Everyone in Paris has an umbrella, except for me. It was a charming way to experience the Marais last weekend, and soaked jeans and pruned feet made it all the more memorable. Being used to Minnesota, I thought, “oh, it rained so much yesterday. It won’t rain again for awhile.” But then it did, the next day. So the next day I thought, “it rained so much this weekend, no need to worry about rain.” And it rained.
It has rained every day this week. It is a rain that creeps up on you when you least expect it, when the sun is shining on the long-windowed buildings and the sky is cloudy but blue. Then it gets cold, the wind picks up, and it pours for ten minutes. Your umbrella (and by your I mean your. Not mine. I still don’t have one.) gets drenched but is soon useless, because before you know it, it is beautiful out again.
If I learned one thing this week, it is that I need an umbrella. But first thing’s first: how do you even say umbrella in French? Also, what kind of umbrella is best suited for an American au pair who can take the cold but not the damp? Who is unlikely to carry something bulky around but who likes to be prepared? Who likes to blend in but also reads way too much into color choice, and wants the hue of her umbrella to express some deep aspect of herself while protecting her from the rain?
Sea of nylon
Parisians’ personalities walk hand-in-hand with their umbrellas. Here in the 8ème, it is all business, and all about the black umbrella. People in suits hold dark, uniform umbrellas over their briefcases on their way to work at one of the neighborhood’s many financial firms. It is a sea of black nylon against taupe brick walls and spiraling window grates. When it’s dry, these people hook their umbrellas on the arms of their blazers. Their umbrellas are long and elegant, faux-London. Except not faux-London because this is Paris.
In nanny-world, when I go to pick up one of the girls at school, umbrellas come in colors and patterns. A nounou fishes a bright red umbrella with a warm wooden handle out of a canvas bag as the droplets start to fall and her five-year-old reaches her side. A mom stands in heels under her own striped purple awning as she waits for her daughter to get into her ballet slippers in the courtyard of a dance studio.
But at Monoprix, the failsafe grocery-convenience-liquor store that acts a lot like Target, the umbrellas are €27. So where does that leave me?
I borrow my host family’s golf umbrella. It’s huge. I cannot get through the black-and-gold gates of the park when it’s open. But it does the job. Hopping over streams of water at the guttered edges of Boulevard de Courcelles, dodging a car that blazed through the green walk sign and getting an angry windshield-slap from a pedestrian — I am still dry. So are the two other people walking with me, that’s how big it is. And that rubber-covered launch button sure is slick.
But the next day, walking past used book sellers along the Seine and then across a bridge to Île de la Cité to pass by Notre Dame, the rain does its sniper thing again. One moment it is breezy and clear, the next, my hood is up. This is no time for a golf umbrella. It is time for an umbrella as under-cover as the rain that can fit into a purse. A nanny umbrella that can live at the bottom of a canvas bag until the opportune moment.
So as soon as I ditch my café Americano here at Starbucks (café allongé, it elaborates on the menu. At €1,95, it is one of the cheapest things here), I am off to search for an umbrella. And someone in nanny-world came to my rescue earlier this week by telling me the French word for umbrella: parapluie.
It sure makes more sense than “umbrella,” if you ask me: para-, that prefix that means “against,” plus pluie, the French word for rain.
Let’s hope I beat the rain before getting mine.