Yesterday afternoon I was having a lemonade at a café in Sintra in a square filled with bougainvillea and wisteria.

Sintra is an enchanting UNESCO World Heritage Site about 15 kilometers away. Leafing through a free newspaper from the table next to me, I came upon an unusual article which I loosely translate here:

‘’July 29, 2009. At the Hotel Central in Sintra, Anna Thulin, a Swedish woman well known in Sintra, was taken by ambulance to the Sintra-Amadora Hospital on Tuesday evening, July 27. The manager of the Hotel Central was alerted by one of the hotel’s cleaning staff who had gone to turn down the sheets in the early evening and found Mrs. Thulin unconscious on a bed. Two empty bottles of sleeping pills were found on the table next to the bed. The hotel staff was unable to provide further information about Ms. Thulin’s stay at the hotel, or any explanation for what appeared to be an attempted suicide.
“The Sintra-Amadora Hospital reported that the patient’s condition was stable, that she is now out of the Intensive Care Unit, resting in a private room and receiving no visitors.
“A member of the Sintra police who did not reveal his name since he is not authorized to speak with the press disclosed that the Mrs. Thulin, 39, a former Swedish beauty queen, has been a resident of Sintra for twenty years, and runs a travel agency in the center of town. The police have no idea why she was renting a room at the Hotel Central, when she resides at a manor house with a large garden next door to her travel agency, just a few hundred meters from the hotel. Her expensive imported car is also missing. The officer stated that the police found an extensive note in Mrs. Thulin’s room, which he said could become the subject of further investigation.
“Miss Clara Pereira, an employee at Mrs. Thulin’s travel agency, said that Anna Thulin was admired in the community and ran a profitable excursions business. However, recently Mrs. Thulin was rarely in the office, and she had to do almost all the work of the agency. Miss Pereira said that Mrs. Thulin always attracted a great deal of attention – and even jealousy -- in Sintra. Miss Pereira added that her boss is married to Mr. Vasco de Sousa, a young, notorious, sports lawyer, and that the couple has no children.
“Mr. Vasco de Sousa did not respond to our repeated requests for comment.
“Mrs. Anna Thulin is apparently out of medical danger, but there remain many questions to be answered about this case."

I closed the paper and thought about the darkest part of the dark in this luminescent square. What could cause a beautiful successful young woman to want to take her life in an emblematic hotel in Sintra? And justify it in an extensive note? Perhaps the real story will never see the light of day, but suicide can be a kind of revenge against those who stay behind.

Note: I will be in the north of Portugal as of Saturday, August 1. I hope to have a few opportunities to keep up with all of you during the next 10 days.

As best as I can recall, this is the conversation that took place while eating the antipasto pictured here. The group was mainly Portuguese writers – who have lived in the US and in various European countries – and one American and one Italian.
RB – Did you catch Obama’s speech on health care last week?
JS – You mean his comments on American racial prejudice. That’s where the feeling was.
LS – The US still hasn’t mentally digested black people in its society, even though American blacks have obviously intermarried with whites over generations.
CM – American blacks have nothing to do with African blacks, who are really black. American blacks are so light.
RB – In Brazil, if you have a drop of white blood, you are considered white. In America, if you have a drop of black blood, you are black. It’s a matter of cultural perspective, but the mixtures usually work out best of all.
JS – Obama was right to call the cop’s actions “stupidity”. It is something he feels. Once he was stopped by a cop because he was driving a brand new car, and now, blindly racist people challenge whether he was actually born in the US. It is hard for some people to accept that a black belongs in the White House.
LS – He is smoothing it over with a beer with the cop and the professor at the White House. Bush could never have done something like that. He was too insecure. What’s in this pâté? It’s good. Can I have more wine, please?
RB – Sure. It’s quail pâté.

JM – Cable news is reacting to the racial incident – and that’s important – but health care is more pressing. Race relations in America are going in the right direction and health care is going wrong. When I had an operation to do while I was working in America, I went to Canada.
LS – And you would be better off having it almost anywhere in Europe. Soon health care will be globalized and we will be touting Indian heart surgery and Chinese blood work, and Slovenian eye corrections.
CM – I still want someone reliable around the corner, wherever I am.
RB – Obama will probably get some kind of health care reform, but he will get bloodied politically in doing it. That’s what I like about him as President. He is going after the big issues, even though they take their toll.
LB – I would like to see Berlusconi suffer from his actions, but I guess that means he would catch a sexually transmitted disease.
JM – Go easy on Berlusconi. We all need clowns. What is this dark stuff?
CM – Well, America has Palin. It’s a duxelles of pleurotes – chopped mushrooms sautéed with garlic, olive oil and butter.

