How-to: Afford Travel

Vasastan, Stockholm

Vasastan, Stockholm

Many people ask me, “How can you afford to travel?” The truth is I barely can. It involves a ton of planning, and usually months of savings. Every January I choose my destinations and travel dates for the rest of the year. Then I make a plan: tracking airfare prices, hotel deals, researching the exchange rate and how to make the most of my hard-earned dollars once I land there. I also start cutting back on eating-out and random purchases. The usual ways of saving. I’m not great at it, but I keep at it. Because regardless of the cost, I believe there’s a lot more we earn from travel than what we spend.

Swedish Institute, Stockholm

Swedish Institute, Stockholm

But I recently discovered a way to travel that allows you to learn more about your chosen destination in an affordable way, and grow your career along the way. I’m talking about grants and scholarships. Many governmental and nonprofit organizations around the world offer travel grants to foreign students and influencers to encourage international relations between nations and as a way of sharing their culture abroad. I used to think these grants were only available to students, but there are a few that are actually targeted to working adults, in order to help them develop their careers. One of the organizations offering these types of grants and scholarships is Svenska Institutet (SI).

“We have governmental grants that we provide to the countries of interest to Sweden, and that’s basically the whole world,” said Johanna Jeppsson, Deputy Head of Unit of Talent Mobility at SI.

The Swedish Institute, as it’s called in English, is an organization under Sweden’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs that provides aid in two ways. One branch focuses on poverty reduction, providing scholarships to students in need who live in developing nations. The other branch focuses on promoting Sweden around the world, mostly concentrating on the U.S. and other western countries.

As an American citizen, I applied for a professional growth scholarship called the Bicentennial Swedish-American Exchange Fund. The goal of this particular fund is to give American citizens and permanent residents a chance to grow in their respective fields and contribute to the development of their societies with those learnings.  

“We are looking for what we call change makers,” said Jeppsson. “People that have an idea of how they would like to use the amount of money they receive from us, in order to change something or to create opinion.”

Johanna Jeppsson

Johanna Jeppsson

Each person selected for this scholarship is awarded up to SEK $30,000 to pay for a study visit to Sweden ranging between two- and four-weeks. At the end of the trip, scholarship holders are requested to submit a report to SI explaining what they learned and how they accomplished the goal originally stated in their proposal.

And don’t worry, you don’t have to be a social media influencer to get awarded. There are many ways in which your field can influence change in society. Those involved within public administration, the environment, politics, education and business can also benefit greatly from this type of study visit. Bringing back their knowledge and influencing their community.

“We had a person from the U.S. who came here to study our transportation system,” said Jeppsson as an example. “We also had a social worker from the U.S., who came here to study how we work with the refugees, in order for her to use these methods.”

The Bicentennial Fund is only one of the scholarships offered. In 2016, the Swedish Institute sponsored 1,707 people from all different walks of life.

Swedish Princess Cake and Smörgås lunch.

Swedish Princess Cake and Smörgås lunch.

For me, the visit to Sweden helped me define a more focused vision for my career, this website and my social media presence. It also allowed me to experience an incredible society and a culture that, while being very different from my own, it’s incredibly easy to fall in love with. Most importantly, it allowed me to share that beautiful culture with the world.

To learn more about the Swedish Institute, visit: https://eng.si.se/

The Bicentennial Swedish-American Exchange Fund will be managed by the Sweden-American Foundation as of this year, for more information visit: http://sweamfo.se/in-english/

 

 

Extraordinary Libraries: Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

View of the Rotunda.

The Stockholm Public Library makes a big impression from the moment you set your eyes on it. The massive square building, painted orange, is topped by a rotunda in the same deep tone. From the outside, it looks as if the building was wearing a top hat.

Once inside, things only get better.

I followed the signs to the Rotunda on the top floor of the library. Walking up the steps, I gasped for air. Not because I’m totally out of shape, but because I could see the endless rows of books above me. I reached the atrium and noticed the three levels of bookshelves that surrounded me. Telling you that my jaw dropped would be an understatement.

