A funny thing happened on the way to the market...

with thanks to Miguel, who's views and advice on Portguese markets inspired me to write about this subject

Armação da Pera, Algarve August 28, 2004 It’s amazing to realize that we’ve been visiting the Algarve for more than a quarter of a century! In those long ago halcyon days, the mercado at Armação da Pera was a simple, covered affair, quite small, charming, the sort of slightly grubby, picturesque place tourists love to wander through and photograph.
We were no different, Kim wandering about with camera in hand. For some reason, however, one stallholder, a wizened old crone dressed in black, with a withered arm, seemed to take a shine to us, young and bright-eyed as we were. Of course it was obvious we were tourists: how could we have been anything else? But we were tourists who cooked food (as well as took photographs of it) and therefore always purchased vegetables and fruit in arm-aching quantity. So whenever we'd appear, she'd give us a handful of almonds (delicious), perhaps a ripe fig or a peach (how kind!). But if we ever even so much as paused at someone else's stall on entering the market, she'd shuffle over and get our attention with a little gift, while looking daggers and death at her audacious competitor who had dared to try and lure us away.
This went on for years, even after the market moved to its present hideously ugly purpose-built premises. We knew, just knew that we couldn’t shop anywhere else, and a visit to ‘our’ market stall became a part of the experience of summer. When our children were born, the old girl in black (looking strangely younger each year - I think with all the money she made from us and others, she was wintering in Madeira; the climate obviously suited her) now transferred her attentions to Guy and Bella, insisting on holding them when they were babies, and later kissing them (to my son's great embarrassment and discomfor
t), handing them a few almonds, perhaps an over-ripe fig or peach. You could see the other stallholders rolling their eyes as she did so, but godammit, she had us hook, line and sinker. Hers for life and there was no escape!
It reached the point, I'm afraid to say, where we almost came to dread going to the market. I tried everything (for I like nothing so much as going to the market, most of all for the delicious satisfaction afterwards, leaning on the counter of an outdoor stall, bulging bags at my feet, enjoying an eight-in-the-morning hot bifanas roll com piri-piri and an ice cold Sagres beer as a reward for the efforts). But that simplest pleasure was offset by the tyranny of being in the inescapable clutches of that persistent old crone, with her sometimes rotten fruit and - ugh - whiskery kisses.
To try and break the cycle, I even took, I confess, to wearing an elaborate disguise. Being summer, a time when few clothes are worn, my options were limited but I found an impressive - and very expensive - chest wig with sewn-on gold medallion and I wore outrageous designer sunglasses that hid my whole face. But damn me if the old gal didn't spot me immediately, and crab across the market floor, taking me in her wizened arm to lead me gently but firmly away from temptation, back to her stall, offering me the token gift - an almond, a fig or near-rotten peach - stroking the fake chest wig in apparent admiration (it was, I must admit, very lush and handsome if unacceptably hot in summer), cooing over me, making a fuss, filling our bags, stroking, cooing, taking our money: yes, we were hers, hers for life...
This summer we went, as usual, to the market. On the way we debated, as always, whether or not to venture around to 'our' vegetable stall (unfortunately the ameijoas are sold near where she is located - and one of the main reasons for going to market, I'm sure everyone agrees, is to purchase ameijoas). Therefore, while my bag of squirting clams was being prepared, I snuck a glance over in the direction of where the old girl should have been. My god, she was not there! Nor was her hideous daughter, who had taken in recent years to handing us rotten fruit as well, without ever even trying to disguise her contempt for us. What had happened? Had she, perhaps, passed away? Or, far more likely, retired to a posh villa in Madeira to live the year round?
I found myself wandering over, as if pulled by some strange and mysterious magnetic force. After all these years, she was gone. We were free! In her place, sat an old lady, dressed all in black, tiny behind the mountains of melons and cabbages and greeny-red, gnarled tomatoes. She hobbled to her feet when we approached, gave me a cracked grin, and pressed a few almonds into my hand, to Kim a perfectly ripe fig. I smiled in return. How kind!

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