"Rain is a thing that happens in the past"

[said Borges. But the umbrella has a future]

Martina Bastos

Illustration by Monika Grubizna


Nothing banal happens under an umbrella. I say this with the conviction of somebody who owes her life to one. A young man on his way to military service waits for a bus in the rain. Buttons done up to the collar, white gloves, impeccable shoes. A young woman on her way to typing class waits for the bus under her umbrella. Her face washed, woolen sweater, long boots. At some point they came together under that dome, which they would turn into their daily meeting place. Over the following months, five elements were to repeat themselves: the young man, the young woman, the bus, the umbrella, and the rain. They fell in love like that, beneath an umbrella, the place where almost everything happens in Galicia.

Each year, the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela receives ten thousand cups of rain per square metre. It's impossible for Galicians to imagine a city in which droplets don't fall from the sky. I arrived in Lima unaware that its inhabitants, despite living under a permanent ceiling of grey cloud, do not own umbrellas. Rain in the Peruvian capital is a foiled plan. If Lima's total annual rainfall came down in one day, the layer of water covering the city would barely reach a centimetre. In Lima the rain is but a drizzle. The protagonist of Mario Vargas Llosa's novel Conversation in the Cathedral is said to feel the rain like the caress of a cobweb against the skin: "A furtive and disagreeable feeling. Even the rain is fucked up in this country. He thinks: if only it would let rip and really rain." In Galicia, by contrast, a grey sky is a serious threat: an open cut from which the rain pours, unrelenting. In its persistence, the rain has permeated our very character. The encyclopedias define our climate as oceanic, mild and wet, but the Galicians are more to the point: "Nine months of rain and three of bad weather." That is to say (and to settle the matter): in Galicia, there's never any end to the rain.


We Galicians wake up to grey skies one hundred and fifty days a year. We also live in the region with the most suicides in Spain. It would be easy to think that the rain is a natural depressant. Medical climatology studies the effect of climate on health. The sun is a melatonin obstructer—melatonin being a hormone that promotes sleepiness—and cranks up the level of serotonin, the "happy hormone," an absence of which is associated with depressive states. Climate alters your mood. The sun makes you more outgoing; the rain makes you retreat into yourself. The sun distracts you; the rain confronts you. The sun does its best to stop you from thinking; the rain obliges you to think. We still hold on to the belief from bygone years—when we were more dependent on the climate for survival—that grim weather makes humans unhappy. Today, science puts that into perspective. Researchers at the University of Santiago de Compostela and the National Legal Medicine Institute in Galicia refute the idea that the rain has an influence on the Galicians' suicidal tendencies; other parts of Europe with comparable climates don't have the same impulses. According to the psychologist Renato Santiváñez, darkness intensifies melancholic states, but it doesn't trigger them. Nonetheless, within the popular imagination, the rain continues to be the mandatory backdrop for each and every observable depression. Mario Benedetti defined sadness as rain on a zinc roof. When writing stories, Chekhov advised: "Don't say that one of your characters is sad: put him out on the street and have him look into a puddle reflecting the moon." Literary calamities never take place on resplendent days. Homicides, abandonments, goodbyes, and even deaths tend to happen in the rain. In Galicia it always rains on November 1, All Saints, the only day on which the cemeteries house more living than dead. And on those days the cemeteries reveal themselves for what they really are: deathly. The rain acts as a second layer of paint; it imbues every image with an epic tone. It's as if remembering the dead on a rainy day hurt more.

Nobody watches the rain from a window listening to reggaeton or heavy metal. The rain submerges us in plaintive chords. There is an unofficial subgenre of songs for rainy days. Tango talks about "the rain against the window, punishing my sorrow"; the ballads sing of "misty raindrops falling from the sky"; and pop's heart "keeps crying in the rain." There are songs in which it doesn't rain, but it feels like it does. And there are those who always seem to be walking in the rain, like Leonard Cohen singing "Famous Blue Raincoat." When Cohen steps onto a stage, suited and booted, we expect it to start raining at any moment. He once said: "A pessimist is someone who waits for the rain. Me, I'm already soaked to the bone." Cohen belongs to that tribe who are able to pick out the exact tone of grey of a rain-filled sky.

