As promised: an excerpt from The Sleeping Madonna

Early that morning the sun shone into my hotel room and announced a hot day and I dressed in black.
Don’t ask me why. Don’t ask, because I honestly don’t know and sometimes wonder what turn my life would have taken, where I would be and especially who I would be now, had I dressed in green and put on a plain straw hat. I dressed in black, though, and can only give some ’might be’ explanations.
It might be, because I know black looks great on me, especially when I’m tanned. It might be, because in Portugal many women wear black and I’m always impressed by the outline of their sombre figures against the backdrop of whitewashed walls. I love the contrast between their black shapes and the omnipresent tableaux of Delft blue or multicoloured azulejos, the hand-painted ceramic tiles that adorn the inside and outside of almost every Portuguese house and decorate just about everything from street signs to train stations.
Whatever the reason, on that beautiful, warm and sunny day in September I put on a black cotton dress with thin shoulder straps and black sandals. The only colourful bits and pieces on me were my green eye shadow and an ornate silver-and-turquoise Navajo necklace with matching bracelet and earrings. Even my wide-rimmed straw hat was black and my self-tinting sunglasses came close to it. Black, black, black, but don’t ask me why.

I had been travelling around northern Portugal for several weeks; first along the Costa Verde and now deep into the spectacular valley of the Douro River.
Portugal has always been one of my favourite countries and during the past sixteen years, Michael and I spent a few months of every spring and autumn in the Douro region. We always rented the same house which gave us a feeling of coming home when we arrived and, as time went by, we became very close with the villa’s personnel. As soon as we walked in, we settled down and thirstily drank in the creativity the land and its people offered and time and again we went back to California with a feeling of regret and nostalgia that bordered on homesickness.
Both Michael and I had studied Portuguese for many years and spoke it fluently and without a trace of an accent. I spoke the language and sang the songs, I was familiar with the customs and danced to the rhythm of Portuguese life. I felt at home and in harmony with the country and its inhabitants.
And here I was … driving along a dusty road in the Douro Valley, on my way to a tiny chapel I had read about. A chapel with an exquisitely sculpted wooden altar and the statue of a Madonna said to look like a pretty peasant girl. I was unmarried, free, on my own and yet… When I got up that warm and sunny September morning, I happened to think back to making love with a stranger in the Louvre station of the Paris metro and that may very well be why I dressed in black.


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