The Age of Discovery at Museu de Marinha

I like history museums. It’s always interesting to see what history the museums choose to present, and the way they present it. It’s also telling to see what history they avoid presenting. Lisbon’s Museu de Marinha – the Maritime Museum – is a case in point.

Lisbon street with seaOn our way to the airport, the day we left Lisbon, the taxi driver asked how we’d enjoyed our visit. We made the usual noises about the fantastic weather, the food, the architecture. We said how much we liked that the city was built by the water. How much we missed that, living in Brussels which doesn’t even have a decent river, just a canal.

“And the history,” I said. “I like the history. I thought it was interesting to visit the Maritime Museum.”

“Ah, yes,” said the taxi driver. “If we have history, it’s all about the sea.” He was right about that.

Optical waves in tiles on Rossio squareLisbon is built on a tidal estuary – the mouth of the Tagus River where it opens into the Atlantic. You can see the water from many points in the city. Even when you can’t see it, it’s often present – in the architecture, in decorations, in monuments. And in the smell of the sea when the warm wind blows.

The second day of our holiday we took a train westward along by the side of the Tagus, four stops to Belém. In Belém, history and the sea are married even more closely. The train was crowded, every seat taken. Many teenagers in shorts and singlets and tennis shoes, suntanned limbs and cheerful faces, rolled towels and bottles of water. This was obviously the train to the beach. But the beach was not at Belém and only a few other tourists got out with us.

Tourist tram and Tuktuk at Praca de ComercioNot to say that Belém wasn’t busy. Tourist coaches, tourist trams, tourist tuk-tuks and private cars had all brought their share. The queue to get into the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (the Monastery of Jerome) snaked across a wide square and stood still under a blazing sun. We decided not to join it. What does it have to show anyway? We consulted our guidebook. “A monument to the wealth of the Age of Discovery… financed by ‘pepper money’, a tax levied on spices…” And it houses the tomb of Vasco de Gama.

Belem the queue at Mosterio de JeronimosOK. Let’s visit the Museu de Marinha instead, housed in one (more modern) wing of the Monastery. Cool, out of the sun, un-crowded, with maps and instruments of navigation, models of ships and… interesting lacunae.

Portugal’s maritime history begins with fishermen and traders long before the Reconquista and the siege of Lisbon. (See last week’s entry.) Right up until the early 1400s Portugal was little more than an outpost of Europe. A largely insignificant country – like England or Norway – on the edge of Europe, just scratching by. Because of a long coastline, many people fished for a living in the coastal waters. Because there were fisher folk, there were also sailors and shipbuilders. Inevitably there were merchants too, people who helped build trade routes up and down the Atlantic coast.

Henry the Navigator tileThen in the early 1400s, along came Infante Henrique – Prince Henry the Navigator. Henry was the third son of King João I and his English Queen, Philippa of Lancaster. (Incidentally, Philippa was the sister of England’s Henry IV. Henry’s daughter, also Philippa of Lancaster, later married Eric of Pomerania – Erik av Pommern – and became Queen of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.)

Prince Henry (1394-1460) took what Portugal had in the way of seafaring expertise and made something more of it. His motivation – he claimed – was wholly holy. He wanted to carry the Reconquista onward into Africa, to take the crusade to the Moors. And he wanted to get back at the Arab pirates who regularly raided Portugal to carry villagers off into slavery.

Lateen sailTo this end he encouraged the development of faster, more nimble sailing vessels – the Portuguese caravel with its lateen sail. He financed exploration further and further out into the Atlantic and south along the western coast of North Africa. He may have set up a school of navigation, although this seems to be more of a legend than a fact.

It was on Henry’s efforts that future Portuguese exploration built – and a century of effort finally paid off in 1499. That was when da Gama returned to Lisbon after the first European voyage to India round the south of Africa. The cargo of spices da Gama’s ships brought back was worth many times more than the cost of the expedition.

Vasco da GamaThat’s the story the Maritime Museum tells, and it tells it well. A good story, with lots of detail and many objects displayed to bolster its veracity.

But it’s not the full story. Not by a long chalk.

So what’s missing?

Well, slavery for one thing.

It’s true that Henry the Navigator wanted to spread Christianity. It’s true he wanted to put an end to slaver raids on Portuguese territory. It’s also a fact he wanted to make money from the expeditions – but more often than not lost money instead.

