Tuesday, 3 May 2011

European Statues Condemned by the Daily Mail No.1: The Mannequin Pis

Memories are funny things. The last time I visited Brussels, back in 1990, the weather was being very English. I remember it as a miserable, grey, corporate world. The old buildings were grand but dour; the new were indentikit office blocks. But the Brussels I see today is a world away. In fact, it doesn't feel like the same place at all. That can't just be that the sun's shining, can it?

With the help of an A-Z map of Brussels, I found a beautiful, and beautifully quiet, route in via cycle lanes and leafy suburbs. I must have been only a kilometre or two from the centre before the traffic kicked in. And so like any normal bloke I hunted out a small statue of a little boy having a piss. And boy, is it small? The statue, that is. The Mannequin Pis apparently has hundreds of different outfits - a sort of urinating stone Barbie - including an Elvis one, but today he seemed to be decked out in the attire of a medieval Japanese warrior, although I'm not sure why.

Me and the pisser

My big problem was accommodation. Brussels was full up, full of humans and full of fish. Some international festival of seafood had taken all the rooms, even those in the normally cheap and cheerful hostels. I'd suspected this beforehand when, three days earlier, TripAdvisor's best deal was €230 per night - no, thanks - but it was confirmed by the tourist office. I had to get an internet connection and fast. Before I'd left Luxembourg I'd Facebooked a couple of the people I was meeting here to see if they had friends in Brussels with gardens in which I might be able to camp. It was a long shot. So I asked the tourist office about the nearest WiFi connection. "Out of the office, turn left, down the street, turn right after 100 metres, then turn right and there's a place that usually has internet." OK, I said. There's nowhere closer? "Oh yes, you can use WiFi here." What, here in the tourist office? "Yes." Mmm, yes, here seems closer. So, I did. No one knew anyone with a garden. My only option was to cycle out of the city and hope that there was space in a campsite an hour and a half away. But I'd already cycled for eight hours and my legs were pooped.

Just in case the campsite was full and I couldn't make it back to the city, I contacted Jo, fellow OU student, to see if I could pop around and pick up the replacement tent pole that Hilleberg had sent to her address for me. I don't know if I looked like I was dying when I arrived at her place but she immediately said that if I didn't mind the floor I could crash there. My saviour! After the possibility of a long and fruitless ride on weary legs, a floor, the very luxury of it!

So I had found another star. Jo's a cheerful soul and good company, and she's doing a lot of the same courses as I am, maths and astronomy. And she's been living here for fourteen years and so she knows a bar or two. We went out and grabbed something to eat and I got a chance to sample a few more Belgian beers - a top evening! Thanks Jo, you really helped me out.

Jo and a beer

So now I'm sat in a park typing this and awaiting another appointment, with another OU student, Mike, in a couple of hours. Like London and Paris and Luxembourg, Brussels really is worth a visit. I suspect I'm going to be saying that for everywhere I go on this ride. Just make sure the sun is shining when you visit.

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