The rain has been a symbol of human fragility ever since it came down for forty days and forty nights: no one can prevent it; no one can escape it. Over half the planet is potential rain. The equivalent of six thousand four hundred Olympic swimming pools evaporates every second. And all of it is going to fall. And things will happen: harvests, romances, divine punishments; it is life-giving, but also begets death. The water carried by a hurricane weighs more than all the elephants on the planet. It overflows rivers and devastates entire populations. But it is a furtive threat. We underestimate its power because—as the North American writer Ann Patchett wrote—a flood is neither as sudden as an earthquake nor as imperative as fire. A flood, in the beginning, is just harmless drops of rain.

Something about the rain attracts us, to the extent that we even try to reproduce it. Every month, half a million people visit RainyMood, a webpage that allows you to listen to thirty minutes of storms online. Another million have bought the horror video game HeavyRain, in which it rains nonstop and victims drown. The painter Cézanne, on being warned of an approaching storm, preferred to capture it rather than flee. He died of pneumonia. In novels—the object of every imaginable cliché—it never rains for nothing. In Macondo it rained without respite for four years, eleven months, and two days, until one Friday, at two in the afternoon, the tap was turned off and it didn't rain again for ten years.

People from rural parts of Galicia endure biblical bouts of rain. According to the journalist Prudencia Rovira, at the beginning of the twentieth century, theirs was a "quasi amphibian" existence: "It's a land so drenched in rain, an atmosphere so waterlogged that it could be said to constitute a middle ground between purely aquatic and purely terrestrial worlds." In the Indian countryside, the rain grants the locals a gift for forecasting. They feel the wetness of the stones and observe how the cows lie down in the meadows; they listen to the way the wind blows and to the frogs' chirrups; they make a note of plane trails. In the Indian countryside, there are seven hundred million people who need to know exactly when the rains will come. The Bombay Stock Exchange, too, rises and falls according to the monsoon.


We have more than seventy words for "rain" in Galicia. Froalla if it falls alongside sunshine, corisca if it comes down with snow, arroia if it fills up ponds, poalla if it's slow to soak, sarabia if it rains hailstones, chuvasca if it brings the wind, treboa if it comes with thunder, orballa when it's light, babuña when it's vicious, pingota if the drops are fat, mera if there's dense fog, batega if it's fleeting and barruña if it persists. It's logical: language adapts according to its environment and the rain is a frequent guest in our lives. Nobody would have the nerve to call it "pluvial precipitation." It would be an insult. Galicians treat the rain with a confidence of a friend—one who we forgive everything. We worry if it's late and implore it not to leave. We grow used to its smell. In Lima, the humidity gets up your nose, but it never smells of rain. Scientists say that this aroma comes from the plants and a few bacteria from the ground releasing their own smells. The smell of damp earth is the smell of well-hydrated bacteria.

Galicians feel less alone in the rain. It's an accomplice with whom we share both terrain and emotional memory: a relative with a spare set of keys to the house, free to turn up unannounced precisely because we're always expecting him. You know his routine, his customs; you sense him coming before he appears. When I was a girl and my mother would start shutting the windows in the afternoons and storing away the short-sleeved blue blouses in the wardrobe, I knew a change was coming. Then the days of mindless contemplation would fall upon us; those days when one had no option but to stare out of the window for hours. Autumn began the day you first donned your Wellington boots. During childhood, that calendar-less space, rain was the only certainty. Something transforms inside of us when rain falls from the sky. "A bit of rain and we feel the urge to be intelligent," says the journalist Omar Rincón, "we want to watch a film, read a book, listen to music; when it rains we take up culture." But that's not always the case. Sometimes the rain acts as a pretext to escape from the world and laze about: watch it falling, sleep, be in love. It spurs sluggishness. For this reason studies agree that there's nothing quite like pouring rain to dampen a revolution: deluges deflate protesters. Gay Talese held that a rainy day in New York was usually "a lonely day for Time Square's conscripting sergeants, demonstrators, bootblacks and burglars—who all tend to lose their enthusiasm when wet." The New York Times compared the records of rainy days in New York with the Police Department homicide statistics from the previous years and concluded that there is less crime on rainy nights. Vernon Geberth, former head of Homicide in the Bronx used to joke about the lethargic effect of drizzling days: "The best police in the world are on duty tonight," he said, referring of course to the rain. But Geberth also described how it could scupper investigations: footprints can disappear. Depending on its force (it can fall at a rate of between eight and thirty-two kilometres per hour), water is capable of washing away bodily fluids, hair fibres, and spent bullet casings. It also makes it harder to find witnesses: people who are hell-bent on escaping a downpour don't tend to pay much attention.

