NYC, as “the pros outweigh the cons.”

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