JM – Mmmmm!
JS -- And fortunately America has Tina Fey to tell us all just what we’re seeing.
LM – But the French theater with Sarkozy and Carla Bruni is more complete. Do I put this green sauce on the cheese? What is it?

RB – Yeah, it is just minced oregano, marjoram and thyme, with garlic, salt and olive oil. Can you think how sad a figure Sarkozy would be without Carla Bruni? That woman makes the man.
LM – You see how persistent Italian women can be?
CM – And Michelle Obama, too. Women are becoming more important to political leaders, even when they come into the picture rather artificially, like Carla Bruni. An American President could never do what Sarkozy did.
LS – Well, no one can ever accuse [Portuguese Prime Minister] Socrates of increasing his popularity with a woman companion.
CM – Maybe it’s time to move in for dinner.

When it is windy at Guincho beach, I go south along a rugged and wild coast, dotted with lighthouses and old forts, to the nearby sheltered town of Cascais. Formerly a fishing village and a refuge for deposed kings, in recent years it has become a cosmopolitan town that unfortunately gets filled during this time of the year.

However, in the early morning it is still the sleepy place it used to be. We pass several beach coves, palaces and the massive Cascais fort, and set out on foot on the paredão, literally the big wall, or boardwalk. The solid grey granite paredão snakes behind the beaches to the next town, Estoril, and a bit beyond, along the coast to Lisbon. When the sun is just coming over the horizon, we share the paredão with a few joggers and dog walkers and, later, the waiters bringing out umbrellas and tables for breakfast at the beachfront cafés.

The maresia – the tang of sea and mossy rocks -- is intense. Maxi the dog runs ahead smelling the smells that make a dog’s life so interesting. The beaches are still empty except for the occasional fisherman adjusting rods and lines. The few walkers are diligent in their morning exercises, waving arms, stretching legs, bending knees and limbering up. I laugh to myself thinking that we look like ungainly dancers, with the gestures of prehistoric birds.

At the end of the paredão it is time to start back. But then there is the anticipated stop for breakfast. The waiter has our table set, the shade and sea breeze are welcome, it all looks so appetizing. Maxi gets his bowl of water. I bite into my well buttered ham and cheese toast and I am totally in that moment.


I spend summers on a wild part of the Atlantic coast in Portugal, Guincho, just north of Lisbon. It is an untamed place in the dead center of the Sintra Mountains wind channel. The name “Guincho” onomatopoetically in Portuguese imitates the screech of the strong winds that blow constantly. But on the rare times the wind stops, or “flew away” as my 2 year old grandson remarked one day, it is absolutely glorious to go to Guincho Beach first thing in the morning, even before the surfers arrive.

In my early morning ritual at Guincho, I am there at 7 am with Maxi the dog, who is ecstatic. This beach is his idea of heaven. Mine too. Ours are the first footprints on the fresh sand. We share the beach with the seagulls until Maxi can’t resist chasing them, never catching them as the synchronized flock lifts off and he follows them into the sea, wishing he could fly too. Each morning is the world’s first morning.

On totally windless days we go in the evening to another nearby gorgeous wild beach called Adraga for a picnic as the sun goes down. At the moment the sun disappears we offer a libation of the best red wine to the sun and the earth. I can’t think of a better way to end the day.

When the wind transforms Guincho beach into a screeching sand-blasting inferno, I go to another wonderful place for my early morning ritual. I will show you that next time.

Summer is not just beaches, sun tanning and red toenails. Summer is also a time to entertain the mind with new sights and sounds and images.

