by Zora O'Neill on January 12, 2014

January 12, 2004, I started this thing, just a little bit ahead of the full-on blog frenzy. Now I’m still doing it, well after blogs have gotten old and doddering and faintly uncool.

In a perfect world, I would trawl through all the old posts and remind you of the highlights. But where is the time? I am busy eating street food in Bangkok as we speak. VERY busy.

This blog has sometimes emphasized the Roving, sometimes the Gastronome. Sometimes neither. (That post used to have a photo. No thanks to Yahoo, which fortunately no longer hosts this blog, it has vanished. Perhaps for the best.)

Either way, this blog has helped me become a better writer (proof: two posts have been the foundation of two successful book proposals), and I appreciate everyone who has followed along for the ride.

Much love to all, and thanks for reading!


The 2013 Highlights Reel

by Zora O'Neill on December 30, 2013

The last few years, I’ve really enjoyed doing the end-of-year wrap-up. This year…it’s a tiny bit of a strain.

That’s not because 2013 sucked. It’s because I stayed home a lot, with my butt in a chair, staring at a computer screen. (See previous post.) The “writer” part of “travel writer” was the main thing going this year.

To that end, Highlight #1: I finished my $%#$#$%#$–I mean, fabulously stupendous and thrilling!–book draft. It was a little anticlimactic. One imagines triumphantly running laps to cheering crowds. Instead, one presses ‘send,’ then turns to all the other crap that has piled up in months of neglect.

(Does this mean you will very soon see my book on store shelves? No. Getting a book into book form takes a good long time. Anticipated publication date is February 2015. Please keep your breath bated till then!)

I wasn’t in NYC for the entire year. I went to New Mexico several times, which yielded some great moments. Highlight #2 was doing one of my dream stories, eating my way around Silver City, New Mexico. Thanks to the New York Times travel section for publishing the results! The story was, for a thrilling moment, the seventh-most-emailed on the NYT site, and someone hated on me on Twitter for it! You know you’re coming up in the world when you’ve got a Twitter hater…

On my second trip to New Mexico (why so many? Because Jet Blue started direct flights to Albuquerque!), I camped out at my mom’s for a while and wrote, and then, Highlight #3, Peter and I spent a few days at Los Poblanos. This may very well be my most favorite hotel in the world, and believe me, I never thought I’d be saying that about anything in my hometown. They have the cutest damn goats. And a lovely restaurant. This is the first time in my life I’ve done what felt like a grownup resort vacation. Paid real money. Lolled around the pool. Drank wine with our friends. Visited the goats. I wouldn’t want to do it alllll the time, but I can see the appeal, when it’s somewhere with taste as good as Los P’s.

Then, Highlight #4, Peter and I traveled overland and car-less from Albuquerque to Vegas to California. Why? Just to see if we could. We took Amtrak to Williams, AZ, then took the tourist train to the Grand Canyon. At the Grand Canyon, we hopped on the return flight of a scenic-tour plane to Las Vegas. We were the only people on there with luggage, and top in my little file of smug travel moments now is the one where the pilot was like, “What? You flew one-way? You don’t have a car?” and gave us a thumbs-up. That made up for walking around Vegas in record-high temps. Then we flew to SFO (sorry, no snazzy workaround there), attended a wedding by bus due to the BART strike, and finally, took Amtrak to Los Angeles, on the fab Coast Starlight. The whole thing cost marginally less than if we’d rented a car, so that’s also in my file of smug travel moments. On the other hand, it costs a damn arm and a leg to travel in the U.S.! Now I know for sure that our trips to Thailand are in fact cheaper, including airfare.

Highlight #5 came on my third trip home (yup, on JetBlue), when I went waaaay down to the far southwest corner of New Mexico. That’s all in a post here. NM is my mainstay guidebook title (new edition from Moon coming in the spring!), and it’s great that there are still spots I haven’t seen. And they’re so damn beautiful.

After the last NM trip, I buckled down at home. Strangely, that was Highlight #6, writing–a very distinct thing from Highlight #1, which was finishing. In fact, the actual writing should be Highlight #1, and being done with writing (for now) should go farther down the list. After I managed to get myself focused and settled down, I really did enjoy spending a good six or seven hours every day messing around with words.

And my industrious fake-office-job schedule meant I had the evenings free, so I managed to do Highlight #7, painting my living room. My friend Amy picked the color, and it is beyond fabulous.

Benjamin Moore Venezuelan Sea, if you're curious.