Museu de Marinha - Portuguese discoveries camelsWestern Africa was a land of gold – certainly gold came out of western Africa. The Portuguese reasoned it must come from somewhere, and Henry’s explorers were trying to find where. They were not very successful. However, they could see that slaves were a valuable commodity in Morocco.

Rescuing kidnapped Portuguese from the pirate slave markets of Morocco, the Portuguese saw that black Africans were also being traded as slaves. Though they couldn’t find gold, they could certainly find people. From a very early stage, Prince Henry and his explorers started financing their exploration by raiding African villages for slaves. To begin with they sold the Africans to Moroccan slavers – the same people they wanted to stop trading in captured Europeans. Very soon, though, the Portuguese started using African slaves themselves.

Museu de Marinha - Portuguese discoveries map detail 5 - AtlanticAs the explorations continued, more Atlantic islands were discovered, claimed for Portugal and colonised. The Portuguese started to colonise Madeira from 1425 and the Azores from 1433. In both places, from 1450 Prince Henry was encouraging the colonists to cultivate sugar cane and sugar beet. Refined sugar was in great demand in Europe and so a valuable cash crop – but cultivating it was labour intensive. Slavery was the answer.

The transatlantic slave trade was born in the Portuguese island colonies. Throughout the 1400s it was the principle source of finance for the Portuguese Age of Discovery.

Hunted by fishAfterwards, of course, the Portuguese slave trade was eclipsed by the Spanish, the British, the French, the Dutch…  (Even Sweden had a small corner of it.) However, the former Portuguese colony of Brazil became the last country in the Americas to end slavery. It hung on till 1888.

Nowhere in the Maritime Museum is there a breath about any of this.

Quite a serious oversight I feel.

Parque metro station - Ship with negroesInterestingly, we did find one place where there’s at least a hint that some Portuguese have not completely forgotten this dark side of the Age of Discovery. Each of Lisbon’s underground stations has it’s own unique decorative theme. The nearest station to our hotel, Parque, was themed around the Age of Discovery. All the illustrations for this post that have dark blue backgrounds come from the tiles of the Parque station. And, as you see, here at least the slave ships figure.

There were other interesting absences in the Museu de Marinha. Nothing, for example, about the Portuguese Empire between 1600 and the French Revolution. (It was a period of decline when Portugal lost out to the Dutch and the British.) It was also curious to see how the museum chose to describe the loss of Portugal’s colony Goa to independent India in 1961. (Complete with a recording of funereal music.) Not to mention the veil drawn over the independence struggles of the African colonies 1961-1974.

Still, we enjoyed our visit. I’d go back again!

Museu de Marinha, Belem - Portuguese discoveries map detail 1 - navigator


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

The Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon – visited by tourists for at least 970 years, and by Mrs SC and me last week

Old Lisbon street in AlfamaIt’s a long, steep climb up from the river, through the narrow winding streets – some of them stairs – of the Alfama. Up, up to the highest battlements of the Castelo de Sao Jorge – Lisbon’s Castle of St George. You need to stop at times on the way. Stand in the shade of a wall. Sit for a glass of fresh pressed orange juice or a cup of coffee. Feel the heat and the history radiating from the walls and the streets’ mosaic paving.

You can see why these heights were attractive: easy to defend, hard to take. They command the mouth of the River Tagus – the Tejo – and the harbour below; the routes out to the Atlantic in one direction, inland to Iberia in the other.

Battlements of Castelo de Sao Jorge and view over LisbonThe castle was built by Portugal’s Moorish rulers in the 700s, though the archaeology confirms previous fortifications from Roman, Carthaginian and pre-historic times. From the 700s to the 1100s the castle grew, and the city it protected. By 1147 it was, if not impregnable, certainly a tough challenge. At that point the Reconquista – the Christian re-conquest of Islamic Iberia – had been underway for a good 300 years. The current local leader was Dom Alfonso, Count of Portugal. The Count’s army wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t up to the challenge of Lisbon’s fortifications.

Fortune brought him reinforcements.

Part of Castelo de Sao Jorge held together with staplesThe Second Crusade was underway. The Pope in Rome had given the Catalans, Castilians, and Portuguese dispensation to fight their own fight at home. He summoned everyone else to spill blood in the Holy Land. An armada of ships from around the English Channel and the North Sea collected and sailed from Dartmouth in England. Figures differ, but there may have been upward of 160 ships. They ran into bad weather and put into Oporto where Dom Alfonso seized the day.

