FIGS, the sweet taste of summer

It is easy to think of figs as backup singers instead of summer’s superstars. Competing with cherries, plums, peaches, melons, strawberries, figs usually go forgotten. Yet who can deny the pleasure of eating a fig on the point of bursting? Lush mouthfuls of perfumed and unquestionably sensual soft pink flesh?

A fig’s best time is so fleeting, and even so, it must always be handled delicately. Perhaps that is why they don’t figure prominently in today’s fast moving pace. But splitting open and enjoying a fig at that perfect moment is one of the sublime pleasures of summer.

With this plate of figs I am saying goodbye to hot Madrid. I leave at the end of the day on a road trip through the Alentejo. Five days without a computer, a mobile, reservations or plans. Alentejo – literally, beyond the Tagus River - is the province of Portugal that confines with Spain’s Extremadura. It is a mystical place, where the fig and the olive of ancient Roman and Moorish times fit in with a current way of life. In my next entry I will show you Alentejo.

I start my days with a walk with the dog. We always go to the park next to the house, a huge green area in the heart of Madrid.

We go early to have the park to ourselves. Sometimes in the winter months the trees are just beginning to shake off the darkness. It is a beautiful park with tall trees, flowers, fountains, and statues of purposeful men on horses. There is also a huge pond with boats, straight out of a Seurat painting

According to the law, dogs don’t have to be on the leash before 10 a.m. So Maxi is happy, running circles around me, and I am happy walking “unleashed”. We pass our favorite nymph, carried on water by mythological fish. As I stop to admire her flowing hair, my daydreaming is interrupted by a gaggle of emerging children on their way to school.

We proceed toward the “Crystal Palace,” a lovely 19th century glass building where sculpture shows, or installations, are sometimes held. It is a magical building, an apparition, an enchanted palace made of air and light. When I go inside and it is completely empty, I just want to dance madly, dervish like, twirling like a Sufi dancer.

We continue on towards the rose garden. On the way I get startled again, this time by birds loving in a flurry of feathers. We pass a group of people making sketches of a fountain. I am greeted with “buenos dias” and happy smiles. As they resume their sketching I ask if I can photograph them.

On to the Chinese garden with ducks happily grooming themselves. Maxi wants to chase them but I stop him. Here is where I used to practice tai-chi. I vow to do it again when I return from Portugal in September.

And then I smell the roses as we approach the “rosaleda”, or rose garden. There are hundreds of roses, blooming from May until July or so. Roses of every name and origin. Some with a lovely tea scent, others just gorgeous to looks at, spread neatly around water spouting cherubs.

Time to turn around and start my new day.


"Doing My Own Thing", oil on canvas, 90X100 cm

In December of 2006 I was in Brazil, but did not feel like dancing the samba. I was staying across the street from Ipanema beach in Rio de Janeiro, and I did not want to plunge into the waves. I did not even feel like walking along the beach. I was happy just sitting and drinking my favorite drink in the world, coconut water. If not sitting on the beach, I would sit with a book in the hotel room.

Such behavior was highly unusual for me. Normally I enjoy the beach at the earliest hour, without the crowds and the strong sun. Walking, running, swimming. Or else walking in the old part of Rio looking at its wonderful, crumbling, colonial architecture. There I was in Brazil with music bursting from every corner, every open door or window, where walking is difficult because your body just wants to sway to the contagious rhythms, and yet I did not dance.

Something was very wrong.

When we returned to Spain I spoke with Dr. Hamblin. Upon learning how low my hemoglobin was – 8, when it should be 12-16 – we flew to Bournemouth the next day and Dr. Hamblin took blood for a Coombs test to see whether I was suffering from autoimmune hemolytic anemia. The lab results confirmed his diagnosis.

Hemolytic anemia happens when a defective immune system attacks perfectly good red blood cells. The red blood cells, which are crucial oxygen carriers, are killed off faster than they can be replaced by the bone marrow. So the result is anemia, low hemoglobin levels and low hematocrit. If left untreated, autoimmune hemolytic anemia is life threatening.

