Portugal's Rule of Three

Nancy Henderson-James 


© Copyright 2002 by Nancy Henderson-James

Photo by Richard Loller.
Photo by Richard Loller.

Even familiarity with the quirks of Portuguese culture didn't prevent me

from stumbling like a novice on a trip to Portugal.

In the Portuguese hill town of Covilhā I inched into a parking spot in
the center of the pretty village to check out lodging and dining
possibilities. My friend Ann and I, on a tour of the country, had no set
itinerary except to head east out of Lisbon and then north and loop back
south along the coast. Covilhā, described as a picturesque old town of
steep and winding streets in the Serra da Estrela close to the Spanish
border, sounded like an appealing place to stop for the night. First
impressions told us we were right. But when I reached for my purse and
camera behind the driver's seat, I came up empty. The image of slinging
them over the back of the bench in the park in Castelo Branco, an hour
south, instantly replayed in my mind. We had stopped at the park, the
Jardim Episcopal, to discuss how much further we wanted to travel that
day. I hung my purse and camera over the back of the bench and we sat
down to consult the map. The Jardim, 18th century terraced gardens of
the Bishop's Palace, was a Baroque fantasy of clipped hedges, patterned
flower beds, sculptures, and fountains. The town itself, however, didn't
hold much interest for us. We decided to aim for Covilhā.

I remembered jingling the car keys in my hands in the Jardim while we
decided how far to go. If only I had stored the keys in my purse, I
would have remembered purse and camera. The prospects of ever again
seeing my passport, traveler's checks (back in the days when we carried
them), money, driver's license, credit cards, and camera seemed pretty

My first impulse was to jump back into the car and tear off for Castelo
Branco. On reflection, it made more sense to check by the police station
in Covilhā to request that they call the Castelo Branco police. I
harbored a tiny tremor of hope that my missing items had been turned in.
Feeling lucky that I knew Portuguese, I explained the situation to the
police. After a brief phone conversation with the Castelo Branco police,
the officer turned to me and said they had my purse and camera at the
station. Unwilling to believe what I was hearing, thinking perhaps my
Portuguese hadn't been clear, I re-explained my dilemma in slow
exaggerated tones. But he insisted that my things were at the Castelo
Branco police. Thanking them profusely, we sprinted to the car and drove
back to retrieve them, all the while not believing they'd actually be

Two hours after our first stop in Castelo Branco, we climbed the steps
of the police station, skirting around several men standing and talking
on the landing. As we stepped through the door, I was peripherally aware
they followed us in. But I was still dazed by my stupidity and fear and,
in the bright lights of the entry, I could only focus on whom to talk to
about retrieving whatever was left of my resources. Without a word, a
policeman emerged from an office, carried out my purse and camera, and
gave them to me. Impossible as it seemed, my money, credit cards,
checks, and passport were just as I'd left them.

How were they found? I asked. The police pointed to a couple of men who
nodded at me. I recognized them as two of the men we had passed on the
porch. They explained that when Ann and I had stopped in the Jardim to
look at the map earlier in the day, they had been enjoying their Sunday
afternoon in the gardens, and had observed us from a distance. After we
left, they noticed two men hurrying over to the bench where we had been
sitting. Our champions, as I came to consider them, feeling suspicious,
ran over to see what was attracting the others. Spotting the purse and
camera, they rescued them from the potential thieves. Since they were
buddies with some of the police, they took my abandoned items to the
police station.

I incoherently stammered out my thanks. Looking in my purse, the
smallest bills I found were 5000$ escudos, at the time worth about $200
U.S. I impulsively offered them each one of the bills. This was a
heftier reward than I wanted to give, but under the awkward
circumstances I didn't know what else to do. Where would I get change on
Sunday, with the banks closed and in the days before ATMs? No, no, no,
we can't accept it, they said. We stood looking at each other. I felt as
though I were dangling. I was unsure how to conclude our interaction. It
seemed rude to simply walk away. Grasping for an idea, and aware that it
was now late afternoon, I asked them if they knew of a place we could
stay for the night. The new challenge galvanized them. We charged out of
the police station. One man joined us in our car, while the other man
led the way to a cheap and rather seedy residÍncia. Ann and I, feeling
at the mercy of their kindness, accepted their recommendation. With more
thanks, we waved goodbye and carried our bags up to our room.

After dinner, lying in bed, I thought about the singular events of the
day and felt charmed, as if guided by Providence in a situation that
could have caused me great distress and inconvenience. The kindness of
my rescuers brought to mind half a dozen times when I'd put myself into
the care of men or women on the street in Portugal. Though tourists are
warned to beware of purse snatchers and other thieves, my experience had
taught me to reach out when I needed directions or a place to stay. In
one such instance, coming across the border from Spain into Evora late
one Sunday afternoon, I asked a man strolling by the car park if he knew
of a place to stay. He led my family to a woman who rented out rooms.
From our bedroom window we looked out across the red tile rooftops to
the tower of the cathedral. With only Spanish coin in our pockets and
the banks closed for the weekend, our man went in search of a
money changer, who carried his bank in his briefcase. We sat down at the
dining room table to negotiate pesetas and dollars into escudos. The
next morning, a check of the exchange rates posted in the bank window
told us we had received an honest trade.

In Porto, a man on the street directed us to his favorite restaurant. My
young family had driven all day with the windows open in the heat,
sucking in diesel fumes. It was still early for dinner, but we were hot,
thirsty, headachy, and hungry. In the empty restaurant, the staff plied
us with unending soft drinks and water, and bowl after bowl of cod,
potatoes, and cabbage. We returned there for every meal we were in town.

On the trip with Ann, we unwittingly arrived in one small town on the
weekend of a popular folklore festival. With cars and people jamming the
streets making their way to the fair, we weren't surprised to find that
the few hotels and pensions were full. The third person I approached led
us door to door until we found a woman who let us spend the night in her
spare room. Her sunny personality made up for the dank little ground
floor apartment. Its only window looked directly out on the street. The
rest of the rooms extended back into cave-like darkness and her shower
and toilet sat right in the kitchen without benefit of curtain. The next
morning when she cheerily said goodbye, I counted myself fortunate to
have met her.

Lying in bed in Castelo Branco and thinking about those helpful
encounters, I sheepishly came back to the awkward scene at the police
station with my rescuers. I hadn't handled it well. I stewed and fretted
about it until an early lesson in Portuguese etiquette filtered back to
me. As an American missionary child in Angola, a Portuguese colony in
southern Africa, I had been taught the rule of three. In Portuguese
culture, it's impolite to leave a friend's house before announcing your
intent three times. It's impolite to accept a gift the first or second
time it's offered. The look of anticipation on the men's faces suddenly
made more sense. It was now clear to me that they were waiting for me to
insist twice more on their taking the reward. Their hesitation had
nothing to do with the size of the bills. Instead, forgetting my
childhood lesson, I compounded my debt and allowed them to do me yet
another favor!

Nancy Henderson-James works and writes in Durham, North Carolina.

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