He persuaded this motley gang of bruisers – sorry, army of noble knights – to stay and besiege Lisbon. In keeping with their Christian faith, they drove a hard bargain. Dom Alfonso had to agree to let them hold the city after they had captured it. Just for a period. Just until they had taken everything of value they found and all the ransom they could squeeze from their prisoners. Don Alfonso also promised them feudal estates in the territories they captured if they chose to stay. They wouldn’t have to pay taxes either.

Lisbon from Castelo de Sao JorgeThe siege began on 1st July 1147 and ended on 25th October. The castle was starved into submission, though later Portuguese mythology gave the credit to a Portuguese knight, Martim Moniz. The story is that Moniz saw the Moors had left a door open (because after a four-month siege the defenders would of course open a door). He forced himself into the doorway, sacrificing his own life to stop the Moors closing it. His heroism allowed time for his comrades in arms to reach him and break through door to capture the castle.

In fact the defenders negotiated a surrender which would allow them to leave the castle with their lives and goods intact. Once in possession the Crusaders reneged on this agreement.

Arches in the Cathedral CloisterAfterwards, while some Crusaders sailed on to Palestine and the otherwise unmitigated disaster of the Second Crusade, others stayed. One English knight – Gilbert of Hastings – became the Bishop of Lisbon. No doubt his holy work during the siege had qualified him for the job.

Gilbert’s Cathedral – Sé de Lisboa – was constructed on part of the ruins of the city after the siege. An archaeological excavation under the Cathedral’s cloister reveals Moorish, Roman and earlier remains, and the site is open to the public. Mrs SC and I stopped there on our climb to the castle and looked into the depths of history. A blackbird was singing in the excavation and then it flew down and under the arch of a Roman sewer where, presumably, it had a nest.

Mrs SC reviews the archaeology in the Cathedral CloisterUp on the battlements, when we finally reach them, the limestone of the walls is weathering. I can see fossilised mussel shells and the imprint of clams created millennia ago. Along one of the castle’s lower, broader shoulders pines in the hot sun scent the air. Hollow and decayed trunks of olive trees, looking old enough to remember the siege, yet sprout twigs with small bunches of grey-green leaves. There’s life in the old wood yet.

View over Lisbon and the Tagus from Castel de Sao Jorge
View over Lisbon and the Tagus from Castel de Sao Jorge looking west


A few words of extra information. My rather sententious account of the Crusaders capturing Lisbon depends to some extent on Wikipedia, to some extent on accounts available at Castelo de Sao Jorge and to some extent on the eye-witness account by Osbernus De expugnatione Lyxbonensi (The Capture of Lisbon) at the Medieval Sourcebook. I should probably add that by 1147 Dom Alfonso was recognisd by his own people as King of Portugal, but not by any other state or ruler. It wasn’t till 1179 that he managed to finesse his achievements in the Reconquista into Papal recognition as the first King of Portugal.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Edith Cavell in Brussels

History is all around you in Brussels, still I was surprised one day to find myself walking along Rue Edith Cavell… and then I remembered.

Saint Joan and Edith Cavell

When I was at school, in the sixth form, I took part in a play. It was a production of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan. The play is a dramatization of the trial of Joan of Arc. In Bernard Shaw’s play she is neither saint nor sinner, but “a great middle-class reformer.” (To quote TS Eliot, who disliked what Shaw had done with her).

The play was one of our prescribed texts for the final A-level examination in English. In the performance I played Peter Cauchon, Bishop of Beauvais (the second best part after Joan herself). It was a great experience and I still remember a couple of incidents associated with the production, but the one thing that has stayed with me from the printed text wasn’t actually in the play, but in Shaw’s Preface.

Edith Cavell Memorial, LondonBernard Shaw was more than a playwright, he was a thinker and an activist. He used his plays as campaign tools. He wrote the play and Preface to Saint Joan while involved in campaigning, in support of the National Council of Women of Great Britain and Ireland, to get the wording changed on a monument.

The monument in question was the memorial to Edith Cavell.