This incredible building was designed by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund in the 1920s (and it’s sometimes called the Asplund Library). Today, the collection includes about 410,000 books, in addition to a wide range of audio books and other literary items.

This off-the-beaten path location is the perfect place to spend an afternoon in Stockholm. Entrance is free and the library has a small coffee shop where you can read while eating a traditional cinnamon bun.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek
Address: Sveavägen 73, 112 80 Stockholm

Website: biblioteket.stockholm.se

Santa Lucia, A Swedish Tradition of Lights

Lucia concert at Storkyrkan. Photo: Julie Cid

Lucia concert at Storkyrkan. Photo: Julie Cid

I sat inside a beautiful church -- Storkyrkan, a cathedral in the heart of Stockholm. The lights dimmed and the crowd grew quiet. Everyone knew what was about to take place. And while I didn’t understand a word of Swedish, I, too, knew I was in the middle of something special.

Suddenly the choir director gave a swift signal and a fleet of young women and men dressed in white started singing in unison. Their melody resonated through every corner of the church and vibrated against my skin. For the next 50 minutes I was enchanted.

On December 13th swedes young and old come together to celebrate Lucia’s Day. The charming celebration involves processions of lights all across the country. They happen at schools, churches, hospitals and offices. These processions feature a young woman or a girl dressed in a white gown with a red sash tied around her waist. She also wears a unique wreath crown with lit candles on her hair.

She’s the chosen one to represent Lucia and is accompanied by a group of maidens and star boys. The maidens also wear white gowns with a red sash, but instead of a crown with candles, they wear wreaths with berries and hold a single candle in their hands. The star boys wear the same white gown and red sash, as well as a large, pointy hat decorated with stars.

They sing carols together, bringing a warm and cozy feel to an otherwise cold and dark winter day.

The festival originated in Italy hundreds of years ago. Santa Lucia represented light in what was thought to be the darkest night of the year. In fact, the first Lucia celebration recorded in Sweden dates back to the 1700s, but became popular nationwide in the 1900s. Today it is one of the most celebrated traditions.

Saffron bun. Photo: Julie Cid.

Additional to the procession and singing, there’s also one particular sweet bread bun that accompanies the celebration. The Lussekatt, or saffron bun. This bun can be bought at coffee shops, outdoor markets and bakeries everywhere during the holiday season.

Storkyrkan
Address: 1 Storkyrkobrinken, 111 28 Stockholm
Website: www.svenskakyrkan.se

Vasamuseet - The Most Visited Museum in Scandinavia

Vasamuseet, or Vasa Museum, is the most visited museum in Scandinavia according to its website. The museum is unique in that it only holds one centric piece in exhibition: The Vasa.

This majestic ship was commissioned by King Gustav II in the early 1600s. It was a warship, build to fire over 500 lbs of ammunition from each side. It carried 64 cannons, 300 soldiers and 145 sailors. However, just as strong and powerful its rise, so was its demise.

As crowds gathered to watch the ship leave the harbor, they witnessed the unthinkable. The ship sank in its maiden voyage on August 10, 1628, just 20 minutes after sailing. All but 30 of its passengers survived.

The day after the accident the Council of State and the King started looking for the responsible parties and started an Inquest. However, no one was ever punished or held responsible for what happened. Today, it’s believed that faulty design was to blame in the tragedy. After all, ships of that size and capabilities were unstable and susceptible to the technology of the times.

The vessel remained lost in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea for hundreds of years. It was 333 years later that a team of expert divers were able to raise and restore the ship.

Today the wooden ship is well above water and protected by a massive concrete building tailored to keep it safe.

Vasamuseet
Address: Galärvarvsvägen 14, 115 21 Stockholm

Website: www.vasamuseet.se

A Travel Sweater That Fits Right In

Every time I hop on a plane I get cold. I’m usually the person asking for extra blankets, then building a little cocoon with them to stay warm for the duration of the flight. So I’m always on the lookout for anything to make my travels a bit cozier.

