Manneke, Jeanneke and Imro

In the summer of 1994, almost seven years after the Velvet Revolution, a Slovak called Imro got on the bus and together with twenty-nine other tourists travelled to the West. All people on the bus came from the town Piešťany and the surrounding villages and Imro lived in Horná Streda (The Upper Wednesday, translated literally). The internet era was emerging, capitalism was being built in his country, communism had ended. Nevertheless, as a slain dragon whose corpse had not been taken away, it bothered Slovakia and the neighbouring states. Imro wanted to look where all the eyes were focused, westwards, and further than Vienna or Germany.

The bus hit the road early evening from a parking lot outside Piešťany, there was only one driver for the night ride, but he assured everybody he slept well and was used to long roads. In the bus, the smells of coffee, cakes, koftas, sweat and liquor gradually mixed. The sun was setting late, they had the orange disc constantly in front of them, as if the Sun was the deceiving light calling them to the edge of the Continent. There, they would stop and look in the grey waters of the Atlantic. People dozed off, ate, fidgeted, looked out of the windows, whispered and talked. The bus stopped several times at German highway rest stops, the toilets were still for free, and only the toilets the travellers used. They had to. Refreshments seemed expensive, and people did not have the confidence to place an order anyway.

In the morning, tired and stiff, they were squinting through the arcades resembling the Victory Arc in Paris. A Belgian tricolour in German colours was waving in the air in an unknown world. First of the cities of the trip, Brussels. In the evening, they would move on to London, where a suburban hotel had been booked. A shower, a bed, breakfast, a shimmering promise. Traveling is tedious, they started to understand, and cheap traveling even more. A girl greeted them, a Slovak guide who would show them around the capital of Europe. Adriana, her name was, studied at an international university and was making money guiding. The driver stayed in the bus to rest. The whole party was in a mood appropriate after a night spent in crooked positions and now moved to the European quarter where civilized Europe had its main HQ, from there to the old town. Imro with them. He only dared a packaged tour, not speaking any foreign languages, he mastered a single tongue – the one in his mouth, sometimes not even that one. He got ready for the trip, read guide books of all three cities: Brussels, London and Paris. Now, walking, stretching, his body took delight in moving and the fresh air. A summer day was starting in Brussels, hot, with a dense blue sky, not a typical weather of this part of the world. Imro turned his head left and right, curious, waiting for his moment to come.

Finally, they got there, through crooked streets (even houses were crooked here, he noted mentally to tell his friends in the pub), they crossed a stunning square and continued through less spectacular and smellier streets until they came to the corner with the Peeing Boy. Local attraction, Adriana told them. She told them a story of a lost and found boy, something similar was written in Imro´s guidebook, too. The group took pictures of the statue, laughter and comments. Then, he voiced his own contribution:

“This is not so special,” he liked to start his sentences this way, so that the listeners were ready for something better to come. “They also have a peeing girl here, I mean, a statue of. I read about it. I would love to see it, miss,” he told the guide. He deliberately sent to stand next to her, and now showed her his notebook under her nose. He took notes of interesting facts before the journey.

“Oh, yes, I know about her,” Adriana responded. “But that is not a part of our tour, we will head towards the king palace now, and to the Parc Bruxelles, she pronounced it in a French way, the “r” rattling in her throat. “There we will take a rest and you can have a snack.”

Imro sank to gloominess. He expected some people to support him in the plan, but no, the whole group followed Adriana. Nobody noticed when Imro slowed down, waited till the distance between him and the last known back grew bigger and then took already a bit known way back towards the main square. If he got lost, the bus was waiting at the arcs and he would find them, he told himself zigzagging the streets. Past the square he suddenly did not know where to go, it should be somewhere near. Standing, gathering courage, he finally asked a passer-by. Well, not exactly asked, he said Sorry and showed the guy the notebook with the address. No success, but other two guys understood when he presented a pantomime of a female urinating position, index fingers at the head to indicate two pigtails. They showed him the way.

