Victoria the Umbrella Lady
Based on our observations over several rainy days in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, umbrellas are in high demand among the locals as well as the throngs of visiting tourists.
It is impossible to calculate how many of those umbrellas end up in trash cans, empty lots or simply left to die on the street somewhere due to their inevitable malfunction and breakdown. Obvious indications are that many people regard an umbrella as a disposable part of their wardrobe. If it rips, tears, no longer opens or turns inside-out they simply get rid of it, by whatever means, and buy another one. Just one more casualty of our throw away consumer culture.
Umbrellas not only break or malfunction because they have to fight Mother Nature at her angriest, but also simply because of their design. There are roughly 150 different parts that make up a typical umbrella, each with the potential to snap, become inverted, fall off, or otherwise succumb to stress.
What most people do not realize is that in many cases an umbrella can be repaired.
Enter Victoria, a vivacious, energetic woman nearing her 80’s, running her Reparación y Venta or umbrella repair stand at the farmers market in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Wearing her bright blue, full length lab coat and a fashionable scarf wrapped snugly around her neck Victoria is a force of nature just waiting for her next customer to bring in their broken umbrella so she can work her well respected magic. Curious onlookers such as us are also welcome as she embraces anyone interested in learning about her trade.
Over five decades she has never regarded her craft as a job. In fact she shared with us that she has been retired for years yet continues to come to her humble kiosk every day because, in her words, “I love people and I love to make them happy.” Just then an elderly woman approached the kiosk to pick up her umbrella. Victoria charged her two Euros! As the woman attempted to press twice that amount into Victoria’s hand she politely refused while the two of them chatted about their families.
We were transfixed by the kindness and cheerful enjoyment that Victoria seemed to get by simply helping people. Money was not the point. Repairing umbrellas is the reason that she showed up every day. For her it was a day-to-day way to stay connected to her community, to friends and customers as well as being useful to others.
Suddenly a thought came to both of us.
“Let’s give her the umbrella that we packed for our trip and have not used once in four months!” Sharing with her that we wanted to give her our umbrella she offered a wide smile and simply said “thank you,” We bid her farewell promising to show up the following day.
On the way back to our hotel we could not help but laugh at the fact that we even packed an umbrella in the first place being that we rarely used one at home and never when we traveled. “Why did we bring this thing anyway? After all, we have our high-tech hooded rain jackets. Who needs both?”
In fact we have close friends that asked us early on in our travels “Is there anything that you packed for your long term travel that you realized you didn’t need?”
Um yes…an umbrella!
Once back at the hotel we shared our experience with the owner who shared his own childhood experience of the days when a local man on a bicycle would ride through his neighborhood going house-to-house offering knife sharpening in addition to…you guessed it…umbrella repair! Although the days of the bicycle riding repairman are long gone it is people like Victoria that keep the tradition and the practice alive.
After breakfast the following day we headed back to the market, umbrella in hand. There was Victoria in her lab coat and fashionable scarf chatting it up with her fellow vendors and passersby. Upon seeing us she gave us both an enthusiastic hug as though we were family. Still curious from our conversation with the hotel owner, we questioned her about the history of the bicycle riding umbrella repairmen.
“Oh yes she exclaimed…my grandfather was one of them!”
This can’t be true we thought. Please go on.
She explained that her grandfather, father and now her, were the legacy family in Santiago performing what was once the only way that patrons could have their knives sharpened or their umbrellas repaired. This ebullient, larger-than-life woman was the third, and immensely proud, generation still bringing new life to broken umbrellas! This is not something that you see everyday…if ever!
The time had come to present our umbrella to Victoria!
I pulled my fancy-schmancy, push button Victorinox from its protective sleeve and attempted to open it. As I fumbled with the button she patiently observed me with a loving smile. My little demonstration was not going well! Victoria finally reached out her hand to take the umbrella and with one push of the button popped it open. “Okay I admitted, it’s been awhile since I used it!”. There was laughter all around as she admired the brand new, flat black umbrella. Just then Fernanda mentioned to her that now she had a new umbrella she could sell to a customer.
“Oh no she exclaimed…I’m keeping this one for myself!”
She then began rummaging through the inside of her kiosk looking for something. She returned to produce a small book of photographs titled “Retrato dun Mercado” which loosely translated means “Portrait of a Market”. This little gem of a book contained photographs of the various women who work, and manage kiosks, at the Mercado de Abastos de Santiago. She handed the book to Fernanda and told her it was hers to keep.
On the cover of this precious book was none other than our new friend Victoria, sitting on a chair in her trademark blue lab coat, silver-grey hair pulled back in a bushy ponytail, patiently repairing yet another broken down umbrella.
After a bit more lively banter and another round of hugs we bid this loving, gregarious woman farewell.
Halfway back to our hotel it began to rain as we sheltered under the hoods of our rain jackets.