The family store

A month-long holiday in 1986 convinced me and my wife that that the Algarve was to be our new home. We duly arrived two years later.
Our temporary accommodation was a fair walk from the centre of the fishing town, but a small, family run grocery store was nearby. This was to be the site of two learning experiences that I have never forgotten.
The store was small, being only the conversion of the large garage adjoining the family home, but it carried all the basic foodstuff and normally needed house ware. Coffee, milk and sugar shared shelf space with plastic buckets, mops and cleaning fluid. A small display cabinet next to the vegetables held cheeses, salamis and ham. Most importantly, a wooden box near the entrance boasted bread and rolls delivered fresh from the bakery each morning.
The matriarch sat at a desk with a drawer for the money instead of a till and she took payment from the clients as they left. Having no till or calculator, she simply noted the price of our rolls, butter and jam on a piece of paper and then added them up. Her pencil tapped a line down the numbers as she did her arithmetic, hesitating as she did each calculation. I soon noticed a strange quirk: she hesitated even at the zeroes as if she was stopping to add the number as she went. She was taking time, it would seem, to add seven plus zero is seven before carrying on.
This was my first exposure to the low level of education suffered by the ordinary Portuguese. I was to learn that, at that time in the eighties, ‘compulsory’ schooling was only six years and that older generations hadn’t even had that experience. Many, and the rural folk in particular, were often illiterate and couldn’t sign their own name.
There was that awfully embarrassing time when I feared we were lost on one of our ‘curiosity’ drives back in the hills and away from the coast. We came across a little farmhouse with a lady in black clothing resting on a bench in front. I stopped the car, gathered the map and got out and approached her with a smile and in halting Portuguese tried to ask her where we were on the map which I had thrust in her face. As she looked at the paper map and back at me repeatedly with confusion on her face, it suddenly dawned on me that not only had she not understood me but also she had probably never seen a map before. She knew where she was and she knew where she could go if her legs were still good or the donkey and cart were still working. She had certainly never needed a map. I realised that I had been inconsiderate in my naive assumption that she could help me as I expected and thereafter I took a step back before approaching the old people. I now try to understand or at least consider their very different backgrounds in my contact with them.
Banks were initially few and far between – I had to travel 15 kilometres from the fishing village to the nearest big town to open our first bank account. In due course more banks were opened and the new tourist resorts began to pay their employees with cheques. It became a common experience to stand in a queue and watch as someone presented a cheque with their ID card and the teller duly produced an ink pad and pen so that the presenter could stab the pad with his thumb and then roll a print on the back of the cheque before scrawling a wriggly ‘x’ below it. That done, he could receive his pay in cash.
Times have certainly changed and many older people have taken special classes to learn to read and write. I often see them in cafes with their finger slowly traveling on the daily newspaper as they read word for word, but nonetheless understand what they see. Today, the younger generations are well served with schools as well as choices for higher learning, but more importantly many seem to have a desire to take the opportunity their parents and grandparents didn’t have to get an education.
As the computer age evolved, for example, I have been impressed with the youth that dominates all aspects of the technology and more so with the enthusiasm they have going about their work. This might well be common in much of Europe, but it is a seismic shift in a few short decades in Portugal.
Returning to the little family grocery store, I will tell you of my second memory. Not long after living in the neighbourhood, I made an early trip to the store for fresh rolls and eggs. When I went to pay I realised I had left my wallet at home and thus couldn’t. As best I could, I explained that I would leave the goods, go home for the money and return. To my astonishment, the dear old lady told me to go away for my breakfast and pay her next time I came to the store.
That trust on her part was so refreshing and took me back to the fifties and early sixties in France when we didn’t lock our homes or our car doors. Yes, times have changed and home security and locked car doors are sadly now a way of life. Nonetheless, the generosity of trust remains a part of the local people and their psyche. The impression that small episode made on me has been repeated in many different ways countless times since: the Algarveans have a natural generosity of spirit and kindness that makes living here truly worthwhile.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s