The Cavell memorial

The memorial, planned during the First World War, was unveiled in 1920 in London. It’s still there. It is at the beginning of Charing Cross Road when you turn up from Trafalgar Square, between the National Gallery and the Church of St Martins in the Fields. Standing in front of a stone monolith, sculpted in a Modernist style, is the larger than life figure of a woman in the uniform of a nurse. This is Edith Cavell. She’s standing on a plinth on which is engraved:

Brussels
Dawn
October 12
1915

– the place and date of her execution by a German firing squad.

The monolith behind her, above her head, is inscribed Humanity. Above that is the conventional contemporary statement: For King and Country. On the back is a symbolic representation of a lion (Britain) crushing a serpent (Germany).

What the National Council of Women and Shaw were protesting was the way in which Edith Cavell had been hijacked. Hijacked by the establishment (King and Country) and used as propaganda to support the war effort. Used also to portray Germans as, well, serpents.

Who was Edith Cavell?

Edith Cavell PortraitEdith Cavell was an Englishwoman in occupied Belgium. As a nurse – in fact the matron of a school training nurses – she followed her calling. She made sure her hospital cared for anyone who came through the doors. At the beginning of the war, that meant local civilians and Belgian and German wounded. Later she cared for wounded soldiers of the Allied armies who found themselves caught behind German lines. She was also involved in the early stages of a network of Belgian resistance that found the men behind the lines of the Western Front, helped them east to Brussels and then, once they were recovered, smuggled them on to the relative safety of the neutral Netherlands.

The network, and her involvement with it, appears to have been a consequence of a domino effect of chance events. Agreeing to take care of one soldier led on to a second. Two soldiers led to ten, to fifteen, to twenty. Once these men were sufficiently recovered she was keen to see them move on and release their places for the next batch coming in. Some sort of system had to be developed for getting them through German occupied Belgium and across the frontier. The network was never centrally organised or carefully designed, growing organically. But once it came to the notice of the occupying power, they set out to expose it, roll it up and arrest everyone involved. In the end around 70 people went on trial. Edith Cavell, as the only Englishwoman involved, was painted by the authorities as the head and inspiration of the group.

Patriotism is not enough

At her trial she never denied helping “enemy soldiers” to escape capture, though she did say it was entirely the soldiers’ choice, once they had escaped, whether they chose to return to the front and fight on. But this – and spying – was what she was found guilty of. Under German law she was sentenced to death for treason and shot. To the Anglican chaplain of Brussels who administered her last Communion, she justified herself saying: Patriotism is not enough; I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.

These were the words Shaw and the National Council of Women wanted added to her monument. In 1924, the year after Saint Joan was first staged and the same year the play and its Preface were published, King and Country bowed to public pressure. The quote was added to the plinth beneath the date of her execution. (Although there was much loud protest in the media of the time. The National Council of Women and Bernard Shaw were branded as unpatriotic.)

History all around

Cavell tram stopHistory is all around you in Brussels. The city has a history that stretches back at least a couple of thousand years. But much of the ancient history is hidden behind more recent events. In particular, perhaps, the World Wars. There’s a whole district where streets are named for 1914-1918 battles – Paschendale and Ypres, Yser and Dixmude. And houses too. Just around the corner from where I live is Residence Joffre. This place isn’t named for the evil King of Game of Thrones, but for Joseph Joffre, first commander of the French army on the Western Front.

Still, I was surprised after we moved here to find myself one day getting off a tram at Cavell, walking along Rue Edith Cavell and looking up to see the edifice of the hospital – Clinique Edith Cavell… and then I remembered.

In Edith Cavell’s footsteps

Clinique Edith CavellWe are going through a great many centenaries at present, and of course Edith Cavell’s was in October last year. At Brussels’ English bookshop (Waterstones) it was easy to get a copy of Diana Souhami’s biography, the most recent scholarly account of Cavell’s life. (Souhami’s book informs much of this article.) Reading it I was fascinated to discover how much I must have been walking around Brussels in Edith Cavell’s footsteps.

The four town houses knocked together that formed the original training school for nurses on Rue de la Culture are gone. They’ve been replaced by four matching houses built, I guess, in the thirties. The road is now Rue Franz Merjay, but it’s still is less than ten minutes stroll from the hospital on Rue Bruxelles. The hospital that was almost ready for her nurses to move into in the autumn of 1915. Rue Bruxelles is now Rue Edith Cavell and the hospital that bears her name is the same hospital, presumably much expanded.

