Don't take umbrage

IT is written somewhere that rain comes to the Valley of Kings only once in every thousand years. I can see it now: that aching, bottomless blue sky turning suddenly dark, while below throngs of hawkers turn from their scarabs and post cards to umbrella stands, sprouting like miracles from the parched and ancient sands. By some astonishing quirk of fate, that day of deluge did not fall upon me as I wandered the shadowless valley, and that makes Egypt the only place I've traveled where I have not acquired an umbrella. Not that I need a lot of umbrellas. Or that I am chronically misplacing and replacing them. It's just that, coming from the high-desert country of New Mexico, a land of near-perpetual sunshine, I invariably forget to pack one. And I am invariably reminded of this monumental lapse as I am standing on some far-flung streetcorner watching my shoes turn squishy through sodden, mascara-stuck eyes. It is then, while the smug, sensible world marches by beneath protective cover, that I recall the immortal words of E.M. Forster: ``All men are equal - all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas.''

It is then, too, that I am forced to purchase yet another for my growing collection - all of which are tucked away in the dry safety of my closet back home.

It's true that most globe-trotters I know like to collect one thing or another. And the items they amass are as varied as are the great variety of people susceptible to wanderlust. Charms, art prints, clocks, butter dishes, jewels - whatever, for them, is the consummate trip memento. My own collection is no less evocative for being inadvertent. Because umbrellas, perhaps even more than those more glamorous objects, have the power to bring back mood, time, and place.

For example, the elegant green nylon one with the leather sling is Paris - Paris in November, dashing along the Boulevard des Capucines to escape a sudden angry sky. The cheap red plaid number is New York - East 42nd near Grand Central, a couple of dollars to a street vendor making hay while the sun didn't shine.

Then there's a clear plastic canopy with red trim. This was the first, and the memory is bittersweet.

Mexico City, when I was young, newly married, and thought my spouse and I could wander the world beneath the same umbrella. Alas, we soon discovered we were not to be that sort of couple. Strolling, stepping, stopping - all slightly out of sync, we realized we couldn't manage half a block without sniping or getting poked in the eye. (Since then he has acquired his own black, sensible umbrella - which he never forgets. I borrowed it once in San Francisco and left it in a store where I was trying on gloves. Now he has another black, sensible umbrella which he is reluctant to lend me.)

My gay orange-and-blue collapsible one (perfect for travel) is Tokyo - after ducking into a Shinjuku coffeehouse, alone and dripping, to be soothed by espresso and the supercool, bluesy yesteryear strains of ``Brothers go to Mother's'' from Peter Gunn. Yet another was the gift of a shopkeeper in Chinon. Left there by someone else, he explained, as I was buying glasses for a picnic that, even as we spoke, was being quashed by brooding cumulonimbus clumps turned suddenly torrential.

There are a few others. New Orleans in June, Amsterdam, Munich ... enough that my spouse has begun to suspect me of something other than inveterate absent-mindedness. He has begun taking umbrage at my umbrellas, saying it's high time my collection came out of the closet. I think he thinks I'm being forgetful on purpose. That's ridiculous, I tell him. After all, who needs more than a handful of umbrellas?

It really is too bad about Egypt, though. That would have been the showpiece. Really added to the value of the lot. Lifted it from the prosaic to the sublime.

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