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Strange Geographies: Abandoned Belgium, Part I

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I recently spent eight days traveling around the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, though explaining why I went is a bit complicated. The short version is that I was there on business: to film the interiors of abandoned houses. The somewhat longer explanation is that I have a novel coming out in June, and my publisher asked me to make a book trailer for it. (Related explanation: a "book trailer" is a bit of viral marketing which publishers hope will reach a different audience than other kinds of book advertising, and they've exploded in popularity over the past two or three years.) I made one for Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters a while back and had great fun with it, so when it came time to make a trailer for my own book, of course I wanted to be the one to direct it.

Still more explanation: the book, Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, is peppered with 50 creepy vintage found photos, many of which its 16-year-old protagonist finds in a haunted-looking abandoned house on a remote island off Wales. I wanted to show the house, in the trailer, inside and out, and find some of the old photos in that decaying environment, as my character does. The house is fictional, of course, so to accomplish this I would have to go and find a house, or several houses, that looked sufficiently like the one in my head, and find my way inside of them.

There's a certain indefinable look that old houses in Europe have that's difficult to find in America, especially on the West Coast, where I live. More than that, finding a house that looked right but was also abandoned -- and still relatively untouched, in terms of graffiti / squatters / junkies (which ruled out Detroit, for instance) -- would be almost impossible. Incredibly, my publisher agreed to send me to Europe to search for just the right locations, and an explorer friend from the Netherlands who knew where a number of amazing old abandoned houses and chateaus were agreed to show me around. (Did I mention how nice Dutch people can be?) So I packed my camera, flew to Amsterdam, and embarked on a road trip through Belgium and Luxembourg with my explorer friend, hopping from village to village, abandonment to abandonment.

It was tense, exhausting work, but endlessly exciting and fascinating, too. Some of the places we got into were like time capsules -- untouched for decades, a gentle decay crumbling everything, like Sleeping Beauty's castle -- while others were little more than atmospheric ruins. Most places had an obvious way in: a missing door, a second floor window around the back that could be shimmied into via a nearby tree. Others weren't so easy, or worse yet were plastered with gates and VERBOTEN! signs that would've made being found inside indefensible. ("The door was open!" sounds a lot better than "Yeah, I broke that window." Even when it comes to trespassing, there are rules, and courtesies. Never break in. Don't take anything. Don't break anything. Be quiet, for God's sake. And don't act guilty while you're making your approach or your exit. It's the explorer code.)

So we headed for Belgium straightaway, because Belgium is the land of old rubber money and decaying chateaus. Belgium is also not a place where abandoned chateaus get knocked down or fixed up very quickly. It's also a place that's been without a functioning government for almost a year, which I think is no coincidence. (The Netherlands, on the other hand, is a place where nothing goes to waste, and as a result there aren't a lot of interesting abandonments to explore there.) The first house we came to was on the outskirts of a little village in the countryside, not far from Antwerp, down a long driveway, obscured by thickets of scrubby trees. The exterior, pictured at the top of this post, was grand, with ivy clinging to it, growing out of holes in the roof and the walls. I'd seen the exterior before, in pictures by an explorer friend of mine, but there was something almost overwhelming about being confronted with it in person. Pictures don't do it justice.

Most of the windows and doors were boarded, but there were a few entry points. Back home I had stared at photos of the house, wondering what was inside, imagining a kind of dark museum of deep-piled carpets and rotting furniture. But no -- the place was an absolute ruin. Staircases had collapsed. Furniture gone. The only light shone through holes in the roof. The floor felt soft underfoot, as if it might give way and send me tumbling into the basement.

One nice detail I found: a curtain of ivy roots growing down into what was once a bathroom. I thought of this song. And then I got the hell out of there.

We hiked back to the car, which had been parked at an unsuspicious distance from the abandonment, set the next GPS point and drove on, stopping along the road to eat sandwiches and drink coffee made over my friend's Sterno burner. (This was no luxury trip to Belgium. No abbey visits or beer tours. Plenty of scenery, but way off the tourist trail.) An hour or so later, we pulled up to the next site, unmistakably abandoned from the outside, right in the center of a little town.

We made our way into the overgrown backyard, where a door into the house stood open. Inside we found one of the strangest things I've ever seen inside an old house -- a cave. An actual, honest-to-God cave. Man-made, obviously, but still. Somebody's 60s-era bar.

Though the house was mostly empty, there were a few interesting objects lying around, like this. Who's up for a picnic?