Tir National - National firing rangeUp the road, on one of my morning promenades, is the Saint-Gilles prison where Edith Cavell spent the last ten weeks of her life, the last two in solitary confinement. Across town, fifteen stops from Cavell on the number 7 tram is the Tir National – the National firing range. Here Edith Cavell was executed that chilly October dawn.

Tir National

As I was preparing to write this article, it seemed appropriate to take myself to the Tir National. It’s the one place that’s a part of Edith Cavell’s story in Brussels that I hadn’t previously visited. Once the centre of an extensive military area – and taken over twice by German occupiers as a convenient place to carry out executions – the Tir National is now a built up suburb of town houses, blocks of flats and hotels. The area is also home to the Belgian national public broadcasters, the French RTBF and the Flemish VRT. A part of the firing range survives, converted into a cemetery for the dead – Enclos des fusillés. (Next door is the Media centre’s crèche.)

Memorial plaque at Enclos des fusillésThe Enclos des fusillés houses 365 graves – including at least some of the graves of the 35 people executed here during the First World War. The rest are for those killed here in 1940-1944. There is also a memorial housing the remains of Belgian victims of the concentration camps. As so many graveyards are, it’s a peaceful place now. At one end, the plaque that lists all the 1914-1918 dead rests against an earthen bank constructed to absorb bullets. Perhaps it is the very one against which Edith Cavell was shot. I sat on a bench and meditated a little on the dead and the vanity of national ambition. But I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone.

It’s hard to live up to, but worth trying.


My thanks are due to Wikimedia Commons and the original photographers and uploaders for the picture of the Cavell Memorial in London and the portrait of Edith Cavell. Also to Diana Souhami for her excellent biography Edith Cavell: Nurse, Martyr, Heroine.

This is the homepage of the modern National Council of Women of Great Britain.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Taxes and loud English

Taxes and death – the two things of which we can be certain, but while it’s very unusual to die more than once, getting taxed twice for the same year… It’s enough to get you speaking in loud English.

Taxes - Belgian tax papersOne of the things which has made my life more involved recently has been the Belgian tax declaration forms that we got in the post a couple of weeks ago. The forms included my wife, but were addressed to me as the head of the household. (Belgium has a way to come yet on the road to equality.) Mrs SC, whose job is the reason we’re in Brussels, smiled sweetly and handed the forms back to me. “You can deal with this,” she said. “It’s addressed to you.”

Now, we’ve already paid our taxes in Sweden where we are still registered for tax purposes. We explained this to various officials on various occasions last year while we were applying for local identity cards. Obviously, though, we hadn’t explained it to the right people. Now I sit at the dining table with a series of forms and a thick (110 page) explanatory pamphlet in dense French. There’s also a covering letter signed by Johan Van Overtveldt, Ministre des Finances et la Lutte contre la Fraude fiscale. His title is about the only thing my French stretches to translate – Minister of Finance and the Fight against Tax Fraud.

Well, I can also make out that the deadline for returning the forms is 12th June and that there will be dire consequences for being late and fraudulent, but not much else. The forms and pamphlet are couched in what I take to be French bureaucratese. Not quite the French they taught in English schools 45 years ago (most of which I can’t remember anyway).

Obviously we are not supposed to complete these forms. Obviously! But how to find someone to explain this to?

It took a deal of trial and error.

Taxes: The Finance Tower - stepsIn the end, I went online to the home page of the Belgian Ministry of Finance and – bingo – there was a page in English. Of course the information was superficial and only directed at people who were actually making their declarations in Belgium, but there was a telephone number for further information.

Unfortunately – and typically in my experience – the number only led to a machine recording of three alternatives: Français, Nederlands, Deutsche – the three official languages of Belgium. I chose Français. In French I have at least a chance to understand when I’m offered the option of speaking to a human being. I got it right… on only the third attempt.

The young man who answered said he didn’t understand much English but we coped. His advice was to come to the tax office in the centre of town. I had to bring the forms plus my own and Mrs SC’s identity cards.

Taxes: The Finance TowerThe tax office turned out to be the offices of the mirror-windowed Ministry of Finance tower at Boulevard du Jardin Botanique 50.

There were two reception desks, one to the left and one to the right. Which to choose? There were no signs I could see that explained so I chose the queue to the left. I chose wrong. When I got to a receptionist, she looked tiredly at me. This had happened before.

