You awaken to an ominous pitter-patter on the windowpane. It is raining. Only this time it's different. It's raining on your vacation--that precious, planned-for, halcyon holiday of wine, roses and sunshine in which you've invested a tidy sum. This is another of Stepmother Nature's dirty tricks, but you don't have to take it lying down. By and large, people verge on paranoia about nasty weather on their travels. Bona fide worrywarts may go so far as to take out foul-weather insurance, as others insure against theft, lost baggage and canceled travel arrangements. I myself really don't care much what the weather does as long as I'm not caught in a desert with no sun-screen lotion, or in a rainstorm with leaky shoes. This insouciance is nothing to brag about--just a matter of genes, I think. Granted that a rainy day does pose some problems. You'll just have to wait till the sun shines, Nellie, to idle away an afternoon in the Bois de Boulogne or Regent's Park or the Borghese Gardens, but there are plenty of well-sheltered options that can be infinitely rewarding. The crux of making the most of a rainy day is to choose a pursuit that will offer long-term shelter with a little entertainment or action thrown in. Here's your chance to go somewhere and do something that's not on the usual tourist's must-see list. Any current event that attracts the natives is bound to be rewarding, if only for its people-watching potential. In Milan, upon the advice of a desk clerk at the Principe e Savoia, I spent as undismal a dismal day as ever there was at a mammoth food fair in one of the city's famous exhibition buildings. What a magnificently Lucullan affair--acres and acres of hams, sausages, cheeses, olives layered in different colors in tremendous glass jars, vivid mosaics of preserved fruits, candies, biscotti , fresh green groceries presented like flower gardens, pasta machines and espresso machines. The air was fragrant with the aroma of roasting coffee.
One Sunday in Paris, although drenched, I went to St. Sulpice for Mass, which was followed by a heavenly recital of organ music. A rainy day is made to order for shopping, especially the big-department-store kind. Nothing can give you a better slant on the ethos or temperament of any community, at home or abroad, than the kind of goods offered for sale in its popular stores. To mind come certain big stores that make mighty fine umbrellas and are sightseeing attractions in themselves. In New York, Macy's, Bloomingdale's, Altman's, Lord & Taylor, Gimbel's; in Chicago, Marshall Field's; in Paris, Au Printemps, Galeries Lafayette, Le Bon Marche and the erstwhile Louvre department store that has turned into an antiques center.
World-acclaimed biggies in Scandinavia are Stockholm's Nordiska Kompaniet and Helsinki's Stockmann's, and in Copenhagen there's tempting and leisurely browsing at Den Permanente , where Denmark's top-quality crafts are represented, and at Illum's Bolighus , a home furnishings store especially noted for its charming displays. And, of course, in London, Harrods is an institution that shouldn't be missed, rain or shine. London has many arcades, the best known and possibly most chic being the Burlington Arcade.
All over the map, great enclosed--often underground--shopping malls, little cities of goods and services, are proliferating as if in preparation for a rainy day. Some that have already become landmarks are Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis, where enclosed walkways between buildings keep you out of traffic and the elements.
There is the labyrinthine, tunnel-system shop-and-restaurant mall on Louisiana Street that is Houston's pride and joy; Montreal's underground city, Place Ville-Marie and the adjacent Place Bonaventure; Toronto's Eaton Centre; the Forum des Halles in Paris, a hole in the ground where the old market used to be, now elegantly filled in with shops that purvey everything from designer clothes to computers; Stockholm's Gallerian, which encloses several city blocks and provides snug shopping for anything in the world that you could conceivably desire from a fish dinner to an art gallery acquisition, with auction rooms and a huge, prestigious book shop on hand. And for decades now, at the splash of a raindrop, New Yorkers have hied themselves to the subterranean marts beneath Rockefeller Center.
For me, book browsing is the No. 1 way to spend any day, in any weather. Should you ever find yourself in Herefordshire in England's West Country, hasten to Hay-on-Wye, a town given over utterly to secondhand books. But if that happy haunt evades you, I'd say any book shop in a storm--the bigger the better for browsing.
On a rainy day, try sampling the subways of the world. My favorite remains the Paris Metro, so easy to figure out, and the Louvre station is a charmer, with museum exhibits right on the subway platform. Munich's underground is pretty nifty, too, and there then are Montreal's smooth-riding rubber-tired trains.