CITY GUIDES

I’ve had the pleasure of living in three of the greatest American cities: New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. To share the love with visitors and newcomers alike, I compiled top things to do in each city – including sightseeing, culture, activities, museums, nightlife, and of course.. food. Click below to read my city guides. Don’t forget to bookmark them for your next trip!

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“The Right to Vote”: Midterm Elections & the Silenced Voices

This is an Op-Ed article tying back to informed research, factual current reporting, and public policy.

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The day is November 6th, 2018 and you’re surrounded by “I VOTED” stickers placed proudly on the shirts of those around you. You look on as your peers smile because they believe they have an impact in shaping the future of their nation. You wish you knew this feeling, too.

But you don’t.

Because you’re not allowed to vote.

This is what November 6th was like for an untold number of Americans who never got to cast their votes at the ballot because of “technical issues” at their designated polling place — or because they live in states that don’t allow early voting — or because they’re part of the six million Americans with felony convictions — or because they’re green-card holders — or because they’re DACA recipients — or because their absentee ballot mysteriously never arrived— the list goes on.

If you are the one who gets to preach “Get out and vote!” without hesitation, then also remember those whose voices are intentionally silenced.

According to research by Pew, “In the five years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, nearly a thousand polling places have been shuttered across the country, many of them in southern black communities.”

The truth is, we are living in an era of voter suppression. In cities nationwide, extra hurdles are thrown at minorities in an effort to keep them from voting. According to Pew, “Polling places have often been used as political tools to shape the outcome of elections. Officials can reduce the voter participation of certain groups by eliminating polling places, and increase participation in other groups by placing precincts in key neighborhoods.” In many a case, this has meant making access to polls easy in primarily white middle & upper-class areas while making access to polls in primarily ethnic and lower-income neighborhoods increasingly difficult.

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On November 6th’s Midterm Election, many strange “coincidences” arose. You may have friends that never received their absentee ballots despite requesting one with plenty of time in advance and taking all proper steps. Maybe, you yourself never received yours. Mysterious, isn’t it?

In Fulton County, Georgia, many voters were left to wait hours to cast their ballots after the county mistakenly only installed three voting machines, according to The Hill. Many voters wound up leaving the polling site due to the long wait. Let us take a moment to reflect on this. If you are in charge of a polling place, how do you “forget” to install voting machines? And what if I told you the voters waiting for hours were majority African Americans? Just a coincidence, right? What if I told you a similar situation happened also in an African American-majority area in Snellville, Georgia where the machines were not connected to power cords and ran out of battery power? Don’t you just love when people forget to power up the polling machines?

In Dodge City, Kansas, Ford County Clerk Debbie Cox moved the only polling place in the city from a convenient central location to a new location half a mile outside the city limits, according to The Wichita Eagle. The new polling spot is not accessible by sidewalk and has no regular public transportation. To make the obvious more obvious, this means the new polling center is only accessible by car. To make the obvious even more obvious, this would exclude low-income voters who rely on public transportation and bicycle to get around.

Over in El Paso, Texas, the U.S. Border Patrol had sent out a press release stating they would be conducting a “mobile field force demonstration” crowd control exercise. Why plan to conduct such an exercise on Election Day that may deter voters from coming out? Well… what if I told you El Paso is a border city with a large Latino population?

The list of “coincidental accidents” that occurred on polling places on November 6th goes on and on, but hopefully you get the picture by now.

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Change is needed even in areas that are known for being more liberal. New York City, which has been carried by a Democrat in statewide and presidential elections since 1924, still bears restrictive policies. New Yorkers cannot access absentee ballots without meeting particular criteria, and New York state does not offer early voting. Early voting allows millions nationwide to access polls in the weeks before the election. This is helpful to parents, those working irregular hours, firefighters, doctors, or anyone who has a busy life in general. Without early voting access, an untold number of voters in New York state may not make it to the polls the day of. Further more, New York holds a Closed Primary system. This means that when it comes time for the U.S. Primary Elections, only those who are registered as Republican or Democrat can vote. According to Times Union, “over a quarter of all voters in NY state — 3.2 million who are registered to vote but not enrolled in a party — are shut out of voting in closed primary elections.” That’s more than all of the registered voters in the entire state of Connecticut.