About a month ago I received a Travel Wrap from Secret Sweater to test out. When I opened the package I saw the sweater folded within itself. I discovered it has a built-in sleeve “pocket” that makes it easy to fold the wrap into a compact square shape so you can fit into your carry-on.

Then I took it out on the road. I carried the Travel Wrap in my latest trips. It came in pretty handy during my visit to Washington, DC. Even though it was the middle of July, I ended up using it at night when the temperatures dropped and I was still outside wearing summery dresses. The fabric is super soft and warm. (But not too warm!)

I also really liked the fit. It’s loose fitting, but flattering. And more importantly it goes well with pretty much anything.

Secret Sweater manufactures its designs in California. The Travel Wrap goes for $69.95 on their website.

Los Angeles: A visit to the Getty Villa

While many people have heard of Getty Images, the unrelated Getty Villa located in Los Angeles holds just as impressive a collection. This breathtaking mansion has 44,000 Greek, Roman and Etruscan pieces dating back to 6,500 BC. But if art history isn’t your thing, the architecture of the villa itself is sure to make you want to stay a while. With fountains hidden in various corners of the grounds and a majestic garden, it’s easy to feel like you’re walking among the Gods in Mount Olympus.

This amazing gallery was built as part of oil tycoon J. Paul Getty’s philanthropic projects, which also include the Getty Museum, the Getty Foundation and the Getty Trust.

The villa is located on the Pacific Coastal Highway and it’s a great place to stop while on your way to Malibu. Admission is free and parking is available at $15 per vehicle.

A ride along the West Lake - Hangzhou, China

The sky is gray and a thick fog hangs well below the clouds, yet somehow this adds a touch of vibrancy to the place. This is Hangzhou, China. A city of over 9 million people. A small city by Chinese standards, but one with big traditions and rich with folklore.

I hopped on a traditional river boat and cruised the West Lake to hear the legend of the Leifeng Pagoda. The pagoda has become a tourist destination since it was rebuilt 4 years ago. But it’s tale dates back to 925 AD, when it was originally built.

Hangzhou, China

As the story goes, a white snake disguised herself as a beautiful woman and fell in love with a young man. They fell hard for each other and finally got married. However, because she wasn’t really human, their love was forbidden. So the gods trapped her under the Leifeng Pagoda for eternity, or until the pagoda crumbled to the ground. In 1924, that’s exactly what happened. The Pagoda collapsed and the old tale regained its fire.

Today thousands of people visit the new pagoda and take river cruises around it to admire its history.

 

 

 

Quick Guide to Paris - Off The Beaten Path

No 5 letters have ever come together to shape a name more full of meaning than Paris. Historically, culturally, and artistically, Paris has been at the center of it all for centuries. “Paris is always a good idea,” were the famous words of Audrey Hepburn, and it really is.

Today the city is still at the top of virtually everyone's travel list. But, while the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre tend to be the first spots to visit, there’s a lot more to see and experience often left off the guide books. Here are my top 5 off-the-beaten-path attractions in Paris.

1 - Musée de L’Orangerie

You know the Musée D’Orsay and the Louvre, but this small gallery located at the opposite end of the Jardins de Tuileries holds an even more impressive collection. The first floor counts with two oval rooms where Monet’s Water Lilies are in permanent display. The idea is that you can see the scene just as Monet did while he painted it. Downstairs, an impressive collection includes works by Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir, and countless others.

Tip: You can buy a special ticket that guarantees dual entry into Musée de L’Orangerie and Musée D’Orsay to save some $$ and time.

2 - Merci

Merci

Shopping in Paris is great, especially during the summer and winter sales (“Les Soldes” which take place at specific times during the year determined by the government). La Bonne Marché and Galeries Lafayette are two of the largest shopping centers in Paris, carrying all the major brands. But if what you’re looking for is more of a highly curated collection, the unique and super cool items at Merci is what you need. This shop is located on the 3rd Arrondissement and holds a literary café on the first floor. It’s the perfect place to relax after some sightseeing.