Benjamin Moore Venezuelan Sea, if you’re curious.

(I also finally finished painting the dining room–astute readers of this blog may remember the Bollywood dining room as a highlight of, er, 2009.)

Oh, and Highlight #7.5, because this isn’t a design blog, but we got a new dining room table and chairs. The chairs I bought in Raton, New Mexico, and shipped home and still paid less than anything here in NYC. More and more, my guidebook jobs turn into shopping trips.

That’s about it for 2013. Today, as this posts, I will be on the way to Rwanda, followed by a few days in Ethiopia. Switching gears entirely.

Happy new year, and best wishes for all new destinations and ever-more-comfortable home bases!


One Crazy Trick for Working Productively at Home

by Zora O'Neill on December 16, 2013

Freelancers! I finally cracked it!

And it’s the most boring thing in the world:

Pretend like you have a real job.

These are the images that come up when you search for "office job." Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase "office job."

These are the images that come up when you search for “office job.” Coincidentally, they are the same images that come to mind when I think the phrase “office job.”

Starting time is 10 a.m. You get a lunch hour–that’s when you do all your fiddly errands, like running to the frame store, or looking at rugs on eBay. (Ignore the unfairness that, in a real office-job situation, people don’t relegate eBay searches to lunch hour.) You knock off around 7 p.m., and spend your evening painting the living room, reading books, whatever.

I KNOW. The whole point of being a freelancer is so you don’t have to do this crap. But…it works. At least it worked for me for the last critical two months of finishing my book draft. (It’s done! It’s done. 150,000 words, give or take. Now: the long wait.)

But, of course, fooling yourself into thinking that your writing is as important as a regular office job, and that you absolutely have to show up for it–well, that requires a whole other bag of tricks. Such as:

1. Clock in with Toggl.
Usually I use Toggl to make sure I’m earning an OK hourly rate on low-paying jobs. For the book, I just used it to make sure my butt was in my chair for at least seven hours every day.

2. Clear your schedule.

Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.

Like this, for instance. Note the absence of holidays as well.

For a freelancer, saying no to work is the most painful thing in the world. But you’ll have to do it until you get this one thing done. You know how you tell yourself that you work more efficiently when you have a few projects to play off each other? It doesn’t work when one of those projects is massive and genuinely requires all of your time.

3. Be married.
It’s nice to have someone to pay the bills and cook meals, in the background.

4. Don’t be married.
Regular human interaction, such as giving and receiving love, is just too distracting. Also, another human in your space who keeps different hours from you can be too distracting.

5. No, wait, be married.
What am I thinking?! Of course you need love and human support. What would I have done without Peter? Then again, it did help that he went to Australia for ten days. That was when I could really set up a regular work schedule.

6. Embrace electronica.
You need low-key, nonstop music. No lyrics. I like SomaFM: Deep Space One for mornings, Earwaves for afternoons. Def Con Radio occasionally, because the weird motivational samples make me feel like I’m at a different job.

7. Log out of Facebook.
Some people resort to turning off the Internet, but I found that if I just logged out of Facebook, I quelled the urge to visit it all the time, because logging back in was a hassle. All my other time-wasting strategies are relatively harmless (except for those eBay rugs…). If you do need something stronger, Concentrate is a good Chrome plugin.

8. Eat an easy breakfast.
If you are, for instance, waking up hours before your partner (and not because you’re one of those oh-I-can-only-create-in-the-cold-clear-light-of-dawn people, no sir, but only because said partner sleeps till noon) and you want to get right to work with a minimum of fuss, you must dispense with all morning food creativity.

To this end, I have started every day since, oh, October 2012, with two slices of a particular Swedish-ish fruit-nut bread. The indomitable Cristina Topham, aka The Wayward Chef, gave me the recipe, in a slightly more Swedish form.

I cannot praise it enough. It’s like granola, but granola you can spread butter on. It keeps you full until noon, when said partner may awake and fix you lunch.

This is what comes up when you search for "Swedish office job." Everyone talks about Sweden's great social services--but no one mentions the lack of heat.

This is what comes up when you search for “Swedish office job.” Don’t they have heat in Sweden?

Freelancers Breakfast Bread
This bread may actually be the one crazy trick to working productively at home–many thanks again to Cristina Topham.

I buy all the ingredients in bulk and keep them in the freezer (nuts, rye flour, seeds especially), so they don’t go rancid. For a denser, more sour bread, you can shift the flour more toward 2:1 rye:AP. Don’t ignore the flax seeds–they have a nice slippery quality. I made it without them once, and it was meh. And note the long bake time: You must make this on one of your free evenings, not in the morning.

