It truly takes only one encounter with a slimy eel to understand the importance of a special fish-buying outfit. I can assure you that going through your day with dry, crusty remnants left behind on your clothes after you’ve inadvertently bumped into part of an eel dangling over the edge of its container in the fish market, is neither nice nor pretty. And that’s already the second lesson there is to learn about buying fish in the average Portuguese local market! In our pre-Portugal days we might have loved eating the stuff, but when it came to buying it, the only thing we knew to look for were clear eyes as an indicator of freshness. Well, that and of course there are the obvious benefits of employing your sense of smell. But it couldn’t be all that complicated, right? Wrong. When we discovered that our tiny village had a fish market, we were so excited by visions of fresh fish within such easy reach that we didn’t quite appreciate what babies we were in the art of fish-buying.
Which brings me to the all-important LESSON NUMBER ONE: Convenience is not king. You cannot simply go to the first place to buy your fish. Oh no, no, no. Apparently – as a fellow-villager eagerly testified – the owner of the market in our village has a tendency to put, in addition to the fish you choose, a heavy thumb on the scale too. Since we had no desire to pay for fishmonger’s thumbs, especially no repeatedly, we took the lesson on board and opted to look further afield.
A few minutes down the road in a bigger village we found another market where our education continued.
LESSON THREE: Your choice of shoes should be well-considered. That eel I mentioned in lesson two is probably lazing around innocently in a tub of sorts, but it doesn’t only pose a threat to your clothes. We have learnt that if a particularly discerning customer comes into the fish market and insists on seeing the rest of the eel’s buddies to be able to select the most splendid specimen, it is not uncommon for the fishmonger to haul out the whole lot and drop them onto the floor with a dramatic flourish. That’s the floor where your bare toes in their flip-flops are pausing to survey the scene. The very same floor that is now covered in writhing and slithering eels. Apart from the unbelievably powerful cringe-factor of that sight – in my experience it can be lethal – I’m fairly sure having fish-flavoured toes is not exactly a good thing to have.
LESSON FOUR: if you’ve had no time to change into your special fish market outfit and/or shoes, be very sure you keep your eyes peeled at all times. What’s more, you should be ready to jump, evade, dodge, outmanoeuvre or, if the danger becomes too great, run.
Lesson four a) If you find that you’ve been forced to jump, evade, dodge, run or engage in any physical movement that could be interpreted as an act of avoidance, you should probably also be prepared to be laughed at. But you know what? Let them. Your toes are still fresh – that’s really all that matters.
LESSON NUMBER FIVE: Be prepared to be “bosom-handled” by at least one of the generally female fishmongers. This is a big one. No pun intended. “Bosom-handling” involves being guided, nudged, blocked and/or shepherded by the relevant bosom in an effort to send you to the desirable stall, i.e. theirs.
Generally this particular sales technique involves fairly gentle, small movements that won’t harm you. Trying to avoid it is an exhausting and futile endeavour, so don’t resist. If you have any experience travelling on an overcrowded metro, you should be fine and if you’ve dealt an average Russian babushka on the Moscow metro, you’ll breeze through the experience, but if your experience is limited to merely overcrowded shopping centres, you may have to steel yourself for this particular type of bodily contact.
LESSON SIX: Forget all that stuff about the rudeness of staring and your consequent belief that it would be equally rude for people to stare at you. Competition is fierce among the sellers and you have to stay strong to avoid being stared down or intimidated. I suggest you keep your eye on the fish and only when you’re well and truly ready to engage should you raise your eyes. Don’t be afraid if you discover ten pairs of eyes on you, some more appraising than others. It feels a little hostile all that staring, but keep the goal in mind:
fresh fish for dinner, fresh fish for dinner, fresh fish for dinner. If you find yourself faltering, repeat this as many times as necessary.
LESSON SEVEN: This one is all about rules of engagement – it’s time for you to indicate the fish you’re interested in. Be cool. Stay cool. A question or two may be barked at you, but generally these are good-natured. You’ve selected their stall, after all, so now you’re their friend. (Side note on engagement: when you go back a week later, it’s kind of hard to buy from a different vendor and not feel like you’ve stabbed the original person in the back.)
LESSON EIGHT: Ignore your instinct to relax once you’ve selected your fish and agreed on a price. It is imperative that you keep a beady eye on your surroundings. There could be spills or dangling tails around you. And remember, you still have to exchange money.
LESSON NINE: You will want to, but don’t flinch. A fleshy hand will accept your money, disappear into a tatty plastic bag and some coins – your change – will emerge from the bag. Fingers will grip the coins that are held out to you. Fishy fingers. With pieces of unrecognisable fish matter clinging to them. Whatever urge you feel at this point, don’t give in to it. Just breathe deeply, take your money, say thank you and leave.
LESSON TEN: Try to organise a driver, because you’ll now have only one hand available for driving and we all know how dangerous that is. You’re minus a hand because you’ll need it solely to hold on to the fishy coins. This is probably the point where your nose or eye will start to itch, but just think of the consequences of using your fishy hand before you even think of using it to relieve the itching.
LESSON ELEVEN: Make sure the designated driver has the house key or that you’ve practised opening the front door with one hand. Go to the kitchen sink straight away and pour dishwashing liquid into the hand that’s gripping the coins. Depending on fishiness-stickiness levels, you may even need to pour liquid soap onto the coins a second time. Now scrub, scrub and scrub some more.
LESSON TWELVE: Yes, of course there’s a final pearl of wisdom. When you’re standing there with wet (but clean!) coins in your hand, contemplating
the bag of fish in the fridge, you may not think it possible, but you’ll be able to enjoy that fish tonight. Be sure that you do – you’ve earned it!