Voter reform is desperately needed across the United States in order for our election processes to be fair. People of our nation deserve the right to vote without policies or “mistakes” intentionally put in place to restrict voices from being heard.

Next time you peel that “I VOTED” sticker on to your shirt, do your part to learn about voter suppression and how it affects those around you. Be a part of the reform that gives others a say in shaping the places they live and the everyday lives they lead. This is what we pledged when we said “Liberty and Justice for all.”

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Cracking the Code: How to Navigate Facebook and Instagram’s Secret Algorithms

    Gone are the days where posts appear chronologically in your Facebook and Instagram feeds. Both social networks developed their own unique algorithms to determine what you see on your social feed, and in what order. While the algorithms are kept top secret, research and personal experience moves us further toward cracking these ever-changing algorithms.

    Getting your social post to the eyes of viewers is essential, whether you’re blogging for fun or for business. A post that receives more exposure is likely to generate more followers, fans, and sales if applicable. The amount of likes received can determine how well an account is respected, and in some situations, can even mean money. The more eyes a post or ad is seen by, the more of a chance a brand has to gain a larger following and new consumers.

    So is this new algorithm for better or for worse? Many ‘Grammers were upset when Instagram rolled out its new system of ordering posts. Some think Instagram is no longer “fair game” – that now photos get lost in the shuffle, and many do not even appear on the feed at all. When viewed from a different perspective, however, the new Instagram algorithm can actually help your photos rise above. It used to be that the more you post, the more you appear on the feed. This is no longer necessarily the case. “Serial posters” – users who post many photos a day, but photos that are low quality – will sink, while those who share compelling visuals on a less frequent scale will rise. Think of it this way: quantity over quality shifted to quality over quantity.

     With the latest algorithm update, Instagram prioritizes active users. This is a marketing trick to keep users on the Instagram app longer and checking more frequently. So what constitutes as an “active user”? An active account is one that engages frequently. This means facilitating conversation, writing captions that tell stories and pose questions, posting to Instagram stories and IGTV, and commenting and interacting with other users. Instagram also wants to see you make the most of their features. This means sharing in-the-moment to your Story and using Instagram Live. This is also a good way to keep your audience engaged and up to date with your life, even when you are not posting a photo.

    The focus is now on how to make your Instagram photos original and creative. According to Kevin Systrom, co-founder of Instagram, “People miss about 70 percent of the posts in their Instagram feed. What this is about is making sure that the 30 percent you see is the best 30 percent possible.” This is good news to marketers. If your photos are compelling and you seek an authentic following, you will have an advantage over spam accounts with purchased followers. When viewed from this vantage, the new Instagram algorithm will be helpful to people and brands making the effort to produce quality content. When authenticity is key, spam doesn’t stand a chance.

    Facebook takes a similar approach with its new algorithm. You won’t notice every single post on your Facebook feed, but you will notice the ones that rise to the top. The posts that make it to the top of the feed are typically the ones gaining the most interaction. The Facebook algorithm picks up the amount of activity (in the form of likes, comments, and shares) a post is receiving. The more engagement a post receives, the more Facebook identifies it as important and relevant. This is why it is helpful to respond to comments left on your posts.

Ever notice how a “So and so are Engaged” post will show at the top of you feed? Facebook looks for keywords when it comes to sorting posts with the algorithm. Terms such as “birth,” “engaged,” “married,” “congratulations,” and anything regarding current events will be flagged as important, and therefore will receive priority. If you want your brand’s post to gain attention, avoid using dull words.

