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Strange Geographies: Abandoned Belgium (and Luxembourg), Part II

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So last week, I told about half the story of my recent adventure to Belgium and Luxembourg, where I was looking for atmospheric abandoned chateaus to film inside for a book trailer I'm making for a novel I have coming out in June called Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. I was, ostensibly, looking for the Home, trying to find an exterior and some interiors that looked something like the grand-but-decaying house that figures somewhat centrally in my book. I found the perfect exterior right away -- you can see it at the top of last week's post -- and while the long-disused garden statuary workshop we discovered further down the road from it was fascinating, it wasn't really what I needed for an interior. I was looking for that rarest of abandonments: a place filled with objects from another time, gathering dust but more or less undisturbed.

Usually, when a place is abandoned for awhile, local kids and vandals find it before explorers do, and all the original character of the place disappears: things get broken or stolen, spray-painted, and generally messed-up. But my explorer friend and I would get lucky on this trip. We found a couple of places that really and truly seemed like time capsules.

Before we crossed into Luxembourg, we stopped in the dark and forested Ardennes in Belgium, where American tanks still rust on the outskirts of some towns, vestiges of the fierce Battle of the Bulge that was fought here against the Nazis during WWII. But the forests have secreted away much more than just tanks. Take, for instance, this disused train station we found. The story I heard (but couldn't verify) is that it was built more than a century ago for the private and sole use of the king of Belgium -- and then left to the elements when he didn't take to it. It's been empty ever since, trees growing up through the middle. Trains still run past it, but never stop. Today, explorers use it as a camping and party spot. Scenic, no?

We slept that night in a castle -- an actual castle! -- which was, surprisingly, one of the cheapest sleeping options nearby. The reason, we discovered, is that there was no one else staying in it but us -- it was out of season -- and none of the castle's usual amenities, like multiple bars, a restaurant, and a movie theater, were all closed. We headed to a nearby town for a bite to eat, and unable to read the menu or really ask what anything on it meant, my friend and I pointed at the next table's meal and indicated, somehow, that we'd have what they were having. I wondered why the people at the table we'd pointed at kept staring at us afterward, until the meal arrived -- it was a stew made from the face and brain of a pig! Nose, cheeks, gray matter -- the works. So much for being a pseudo-vegetarian! In halting English, the next table eventually informed us that the dish is colloquially known as "the wine of Jacques Chirac." God knows why.

The castle, by the way, was called Chateau de la Poste, which I can highly recommend as an awesome place to stay -- in season, that is.

The next morning, we left our nice orderly chateau and drove to an abandoned one -- known among explorers as Chateau Noisy. It was an old school for girls, and though the inside's a bit worse for the wear, the outside looks like a fairytale castle:

Unfortunately, we didn't get much closer than that. After a 20-minute hike and hauling ass up a giant hill to get to the entrance, my friend spotted a black security van -- and we got out of there. On the other side of the property, we found a gate with a buzzer box, and figuring that actually asking permission, having failed to gain entrance the, er, normal way, couldn't hurt. A woman answered, and though we couldn't understand most of what she said, we caught two words: prive! and chien! (Private! Dog!) Needless to say, we made tracks out of there.

We had much better luck in Luxembourg, a tiny country of beautiful, rolling hills and ancient little villages, where everyone in the city seems to be a banker and in the country a farmer. And if you know where to look, there are plenty of time capsules to be discovered. The first one we came to had its front door open, but being in the middle of a village (and it being the middle of the day when we arrived), we decided to play it safe and find a way in around back, instead. As luck would have it, there was an open window on the second floor, right next to a big, easily-climbed tree. We shimmed up and slipped inside, unnoticed.

The house was amazing -- once full of opulent furnishings and religious objects, now in decay. That's a decomposed fox on the floor in front of the bed.

I think you could safely assume that this was the ceiling of a wealthy person.

This amazing spiral staircase led from floor to floor. They don't make 'em like this anymore.

We'd been in the house about ten minutes when we heard voices from outside, circling the place. We froze, then tiptoed from window to window trying to get a bead on what they were doing, and whether they were onto us. A moment later, we got an answer of sorts -- they came inside, their footsteps echoing up the stairs, through the half-empty rooms. We were on the second floor, and they were below us. We were trapped, essentially, unless we wanted to attempt an escape out the window and down the tree, a slow, somewhat noisy process that, undertaken carelessly, could've resulted in a broken leg or worse. So we held our ground and waited.

The men's voices didn't seem angry or suspicious; they didn't know we were inside. I didn't want to scare them too badly, and since they were coming toward us anyway, I called out, bonjour! in my friendliest tone. They jumped about ten feet in the air -- and then I saw their tripods. They were explorers, just like us. This house, apparently, was not exactly off the beaten track. We talked for a bit, letting our hearts slow down, and then went about our business.

One of the other guys:

The last thing we found before leaving was the strangest thing I'd seen the whole trip -- a pair of gravestones. Inside the house. My theory is that they used to be outside, marking an actual pair of graves, but that they had fallen over at some point, and rather than repair them, or let them sit tumbled in a tall patch of grass somewhere, they were brought inside -- where they seem just deeply, wrongly out of place.

We left out the front door, figuring that since we were going it didn't matter so much if we were seen, and drove on. We spent a night in Luxembourg, had somewhat less exotic food for dinner (escargot pizza -- somewhat adventurous, but nothing compared to brain-and-face stew), and then in the morning, hit our last spot. It turned out to be the best, and most untouched, abandoned house I'd ever been in.

It was another little house in the middle of a village, but we showed up early on a Sunday morning, just after sunrise, and the sleepy villagers were nowhere to be seen. We got in with no problem, only to find this creepy-as-hell hallway, a tunnel of darkness --

-- at the end of which was the inside of the front door. Judging from the legions of cobwebs along its jamb, it hadn't been opened in a very long time. This was most definitely a time capsule -- still sealed.

Nearby, brittle from rust, sat the key.

Upstairs, the time capsule was in full effect. The rooms looked as if they'd just been vacated -- and I would almost have believed they had been, if everything in them weren't an antique, encrusted with layers of dust and dryrot. The dinner table, for instance, with an old man's glasses and pipe laid out, an open book, a sweater thrown over the back of the chair, a bottle of bitters, white chunks of mildew floating in the glass. Yes, explorers had been here before us -- they had almost certainly been the ones to arrange this scene -- but not many explorers. My friend said he doubted if more than ten people had ever seen this place before we had. That so many potentially valuable antiques and souvenirs remained seemed evidence of that.

Walking into this upstairs bedroom was incredible -- it had more personal effects, more clothes and antiques, than I'd ever seen in a place like this. Not only were the sheets still on the bed, but clothes were in the closet, a chamber pot on the floor, pictures on the wall -- and that hat on the bed was, no pun intended, the capper.

The town was beginning to wake up. We'd been inside for almost three hours without realizing it -- we really were in a time-warp. There were too many things I hadn't seen yet and hadn't photographed -- a cobwebbed alarm clock, for instance, that my friend found -- but we had to go. I'd like to think it'll still be there to explore years from now, but I doubt it; once explorers find a place, it's just a matter of time before vandals and thieves do, as well. I was just lucky to be one of the first inside. I'm not sure I'll ever be as lucky again.

By the way, I know I usually offer links to larger versions of my pictures, but in this case, I can't -- because these are all frame-grabs from videos. Every one of these stills is part of a moving shot, which I'm editing together into an Abandoned Belgium short film right now. Watch out for that in the next few weeks!

You can follow me on Twitter or keep track of Miss Peregrine on Facebook.

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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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