3 - Hôtel Amour

Let’s say you’ve spend the afternoon exploring Sacré-Coeur and now it’s time for dinner. The courtyard restaurant at the Hôtel Amour is your spot. There’s a nice tropical vibe with lush trees scattered all around the restaurant and it’s a very authentic spot where real Parisians dine.

Tip: If you’re not too tired, do the 15-min walk from Sacré-Coeur to the Hôtel Amour to get a nice look at the neighborhood of Montmartre.

4 - Picnic at Versailles

Bike tour of Versailles

Technically this is more of a day trip from Paris, but the train ride is so easy there’s no reason not to do it. You can hop on the Métro and it takes about an hour to get to Versailles. Stop by a local market to get the famous Versailles orange juice, a baguette, cheese and some wine. Then you’re ready for a picnic along the magnificent Grand Canal in the Jardins de Versaille. Make sure to eat all your food or throw it out before heading into the Palace, as food is not allowed inside.

Tip: You can also book a bike tour in advance, and they’ll make all the arrangements. You often get to meet your tour guide in Paris and take the Métro as a group.

5 - Coutume Café

Finding good breakfast in Paris is not an issue, but this little spot in the École Militaire neighborhood has probably the best coffee I had in Paris. The shop is owned by a Parisian and an Australian (both great coffee nations!), so you can tell they know what they’re doing. The raw decor and white tiles may feel a little bit like Brooklyn, but the food is as authentic as it comes.

Do you have any off-the-beaten-path sites in Paris? Add them in the comments!

 

 

 

Quick Guide to Shanghai

Visiting China was one of the most thrilling experiences in my life. The culture, the food and architecture revealed a whole new side of the world that lived only in my dreams. While I think it’s impossible to list just a few of the many, many things to do in Shanghai, I tried to compile the five places you just cannot miss the next time you’re there. Here they are:

Shanghai Museum

Shanghai Museum

1 - Shanghai Museum
Art lovers, history buffs, and general tourists alike, this is the spot. The building itself is already an inspiring site with a wheel-shaped structure that surrounds the top floor. Inside you’ll find some of the very first coins used during the famous empires, there are also uniquely designed furnitures, as well as countless pieces of art and buddha statues. It’s easy to spend half a day exploring the different wings, and the museum shop is a great place to buy interesting books.

Daytime view from The Bund 

Daytime view from The Bund 

2 - The Bund
A walk on The Bund is a must, day or night. The waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River gives you the perfect view of the city skyline. The modern skyscrapers sit across the river, while a lineup of classic European buildings stand behind you. It’s an interesting contrast that marks just how much of a melting pot the city has become . At night, the modern buildings light up to form that classic postcard portrait of Shanghai. You can also take a nighttime cruise on the Huangpu River to catch a different angle.

French Concession

French Concession

3 - Nanjing Road
This shopping district counts with all the famous brands, like Uniqlo and Gap, as well as local brands like Meters/Bonwe. It’s the perfect spot to have that authentic modern day Shanghai shopping experience with around 600 stores between international brands and Chinese boutiques that sell traditional goods like Jade, silk and pearls.

4 - The French Concession
In the late 1800’s, this area was conceded to the French Consulate and was the home to many foreigners, today the historic location has grown into the hub for foodies and high-end shoppers. The winding alleys and European buildings make this a very unique and different from the rest of the city. It’s also where you’ll want to grab a sit at an outdoor café and stay a little while.

Yuyuan Garden

Yuyuan Garden

5 - Yuyuan Garden
Its name translates to ‘happy, pleasing, satisfying’ and it’s easy to see why. The garden feels like it’s build over various ponds, so the sound of streaming water fills every corner. The ponds are crowded with huge koi fish that love being fed. The traditional Chinese architecture automatically transports you to a different time and it’s easy to forget you’re in modern Shanghai. The garden is the perfect place to quiet down after bargaining over prices at the market next door.