    Content posted directly through Facebook takes precedence over content shared from an external source. For example, someone doing a Facebook Live video will likely be placed higher on the newsfeed than someone who shared a video from Youtube. If you want your content to be spotted, make sure you are posting it directly through Facebook’s uploading system and not from a source that will direct the viewer off of the Facebook platform. After all, these sites/ apps want you to stay as long as possible scrolling on their server.

    The new Facebook algorithm poses potential threats for businesses. Posts from Pages as opposed to personal user profiles are less likely to appear on the newsfeed. Pages can pay money to have their ads/posts appear to more viewers, but not every company has the funding for this method. This particularly hurts small businesses. If you are a blogger or company with sufficient funding, use paid promotion on the posts that are showing signs of success in order to expand the positive reach even further. If you are a blogger or a business with limited funds, there are still ways to help your posts be seen. Post content natively, and make sure the content you are creating appeals to your target audience. See which posts of yours have received a lot of hype and which have flopped and learn from it. Likes – or the lack of – are telling when it comes to figuring out what your target audience wants to see. The new Facebook algorithm does not encourage clickbait and promotional wording, so make your posts as organic and relatable as possible. Create engaging content, and don’t be afraid to play around with Facebook’s new visual features such as 360 videos/photos. It all comes back to the theme of quality. Quality content will attract more attention, thus gaining more Shares, thus reaching more viewers.

    Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, there is no way to know the specifics of the hundreds of factors that go into arranging the newsfeed. The above practices, however, will get you started on the right path. Create engaging content, continuously reply to comments and messages, and be persistent. Do not get discouraged and do not expect overnight results – genuine growth takes time and can sometimes feed tedious, but it is incredibly more effective than artificial growth. Keep at it every day, have patience, and the change will be noticeable.

    Remember that these complex algorithms weren’t created to hurt, but to help. The ultimate goal of the algorithm is to display content the platform determines is most relevant to the user. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition for feed placement if it means a decrease in spam and a push for quality. It’s not about beating the algorithm – it’s about learning to work and grow with it.

For A Swiss Chocolatier, Winning Over Tastebuds With Flavors Of Home

It’s a windy day in Boston, but all is calm inside the Teuscher chocolate shop as owner Stefan Bieri organizes a display of sweets. The store on Newbury Street is filled with brightly hued decorations of springtime flowers and miniature bunnies wearing bows, all shipped in directly from Switzerland. As a customer enters the shop, Bieri hears the words he is all too familiar with:

“I’ll have a box of Champagne Truffles, please.”

It’s the brand’s most famous chocolate, and it’s been rocking tastebuds since 1932 when a man named Dolf Teuscher created it in his home in the Swiss Alps. Forty years later, the Champagne Truffle found its way from the mountainsides of Switzerland to the United States – and eventually, in 1996, right here to Newbury Street.

The New York Times has called Teuscher “the world’s finest” chocolate. National Geographic rated it 2012’s ”#1 Best Chocolatier in the World.” Bon Appétit Magazine has called their products “the most meltingly marvelous of all chocolate creations.” Then there’s the feature of Teuscher’s Champagne Truffle on the Oprah Winfrey Show, where she declared it as one of her favorites.

So why set up shop in Boston?

Stefan Bieri, who was orginally born in Bern, Switzerland, attributes it to Newbury Street’s international flare and “Boston’s sophisticated taste for the finer things.”

Bieri has been running the Newbury store for 13 years. For him, the Teuscher chocolate shop represents more than just yummy treats; it is a proud monument of Swiss culture.

“Chocolate represents one of the best things about my country,” says Bieri.

The shop draws in customers that are a balance between Boston locals and foreign visitors. The appeal for locals is mostly word-of-mouth hype about the Champagne Truffle. As for the international crowd – especially Europeans – the attraction lies in the composition of the chocolate. According to Bieri, the difference in taste is noticeable to European chocoholics when compared to mass-produced chocolates made in the US containing dyes and preservatives. Teuscher’s treats have no preservatives, no waxes, and no other chemical additives, he said.