After discussing possible treatments, Dr. Hamblin recommended I begin treatment immediately with Chlorambucil, Prednisolone and Allopurinol. Clorambucil, until recently, has been the first-line chemotherapy for CLL, and it is considered to be the mildest. The Prednisolone was to treat the hemolytic anemia, and the Allopurinol was to counter-act some of the side effects of the Prednisolone.

I was to take Prednisolone until my hemoglobin rose. Both Prednisolone and Allopurinol are important to the cure, but both have nasty side effects, both immediate and over a longer term.

Some weeks into the treatment I developed a terrible allergy to Allopurinol so it had to be suspended. This was followed by neutropenia, which means not enough neutrophils to fight infections. At one point I was rushed to the hospital with very high fever that kept getting higher. In a separate episode, I had what is called fevers of unknown origin. I also had to have a blood transfusion. I was lucky if during all the time the treatment took place I could sleep more than 3 hours a night. That part was fine with me though, as being insomniac, I enjoy those secret hours of the night when the whole world is asleep and I feel I am the only person awake.

Considering the grave threat posed by hemolytic anemia, the treatment was not too bad. After 5 months Dr. Hamblin had me discontinue medication. I did not get complete remission, but I got cured from the hemolytic anemia, my spleen decreased somewhat in size, and my leukocyte count even normalized. Throughout these months I bombarded Dr. Hamblin with questions and doubts. He was always wonderfully patient, explaining everything over and over and dispelling my fears and doubts. Dr. Hamblin again saved my life.

And I started dancing the samba again.

To be continued.

From my terrace in Madrid.

What could be better than fresh lemonade?

Or a bowl of cold cherries?

The "lady bug"! Cut loads of watermelon into chunks and freeze them for an hour. Dont even remove the seeds as they are edible. Then put the half-frozen watermelon in a blender and add fresh lime juice (2 tablespoons).

Papaya is so cooling, I could eat it everyday.

"Veranda", oil on canvas, 117X113 cm

"Guincho Beach", oil on canvas, 100X90 cm

It is hot in Madrid. Hot as in flames. Hot as in burning. Hot as glued to the sheets during sleepless nights. The air outside the window hot as dragon’s breath. Insufferable.

So I am dreaming of the freezing sea in Guincho beach in Portugal, of my walks there at 7 a.m., the beach to myself, the sound of the waves, the cries of the seagulls, my dog chasing them, running after then when they lift off and fly over the sea, brown dog hurtling into the waves, wishing he could fly too.

I am also dreaming of sitting on my veranda with a book, and a bowl of strawberries, gazing at the sea below, the cool breeze, the birds singing, the smell of cooking bread in the bakery next door.

Soon I will be leaving for Portugal to spend July and August. In exactly 10 days and 7 hours from now.

Until then I burn in Madrid.

"Vatura", oil on canvas, 105X110 cm

"Sensuality", oil on canvas, 105X100 cm

I have a series of paintings around the theme of “women and water”. There is something elemental, graceful and beautiful about women in water, be it at sea, in a pool, in a stream, in a bathtub, or in the rain. Water is our medium. It gives a freedom, a looseness, the world in slow motion. Women move within water like dancers, at ease with everything.

I remember my teenage daughter floating on her back one late afternoon at the beach in Sesimbra. It was getting late, the sea glistening in the twilight. So I called her, she did not hear me, and I called again. She turned slowly, like something on the floor of the ocean. I have to yet paint that painting.

I want to try to catch the rapture of entering that liquid world and forgetting feelings of self-consciousness, of being too fat, too old, or too ungainly. For once inside the water all women are mermaids, all women become flowers floating in their slow, rhythmic swinging in the translucent blue.