Preheat oven to 350.

Mix together in a big bowl:
1 1/4 cups rye flour
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups rolled oats
1/4 cup flax seeds
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds
1/2 cup nuts (I usually use pecans; you can break them up by hand, rather than chopping)
1 cup dried fruit (I usually use cranberries or cherries because I don’t have to chop them; apricots are good too, but should be chopped)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

In a measuring cup, combine:
1 3/4 cup buttermilk (or regular milk with the juice of half a lemon squeezed in; or yogurt thinned with milk)
1/4 cup each maple syrup and molasses (or all molasses)

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and stir. Every time I make this, it’s a different consistency, but it tends toward super-thick, like glue. Don’t make yourself crazy stirring in the flour–if there are a couple of dry spots, it won’t matter too much.

I bake this in two smaller loaf pans, so I can freeze one; you could also use one large one. Either way, butter it or line it with parchment paper. Squash the batter into your loaf pans and smooth the top with a wet knife (that’s the Cristina Topham pro-tip right there).

Bake on the bottom rack for between 1 hour (two small pans) and 1 hour 20 minutes (one large pan). Let cool on a wire rack. Slice thin and eat with lots of butter and pinch of crunchy sea salt, plus very milky coffee, which, Cristina tells me, is the Swedish way.


A Bad Idea for a Holiday Gift

by Zora O'Neill on November 25, 2013

You know all those seasonal stories in magazines are researched a year ahead of time. This is one of those. Here, as we launch into the season of frantic gift-buying, may we at Winslow Place tell you an inspirational story about the perils of late-night advertising?

One day in deep winter, we received a package. We weren’t expecting anything…

Peter loves packages.

Peter loves packages.

Knives? Who packs knives in a foam cooler?

Knives? Who packs knives in a foam cooler?

China's finest knives, KuchenStolz.

China’s finest knives, KuchenStolz.

Now the foam cooler is making more sense. Frozen steaks?

Now the foam cooler is making more sense. Frozen steaks?

Oh! Another Chinese kitchen accessory!

Oh! Another Chinese kitchen accessory!

Gourmet franks! What's not to love?

Gourmet franks! What’s not to love?

Stuffed Sole Fillets. Weird.

Stuffed Sole Fillets. Weird.

OK, now…if you have a television, and you watch it late at night, you by now probably know what this box is. We don’t, so we were very, very puzzled about this assortment of foods and objects all in the same package. We also had no idea who had sent it to us. So we just kept unpacking.

Life insurance ads? With the steaks? How morbid can you get?

Life insurance ads? With the steaks? How morbid can you get?

Conversation starter cards! Would you go back to life before cell phones?

Conversation starter cards! Would you go back to life before cell phones?

FINALLY, in the bottom of the box, we found a card.

FINALLY, in the bottom of the box, we found a card.

Our slightly demented friend Dan was responsible. His card said, roughly, “I’ve watched these ads so many times, I’ve always been curious about this. But I didn’t really want to try it myself.”

I think it must’ve been an ad along these lines, but more tailored for insomniacs. And Dan was probably imagining our unpacking it would go something like this.

We live in a kind of special little food bubble here. It was odd to read the brochures touting the “grain-fed beef,” and we spent a lot of time squinting at the ingredients on that stuffed sole. And the brochures were like the kind I haven’t seen since I was a kid, when we’d get them tucked in the Parade magazine. By moving to New York, I guess I thought bragging-about-grain-fed beef and life-insurance ads in fake old-computer font just stopped existing…but they’re out there, of course, and now they were in our kitchen.

We ate it all. The beef was delicious. Good little reminder about why people started feeding cows grain in the first place. The stuffed sole was just fine, and the stuffed baked potatoes were really good. The only thing that was gross were the “gourmet franks”–yes, the only thing I’d been excited to see in the box when we unpacked it. Apparently, “gourmet” means “squishy, with no snappy skin.” Shudder.

But, bottom line, even after we’d eaten everything, the best thing in the box was what we found in the very bottom.

DRY ICE! Also something I haven't seen since I was a kid.

DRY ICE! Also something I haven’t seen since I was a kid.

Sugar Duck says, "Wooooooowww..."

Sugar Duck was very impressed.

We can genuinely say thank you, Dan, for this strange and wondrous gift pack that provided such entertainment in the dreariest time of year. We just might not wholeheartedly recommend it to others.