tits up

On our second night in Brussels, Jessica and I went to a nearby square to find someplace to have dinner. Anyone who travels in foreign countries is probably familiar with this method of dinner-finding:

“What about this place?”
“I dunno, let’s look at the menu.”
[Looking at menu]
“Whoa, that’s expensive! Let’s keep walking.”


“How about here?”
[Looking at menu]
“Eh, we had pizza last night. Let’s keep walking.”


[Looking at menu]
“I can’t tell what this is.”
“Me, either.”


“What about this place?”
[Looking at menu]
“I think I can find something to eat here. You?”
“Yeah, this looks good.”

We sat down at a table outside and looked at the menu. The waiter came over and spoke English to us, so we asked him to translate some of the less-obvious words on the menu, and he helped us pick out some drinks and salads and pasta.

As we waited for our food, I noticed an elderly man sitting by himself at a table just behind Jessica, with what looked like a metal crutch propped up next to him. On his table there was a beer and a bunch of colored pencils; it looked like he was drawing something.

Just after our food arrived, the man stood up and hobbled over to where Jessica and I were sitting. “Excuse me,” he said in heavily-accented English, handing me a beer coaster, “I draw this for you.”

I looked at the beer coaster. It was just a regular coaster on the printed side, but on the blank side he had drawn this:

a gift from an elderly man

In case it isn’t glaringly obvious, this is a drawing of me. Topless.

Of course I was not topless at the time; I guess the drawing was just his representation of what I might look like topless. While I was quietly freaking out, the elderly man was telling Jessica that to get the breasts so perfectly round, he had traced around an old Belgian penny. Not a Euro penny, a Belgian penny, I guess to add a little Belgian nationalism to his topless works.

I say I was quietly freaking out, but really I wasn’t sure what to think. How was I supposed to feel about this? Was the topless coaster drawing offensive? Was it creepy? Or was it just a prop for a funny travel tale? The waiter came out, saw the drawing on the table, and chuckled. “He does that every day,” he said.

The fact that the elderly man was there at the restaurant every day, drawing all sorts of topless tourists, made me feel a bit better. If he was creepy, at least he wasn’t so creepy that he had alienated restaurant employees. As a former waitress, I’ve known restaurant regulars like this–they walk a fine line between creepy and normal, but if you work at a place long enough, they start to seem a little endearing.

Jessica and I were halfway through our meal when the elderly man came over to our table again. “Excuse me. What is your name?” he said to Jessica.

“Jessica,” she said.

“Yessica!” he said. “You write it here.” He handed her a beer coaster and a marker and pointed to the printed side of the coaster. She wrote her name and gave it back to him. A few minutes later he came back over and handed her the coaster. On the blank side he had drawn a train, with Jessica’s name incorporated into the front grill of the locomotive.

“Thanks!” she said.

He asked us where we were from, and we told him Texas. “Texas!” he exclamed, as though pleasantly surprised. A few minutes later he asked me to write my name down, and I received a drawing of “a steam ship on the Mississippi!” with my name on it.

“Thanks,” I said.

The rest of the meal was uneventful except for the part where I arm-wrestled the waiter and he tried to give me a neck massage, but that’s another story. As we walked away from the restaurant, I thought about the topless drawing of me. What if the elderly man liked men instead of women? Would he draw pictures of shirtless or pantsless* men and hand them out to male tourists? I imagined how things might go if he handed out pictures of pantsless men:

“Excuse me, I draw this for you.”

If that’s really what would happen, then the beer-coaster drawing represents yet another thing that happens to women more often than men. Women are generally seen as more passive than men, and therefore less likely to react violently or negatively to things like this. Maybe the elderly man felt safe giving me the drawing because I’m a woman, so he probably wouldn’t get punched or even yelled at.

And he was right, apparently. I didn’t punch him or yell at him at all; in fact I thanked him. My general rule when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language, don’t know the laws, and don’t know anyone besides my traveling companion is that it’s important to stay as safe as possible; negative incidents I might not walk away from at home are usually best avoided when abroad. So maybe that’s part of it. But the truth is that I am pretty passive. If a man in an Austin restaurant handed me a naked drawing of myself, I’d only make a fuss if he followed up with something inappropriate, and even then I’d probably just ask for the check and tell the waiter, “I’ve got to go, this customer is harassing me.”

The elderly man in the restaurant was obviously not coming on to me, and there was no inappropriate followup to be found. After he gave us our drawings, he didn’t talk to us again for the rest of our meal. If the same incident had happened in Austin, I’d have done the same exact thing that I did in Brussels.

There are a few other things at play here:

1. I felt less threatened because he was elderly, and walked with a cane. If he’d been large and/or muscular and imposing, I might have reacted differently, or at the very least felt differently.

2. My reaction to the drawing was a pretty American one. It’s an unfortunate American convention that, no matter what the context, the nude female form is automatically seen as a sexual thing to be censored.** Our movies are filled with more blood and violence and killing than with nudity, and when the nudity appears, it’s a big fat deal. Watching any amount of European television will tell you that they don’t look at nudity the same way we do. Perhaps the elderly Belgian man didn’t see his drawing as overtly sexual, at least not in the way I did.

I still struggle with my reaction to the drawing, and what it means as far as how I lead my daily life. I guess I don’t wish I’d been less passive at that restaurant in Brussels; the elderly man was harmless enough, as are your average men. But what about when things aren’t so harmless? I wish I didn’t feel the need to look behind me every time I walked down a deserted street. I wish I didn’t have to take my keys out and have them ready while walking to my car or apartment at night. I wish I didn’t feel like I can’t do certain things for safety reasons because I’m female. I wish about a lot of things that happen to women.

A friend once told me that whenever he’s walking down a nearly-deserted Manhattan street at night and there’s a lone woman walking in front of him, he’ll sometimes cross to the other side of the street to avoid freaking her out. And I think that’s what I really struggle with. Is it up to other people to try not to freak me out, or is it up to me to avoid allowing myself to freak out?***

As for the drawing, of course I took it with me, to use as a prop for a funny travel tale. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a good story.

*Side question: if he drew pictures of pantsless males, what would he trace for the penis?

**However gradually, I do think America is improving on this front, but we’re still much different from the rest of the western world in how we view our nudity.

***I think it’s both, really.