As I stood in the queue at the other desk, I tried to work out what in all the sineage at the door indicated the correct queue. I still couldn’t see it.

At the end of the line another receptionist, also tired and quite irritated, told me to go back outside, down into the Metro and turn left. There was an “of course” hanging in her voice. Once again, no signs I could see that ought to have given me a clue.

Down in the Metro (Botanique) I found a subway that ran for several hundred metres right across beneath the main road. Along the entire length of the subway stretched a queue of people waiting patiently to get into the Finance Tower. Hundreds of people.

Tax-on-web is childsplayBehind the reception desk I’d just come from was an electronic screen I’d had the time to study. Two alternating adverts encouraged people to make their declaration online. The first showed a child at a keyboard with the slogan C’est un jeu d’enfant. (It’s child’s play.) The other showed two smiling young people – a man and a woman – and the slogan (in English – why?) that said: It’s so easy!

Yeah, right.

At the head of the long queue, there were a couple of quite pleasant but distinctly burly young men handing out numbered white tickets and overseeing the people allowed in. I spoke to one of them and after a bit of explaining, he told me to go right the way down the corridor till I found one of his colleague who was giving out pink tickets. I should explain my situation, get a pink ticket and bring it back. It was a long walk and the colleague was less than keen to help, but I talked at him in English and eventually he gave me a ticket to go away.

The pink ticket let me jump the queue and ride the escalator up to a huge reception hall in the Finance Tower. Here, hundreds of lucky ticket holders were sitting around clutching their white tickets, waiting for their queue number to come up. The pink tickets were shunted into another queue that eventually brought me to a clerk at a desk.

I explained my situation and he confessed that he’d only been working there for a week and didn’t really know how to help me. But his colleague – he indicated with his hand – she had been here for many years and she would know. So I stood to one side and waited for the colleague, and when she had finished with one pink ticket I quickly dodged in ahead of the next and explained my situation. Had I come to the right place?

“Yes,” she said. “You have, but unfortunately there’s nobody here who can help you today. You must come back on Wednesday. We open at 8 a.m.”

Taxes: The tax queue That was on Friday 27th May. On Wednesday 1st June I arrived in the subway at about 7.50 in the morning. The queue already stretched almost the whole length of the corridor. I joined the end of the queue and after a bit I was not at the end any more. I hadn’t moved forward; more and more people had arrived to join in behind me.

A little after 8 a.m. the queue started to move, which was hopeful. Then it stopped and I realised it wasn’t that people were being let in, that first movement, just the queue getting serious and drawing together because the Finance Ministry was starting work.

We stood still, almost still, for about half an hour. Then, very slowly, the queue start moving for real. After I’d been standing for a little over an hour I got within sight of the door. At that point some of the burly men came out with their jump-the-queue tickets. I caught the eye of one of these and went through the same procedure as before, arguing my case. He said something that sounded like the people I wanted to see wouldn’t be working today. That’s when I raised my voice and started repeating myself. Eventually he gave me a ticket.

Through the revolving door, up the escalator and once more into this cavernous waiting room. The special queue for the pink tickets was much shorter this time, but the young lady whose desk I reached was not keen to help. She wanted me to go back down to the main queue and get a proper white ticket and talk to someone else. So I carried on talking in English, my voice growing louder.

Does it ever work, talking loudly at people in English? On the basis of this experience I have to say, Yes.

“Follow me,” she said.

Taxes: The Finance Tower and Metro entranceShe took me through to another queue in another corridor and left me to talk to a calm, older man. I explained again. In the middle of this, he moved his hand, palm down, and I realised I was still shouting. I dropped my voice and he nodded approvingly, looked at my ID card, tapped away at his computer keyboard a little and said, “Now, everything is all right.”

I was confused and asked if there was a receipt. “No receipt.” So I thanked him and went back out into the main reception hall where I had to sit down. My knees were weak.

I took out my phone and sent a text message to Mrs SC that all was well. But then I had the sudden horrible feeling that perhaps he’d only fixed it for me. After all he hadn’t asked to see her ID card. So I went back to his desk and caught his eye and when he finished with the person he was talking to I asked if he had also included my wife. “Of course. She is your wife. You are on the same form. Do not worry. Everything is all right.”

I thanked him once again and finally let myself leave the building.