The statue was situated in an impasse called Fidelité, faithfulness, which Imro did not know, of course, but he noticed several doors to bars and pubs. In an alcove on the right he really discovered a little statue of a little girl in that clear and innocent posture. “Here she is!” Old bricks smelt of moist; not much sun and light ever got here. Imro felt sorry for the girl, or for himself? And she had such a blissful expression on her face. He took out a camera and did a few snapshots. Not knowing what to do next, he stood there looking around. Delirium, it read above the door from which a jolly party flooded, shouting in Italian or was it Spanish? In the pocket of his summer jacket he had a wallet with money, he exchanged fifty German marks for Belgian francs and got an impossibly huge pile of banknotes. He did not want to spend that money, it was a reserve, as such, it became an entry ticket to the Delirium pub. Low beams, massive wooden tables, smell of spilled beer and the brick thick with decades old smoke. He gulped the first amber coloured beer quickly, too quickly. Before he knew, he ordered another one. And drank it more slowly. The effect was strong. That is why they serve them in small glasses. In the dimmed pub the structures could not blur, still, they did, Imro bathed in a pleasant fog, nothing was sharp around, but he himself was, sharp as a Swiss knife in his pocket. Another soothing object in his possession. He took out his notebook: Jeanneke Pis. Was her name Jane? He knew Pis was not a surname but referred to her urinating. Jeanneke was looking sideway… There was a pen in his notebook, he took it and started to draw the girl. The waitress passed and rewarded him with a single word “good”. Imro paid without counting, knowing he paid a lot. Back on the street, he had a trouble keeping balance. Impossible, three beers never knocked him down. But the sleepless night plus the empty stomach did. It was half past one, time enough to get the arcs and the bus. He did not have a clue how but relied on his intelligence and luck. His empty stomach turned in protest. Expensive or not, food was a necessity. Imro queued for French fries, showed with his finger “one” and with the same finger pointed to mayonnaise. The world was not so different here. With the greasy pack he walked to the nearest parc occupied by pigeons, a couple of drunkards and homeless. Finished the fries, stretched his legs and closed his eyes for a while. Half past two he stood up and took a correct direction towards the main station, but then, somehow, got confused and continued northeast, further from the axis that would bring him to the arcs. It took him a while to realize, buildings around looked very downtown-ish, he could not be too far. But the city was bigger than he imagined. Walking, getting sober, luckily, he pissed at the central station toilet, otherwise he would have to become a living statue. Half past four he realized he really got lost. Nervousness could turn to panic, but Imro´s awakened adventure spirit prevented that. His bladder was full again, or was it the anxiety? He spent twenty minutes figuring out which café to enter. When he finally entered a bar, it was already almost five. The bus companions would miss him, but they would leave. The bus had to make it to London suburb, twenty-nine Slovak tourists were looking forward to getting to bed. Never mind, he could stay here. Locals were sitting in the bar, and the girl behind the bar was Polish. Black-haired, but fair eyebrows and blue eyes told him her original hair colour was much lighter. Like the weak beer he ordered, avoiding the strong ones. Bassia was her name, and she explained him the way back to the main station. Imro got a new plan: He would buy a train ticket to Paris, he would spend the night on the train and the next day he would visit the city by himself and wait for the others. The world is not so different, delirium, pis, so many similar words!

The Paris train was leaving at ten past ten, the ticket ate another chunk of the reserve, but, luckily, he did not have a wife to tell him off. Or to be afraid when he disappears. His only sister lived in Košice and they almost never talked, she only called him around Christmas asking when he was finally getting himself a wife. His stomach was still filled with the potatoes, at least it did not demand more food. Imro was walking around, popped into an old church, went back to the main square and then to the Jeanneke Pis again. A family was standing in front of the statue, with two living embodiments of the statue prancing, laughing and repeating: Jeanneke Pis, Jeanneke Pis. The parents pretended not to be bothered. The statue was not old, he realized, 1987, if statues grew, the girl would be what? 12, 13 now? Imro was sober, the jumping girls with their high-pitched voices got on his nerves, he would love to tell the parents to stop them. They spoke another guttural language, that must be Flemish. He left the impasse, it was still warm, sun was shining, even though it was almost eight o´clock. He came back to the station square and looked up – there was another park, clearly a better kept one. He walked there and opted for a bench by a lavender bed flooded by the evening sun. He took out the drawing he made earlier that day. When he was little, he loved to draw. Suddenly, a memory came up:

Once he made a drawing of his sister. It was in art class. He drew her peeing. The summer before they went to the mountains with his parents. There was no toilet in the cottage, only an outhouse. Imro and his sister roamed the forests, picked blueberries like John and Mary in the fairy-tale. But they never went too far and never got lost. Lenka was five and a half years old. When she wanted to pee, she told him to keep guard, and had that blissful expression on her face. After the holiday, he drew it in class: the spruce trees, in the middle of them a little figure close to the ground, he even pencilled the warm streak coming out of her body, the reason behind her pleasure. The teacher had big dark eyes and curly hair. When she glanced at his drawing, her eyes grew darker. Her hair was already standing up, so no change there, anyway, he knew something was wrong. She took him from the desk by his ear, willy nilly he had to drag himself in front of the class. Pervert, she said aloud. He might have forgotten the word, but the kids reminded him of it many times after.

He evoked the shame, it mixed with the lavender smell, a different smell from the mountain spruce forest. Suddenly, he understood. He raised his head, met the eyes of a woman passing by, she smiled at him. Imro noticed that strange people smiled to him in this town, it did not happen in Piešťany. Almost never. He put the notebook back in his pocket. Suddenly, there was room in his stomach, it produced a quiet squeak. Imro felt relieved, yes, it was normal to be hungry. He would wait till Paris, though. There, he would eat at the station, and find a place to wash a little, it was not comfortable, but it was worth it. He would call the London hotel before leaving, so that they would know about him and not alarm the police. Bassia told him there was a phone booth at the station.

He walked with a light stomach and a light head, and nothing could take away the taste of adventure.

 

 

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About Katarina

I am a free-lance vini-yoga teacher and a writer. An observer. The city of Brussels keeps me inspired, mainly via its inhabitants. Yoga keeps me focused. And stories teach and amuse...
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