I have always considered myself an alert overseas traveller, always on the lookout for foreigners who want to rob me blind. I was raised on stories where little old ladies are travelling on trains in foreign climes and, just before the doors close at a station stop, some character, who has been chattering happily away next to her, has grabbed her bag and jumped out of the carriage as the door closes. The bewildered baby boomer has been suddenly left with no money, passport and equilibrium to face life in this dangerous foreign country a long way from home.
I spent two weeks in Italy one time riding the trains and I spent most of my time trying to determine whether the person opposite me was a Gypsy pickpocket. I always had my back-pack to the wall of the train, certain that I could defend its contents from all comers. The one time I let my guard down was when I had got up early in Palermo, Sicily and headed to the central bus station to catch a bus to Catania. One of the officials stopped me as I was strolling around, clearly recognising that I would be a soft touch for the mafioso pickpockets. He suggested that I carry my backpack on my chest so that I could watch its zippered pockets at all times.
Another time I was in that nerve centre of thievery, Naples Central Station, and as I was walking up the steps to my platform, a chap tapped me on the shoulders and pointed out that one of the pockets in my backpack was open. I immediately thought,
“Right, cunning plan! Open the zipper of the pocket, steal my valuable stuff and then claim innocence by pointing out the open pocket as if you were Mr Innocent of Naples! That’s both theft from and psychological torture of tourists!”
I smiled and thanked him, checking the backpack pocket that was open, ready to chase the smug bandit, assault him and thus create a riot in Naples where I would spend the rest of my holidays trying to raise the funds to pay for my lawyer. The problem for me was that nothing had been taken, he had been a pleasant commuter feeling sorry for the easy ‘mark’. It was becoming willing to admit to myself that perhaps most Italian train travellers might not be pickpockets.
As I continued to travel overseas, this early phobia about pickpockets on trains slowly passed away to complacency which led to the day I put our passports in my day backpack when we were catching the Metro in Paris. I still thought I was being aware of people around me and was fully confident I could recognise slippery pickpockets. I neither saw, felt, or smelt whoever it was that opened my backpack and stole the passports. In fact, as I didn’t need them that day, I only realised they were missing the next morning when I opened the pocket of the bag to get out the passports. We were about to catch a train from Paris to Brussels so I didn’t have time to report them missing in Paris. It simply meant we had to find the police station in central Brussels and waste much of our first afternoon there reporting the theft so that we could begin the process of gaining a temporary passport.
My complacency about the possibility of losing my passport had also meant that I had failed to bring copies of it, as well as other key identity documents. I was forced to send an email to my number one son (with a copy to his sibling rivals), asking him to find the key to my house, start up my computer and email me the various appropriate documents that I would need when I visited the Australian Embassy in Brussels. For no known reason, I attached the image below to this email for help.
The less than empathic replies started to come in.
“Hello Father… given the recent stealing of your passport and the completely out of character purchase (eg. the jacket!), I have doubts that you are really who you claim to be… Siblings, if any of you start getting any requests to wire money overseas to assist with an emergency from this supposed Father of ours, please ensure you ask security questions that only the real Father would know. For instance, ‘Father, please verify your identity by naming the postcode of the house in which we grew up???’ ”
“Very true John, we can’t be too careful!! I suggest asking them to provide all of our birthday dates… Only then, if they have no idea, will we truly know that it is Dad!”
In this life, you ‘reap what you sow’!
The ‘Mannekin Pis’ of Brussels
Belgium has had an image problem ever since March 2016 when folks connected to the earlier terrorist attacks in Paris decided that the Belgians were concentrating too much on the good life and not the ‘after-life’. It was a plan with many aspects, so to discourage people from other countries coming to express fellow feeling with the citizens of Brussels, they let their bombs off at key places for tourists, the International Airport and the Maelbeek Metro Station in central Brussels. As a result, there are now a lot of serious, young men in army uniforms carrying large automatic rifles wandering around airports and train stations and other major public places in Brussels …and Paris…and Rome!
Australian tourists have voted with their feet in 2016 by generally avoiding Europe and opting for the colder atmosphere of Canada and Alaska instead. Given that we had booked a European tour 12 months before, we were still going to Paris and Belgium in September 2016 with a defiant attitude towards our health and safety…we left on ‘9/11’ and even this portent didn’t stop us from describing our holiday as the ‘Tourist Terrorist Tour”. Any concerns were quickly allayed by the friendliness and normalcy of the citizens of Brussels.
Our few days in Brussels surprised us, not just by the architectural beauty of so many of the buildings in the centre of the city, but by the vibrancy of the culture that was evident in the streets. On the Sunday of our time there, the central area had been declared a ‘Car-Free’ Day and the local families grabbed their bikes and headed out to have fun in the centre of Brussels. Our little group was split between two activities; biking the city or riding the blue or red buses. Those who rode the buses reported that both the Blue and the Red bus tours were very interesting for the wide variety of beautiful Churches and Palaces that Brussels has to showcase. Those of us who hired bikes not only enjoyed the easy ride around the city but sampling the beers of Belgium in a gorgeous arcade with a view is hard to beat.
In the ‘Grand Markt” entertainment was on show all weekend. I was particularly impressed by the exuberant Belgian drummers who played loud, energetic drum-symphonies on both days.
One thing we did discover was that the Belgians had sweet tooths and appeared to be obsessed with Chocolate, Lollies and Cream and were determined to convert the tourists by the abundance of their Chocalateries and Confiseries (‘Artisinale’ lolly shops). The number of Chocolateries and the variety of approaches to shaping chocolates started to suggest to me that the Belgians took their life of chocolate consumption way too seriously, almost too the point of a society wide psychosis that was determined to increase the weight of the nation while destroying their health through suicidal levels of sugar consumption.
The only thing that undermined my view of the seriousness of the situation was the prevalence of the one shape of chocolate that all the shops appeared to be selling…chocolates in the shape of a small naked boy. It soon became evident in the galleries and alley-ways around the ‘Grand Markt’ of Brussels that ‘Mannekin Pis (‘Little Man Pee’) was the key-seller; surprising as it was in the shape of an unaccompanied male child whose parents had neglected to put clothes on him and allowed him to urinate in the main street – with a deal of smug pride at his achievement. Again my initial concerns were that I had encountered a culture that was a little over obsessional about images of urinating naked children. Coming from Australia where I presumed that if a chocolate shop was set up beside a Catholic Church and was selling life-size chocolate statues of naked boys, the place would be raided by the Federal police and the owner forced to confess to a multitude of sins before a Royal Commission for the rest of his miserable days. However I soon realised that the locals weren’t concerned by the issue of small boys ‘pissing’ in the street, they were just keen on ‘taking the piss’ out of themselves…it appeared to be one, long, self-deprecating laugh at themselves.
The history of the story of ‘Mannekin Pis’ explains the popularity of the image. There are various versions of the tale, apparently going back to the Twelfth century, all having the theme of a small, innocent child saving the day by –
- Pissing on the heads of invading troops;
- Pissing on the burning fuse of enemy explosives;
- As a lost child with the whole town looking for him, being found unconcerned by his situation, peeing in the street.
The story gained country wide approval when a small bronze statue was put in a fountain in the centre of Brussels in 1618. Of course citizens of Brussels (perhaps even their outraged enemies) have been stealing the statue of ‘Mannekin Pis’ from the fountain ever since. The current statue in Brussels has lasted since 1995, perhaps because the proliferation of chocolate, life-size statues of ‘Little Man Pee’ has meant that everybody can have him on their mantelpiece for less trouble than stealing the bronze version at midnight.