A customer named Kyle, who currently lives in Jamaica Plain, has family in Lucerne, Switzerland. He says that with their fresh ingredients, Teuscher’s has “the best chocolate in Boston” in his opinion. For him, the rich flavors pay homage to his family.

Kyle chooses the aforementioned Champagne Truffle as his treat of choice. The truffle is composed of a blend of fresh cream, butter, and chocolate with a champagne cream center that is dusted with confectioner’s sugar. It is available in milk or dark, and accounts for approximately 60 percent of their sales.

How much money are customers willing to drop on one piece of chocolate?

“Teuscher’s isn’t cheap. But I can rationalize spending four bucks on a single chocolate because they are just so damn good,” he Kyle.

The prices are steep as far as sweets go. This certainly isn’t your typical pack of 99 cent M&Ms; A 24-piece Teuscher chocolate box can cost you $90, and a single chocolate bar can come in at $14. You better really want to impress your Valentine sweetheart, because if you seek a velvet heart-shaped box with 43 pieces, it’s going to cost you $175.

While Teuscher chocolates may not be for the budget foodie, some are willing to trade the extra cash for quality.

“You won’t find many like this in the US. I love Teuscher’s because they are all about the chocolate experience,” Kyle says.

The hefty price tag can also be attributed to the ingredients that go into the creation of the treats. Teuscher’s opts to spend extra on cocoa butter rather than cutting back costs by using hydrogenated oils and dairy fats. According to Bieri, the chocolates are infused with flavors from around the world, including jasmine tea from Asia, ginger from the South Pacific, pistachios from Turkey, and hazelnuts from Italy.

Many of the chocolates are handmade the same exact way they were in Switzerland 80 years ago. In fact, the goods are flown in to Boston via a direct flight from Zurich. As one could imagine, this means very careful packaging.

I question if competitor chocolatiers try to mimic their Champagne Truffle. Bieri shakes his head.

“It cannot be copied or duplicated,” he says. “We are the original.”

Teuscher Chocolates Boston
Location: 230 Newbury Street, Boston MA 02116
Hours: Monday-Saturday 11 am – 7 pm, Sunday 12 pm – 5pm

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Dia de los Muertos: Shining Light On Los Angeles’s Latin Community

Dia de los Muertos is a holiday synonymous with Mexico, but is widely celebrated by its northern neighbor: California.

Latinos make up approximately half of the population of Los Angeles. The strong Hispanic and Latin American communities present in LA means a greater exchange of culture.

Dia de los Muertos has been around for over 3,000 years and is a holiday about reuniting and honoring ancestors, family and friends and having the living commune with the deceased. Simply put, Dia de los Muertos is a holiday honoring the dead. Rather than being somber, the holiday is uplifting – it is a celebration of life. Loved ones are remembered as ofrendas (altars) are created and filled with photos of the person, objects that represent his/her favorite hobbies and interests, artwork, and colorful flowers. Pleasant smelling incense fills the air, and pan de muerto (dead bread) is eaten. Dancers dress up in traditional Aztec style garments complete with a headdress and perform to the beat of the drum. All around, people join together and celebrate.

The biggest Dia de los Muertos event held in Los Angeles takes place in the famous Hollywood Forever cemetery – a fitting location to honor the dead. Altars are set up around graves, a grand stage boasts live performances from Latin musicians, and tents selling Mexican food are lined up along the premise. Thousands show up to the event in extraordinary costumes, many with their faces painted to look like the sugar skulls. It is a grand-scale and glamorous event boasting famous performers and even more famous people (that happen to be underneath the ground). Prepare for massive crowds that can feel overwhelming at times.

