When a shop opened in the little cobbled center of Cascais called «Just Browsing» I was delighted. During my first year in Portugal I’d had a few problems in shops owing to my ignorance of the Portuguese language and social habits.
The most embarrassing of these encounters was when one day, needing a tie for a Meeting, I entered a men’s clothing emporium in the Rua Augusta and, on being approached by a young plump sales-assistant with a tape-measure round his neck who asked if he could be of service, I replied that I was looking for a tie. So far so good; we moved to the tie-racks together and started to go through the ties one by one, (he’ll be asking what my favourite colour is next, I thought), what sort of colour did have do you in mind sir, he asked. I think I’m capable of choosing a tie for myself thank you, I commented rather dryly and continued flicking through the rack. I noticed that they were all made of (nasty) polyester and said, yes very nice but do you have silk? He stiffened with anger and gave me dirty look that combined hurt and offence in equal measure, turned on his heels and flounced off. I was rather nonplussed and drifted out of the shop and wandered along the pavement in the direction of the Rua d’Ouro.
Suddenly it occurred to me the enormity of the verbal gaffe I’d made to that poor man: instead of saying yes very nice but do you have silk, I’d actually said yes very nice but do you have AIDS? I hadn’t yet mastered the phonetic difference in Portuguese between seda (silk) and SIDA (AIDS).
But in general the concept of impulse-buying at lunch time had not yet reached Portugal in the early 1980s, (indeed most of the shops themselves were closed for lunch and reopened only at 2.30 or 3.00 when everyone was safely back at work). It seemed to reach the point when I only had to step into a shop to elicit the verbal pounce: can I help you sir?
I developed a complex about it – did I look particularly indecisive? (I couldn’t make up my mind about that one). I tried every response, from the muttered no I’m just looking, to the ironical not unless you happen to know which colour/pattern/kind of music/book I’m looking for today … good, we’ve got rid of another customer, soon it’s time to lock up the shop for lunch … I’ve been looking forward to those nice tasty pataniscas all morning, or, with a sniff and a roll of the eyes to the ceiling, these foreigners, go figure them.
Anyway let’s go back to the little shop in Cascais which proclaimed its name JUST BROWSING on a sign hanging from a piece of scrolled wrought-iron outside the door. One sleepy hot summer afternoon I entered the shop which was empty of other customers. A pleasant-looking middle-aged woman with henna-dyed hair and multi strings of beads round her neck looked up from her magazine and smiled brightly: hello, cin ah hilp you, she asked in strongly-accented South African English. No thanks, I replied pleasantly, just browsing, I added with a significant smile. As well as general tourist bric-a-brac – sun-glasses, T-shirts, ethnic necklaces and bangles, the shop specialized in Portuguese regional faience. I was attracted by a large colourful Alentejo plate and was studying the whole display when the voice chipped in: those look really nice on a white wall and they’re only 60 escudos each. Just browsing, I muttered as I moved to the T-shirt rack (what size are you?) then to sunglass stand (that pair suits you) She was sticking to me closer than a fly on shit, as my former pipeline colleagues would so elegantly put it. I just couldn’t shake the woman off.
Finally, in desperation, I beckoned her out of the shop and into the street, pointed up at the sign and said: Just bloody browsing!