Monday, June 06, 2011

Venice Journal, 11: Umbrellas

Venice, June 6, 2011—
WE WERE ENTERTAINED last night by quite a lusty thunderstorm, which came on fast, lingered a while, and then moved on. You can see why the ancients assumed divinities of some sort were involved with such events: they have energy and personality; they remind you from time to time of people you know, and often wish you didn't.

This morning was overcast but did not, to my way of thinking (which I'm occasionally reminded is not necessarily always the most practical way of thinking), threatening. I wore my canvas shoes, but not my “straw” hat, which is in fact made of paper; and I took an umbrella.

Our apartment is furnished with three umbrellas, who spend their days in an umbrella-stand in the front hall. I suppose former renters have bought them when they were needed, or thought to be needed in an impending future, and left them behind, like cheap paperbacks, a third of a package of pasta, a jar of stale nutmeg. No one leaves gin behind, or Proust, or a nice prosciutto.

I have a fondness for umbrellas. More than once I've bought an umbrella here in Italy, where they often seem unusually handsome. Once in the city of Aosta, for example, when it began to rain heavily while we were in the central piazza, I saw a display of elegant umbrellas with nicely made wooden handles and really fine subtly colored fabrics, and I bought one that pleased me almost as a first-rate hat.

A week later we ate in a nice restaurant on the edge of Verona, taken there by friends who live there. It was still raining, just a bit, so I took the umbrella, and set it properly in an umbrella-rack in the foyer as we entered. After our lunch, of course, my umbrella was gone, a cheap folding Taiwanese pretense left in its place, as if to persuade me someone had made an honest mistake. I still mourn that umbrella, and Richard still kids me about it.

Three summers ago in the small town of Chiomonte it was pouring when we got off our bus and walked down to the only bar-café in town. Next door, almost, is a general-dry-goods store; in it a marvelous umbrella. When I bought it the lady who ran the store looked pleased, a little surprised, and a little puzzled, all at once: pleased to make a sale, surprised an American had come to Chiomonte to buy an umbrella, puzzled because — wait a moment — doesn't he look familiar? — yes: I had bought an umbrella in the same store years earlier.

That umbrella three years ago came in handy as we continued our stroll across the Alps. I'd wished I had one in earlier days, when it rained pretty heavily on us outside Chamonix; when it rained again, down toward Briançon, I think it was, the umbrella sheltered me, while my companions, who'd made fun of the umbrella earlier, walked in soggy misery alongside.

That umbrella flew as cabin baggage, no problem at all, from Nice to Amsterdam. There it came in handy again, of course: but the flight from Amsterdam back to San Francisco I was told it had to be stowed. This advice came at the last minute, of course; there was nothing to do but give it to a man at a counter, who tied a tag to it and claimed it would travel in perfect safety. But when I finally retrieved it three days later — it had gone off on flights of its own, apparently — it was of course bent; it never worked quite right again.

(And then, in a really terrific gust of wind on our driveway, whose weather can rival Alpine conditions from time to time, it turned completely inside out, breaking three of the ribs. I still have it, in the immense collection of Things Awaiting Repair, distributed among the attic, the workshop, and storage.)
VENICE IS NOT HOSPITABLE to umbrellas. The streets are either too narrow or too crowded to allow any but the most selfish use of them. Some streets are so narrow the umbrella must be carried tilted, or it will brush the walls on either side of the street. Wider streets are crowded with pedestrians, many of whom are armed with umbrellas which are used as much for offense as defense.

In a civil society there's a kind of ballet; a gavotte of umbrellas; they are lifted just clear of one another when their bearers meet in a confined area (which nearly all of Venice is); when necessary they'll be tilted just a bit. It seems rude to let them actually brush one another, as it is rude to cause another pedestrian to brush against a wall, or a bridge railing. And of course this gavotte is performed in a studiously carefree way: you wouldn't want to be caught actually paying attention to it. You lift, tilt, lower your umbrella to clear the oncoming traffic of umbrellas, but without actually looking at them, or at their bearers. It's a pleasant dance, and it takes your mind off the little miseries Venice rain imposes.

In fact the main reason you don't look to closely at oncoming umbrellas, apart from the danger they'll blind you with their ribs, is that your eyes are on the pavement, if you've any sense about you. The square stones of the paving have settled nearly everywhere, each following its own interpretation of gravity and the soft geology of Venetian substrates; and where they've settled the rain collects. Oh, said F___ at one point: I've forgotten the Italian word for puddle, and it's a word I really like.

Maretti, I said: little oceans. She laughed, and liked the word; but I had to admit I'd made it up on the spot. (It turns out to be pozzanghera; I can see why she likes it.) But these puddles do in fact extend themselves to near oceanic proportions, especially in the larger campi, and dodging them requires quick eyes, deft feet, and a polite disregard for such conventions as keep-to-the-right, give-way-to-babies.

Rainwear here always seems improvised — odd; rain's hardly unusual here, but tourists especially always seem to think they're in Florida. They wear shorts and tee-shirts, sandals, Panama trilbys. Then when it rains they either simply get soaked or they grab whatever they can find to protect themselves. You see the occasional garbage bag worn as a poncho, a trick we learned one day in the Alps. You see variations of very thin plastic raincoats, often in alarmingly chemical colors. I saw one woman slogging along with plastic bags tied over her shoes.

On the Piazza San Marco today we saw a couple of American tourists, the man, fortyish, fairly nondescript in shorts, a polo shirt, and rather a large paunch; his wife, about the same age, remarkable for her baby-blue frilly dress, her parasol, and her widebrimmed baby-blue hat. She was striking an attitude while he photographed her, the Basilica in the background to point of reference. The rain began to fall, lightly at first, and they ignored it.

We ducked into the Museo Correr, knowing a thunderstorm was about to break. It was torrential. I looked out a window onto the Piazza a few minutes later: they were still there, quite soggy; but you had to hand it to them; they were toughing it out.

June photos from Friuli and Venice now online


Giovanna said...

And you remind me of this article from the August 2010 Paris Review, about the lost language of Italian umbrella makers. It also mentions a museum about umbrella making, in the Piemontese town of Gignese--any chance you'll stop in?

Charles Shere said...

Not this time, I'm afraid — but it's enticing.

Monica said...

Umbrellas are not only used for rain or shade in Europe but also for fashion. They create a whole fashion trend using umbrellas pairing with their clothing. "Venice is not hospitable to umbrellas" Couldn't agree with you more!

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