Over on Olvera Street located in Downtown across from Union Station exists another Dia de los Muertos festival – only this one is more relaxed and less glitzy. The altars are smaller and the people are dressed more modestly. There is a greater feeling of authenticity as locals chatter in Spanish while lighting candles. A procession is led, usually dedicating the night to a specific person who has passed and those who have died in the same way, such as drug addiction. All along Olvera Street are small shops where you can purchase incense, sugar skulls, fans, Mexican blouses, paper marigolds, colored eggs, and many more items associated with the festivities. At the end of the night, all join together around the bandshell where live music is performed along with a ceremonial ritual with Aztec dancers. On Olvera Street, it’s less about the glamour and more about the community.

Even for those who are not Hispanic, Dia de los Muertos is a beautiful holiday to honor those who have passed and to celebrate life itself. If you’re searching for a place to participate in the festivities but can’t quite make it to Oaxaca this year, Los Angeles should do the trick.

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A Dancer’s Inspiring Journey & A Show You Won’t Forget

It’s a cozy night in the theatre. The lights are dimmed, all are seated, and the audience is quiet as they wait for the show to begin. Titled “Traces,” some viewers may have been brought here by good reviews while others were recommended by friends. Little do they realize that for the next 90 minutes, they will be transported to another world: one of dance, acrobatics, music, energy, and emotion. In the blink of an eye, seven figures take the stage: six males and one female. There is no slow progression, no easing into things. They enter with zeal and vivacity, moving in the most electrifying kinds of ways and stunning the crowd with every subsequent stunt. The theatre is no longer quiet and mellow – it is brimming with life.

Those seven figures lighting up the stage are Les 7 doigts de la main. The name of the company translates to “the seven fingers of the hand.” It’s a twist on a French idiom used to describe different parts united in coordination toward a common goal, and it honestly couldn’t be more fitting. Each of these talented dancers has something unique to bring to the performance. The show itself is highly personal, involving speaking parts, solo scenes, and even childhood photographs. The audience is able to get a feel for each individual dancer and their different personalities.

One of the more outgoing, friendly personalities belongs to dancer Lucas Boutin. The cast of Traces hails from all different parts of the world, including Mexico, China, the US, Canada, and England – Lucas being the French counterpart. Growing up in France, his passion for performance arts and acrobatics came about early on. At just six years old, Lucas began circus training. With much practice and determination, he excelled at juggling, unicycling, and acrobatics. At the age of 15, he attended a special circus high school where he continued circus training alongside his education. Three years later, he moved on to London where he furthered his talents in theater and dance. It was here that Lucas made the art of Chinese pole his main focus. With all this experience under his belt, Lucas has taken his talents across the globe, traveling far and wide to pursue the thrills of performing before a live audience.

Lucas began performing with the Traces cast in March of 2012, with the full current crew having been united October 2013. Lucas dances in a variety of scenes, but his main act is Chinese pole. Watching his stunts can do one of two things to your heart: make it beat rapidly, or make it stop altogether. The audience holds their breath as he climbs up the pole and projects his body horizontally, no strings in sight. It takes an incredible amount of strength, balance and focus to succeed at the feat that is Chinese pole. As Lucas performs these stunts – one of which includes sliding down the pole head-first and stopping right before hitting the ground – it is only him and gravity. That, and the surrounding gasps of the crowd.

Though Chinese pole is his specialty, he cites Traces’ opening number as being his favorite to perform. This beginning scene is lively as it is chaotic, involving all seven of the dancers running around the stage doing jumps and karate moves. Lucas says this scene is exciting but challenging to do because the members are responsible for catching objects and even one another. Missing a beat is not an option when timing is of the essence.

The show features the dancers performing in a variety of forms, from contemporary dance to hoop diving to skateboarding to juggling to acrobatics to basketball to banquine and teeterboard flips. Even with all these adrenaline-pumping acts, dancer Naomie Zimmermann-Pichon says she finds the speaking parts to be the most challenging. (Ironic how the dancers can seem to flip through the air like it’s nothing, but find their hearts pounding when presented with the mic.) Throughout Lucas’s speaking parts, we come to know him as a comical and happy-go-lucky guy who is self-described as being curious, jealous, and naïve. He later mentioned to me that some more adjectives to describe himself would be smiley, happy, and passionate.