The real treasure was out back, in an old workshop. The man who had owned the place had been a landscape decorator, and all of his old tools and equipment and plaster molds for statuary were back there. Amazing.

Vandals had discovered the place at some point, because many of the decorator's old statues were smashed, or lacked heads. Here, some thoughtful person put the wrong head on a body.

An armless old Greek, ashamed of his skeletal leg.

Smaller items were still in tact. Obviously, this man had some talent.

Everything was in a state of advanced decay, but the colors of the old man's paints were still vivid, even after what could've been fifty years. Look at the date on those newspapers -- 1955.

A small palette of paints, for detail work.

Old cans of varnish were stacked and leaking everywhere.

My favorite was this collapsing set of shelves. Sunlight shines through a hole in the ceiling. Dust plumes where I had just walked.

Along the shelves, bottles filled with God knows what, like a child's art project.

Next week: more time capsules, an epic fail, and a close call.

More Strange Geographies...

The Happy, Haunted Island of Poveglia
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Portugal's Bone Chapel
*
The Forgotten High School of Goldfield, Nevada
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The Mojave Desert’s Airplane Graveyard
*
Quick Facts About The Netherlands

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10 Memorable Neil deGrasse Tyson Quotes
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Neil deGrasse Tyson is America's preeminent badass astrophysicist. He's a passionate advocate for science, NASA, and education. He's also well-known for a little incident involving Pluto. And the man holds nearly 20 honorary doctorates (in addition to his real one). In honor of his 59th birthday, here are 10 of our favorite Neil deGrasse Tyson quotes.

1. ON SCIENCE

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."
—From Real Time with Bill Maher.

2. ON NASA FUNDING

"As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all spaceborne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?' Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar. Half a penny. I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar. Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar." 
—From Space Chronicles

3. ON GOD AND HURRICANES

"Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes ... The only people who still call hurricanes acts of God are the people who write insurance forms."
—From Death by Black Hole

4. ON THE BENEFITS OF TECHNOLOGY INVENTED FOR USE IN SPACE

"Countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope." (Editor's note: technology used to repair the Hubble Space Telescope's optical problems led to improved technology for breast cancer detection.)
—From Space Chronicles

5. ON THE DEMOTION OF PLUTO FROM PLANET STATUS 

PBS

"I knew Pluto was popular among elementary schoolkids, but I had no idea they would mobilize into a 'Save Pluto' campaign. I now have a drawer full of hate letters from hundreds of elementary schoolchildren (with supportive cover letters from their science teachers) pleading with me to reverse my stance on Pluto. The file includes a photograph of the entire third grade of a school posing on their front steps and holding up a banner proclaiming, 'Dr. Tyson—Pluto is a Planet!'"
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

6. ON JAMES CAMERON'S TITANIC

"In [Titanic], the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs ... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?"
—From Death by Black Hole

7. ON DEATH BY ASTEROID

"On Friday the 13th, April 2029, an asteroid large enough to fill the Rose Bowl as though it were an egg cup will fly so close to Earth that it will dip below the altitude of our communication satellites. We did not name this asteroid Bambi. Instead, we named it Apophis, after the Egyptian god of darkness and death."
—From Space Chronicles

8. ON THE MOTIVATIONS BEHIND AMERICA'S MOONSHOT

"[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do."
—From The Sky Is Not the Limit

9. ON INTELLIGENT LIFE (OR THE LACK THEREOF)

Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html
Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life.
Read more at: https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/n/neildegras615117.html

"Perhaps we've never been visited by aliens because they have looked upon Earth and decided there's no sign of intelligent life."

10. PRACTICAL ADVICE IN THE EVENT OF ALIEN CONTACT 

A still from Steven Spielberg's E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Universal Studios
"[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader."
—From Death by Black Hole
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40 Fun Facts About Sesame Street
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Now in its 47th season, Sesame Street is one of television's most iconic programs—and it's not just for kids. We're big fans of the Street, and to prove it, here are some of our favorite Sesame facts from previous stories and our Amazing Fact Generator.

Sesame Workshop

1. Oscar the Grouch used to be orange. Jim Henson decided to make him green before season two.

2. How did Oscar explain the color change? He said he went on vacation to the very damp Swamp Mushy Muddy and turned green overnight.

3. During a 2004 episode, Cookie Monster said that before he started eating cookies, his name was Sid.

4. In 1980, C-3PO and R2-D2 visited Sesame Street. They played games, sang songs, and R2-D2 fell in love with a fire hydrant.