Last week we went to the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, along with other pale skinned visitors moving through the taut air of the museum. We went to see again Hieronymus Bosch’s XV Century masterpiece, “The Temptation of St. Anthony”. Bosch’s visionary images cover three panels depicting a hostile world full of mysticism. Bosch holds a mirror to the world with his bizarre irony and magical symbolism, sparing no one: the hypocrisy of the clergy, the extravagance of the nobility and the immorality of the people. His images are hallucinatory and fascinating. I can spend hours looking at each one and always discover new things.

Another evening found us in a fairy tale scenario of the square in front of the São Carlos opera theater for the summer festival of opera, ballet, and theatre. The beach crowds mingled with the pale skinned museum-viewers. The buildings around glowed in the indigo evening of summer. Every 20 minutes the tram went by, but we were hardly aware of it. In that magical atmosphere we were neither old nor young, we were outside time.

The first dance was a Cantata with Bach’s concerto for harpsichord, played at the corner of the stage. The one female and three male dancers were dressed in black suits and white shirts. She was fantastic, her youth not mortal yet, her bones as fine as a cat’s. She danced with her three companions in pursuit, dominating, in control, the stage her kingdom.

The second dance was a splash of color and music based on southern Italian folk music, again played live by a quartet of women with their tambourines, drums and accordion, a moonlit choreographed spectacle. The girls flounced their skirts in joy, passion and exuberance. The men pranced and gestured. It was brilliant.

Last night we went to see “Miss Julia”, Strindberg’s play written 120 years ago. The story is of a wild young woman of nobility who sets her sights on her father’s valet. The valet was engaged to the cook, but that does not stop Miss Julia. She enjoys seducing the young man, who is apparently educated but turns out to be an insensitive brute. Strindberg obviously did not believe or approve of feminism. Strindberg’s heroine’s life is ruined once she lowers herself to the servants’ level, by having sex with her father’s employee. Strindberg gives her two choices, either to steal money and leave behind everything she knows for a new life elsewhere, or to kill herself. Strindberg has her choose death. Fortunately we do not have such moral absolutes in the 21st century.

There is still a lot to look forward until the end of August, from José Carreras, to Leonard Cohen, to Marisa Monte, to Gilberto Gil and other great Brazilian singers in the various stages around the bay, and jazz in the dramatic stage of the XV century fort in Cascais. Meanwhile, there are always the fireworks over the bay at midnight.

NB: Sorry the photos are not up to par. Between the darkness and my excitment, the camera got in the way.
THE BODHI TREE, the oldest tree in the world cared for by man

The most sacred tree for Buddhists is the “ficus religiosa”. It is called “bodhi” in Sanskrit because the Buddha attained enlightenment or bodhi while sitting under it. The Sinhalese call it the Bo Tree.

A sapling of the original tree under which the Buddha sat was brought to Sri Lanka as the result of a royal mission to the Northern Indian state of Bihar in the year 249 BC. Amid great ceremony, it was planted in a monastery in the old capital of Anuradhapura. Throughout history Anuradhapura endured periods of invasion, occupation, plundering, and destruction. Yet no harm was ever done to the Maha Bodhi, the Great Bo Tree.

Like any living organism of an advanced age, the Maha Bodhi now requires some help. Supports have been placed under its huge 2,250 year old spreading branches. The monks have kept a diary of the Maha Bodhi faithfully throughout the centuries, chronicling it originally on dried banana leaves bound loosely into books. Nowadays the tree has its own website,

I was there during a full moon – every full moon is a national holiday in Sri Lanka -- when the people of Anuradhapura come to Sri Maha Bodhi carrying bundles of firewood on their heads to light bonfires around it to keep wild elephants from eating the tender leaves.

Even though legend has it that the leaves of the Maha Bodhi never fall to the ground to be trampled, I was able to find a few to bring with me. I gave most of these cherished leaves to my closest friends, but kept one which was the inspiration for an artwork that now hangs in my bedroom. I reproduced the leaf by pen and ink, by colored pencils, and by oil on paper, placing them side by side next to the real leaf. The Bo Tree in its various symbolic phases.

Buddhists believe the Maha Bodhi to be endowed with magical powers. The Buddha found enlightenment after sitting under the tree for a prolonged period, then spent a full week gazing at it with motionless eyes as a mark of his profound gratitude to the tree that sheltered him during his struggle. I find a great inner peace in contemplating the various phases of the leaf of the Maha Bodhi. Perhaps you will, too.