Where people find themselves under the eaves of buildings, tucked beneath awnings and bridges, inside stations, or propped up at bars, the rain is a lesson in patience. Those refuges protect us from both rainwater and solitude. Huddled under one roof, strangers watch, studying one another. Some of them talk. They feel safe. Years later, my dad would admit to having forgotten his umbrella on purpose so that he could wait each day at my mother's side.


We Galicians are one-handed creatures. The other holds our umbrella, the limb without which we feel incomplete. A Galician without an umbrella is a maimed animal.

Manoeuvering an umbrella deftly is a talent of the highest order, involving a combination of audacity and urban planning that very few master. The slightest clumsy movement can cause an accident. Rainy metropolises like London or New York are governed by an etiquette, a strict protocol. One must never open an umbrella without first looking about. In a narrow street, the tallest person must always raise their umbrella to make way for the short. There are fundamental decisions to be made. Umbrella or shelter: never both. This helps avoid those uncomfortable moments under the cornices of buildings when people with umbrellas come head to head against those without. Every corner is a quagmire, and a wide avenue morphs into a contortionist's dance floor, with little room for manoeuver. Walking along like this is an exercise in blindness.

Carrying an umbrella is a sign of one's maturity. When you are young, having to shield yourself from the rain is an imposition, like going to mass, getting your hair cut or doing up the top button of your shirt. Mothers don't carry an umbrella because it's raining, but in case it rains. And yet some unwritten law dictates that leaving the house with an umbrella will always ward off the rain. Without realizing it, mothers have been nurturing the secret vocation of all umbrellas: to get lost. The moment umbrellas cross the threshold into the outside world, they run the risk of never returning. Robert Louis Stevenson saw the umbrella as an indicator of one's affluence: "It is not every one that can expose twenty-six shillings' worth of property to so many chances of loss and theft." We should draft an inventory of places that lend themselves to forgetfulness: bus stops, train seats, the backs of seats, taxis, metro stations. Umbrellas only get lost in order to be found. Umbrellas are festooned across lost property offices, in among ID cards, house keys, prescription glasses, false teeth—objects that are of no use to anyone but their owners. Lost umbrellas, on the contrary, are never left to rot in administrative offices: they have no aversion to being passed on from hand to hand. Umbrellas are for all.


The rain, when it's gentle, gives pleasure. It often shows up on those useless lists that float about on Google: "Fifty reasons why life is worth living." It seems that "rainy afternoons spent reading" or the combination of "rain and bed"—in their oneiric and sexual aspects—brighten up our existence. In response to the question, "Does the rain make you melancholy?" a friend replied: "What makes me melancholy is when it doesn't rain." A sunny day isn't memorable. The rain, however, is unforgettable. Every detail, every nuance can be lost: "I don't remember the day, the time, I don't know what street I stumbled upon or when I left, but I do know that it was raining." Our most vivid memories pertain to rainy days. A boy born in Chile would go on to describe in his biography: "I will start by saying, in respect of the days and years of my childhood, that the only unforgettable character was the rain." When Pablo Neruda settled in Isla Negra, he made them put a zinc roof over his studio so that he could listen to the rain with the same intensity he had as a child in Chile.

My first memory of the rain is the tapping. Silences at the beginning and the end of the day were never fully complete. I grew up listening to that persistent noise: the little pecks of water on the roof; a patter that will never, no matter where I am, be far from me. Our connection hasn't broken since the day my parents first met under an umbrella. I don't need it, but I miss it. I feel a peculiar absence in places where it doesn't rain; dry air unsettles me. And I feel a certain sympathy toward those people with no memories of splashing through puddles. Woe are they, the women and men without umbrellas.

translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes

Originally published in the Spanish by Etiqueta Negra 109, April 2013.