5. Mr. Snuffleupagus has a first name—Aloysius

6. Ralph Nader stopped by in 1988 and sang "a consumer advocate is a person in your neighborhood."

7. Caroll Spinney said he based Oscar's voice on a cab driver from the Bronx who brought him to the audition.

8. In 1970, Ernie reached #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the timeless hit "Rubber Duckie."

9. One of Count von Count's lady friends is Countess von Backwards, who's also obsessed with counting but likes to do it backwards.

10. Sesame Street made its Afghanistan debut in 2011 with Baghch-e-Simsim (Sesame Garden). Big Bird, Grover and Elmo are involved.

11. According to Muppet Wiki, Oscar the Grouch and Count von Count were minimized on Baghch-e-Simsim "due to cultural taboos against trash and vampirism."

12. Before Giancarlo Esposito was Breaking Bad's super intense Gus Fring, he played Big Bird's camp counselor Mickey in 1982.

13. Thankfully, those episodes are available on YouTube.

14. How big is Big Bird? 8'2". (Pictured with First Lady Pat Nixon.)

15. In 2002, the South African version (Takalani Sesame) added an HIV-positive Muppet named Kami.

16. Six Republicans on the House Commerce Committee wrote a letter to PBS president Pat Mitchell warning that Kami was not appropriate for American children, and reminded Mitchell that their committee controlled PBS' funding.

17. Sesame Street's resident game show host Guy Smiley was using a pseudonym. His real name was Bernie Liederkrantz.

18. Bert and Ernie have been getting questioned about their sexuality for years. Ernie himself, as performed by Steve Whitmere, has weighed in: “All that stuff about me and Bert? It’s not true. We’re both very happy, but we’re not gay,”

19. A few years later, Bert (as performed by Eric Jacobson) answered the same question by saying, “No, no. In fact, sometimes we are not even friends; he can be a pain in the neck.”

20. In the first season, both Superman and Batman appeared in short cartoons produced by Filmation. In one clip, Batman told Bert and Ernie to stop arguing and take turns choosing what’s on TV.

21. In another segment, Superman battled a giant chimp.

22. Telly was originally "Television Monster," a TV-obsessed Muppet whose eyes whirled around as he watched.

23. According to Sesame Workshop, Elmo is the only non-human to testify before Congress.

24. He lobbied for more funding for music education, so that "when Elmo goes to school, there will be the instruments to play."

25. In the early 1990s, soon after Jim Henson’s passing, a rumor circulated that Ernie would be killed off in order to teach children about death, as they'd done with Mr. Hooper.

26. According to Snopes, the rumor may have spread thanks to New Hampshire college student, Michael Tabor, who convinced his graduating class to wear “Save Ernie” beanies and sign a petition to persuade Sesame Workshop to let Ernie live.

27. By the time Tabor was corrected, the newspapers had already picked up the story.

28. Sesame Street’s Executive Producer Carol-Lynn Parente joined Sesame Workshop as a production assistant and has worked her way to the top.

29. Originally, Count von Count was more sinister. He could hypnotize and stun people.

30. According to Sesame Workshop, all Sesame Street's main Muppets have four fingers except Cookie Monster, who has five.

31. The episode with Mr. Hooper's funeral aired on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. That date was chosen because families were more likely to be together at that time, in case kids had questions or needed emotional support.

32. Mr. Hooper’s first name was Harold.

33. Big Bird sang "Bein' Green" at Jim Henson's memorial service.

34. As Chris Higgins put it, the performance was "devastating."

35. Oscar's Israeli counterpart is Moishe Oofnik, whose last name means “grouch” in Hebrew.

36. Nigeria's version of Cookie Monster eats yams. His catchphrase: "ME WANT YAM!"

37. Sesame's Roosevelt Franklin ran a school, where he spoke in scat and taught about Africa. Some parents hated him, so in 1975 he got the boot, only to inspire Gob Bluth’s racist puppet Franklin on Arrested Development 28 years later.

38. Our good friend and contributor Eddie Deezen was the voice of Donnie Dodo in the 1985 classic Follow That Bird.

39. Cookie Monster evolved from The Wheel-Stealer—a snack-pilfering puppet Jim Henson created to promote Wheels, Crowns and Flutes in the 1960s.

40. This puppet later was seen eating a computer in an IBM training film and on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Thanks to Stacy Conradt, Joe Hennes, Drew Toal, and Chris Higgins for their previous Sesame coverage!

An earlier version of this article appeared in 2012.

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