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Why Brussels is obsessed with a peeing child

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Lighters with peeing children. T-shirts with peeing children. Mugs, ash-trays, plates, bags, badges, pencils, stencils… step into the city of Brussels and this peeing kid is ridiculously everywhere.

Manneken pis, meaning "Little man Pee" in Dutch, is in fact Brussels’ symbol, as a result of a landmark bronze statue of a 61cm child urinating in a basin.

Situated in the back alleys of the main square, Grand Place, the figure was designed by Hiëronymus Duquesnoy the Elder in 1618 and ever since, although stolen and replicated several times, it has been a mascot for the town.

Every week the statue is dressed in costume on differing days, whether it’s an organ builder costume, a gangster costume, a sailor costume or a musketeer, according to a schedule published on the structure of the fountain.

The tales told regarding such symbolic being are multiple and all credible in differing ways.

One legend narrates that the statue is a representation of the two-year-old Duke Godfrey III of Leuven who, in 1142, when his troops were battling, was placed in a basket and hung on a tree to encourage his fighters. From there, the boy urinated on the opposing troops leading them to lose the battle shamefully.

Similarly a variation of this story is that, in the 1300s when Brussels was under siege by a foreign power and in the process of being blown up by attackers with explosives, a young boy urinated on the burning fuse and saved the city from fire.

Other stories, passed on from generation to generation, entail a rich merchant foreigner or a sweet lady losing their children while doing business or shopping in the square and, after mobilitating the whole city to find their child, had a statue built in gratitude to those that helped find him.

The statue is such a symbol for the city that several tourists come photograph it each day. On special occasions, it is even hooked up to a beer keg and passersbies fill their cups from what looks like the cherub’s pee.

What tourists are seldom told is that since 1987, the Manneken pis has had a female counterpart, Jeanneke Pis. Furthermore, there are variants of this figure all over the world ranging from numerous cities within Belgium, expanding to China, Indonesia, Brazil, Florida and more. 

Sofia is travelling in Europe as part of The National Student's Student Travel Writer 2016 competition, with Eurolines. See more entries to the Student Travel Writer competition here.

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