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An umbrella in Paris

A week in Paris has found us carrying an umbrella whenever we go out. This is not as easy as it sounds. Some days, the sun shines brightly in the morning and it requires an act of will to go about thus armed and accoutered. Other days are gray enough, but the amount of rain that has recently fallen convinces us that it cannot possibly rain anymore. No matter: the umbrella turns out to be a necessity. The true Parisian would as soon forget it as forgo the baguette of bread that accompanies his daily fare.

The habit of always carrying an umbrella goes hard with me, for I am by nature an optimist and I resist instinctively this badge of gloomy expectations. I have paid the price of being hopeful about Parisian weather. A stroller in the streets might have seen me of late bundled under a cornice along the Seine, or in some bystreet, refuged within a dimly lit doorway. A fugitive from justice? A harborer of evil designs? No, simply a man of faith, betrayed by his disposition into an absurd predicament - soaked from head to foot and still convinced that somehow it ought not to be raining.

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Though I tend to ignore or forget it, or to leave it in the restaurant I have most recently visited, I look upon the umbrella as one of the most marvelous inventions made by man. This delicately veined object of tissue and wire, containing within its structure the same elements of tension and compression that uphold temples and lift cathedral arches against the sky, is a miracle of lightness, deftness and elegance. Compacted at one moment into a mere stick, useful for warding off marauders or staying unsteady steps, it opens at a touch to a beautiful parabola, seemingly capable of carrying one through the air. The parachutist must know such a thrill in seeing his parachute released, or the sailor when his spinnaker fills before the wind; for the pedestrian in a city street, nothing can compare with the simple act of opening an umbrella.

It is a paradox that this device traces its origin to distant lands and to sunny climes. If the Victorians in their boots and high-collared coats had invented the umbrella, making it black to suit their somber mood, no one would have been surprised. But it comes from the East; its first function was to shade the fiercer rays of the sun. Multicolored, composed of parchment and bamboo, we see it borne by susceptible beauties when lured from the sheltering confines of their homes. Like the fan, another beguiling invention, it embodies the grace, the gossamer qualities, of the culture that begot it. Now folded, now swiftly opened up, it could at will conceal or display the charms of its possessor.

By what channels of trade or communication the idea of the parasol was brought to the West, and transformed from a protection from the sun to a weapon against storm and shower, I do not know. The resources of the Bibliotheque Nationale might indeed have enlightened me, but I confess to being attracted to other chores while in Paris. Undoubtedly some enterprising trader of the nineteenth century returned with the essential image, and calling upon the advanced technology of his time succeeded in fabricating the electrifying but rather funereal object familiar today. Gone the bright colors and the frail bamboo. Steel ribs and dark, durable stuff, more in keeping with the age and the place. Englishmen, in particular, both for reasons of climate and the basic strain of prudence in their nature, took up the umbrella as a normal article of dress.

A further paradox is responsible for the umbrella's becoming a symbol of peace. One might have supposed that the object, with its sharp point and bristling form, would be associated with aggressive behavior. If Churchill in 1938 had returned from Munich carrying one, he would have been charged with being a warmaker, and the innocent umbrella would henceforth have been associated in men's minds with bombs and tanks. Chamberlain, however, was a different person, and the umbrella in his hands took on its now irreversible significance.

It was thoughts of this kind (or something like them) that occupied my mind as I waited recently in the rain in Paris for the taxicab that never appeared. Progeny of the East or West, symbol of war or peace, what would I not have given for the little traveling tent, for the magical unfurling stick, that others about me were casually sporting! Alas, mine was at the hotel, and I was once more the victim of misguided optimism.

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