Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Manneken Pis

“Have fun in Belgium,” the AAA Travel Agent said handing me tickets and my itinerary. 
“Thank you,” I said smiling.
“When you're there you have to eat chocolate.”
“Yes.”
“Drink beer.”
“Yes.” 
“And visit Manneken Pis!”
Right.


Before departing for a travel destination people always have tips on where to go and what to do. Going to California? You must see Yosemite, DisneyLand and the actor footprints at the Chinese Theater. Going to Belgium? You must eat chocolate, drink beer and see the statue of Manneken Pis.

In case your knowledge of European statues is limited to the sweeping statuary of Ugolino and his Sons in New York, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais in Paris or Michelangelo’s heart-breaking Pietà in Rome, think less grand in Brussels. In fact think small in size and action.

Manneken Pis is a bronze statue measuring just two feet tall. Not only does he have a petite stature but the Manneken Pis is depicted doing the most mundane of things—urinating. There is some debate about why Brussels has glorified a tiny statue of a naked boy peeing into a fountain. One says that back in the day—around 1300 or so—the city was on fire and a little boy extinguished the fire by urinating on it. Either the fire was not large or the boy had an enormous bladder. In any case this statue commemorates that action. Another legend claims that a man lost his son in the city and after searching high and low, found the little boy peeing in a garden, because that is what children do when they are lost: they strip naked and urinate on the petunias. Or at least they do in Brussels.

In case your familiarity with favored treasures is limited to those you can see from miles around like New York City’s Empire State Building, Paris’ Eiffel Tower or Rome’s Colosseum, disavow yourself of a grand entrance in Brussels. In fact think out of the way.

Manneken Pis is found in a narrow pedestrian street in Brussels between tourist shops and a waffle stand. If you didn’t know what you were looking for you would walk right by his statue. More correctly, you never would have walked down that street in the first place. Today little Manneken Pis is perched on a corner of two cobblestone streets and if you are not standing directly in front of the peeing boy, you just won’t see him. Subtle and not-in-your face, that’s how they do things in Brussels.

In case your idea of grand art means showing the human form it its pure, naked state, like Klimt’s Hope II in New York City, Ingres’ Odalisque in Paris or Michelangelo’s mighty David in Rome, forget naked in Brussels. Think clothes.

The statue of Manneken Pis depicts a naked boy peeing but it’s rare to see the statue naked because he is usually dressed in one of his 700 outfits. Popular costumes include an Elvis Presley white jumpsuit, a deep-sea diver’s wetsuit, a Santa Claus suit and on July 21—the Belgian National holiday—an outfit in the colors of the Belgian flag—red, yellow, black. 

Speaking from personal experience, the mere thought of dressing Michelangelo’s David in anything is ludicrous and conversely seeing Manneken Pis dressed in any of his countless outfits is hilarious. 

When I arrived in Belgium I did what everyone told me to do: I went to Brussels to see the statue of Mannekin Pis. On that day he was dressed in the soccer uniform of Belgium’s national team, the Red Devils. On a busy pedestrian street I saw a small statue; I smelled the fresh waffles being made at the waffle stand; and I witnessed the hordes of people who had come to see Manneken Pis. I heard them laughing at his costume, at the small size of this silly statue and I was impressed at its ability to make complete strangers laugh together. I was won over by the charm, the power of Manneken Pis. Dressing well, not taking themselves too seriously and rolling out the red carpet for tourists, that’s how they do it in Brussels.