A few days ago, whilst exploring Lisbon on foot and by metro, I purchased an umbrella - for two what seemed to me perfectly valid reasons. The first was that it cost only 5 Euros - i.e. not expensive enough to warrant a great deal of careful thought about whether I had any real use for an umbrella; the second that I had in fact conceived of a use for an umbrella during my upcoming journey – although I hadn’t thought too carefully about it because there was only 5 Euros at stake.
The use that I had conceived of for it, was as a parasol; a Spanish word translated roughly as ‘for the sun’ - which in my current circumstances has a suitably hysterical and defensive ring to it. Naming a device merely in terms of the protection it affords against something else betrays a respect bordering on fear for that something else. In England where such displays of emotion are considered unseemly we do not have a word that equates to the Spanish ‘parasol’ – partly and most obviously because we didn’t until recently have much ‘sol’ to worry about but also because English doesn’t work that way.
On a rainy day a Frenchman may carry a parapluie to protect him from the pluie (rain) whilst a Spaniard might occasionally be seen with a paraguas to fend off the ‘aguas’ but an Englishman carries an ‘umbrella’ – a device that creates an all-purpose all-weather ‘umbra’ – or shadow. That is the efficiency of the English language. And because it focuses on what it does rather than what it does it to, the word ‘umbrella’ is also future proof. If in the future it should become commonplace to need protection not only against the sun and rain but also against plagues of falling frogs, the French will be left with no choice but to create a piece of equipment with the ridiculous name ‘paragrenouille’ – whilst the English umbrella will casually saunter out to meet its new challenge quite unperturbed, remarking nonchalantly perhaps that it too is amphibious by nature.
I left the small tourist centre at Cabo da Roca soon after midday – leaving partner Alison and baby Louis in the car park preparing for the Journey to that night’s hotel. It was as I believe I already mentioned really quite hot and as I may also have mentioned I had in preparation for such an eventuality, bought an umbrella – not black as all the above nonsense about Englishness might have lead you to believe but the light toffee colour characteristic of the Burberry brand other suggestions of which appeared in the shape of tartan trim around the edge of the canopy.
Alison was not convinced – either that the umbrella had any authentic connection with the House of Burberry or that it was any substitute for a hat. So as a parting gift she passed through the half-open car window an item without which I would not have lasted that first day – a large square of white muslin.
Confident that my umbrella/parasol would be equal to its appointed task, I had nonetheless always intended to buy a hat as well. Having failed to find one in Lisbon, I think I expected to be able to pick one up along the road to Cabo da Roca. It was after all the ‘sea-side’ and surely every dusty town in that vicinity must therefore boast several small shops selling inflatable crocodiles, footballs in plastic netting, sunglasses and hats – surely? Unfortunately, no.
Although coach parties do visit Cabo da Roca as a ‘place of interest’ and ‘beauty spot’, neither the place itself nor the surrounding area has been able to turn that fact to any significant commercial advantage. There are no large hotels, no noisy bars, no major roads – nothing. The local population seem quite unperturbed by the fact that they are mainland Europe’s most westerly citizens – it is an honour they wear casually as though genuinely unaware of it.
I suspect that the reason for the lack of development in the immediate area is the absence of a usable beach – and the reason for that I suppose is that jutting defiantly as it does into the Atlantic Ocean, Cabo da Roca only exists because it is made of the sort of hard durable rock that remains when everything else has been scoured away by surging tides and violent storms. The practical consequence is a dearth of sand - and of hats.
By the time the silver hire car containing Alison and Louis passed me heading East I was about half way up the hill to Europe’s first (or last) settlement – Azoia; a tiny place and home to the humorously named Café Occidental (Western Café). As they disappeared round one of the many bends in the road, I felt a weight of apprehension bearing down on me. I was about to attempt a walk of some 200 Km – 35 of them today. I could very easily die in the attempt – how many stupid and overconfident Englishmen die that way every year?
