The Ubiquitous Winter Umbrella

Jan 27,2012

At long last, after several weeks of unending rain, dampness and general gloom, January is finally starting to look like January: white. We've been buried in snow for most of the week, and though it's too late for a white Christmas or New Year, we could at least celebrate the Chinese/Korean/Vietnamese New Year with weather appropriate to the upper northern hemisphere at this time of year.

I'd like to take this opportunity to pontificate about the way people deal with winter. (No, not seasonal affective disorder, though there is a fair share of that, too.) What I mean is the way roads are treated, or not treated, and the way people move about when it snows.

For one thing, trying to shovel when snowfall is a foot a day is obviously a losing battle. A lot of the retired gentlemen in my neighbourhood have done a terrific job of it, though, to their credit. Other places, including very long stretches of the sidewalk on which it takes me half an hour to walk to this office, are completely untouched. Boots trample the fluff to icy hardness so that after a while a sort of one-lane path is cut out for foot traffic. Actually, two people could pass, but they often don't want to, and one will wait at a distant clearing for the other to emerge before entering. This kind of makes sense when one of them is holding an umbrella, because those things just get in the way. Having grown up in the United States, the notion of carrying an umbrella when it's snowing seems patently absurd. We just don't do that kind of thing, because it's not seen as necessary. But if you grow up in a culture where it's just seen as the thing to do, then you do it, like peeling grapes. But we Yanks tend to just use umbrellas when it's raining, and even then only when we're walking. The Japanese tend to carry them when riding bicycles, too. I believe this can be partly explained by the propensity of Japanese elementary school children to learn to ride the unicycle, something that in America is only done by circus clowns and trained bears. (There was a unicycle freak that could be seen pedaling all over the streets of Berkeley when I was there, and he was always clad in a skin-tight pink suit and matching beanie, apparently on the belief that if he stood out enough he would be officially recognised for what he was, Unicycle King of California.) So we just don't have the balance required to steer a bicycle and carry an umbrella at the same time, let alone engage in the uniquely Japanese trick of cycling while carrying on a conversation with a mobile telephone in one hand and an umbrella in the other.

Still, I retain the incorrigible American attitude that if the weather is such that you need an umbrella, you shouldn't be on a bicycle.

Interestingly, a law was passed last year making it illegal. A law was past several years ago making it illegal to park on the streets, and people adhered to it strictly for a few weeks before gradually reverting to their old ways. I predicted the same would happen with the 2011 ordinance forbidding cyclists to use telephones or carry umbrellas. I was told No, no, the law against parking on the street disappeared because delivery people had to park on the streets to do their jobs, and since the police had a hard time telling who was a delivery person and who wasn't, enforcement became lax, but this is a completely different situation. Everyone knows the law, and no one would want to risk a fine by standing out as the only person on the sidewalk cycling with a telephone or umbrella.

Except that a few weeks after it was passed, everyone went back to their old ways.

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