Know a place that should be included in this list? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

View from The Bund

Nanjing Road

French Concession

First Impressions: China!

China. A small word with huge meaning. The flavors. The culture. The architecture. The history. From the moment we landed at the Shanghai airport it was clear to me that this was going to be a completely different and unique experience. The modern architecture of the airport was unlike anything I’d seen before, with white poles holding onto the blue tent-like ceiling.

In this trip I got to explore Shanghai, Beijing, Hangzhou, Wuxi, and Suzhou. Each city offered a distinct perspective into Chinese culture, deeply rooted in old traditions yet also embracing modernity and looking forward to the future.

First, let’s talk population. I used to think that being one of the 8.4 million people living in New York City made me a part of a huge city. Little did I know that’s just a “medium-sized” town by Chinese standards. Shanghai has a population of over 24 million people. Beijing has 21.5 million people. Hangzhou, Wuxi and Suzhou are considered medium-sized towns and each count with a population of around 8 to 10 million.

That’s a lot of people. But the size of the population is only comparable to the size of the land itself. We took a flight between Beijing and Shanghai and it took us about three hours of driving on average to get from Wuxi to Hangzhou, and then from Hangzhou to Shanghai. The country is huge (about the same size as the USA) and the fact that the culture and old traditions are so alive and strong throughout makes it even more amazing.

This is a place where the notions of old and new are constantly in balance, almost like a ying-yang dance everywhere we went. And it is the most clear through architecture. A walk on the Bund, Shanghai’s waterfront promenade, is the perfect example. Here you’ll spot some of the world’s most exuberant buildings. The Oriental Pearl TV Tower, probably the most recognizable one, features two giant round structures, one at the base and another at the top, with pinkish-red stripes across them. The Jin Mao Tower, a huge building that houses the luxurious Grand Hyatt Hotel, with it’s diamond-shaped top. Then there’s the Shanghai World Financial Center, a huge skyscraper with a glass-walled observation deck.

A quick 7-minute drive from the Bund lands you in Yuyuan Garden. The garden was finished around 1577, during the Ming Dynasty and still holds its traditional architecture. The rounded gates, the ponds full of huge koi fish and the traditional decorative rockeries. Just outside the garden there’s a bazaar where you can buy traditional Chinese items like silk pieces, tea, pearls, jade and handcrafted jewelry boxes. This is also where the Lantern Festival is held every year.

The Lantern Festival is one of the most interesting cultural events I was able to witness. It takes place 15 days after the Lunar New Year and gathers people from all over the city admiring the intricate paper lanterns in Yuyuan Garden. The tradition was already one of great significance by the Han Dynasty (between 206 BC - 25 AD), marking the final day of the New Year celebrations. Today, it still holds the same importance with red paper lanterns spread throughout the city. The lanterns have evolved from the traditional round shape to handmade lanterns that mimic life-sized animals, sceneries and cartoons. At night, they light up leaving children, as well as adults, in awe. Each one a symbol of good luck for the year ahead.

The Chinese New Year traditions are still very important to the people, most of whom leave the city to be with their families for the weeks leading up to and after the day. For many this is the one long vacation they can spend with their parents and relatives in their hometown.

Another huge part of the culture is the food. From outdoor markets to food halls to restaurants well-equipped with lazy Susans, delicious food is everywhere. One of my favorite street-snacks was a round pastry filled with cooked radishes and another one filled with pork slices. They are serve in folded parchment paper, to make them easy to carry.

Family-style meals are also a big tradition in China. We grew accustomed to using the lazy-susans at pretty much every restaurant. It was a great conversation starter! We ended up getting to know new people much better because of the family-style lunches. It’s a must try, at least once!

This trip to China was a life-changing experience. I learned so much about the culture, the people, the history. I loved every minute of it and will be posting more detailed guides about each one of the cities in the next few weeks. There was so much to take it. One trip to China is simply not enough.

Have you been to China? Tell me about your experience in the comments!