I don’t like the English abroad, who wander around talking loudly at the natives, apparently convinced that incomprehension of English is really a form of deafness. I really don’t like that… but it’s humbling – even a bit humiliating – to realise, if I’m stressed, that I do it too. On the other hand, it worked. I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from that.

Of course I couldn’t find one of those “It’s so easy” ads to photograph for this, but eventually I found the “It’s child’s play” ad in a Belgian TV (RTBF) news video clip. So that’s where that comes from.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Brussels pissing contest

According to Wikipedia, a pissing contest is “a game in which participants compete to see who can urinate …the farthest…” In Brussels there are three pissing statues.

Brussels pissing contest: Manneken PisNowadays, if asked to invent a mascot for a capital city, it’s hard to believe that anyone not an adolescent member of certain student fraternities would come up with the idea of a little boy, naked, holding his penis and pissing. But Manneken Pis, the ancient symbol of Brussels is exactly that.

Illustrations of the little statuette (it’s only about 60cm tall) crop up in all sorts of official publicity and advertising around the city. Chocolatiers produce models of him in chocolate, solid or filled with ganache. Signposts direct locals and tourists alike to visit the figure.

Manneken Pis Swedish National Day 6 June 2015On special occasions – several times a week in fact – a street parade marches to his fountain and dresses him up in appropriate clothes. This photo shows him in his “Swedish” costume last year on June 6th. His wardrobe, of several hundred costumes, is on display in a special room of the City Museum on the Grand-Place.

Manneken Pis has been plumbed into the city water supply since 1619, but the present statue is a replica of the original which is now also kept in the City Museum. (And the original is said to have been a replacement for an earlier pissing boy from the 14th century.) The plumbing is not permanent, and the statue is sometimes instead connected to a beer keg in order to piss beer.

But all this begs the question, why? Ask and you get a variety of answers, not all of which are mutually exclusive. Some people will tell you one or other of the myths about the hero-child who urinated on the city’s enemies from up in a tree, or put out the fuse of an explosive set to demolish the city by peeing on it. (See Wikipedia for a selection of these stories.) Others say the figure commemorates a lost child who was eventually found, untroubled by his disappearance and casually relieving himself on a street corner. People will also tell you that Manneken Pis represents the spirit of the ordinary people of Brussels, and their attitude towards authority.

This latter interpretation seems to be especially popular – and perhaps have more to recommend it – in explaining the other two pissing statues. Because Manneken Pis is no longer alone.

Brussesl pissing contest - Jeanneke PisIn 1987 his sister, Jeanneke Pis, was unveiled on one side of the Impasse de la Fidélité. (Impasse de la Fidélité means Fidelity Impasse; an interesting metaphor in itself.)

Unlike Manneken Pis, you have to go out of your way to look for Jeanneke – unless your way takes you to Brussels’ internationally famous Delirium Café, which has colonised the whole of the Impasse de la Fidélité. Sad to say, I’ve heard no stories of Jeanneke ever being connected up to any of Delirium’s many beer kegs. She is kept behind lock and bar, but you are encouraged to toss coins into the fountain basin for good luck and to help support charity.

Jeanneke and Fidelity Impass

And then in 1999 a third participant joined the Brussels pissing contest. Het Zinneke – usually called Zinneke Pis – is a mongrel dog cocking its leg on a bollard on the corner of rue des Chartreux and rue du Vieux-Marché. Unlike Manneken and Jeanneke, Zinneke is not plumbed in, so in real terms he loses the contest immediately, but the dog has other advantages. He is not locked away or behind bars and you can pat him and (if really desperate I suppose) take selfies with him.

Brussels pissing contest: Zinneke PisZinneke is the Brussels dialect name for the river that runs through (now mostly under) Brussels – the Senne or Zenne. It’s also the name for a mixed breed dog – and by extension for the mongrel folk of Brussels.

The Zinneke Parade, a biannual Brussels carnival, takes its name from the same source as the dog. Perhaps it was also inspired by Het Zinneke since the first Parade took place when Brussels was European City of Culture in 2000. Planning and preparation must have started around about the same time Het Zinneke was installed.

Manneken commerce collageThe route of the parade seems usually to take in all three statues. This year’s parade took place last weekend. I’m still kicking myself for forgetting my camera with me when I went to see what it was all about. Still, you can see lots of other people’s photos here.

As far as I can make out, no one is pissing.

Manneken Pis in situ


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.