‘Hang on though’, I caution myself. How many of those unfortunates had the foresight to carry an umbrella – very few surely. I try to convince myself that this gives me an ‘edge’ – but I have trouble believing myself and so in the shade of some very long grass that may in fact have been bamboo, I set about the business of creating a hat out of a large white square of muslin.
In pursuit of a solution to this simple problem, my first instinct was to rest the square of cloth on top of my head and push its edges down between the side of head and the arms of my glasses – the result lacked both style and function. It looked, if it looked like anything, like the white cap that a traditional French maid might wear, and staring out from beneath its gently undulating rim, I looked like a distressed walrus escaping head first from a rustic apple pie. I know this because somewhat to my own surprise I found that I did care a little about how I would appear to passers by and so not having a mirror to hand, took a photograph of myself. Clearly this would not do.
A girl would know how to solve this problem I reflected. Girls I am aware can produce any number of complex garments each of which when unravelled turns out to be nothing more than a square of cloth. But my girl had just disappeared over the horizon and who knows when I would encounter another one – much less one who would react positively to a fat sweaty Englishman waving a piece of white cloth and trying to explain with only hand gestures that he needed desperately to know the secret of the hat that is really a large handkerchief.
Briefly but only briefly I considered what used to be the standby hat of the Englishman abroad – a device favoured by my father and by the male inhabitants of those lewd seaside postcards so popular during the Seventies. A product of the modernist school of architecture, it wears the secrets of its construction on the outside for all to see. A small tight knot at each corner turns a square of cloth into a garment that fairly screams ‘I don’t belong here and I’m too mean to buy a hat’. But as I say, I considered this option only briefly before dismissing it. Apart from the questionable comic associations, it seemed to me that it was poorly adapted to the job in hand.
I have seen ‘The Four Feathers’ often enough to have noticed that when Ralph Richardson goes blind as a result of losing his hat whilst clambering inadvisedly over a rocky outcrop in the desert, the hat in question is shaped a bit like a mullet (the 80s haircut rather than the fish) in that it boasts an elongated rear section. I’ve always assumed that this is because in terms of sunstroke, the back of the neck is a vital area and if that is so then the ‘four knots hankie hat’ is seriously defective.
In terms of the protection it affords from the sun, the haircut closest in shape to the hankie hat is what was known during the 60s and 70s as the ‘pudding basin’ – precisely the same length all round because (so legend has it) a pudding basin was placed on the victim’s head and used as a template which mum cut around with a pair of blunt chrome-plated scissors. I’m not absolutely sure, but I suspect that this technique only worked (even to mum’s satisfaction) if your hair grew straight – for the black kids or kids with curly hair the ‘pudding basin’ would have looked like and immediately been rechristened ‘the garden hedge’.
But what I needed was a “mullet hat” and after one or two abortive attempts I struck upon the following method.
Take your square of white muslin and drape it over your head so that the leading edge is more or less parallel with your forehead and will reach about half way down it. That should leave a larger portion of the cloth hanging down as far as your shirt collar at the back – if it doesn’t then either you are not wearing a shirt (in which case the lack of a hat is the least of your worries) or your piece of cloth isn’t big enough and you will need to try something else. But assuming for now that it is, take the two corners of the leading edge and pull them back around your head like a bandanna, tying a knot in the hollow at the base of your skull
What you should be left with is an Arab-style head dress stretched tight over the top of your head with a skirt of material hanging loose to cover its sides and the back of your neck. Depending on your disposition you may also find your self in possession of a disproportionate sense of achievement and a new if misguided confidence that you now ready to withstand many hours exposure to the scorching sun.
Speaking for myself I have little doubt that with the finishing touch of my newly fashioned hat, I cut an impressive sort of figure as I took my first steps in the direction of Istanbul. In addition to the muslin square and trusty umbrella cum parasol, my crossing-Europe-¬¬on-foot gear comprises the following:
Walking shoes & socks, khaki shorts with inconvenient button fly, T-Shirt, Large leather satchel (containing Several plastic bottles of water, maps, passport and mobile phone – fully charged), a camera (hanging by strap around neck), and a compass tied to the satchel strap.
Coming ready or not.