Brussels, Belgium – April 2013
It’s not hard to find the Mannekin Pis, the famous symbol of Brussels. Just head towards the perpetual crowd by the side of the road. I’ve read that the Mannekin Pis frequently tops the list of most overrated tourist traps and roadside attractions in Europe. In Europe, the roads are cobblestone and the tourist traps are hundreds of years old. This lends a seriousness to the experience that’s different from that of my childhood in America’s upper Midwest. Every year on our trips to northern Michigan, I’d stare out the window of our orange wood-paneled station wagon as it passed billboards announcing Mystery Spot, where water runs uphill; Call of the Wild Museum which shows heart-pounding depictions of wildlife; and most intriguing, Sea Shell City (try saying that one quickly) which has a 500 pound man- killing clam. I can still hear my grandmother’s voice, what do you want to stop at that tourist trap for? The tone of her voice implied that no answer would ever be convincing, so my brothers and sisters and I remained silent.
The Mannekin Pis is the size of an overfed rodent. His expression is probably meant to be mischievous, but to me it looks like one of profound relief. People come and go from the crowd, so that it never totally disperses. Obedient smiles of wonder light up their faces. A man frowns in concentration as he lines his expensive camera up for a shot. I’m the only person who’s giggling.
Tourist traps can be great fun if you realize that the joke is on you. I learned this when my brother Billy and I visited Sea Shell City as adults. It was nothing more than a shop that sold shells and other detritus of the sea, including the Crucifix Fish, a small fish skeleton that’s naturally shaped like a crucifix. Reinforcement from nature for those who need it. Each box came with a picture of Jesus and a prayer. The man-killing clam sat on a shelf and had a light bulb screwed into it. We almost got kicked out for laughing so loudly. However, we knew that Sea Shell City was a tourist trap. On a road trip to Tombstone, Arizona, an ancient local man told us that no visit to Tombstone was complete without a visit to the Hist-O-Rama. Billy and I sat amongst other tourists in a darkened theater and watched a beige mound decorated with houses, cowboys, and indians as it lit up with blinking lights and spun around on a turntable. Vincent Price’s sinister voice narrated the history of Tombstone to the accompaniment of recorded gunshots and screams. At one point the turntable got stuck for a few seconds, and then it broke free with a loud ping. The other spectators watched with rapt attention. Billy and I exchanged glances and bit our lips to keep from laughing out loud. At ourselves.
I linger at this small crossroads and marvel. The waffle and chocolate shops have at least one weenie wagging effigy gracing their doorways or windows. Talk about an appetite killer. I take it all in with a huge smile. It’s kitsch overload like I haven’t seen in years. I’ve been to other so-called tourist traps in Europe – the Eiffel Tower, the Coliseum, Monmartre. However, if you take away the tacky souvenirs and the mobs of tourists, they are genuinely impressive.
Kiddie corner from the statue is the Mannekin Pis pub. The neon sign includes a small silhouette of the statue. Sadly, it’s barely discernible in the daylight. I imagine that the draft beer dispensers are interesting. I peer inside, but a scowling bartender discourages me from venturing in further.
On my last day in Brussels, I make one last lap around the old city and circle back to the Mannekin Pis. It’s a sunny day and the crowd is larger and more boisterous. The statue is cloaked in red and yellow finery. People jostle each other for a closer shot. I stand back and take photos of the unsuspecting spectators.