I have photographed women bathing in India, in Sri Lanka, in Mexico, in Brazil. They all have that same quality, that mixture of prudishness and a secret lack of inhibition.
I remember one woman in particular. She came out of the trees and walked towards the water edge. This was in Mozambique, on the deserted beach of Xai-Xai, north of Lourenço Marques. No one was around. She was wrapped in a colorful “capulana”, those bright African cloths. As she was going to remove it she looked around one more time, to make sure she was alone. And she spotted me and my camera. So she did not enter the water naked as she had intended. But once immersed in the Indian Ocean she forgot about me, she forgot about her human form. She turned into a magnificent sea creature.

Note: “Vatura” means water in Sinhala.

SOROLLA 1863 - 1923

"Boys on the Beach", Joaquin Sorolla - 1909

"Strolling Along the Seashore", Joaquin Sorolla - 1909

“Sorolla was Spain’s most celebrated and prestigious artist of his time”, says the leaflet of this magnificent art show at the Prado Museum in Madrid. The show opened May 26 and will stay open until September 6.

I was like a kid going to a birthday party. Sorolla always takes my breath away with his dazzling paintings of the sea and fishing and the beach scenes in Valencia. There are 102 paintings assembled for this exhibition, but my favorites are always the outdoor scenes, every corner breezed with noise and sunlight.

Paintings like “Strolling along the Seashore”, or “Coming out of the Water” are the epitome of joie de vivre, exuberance, elegance, and freedom. A feast of light and whites suffused with pinks and purples and greens reflecting the sky and the sea. His figures move in slow cadence along the beach. An unhurried life under their white parasols, and white mousseline robes.

“Boys on the Beach” is a delight in the physical. Naked boys, full of gaping life, rollicking on sand and sea, their bodies glistening in the sun. The wet sand around them is painted with very loose brush strokes of purples and oranges and blues, some of these hues clinging to the boys’ skin. This painting is like an extravagant gift, its impact always remembered longer than the gift itself.

Ah, a show that gives me pleasure like this is rare. This celebration of the lost culture of life lived leisurely. I will go back to the Prado to see it one more time and be knocked for a loop again.
LIVING WITH CLL - Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia
"Evasion", oil on canvas, 110X120 cm

Living with CLL is like living with a Siamese twin. Anywhere I go, for a walk, to the movies, for a swim, to a friend’s house for tea, she goes with me. She is intimately with me, even when I sleep. No one sees the Siamese twin, but I carry her weight around, attached to me.

You get used to it, you can even forget about it for brief periods of time. But any pain, tiredness, cramp, has you wondering whether the CLL progressing. CLL is first located in your blood, in the bone marrow, then it moves into your organs. Your lymph nodes enlarge, so you not only feel them, but they are also visible, popping up on your neck, in your armpits, in your groin.

The doctors’ solutions so far are two: heavy chemo or not so heavy chemo. The main decisions are when to fire the artillery and what type of shells to use. A friend of mine -- one of the very few who defeated CLL -- wrote, “…they (doctors) are only experts in the three treatments they offer: slashing, burning and poisoning, also known as surgery, radio therapy and chemotherapy”. Right at the beginning of the CLL diagnosis I asked the hematologist – when told to “wait & watch” – if there was anything I could do to block the natural advance of the disease. Should I avoid certain foods, should I follow a special diet? Should I take vitamin supplements to help with the weakening immune system? His answer was “No” to all the questions, “live your life, eat everything you feel like….”

Yet he told me that if my CLL was the aggressive type I would have 2 years life expectancy. If not the aggressive type, then the average life expectancy was 10 years. “10 years! Wow, that’s an eternity…” I thought then.

CLL is a treacherous landscape. My life changed since that first consultation over 9 years ago. There is a lot going on under the surface of my life. I am stressed with each blood test, fearing the implacable advance of the disease. I attribute any sudden jump in the White Blood Cell count to what I did or did not do, working too long hours, worrying too much, skipping some meals, catching a cold, not sleeping enough, and so on. I have become an expert at adding and subtracting causes and consequences. Too much of this, too little of that.

