Manneken Pis - the symbol of Brussels
source expedie.de

Americans new to Europe are often scandalized. All those bare breasts and bottoms on magazine covers! And not hidden in the back, but up front on the stands, even on racks outside on the sidewalk! And real bare breasts (some over 60 years old!!!!) at the beach! Even (late night anyhow) on the TV! (What would the preacher who wrote to the Miami Herald in 1999 complaining about his holiday in Miami being ruined by the sight of a bare breast on the beach say! Or the committee that banned the sale of Manneken Pis beer in Ohio because the picture on the label - similar to the above - was considered child pornography?)

Another potential problem for both sexes is inside the toilet stall - a squatty instead of a throne. There are not many any more in Belgium, but as you head south they get more common. (Fortunately, there apparently are no more squatties on trains in western Europe. That was a REAL challenge!)

More intimate is the public toilet. In Europe it is not at all uncommon for a woman to need to walk by a urinal to get to the toilet stall. That can be the case in even the best restaurant. And of course there are the frequent sightings of men urinating outdoors. (Apparently no law against that in Belgium.)

At the beach, even when people wear "proper" swimsuits they may well change in and out of them with little attempt at hiding in the process. And children often don't have swimsuits at all - just their skin.

Fancy hotels create another, even more intimate situation. If you visit the sauna, the dress (co-ed) is at most a towel around the waist. Often it is nothing.

The "red light" districts in many continental cities come complete with display (of the seller, not the transaction) windows. While those are carefully kept from public view in a few places such as Hamburg, in Belgium and the Netherlands they are often difficult to miss. For example, the main Brussels street is perfectly visible from trains using the eastern platform at Brussels North station. And there are a number of establishments with display windows to be found on the outskirts of towns. Interestingly, the accepted norms for such displays seem to require more clothing than most women wear at the beach. The typical costume is a push-up bra, panties, garter belt and stockings.

Typical America - a garden shop in Tennessee
source: AP photo published in NY Times 10 April 2004
The truth is that Europe (and much of the rest of the world) has a much more relaxed (dare I say healthy?) view of God's creation than is considered normal in a country where a father could get a school bus route changed because (he said) his small son was offended at the sight of a reproduction of a famous Greek statue of a nude man.

Jeanneken Pis

As for the little pisser, as Americans tend to call Manneken, what does he mean? He is the centerpiece of a public fountain (as in place to get water) erected in 1619. Fountains with water coming out of various parts of people and animals weren't uncommon at the time, but I think he was adopted by the people as a statement of their philosophy towards life - and particularly their (Spanish) overlords. And so he remains today.

Manneken is also probably the most famous tourist attraction in Brussels. Fortunately or unfortunately, part of most every day he will be wearing one of the hundreds of costumes he has been given by organizations and individuals. Costumes are only accepted from organizations of long standing and individuals in some Who's Who. Of course, costumes never interfere with the working of the fountain. A selection of the costumes are on display in the Brussels museum in the King's House on the Grand Place. The oldest was presented by Louis XV of France in 1747.

Post Script: The Women's Lib movement has even taken note of Manneken. Equality demands resulted in the installation of a female version, Jeanneken Pis. Most tourists don't ever see her, however. She is on a dead end alley (Impasse de la Fidélité) off Butcher Street (Rue des Bouchers).

last update 18 June 2001

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