Passionate, indeed. Touring as a performer requires an immense amount of dedication. Waking up in a new city is a regular occurrence for Lucas. After the Traces crew’s run in Boston, the group takes their talents to China, then Japan, followed by France. Previously, Les 7 has performed in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Mexico, Russia, New Zealand, China, Japan, and all over the US. Traveling great distances has brought Lucas many unpredictable experiences that have made for exciting stories. As if his risky stunts on stage weren’t adrenaline-boosting enough, he went skydiving during his day off in New Zealand. One time en route to Mexico, he faced airplane problems and arrived with only one day to spare before the premiere. In that one day, he had to learn the entire show.

Looking ahead, Lucas says he would be honored to do another Les 7 doigts de la main show, citing how he enjoys the personal aspect of the performances. According to him, even with the show’s pre-established style, the dancers are able to bring themselves into their tricks and make it their own. And it isn’t just a matter of acting – real emotion is put into each performance, making for a highly personal and unique experience.

Lucas says he believes the arts bring people together, and that theater and circus can act as a source of unification. This is why he cites the audience itself as being his biggest inspiration. He told a story of a girl who was struggling with depression at the time she went to see Traces. After the show, the girl approached the cast and told them “Thank you, you saved me.” It is moments like this that give meaning to what he is doing. “If I can impact even one person in the audience each night, I’ve done my job right,” Lucas says.

Traces is a show bursting with verve and energy, much like the dancers themselves. “Work hard, do what you love, and never let anyone stop you,” Lucas offers when asked to give advice to those seeking to fulfil their dreams. Even in times when others doubted him and what he was doing, he stayed true to himself and continued to pursue his passions. It is with this integrity that great achievement has come about. Les 7 hopes to bring viewers every night this message of doing what you love.

As the final scene of Traces comes to a close, the music fades, the curtain closes, and the lights go back on. The show has ended – but the feeling remains. The essence of empowerment, passion, and liveliness will stay with audience members for days to come.

To “lead a life fully” is Lucas’s personal philosophy. And from this performance, many will have been inspired to do the same.

Special thanks to Lucas Boutin for interviewing! To find out where Traces is headed next, see tour dates here.

Stockholm, CA: Music by Sweden, Weather by California

Autumn is upon us in Los Angeles, and you know what that means – palm trees, shorts, and sunshine (still). However, a wave of coolness descended upon otherwise hot Downtown LA on Saturday as Swedish music blasted.

Stockholm, CA is the first all-Swedish music festival to take place outside of Scandinavia.  The music festival was held at The Shrine located Downtown and featured a number of top tier bands, musicians, and DJs who flew in from Sweden. For headliner Little Dragon, it was the only show they played the whole year.

Going around the festival felt like being in a sea of tall, blue-eyed blondes. Stockholm, CA was welcoming to those of all backgrounds, but spoke particularly to the Scandinavian population that has found their way over to Los Angeles.

Stockholm, CA’s lineup included Little Dragon, Icona Pop, Rebecca & Fiona, Elliphant, Veronica, Maggio, Mapei, Otto Knows, Salvatore Ganacci, Nause, and AronChupa. The variety of genres – from rock to electronica to indie alternative to rave – made for a perfect blend that appeals to any kind of listener.

Aside from music, the festival also boasted creative art displays, Swedish beer, traditional Swedish coffee, all-vegetarian food, and even a giveaway to win a free trip to Sweden. There certainly was not a lack of things to be seen, heard, or tasted.

While the sounds of Sweden filled the venue, thankfully no heavy coats and fur-lined boots were to be found. The music festival’s tagline reads “Music by Sweden, weather by California” – a cheeky motto that couldn’t be any more accurate.