Wednesday, 19 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 2 Manneken Pis (3)



We trundled on towards Brussels in our green van. Every slight deviation from a straight line caused the racks of dry cleaning to swing from side to side, releasing fresh wafts of carbon tetrachloride with each sway. George and I began to feel ill, and weren't sorry to recognise the north-western outskirts of Brussels by the gleaming Atomium coming into view. This giant structure of multi-level stainless steel spheres, connected and supported by tubes large enough to carry escalators, had been the star attraction of the Brussels World Fair of two years before. The design was announced as futuristic, although it was modelled on the molecular structure of an iron compound, a basic building unit of the universe so eternal that the concept of time, future, present or past couldn't really be applied to it. If my head hadn't been so fuddled with dry cleaning fumes I might have thought this through more clearly, but in any case our phlegmatic driver dropped us a little further on.

What gravitational pull drew us to the city centre I can't remember. (Maybe, in a region so concerned with getting rid of excess liquid, coriolis force would be a better term, that curious phenomenon that creates a little hollow whirlpool over the plughole when you run the bath water away.) Later on, with the experience of several cities behind us, we mostly avoided city centres. Lifts, the golden currency of the hitch-hiker, were only on offer from city limits. Nobody stopped in the suburbs. To walk into a city centre, however interesting, meant that in due course we would have to walk all the way out again, accompanied by the clinking and clanking from the enamel mugs, saucepans and water-bottles suspended from our rucksack frames.

As night began to fall we found ourselves in the Grote Markt, the central square, admiring the Northern Gothic architecture of the floodlit city hall and the royal pied-à-terre opposite, but we were more concerned with finding somewhere to eat and sleep. We wandered about looking for a quiet park and eventually found, several streets and grand avenues away from the Grote Markt, a dark and secluded clump of rhododendrons in a corner of what appeared to be quite extensive parkland. We lit our tiny stove and boiled up a packet of chicken noodle soup, ate the last of George's mother's corned beef sandwiches, crawled into the rhododendrons, unrolled sleeping bags and drifted off, lulled by the Brussels night traffic. Shame on me, I can't remember if I spared a thought for flaming Adèle before falling asleep.

In the half-light of dawn I was woken by water spattering about me, particularly on my left hand, stretched out beyond the sleeping bag. My first thought was of rain, and the need to burrow underneath the groundsheet - an ex-army gas-cape -rather than lie on top of it.

But it wasn't rain. Someone was peeing into the rhododendrons. From the dripping depths of the undergrowth I shouted at him, Oi! or Hi! or Hey! (I'm sorry not to be able to recall the exact exclamation: there were other things on my mind). He harrumphed and made off. I don't know who was the more surprised.

I got up, calling to George a few feet away, who had slept through all this. If I'd thought about it more carefully I might have concluded that if there was any country in the entire world where you were liable to be peed on, it was Belgium. Thinking to rinse my hand I tried the water bottle, but it was empty. We'd drunk the last of it the night before. That it should come to this, that my hallowed left hand should be thus debased. Things were bad. George was reluctant to move and showed no sympathy.

When we staggered out from our thicket, having no idea what our surroundings might look like in daylight, we discovered that we'd slept in some very public gardens, worthy of a capital city. Neatly gravelled allées stretched between avenues of fine trees, meeting in front of noble public buildings, pristine and sharply detailed as wedding cake. Parliament? The Royal Palace? The Nation Belgian Bank? The Opera, where once La Muette de Portici had played?

At 6 o'clock ornamental fountains suddenly started up. Few people were about, no one in the immediate area. We stripped off and jumped in for a few seconds, splashing and rubbing. So my left hand, token of in memoriam fidelity, finally lost whatever Adelian patina remained.

Wet beneath our clothes, we crossed a broad avenue, the Koningstraat, and tried to find our way to the station, where there might be a local stopping train or a tram to take us to the eastern edges of Brussels and the main road to Liège and Aachen. Quite unexpectedly we came upon a bizarre statue, cradled in a niche set above a little stone basin in an open place in the Rue de l'Etuve: a small boy peeing, the famous Manneken Pis. How very apt.

I told George I was never going to use the expression 'Well, pee on me' again. He agreed. It was never wise to tempt Providence, but given the nature of the oaths I'd come out with the day before on finding flaming Adèle hadn't kept her tryst, might I reconsider my position? Being peed on in a rhododendron bush seemed much less vexatious than the other imprecations.

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