None of it matters. CLL is totally random, without an identifiable thread of logic. It goes up, it usually goes up, sometimes it comes down, but links to anything you did or did not do remain mysterious.

As you descend the spiral, or CLL takes over your body, and your immune system becomes weaker, you catch infections easily. And so you become an expert on antibiotics. Which ones give you the strongest reactions, the worst after effects. These after effects then have to be treated, on and on in a vicious circle.

Another peculiarity of CLL is that doctors – since they do not know what causes CLL and how to cure it - hardly ever coincide in their diagnosis and recommendations. I was devastated when my White Blood Cell count reached 50K – normal is 5K -- and the hematologist wanted me to start massive chemo. I looked at the world around me and I was no longer part of its normalcy. So with a preservation instinct that has saved me several times, I started researching and learned about Dr. Hamblin and his new genetic tests for identifying different types of CLL. I flew to the UK, and after a number of tests, he told me that my genetic make-up indicated it would be wrong to start chemo, that I had a benign and slow moving form of CLL and that I probably had a few years before chemotherapy would be needed. In fact, chemotherapy could cause the genes to mutate to the more aggressive form of CLL. He saved my life.

However, there were new chapters to be written in my life with CLL.
To be continued.

“Serpentine”, oil on canvas, 118X113 cm

“The Sikh’s Sister”, oil on canvas, 81X116 cm

“Meditation”, oil on canvas, 73X92 cm

I love to travel. Bob and I travel as much as possible and our favorite places are always very different to what is around us. Last December/January we spent 6 weeks driving 3,000 kms in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Then we went to Antarctica.

I use photographs in my work, because I only paint what I see. And I cannot bring with me from my travels the landscapes and the people that appealed to me. When you think of it everyone used photography. Vermeer with his “camera obscura”. Victorian and Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists used photographs. Even the old masters copied from plaster casts, and from each other.

So in my travels I love to take photographs of the people I find interesting. I always ask if I may photograph them, some let me and many don’t. Then I pretend I am photographing next to those who don’t. I am the thief of souls, aware like a thief of my own deviousness.

I will then compose a painting by bringing together people I saw in very different places. They usually look defiant in my paintings, even if in the actual photographs they lowered their eyes, or turned their faces away. An old friend of mine, another Portuguese painter, Dordil, told me once that “art has no mercy”, and he is so right.

Even though most of the people I have photographed end up in my work, I am really painting a mirror of my own reflection. These paintings also preserve sound. I always listen to music while I paint. Sometimes I will listen to the same music over and over and over, day after day. There was a time when Mozart’s Requiem was my obsession, making me soar as I painted. Many years later one of my collectors asked me to repair a painting that suffered damage in a fire. I brought my paints and brushes to his new house and while I was retouching the painting I started “hearing” the music I had listened to over and over while painting it originally.

Note: “Meditation” is the painting that got damaged in a fire and bled music as I restored it several years later.
"The Never Ending Play", oil on canvas, 95X105 cm


As we grow old do our thoughts age with us, or do they stay young?

Most often my thoughts are fresh, breezy, effervescent, contrary to my body as I see it reflected in the shop windows I walk by. Who is that person, I ask myself, that unrecognizable old person?

I live in my head. I have a lively dialogue with everything that happens around me, or that I am planning, or imagining, or looking at, or reading about.

Nine years ago I learned that something shocking and terrifying inhabited me. Cancer.

I went to the doctor because of a cough that was not going away and came out with a diagnosis of Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia, or CLL. With breathtaking speed death started living at the center of my thoughts.

CLL is incurable. That is, medical researchers have not found all the causes and no sure-fire cures. But it can be treated, the problem is to find out which treatment and when. After the diagnosis, when the waves of panic subsided, I started reading every book I could find on people who defeated cancer. They all had something in common: they became active participants in their medical care, they laughed, they followed a good healthy diet, and they never gave up.

