In Belgium, don’t take the Manneken Pis
Paris has the Eiffel Tower, Rome the Colosseum, New York the Statue of Liberty. Symbolic and imposing landmarks instantly recognizable worldwide.
Brussels meanwhile has the Manneken Pis. Think of the Belgian capital and, if anything, you think of the small urinating boy.
Some might mock. But for Jacques Stroobants, the little widdler is up there with the best of them.
“I am proud of him. People come from all around the world to see him,” says 60-year-old Stroobants, who has changed the eternally leaking minor’s clothes for the last 29 years.
“I come and dress him, come rain or snow. There is only one job like this in the world,” he adds, with a fatherly glance at the bronze figure, constantly surrounded by a tourist horde.
Few can question the Manneken’s pedigree. The diminutive urinator has been relieving himself into a small fountain three minutes from Brussels’ splendid Grand Place for nearly 400 years, since 1619.
While perhaps best known in all his naked glory, he has also over the years been clad in some of the finest costumes money can buy. On average he is clad 300 days a year.
In all he has some 600 outfits, offered by everyone from foreign embassies to sports clubs and folkloric groups. His extensive wardrobe is kept in the King’s House, no less.
Every year hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to have their pictures taken with the peeing infant.
And if a straw poll of pilgrims attending at the Manneken’s shrine-like fountain is anything to go by, they appreciate him deeply.
“He’s cute,” said 38-year-old American tourist Barbara Kaminsky, on vacation with her family from Houston, Texas.
“I suppose it’s a bit strange that he’s the most famous thing about Brussels, but we’ve seen a lot in Europe,” she added. “For us there’s so much history in everything.”
Stroobants is unsurprised at the adulation.
“If I had a franc for every picture that’s taken I wouldn’t need a salary,” he told AFP, after dressing the little boy while dressed up in his festive costume as Father Christmas.
Not to suggest that the Manneken is exploited for commercial purposes. Not by its owners, at least.
Quite the opposite in fact: there is strictly no charge for those wishing to provide a costume for the little boy — providing certain conditions are fulfilled.
“The costumes cannot include either advertising or political messages,” said Stroobants, adding that any attempt to use the Manneken as a urinating billboard would cheapen a national treasure.
“If you put Coca Cola or something like that on him, it would lose all its value,” he says, adding that six years ago a Belgian wine company offered to sponsor the statue, but was turned down.
Some of the most popular costumes include an Elvis suit, which adorns the boy every August for the anniversary of the singer’s death, while national sports teams’ strips also regularly feature.
But offers of new costumes are extremely carefully vetted. Applicants have to supply three photos to the deputy mayor’s office.
Recent rejects include a Harry Potter outfit, deemed too much of a tie-in with the blockbuster wizard orphan.
Needless to say, the ethical rigor does not extend to a total ban on cashing in on the boy’s image: he has spawned a veritable industry of statuettes, tea towels and a sea of other nick-nacks.
“I don’t mind that. I have a collection myself, which I sometimes show as an exhibition for people who are interested,” says Stroobants.
Over the years the genial Mannecken-dresser — whose day job is as a decorator for Brussels City Hall — has seen his small charge come through many scrapes.
One of the most alarming was a morning in 1978, when he turned up to find the boy simply missing from his plinth. “Some students had taken him hostage for a media stunt. He was back within 24 hours.”
Making off with the Manneken would now be almost impossible: he is bolted down, and his beatific face looks down from behind an imposing grill to which only his keeper has the key.
Tourists meanwhile continue to flock to the shrine, at the end of a cobbled street lined with Brussels’ ubiquitous waffles stands and chocolate shops, and opposite a Tin Tin shop.
“He’s smaller than we expected,” said Iwai Otsuki, a 19-year-old student from Osaka. “But no, I’m not disappointed,” she added before lining up to be snapped with her friends. —AFP