I had always had a healthy Mediterranean diet, but I improved on it, reading many books on the subject, the best for me being “Challenge Cancer and WIN!” by Dr. Kim Dalzell. I exercised regularly, swimming, walking, and doing yoga. And I lived as if I had no CLL, to the point of not doing blood tests every four or six months as requested by the hematologist. Each time I went for a test and I saw the rise in my WBC – white cell blood count, or leucocytes – I felt death breathing over my shoulder, which would give me tremendous stress translated into flu’s and colds. So for four years I stopped going to the doctor and doing blood tests. I know, very foolish, “mais je ne regrette rien”, so glad I did it, gave myself four wonderful years without the fear of mortality always hanging over my head.

Nine years have passed and I have had a bumpy road, but I am still here, and so are my thoughts. The disease has not touched them.

Note: the screaming monkey on a Tamil theatre stand is me, how I felt – and still feel – when I learned I had CLL.


“Invincible”, oil on canvas, 25 cm X 35 cm

Last night I dreamt with the sound the casuarina trees make when sea breezes blew from the sea at night. This sound was like whispers and sighs all through the night. When I stopped hearing it, early daylight was pouring through the windows.

I was born and grew up in Mozambique, when it was a colony of Portugal. I was born in the north, in Nametil, and we were the only white family in the area. My father helped my mother to give birth, alone in the middle of the bush. I had a 3 year old sister called Carminha. My mother had problems nursing me so my parents asked Luisa, another young mother who had also just given birth, to nurse me. Many years later I painted Luisa as I remember her, lovely smile in her dark smooth face. My baby cot was a wood box with four tall feet, each foot inside a large olive oil can filled with water, so the ants did not get to me attracted by my sweet milk smells. My parents told me that once while they slept, an ant battalion, shaped like a snake made of millions of dark dots, passed through my room and “vacuumed” everything including the talcum powder and the cream. I was saved by four large olive oil cans filled with water…

My parents moved around a lot in the north of Mozambique, after Nametil we went to Nampula, then Nacala, then Mozambique Island, then further south to Inhambane. When I was 6 they moved to the capital, Lourenco Marques, and they settled there.

A skinny kid growing up in Lourenco Marques I had all the space, the freedom, the happiness. I had springs inside me, climbing trees, bicycling, spinning cartwheels on the sand. Everything seemed possible. Africa, its wilderness, the laughter of the people, the huge sky, the mysterious blue line on the horizon, the heavy rains in the afternoon, the warm smell of earth.

“Africa Outside”, oil on canvas, 105 cm X 115 cm

“Porch”, oil on canvas, 120 cm X 120 cm

Emerson talked about each person having their own particular wonderful thing. For many years I thought painting was my own particular potential. I lived for painting, I was obsessed with it. When I was not painting I was daydreaming about future images, composing them in my head. I would paint all the time, alongside cooking the meals and helping the kids with their homework. To sleep among my paintings was beautiful. Seeing them first thing as I woke up. The smell of turpentine. The colors and shapes forming on the canvas bit by bit. The triumph of finishing a painting, hanging it up on a wall. Seeing it growing a life of its own but still reflecting me. Then giving it a name. Actually Bob gave the paintings their names, he is very good at translating my complex stories into two or three words.

I am a realist painter. I paint the things that interest me. Everyday objects. People. Interiors. Landscapes. Fruits and vegetables. Beautiful things. Then I compose a story with all or some of those elements. I love telling stories.

In the 80s and 90s realist painting was unfashionable, at least in Portugal. One must not paint beautiful objects or you were labeled square, conventional, and the traditional was scorned by the critics. The public was brainwashed to believe that “art” was only far out and extreme forms.

I only paint recognizable images, beautiful ones. I always thought that if I could add a touch of beauty to the world, what was wrong with that?

“2 2 Tango”, oil on canvas, 130 cm X 146 cm