Friday Saturday Sunday 

FOSDEM - a geek trip to Brussels. Going abroad to experience different cultures. Or at least, a chance to eat chips, suffer rain, and watch American TV in a different country.


It was an early morning and long queue for the London contingent on their way to FOSDEM. The 10:42 Eurostar was obviously a popular choice among geeks and public alike. We had not chosen the early train to get more drinking time in Brussels, or to give us shopping time on the Grand Place, but because Tim O'Reilly was on the same train and had heard that the aura of his cloak would cure all known ills!

Around 95% of the journey was spent in the bar. This was naturally anti-social behaviour, as the geek social charter generally requires that the figure is closer to 98%. So to forfeit, we started drinking Duvel (8.5%) at 11 o'clock in the morning. One of our team decided to forgo alcohol until midday. We suggested that he set his watch to French time before we hit the tunnel. He didn't bite.

The journey itself was uneventful. That is to say, there were no asylum seekers on the line. But we did manage to use the opportunity to use the mobile phone joke "I'm on the train. I'm going into a tunnel. I might be gone for some time". The trip through France was more productive and used to collect SMS messages from a selection of different networks. This years record was 4 networks, 6 welcome messages and 2 'network test message - please delete'. No my knowledge no one YAGed, or was YAGed.

Before arriving in Brussels we made sure we exchanged phone numbers. This was accomplished by bluetooth. And SMS. And VCard. And IR. Some of the technological pariahs were forced to use the keypad (how quaint!) to type the number in. A process that was quicker, incidentally, than arguing over the best transfer protocol, or fumbling with the menu system to determine your own number.

Upon arrival, the welcome party (who'd achieved the unenviably feat of travelling by coach) were waiting for us, as was a Windows NT blue screen on the Metro ticket machine. And when the remaining working machine printed a ticket, it played 'filecopy.avi'. Mr. Gates would have been proud.

The rough plan for the afternoon was to find a pub and get a drink. Before moving on to the party in the evening. With typical originality, we selected the Roy d'Espagne. At 4.30. Chinese whispers caused this to become 4.30-5.00. Then 5.00-5.30. Then 5.30-6.00. This was the first instance of separate social tracks for the London crowd. As one group sat inside, in the warm, with a beer, another group stood outside. In the cold. Without a beer. During which time another group made their way to the Leon restaurant. This is famous because we went last year, and that they are unable to correctly spell 'Brussels' on their menu.

These social tracks converged in the evening, back at the Roy d'Espagne. This now feels like a local. Not sure if the organisers will choose it again next year, though. The waiters were getting very ratty with us, and continually demanded payment for the beer at the table, instead of waiting for the accumulated bill at the end of the evening. I'm sure many things were learnt, discussed and proposed that evening. The solution for world peace was probably realised too, but come morning (and another 6 bottle of Leffe Brune) all solutions were, alas, fogotten. I met many new people, forgot most of their names, but did remember to look out for the Timothy Taylor brewery.



Listened to Tim O'Reilly's talk. Good. Skipped RMS's (who appeared to have brought his own audience with him) and went to lunch early.

Having recently discovered a small parade of shops fairly near the university, we trundled up the hill to impersonate locals and buy waffles and beer from the supermarket. It's called SuperGB. Which such a name it's probably a generic low-grade supermarket. Coca-cola was a roughly equivalent 50 cents a can, although certain beers (including some decent ones) were actually cheaper. The supermarket could be the equivalent of Waitrose, I wouldn't know. But it wouldn't matter how nice the food was, or how classy the shop claimed to be, with all the product names in French, Flemish, Dutch or German, it still felt like we were shopping in LiDL.

SuperGB has one important feature. A vending machine. About 7 foot high, and 15 foot wide. It stocks the traditional fare of goods, like sweets, drinks and cakes. And bottles of Smirnoff. And Johnnie Walker. The prices, being Belgium, were reasonable too, at 10 euro for the vodka, and just 12,20 for the whisky. I made use of the vending machine on Sunday when the supermarket (and everywhere else that wasn't a restaurant) was shut. These vending machines obvious appeal to the geek on the move, who's too drunk to get served at the off-license. We also saw a picture of a penguin on a bar somewhere. Obviously, penguins do know why.

Returned from shopping to watch three talks in the afternoon. One good. Two not. Missed one hopelessly over subscribed kernel talk. And went to the SCO developers room.

Unfortunately, one thing that the organisers had learnt, was that no one likes the free software song. So they postponed the Free Software Award until after it. The award, for those that don't know, went to a well-deserved Alan Cox. RMS highlighted all the good work he had done for Free Software (including the Gnome project, which most of us had believed was Telsa), and reminded us that he had also done some work on the Linux kernel - part of the GNU operating system.

The evening began with the second instance of different social tracks. Amongst the London contingent there were two basic options. The first involved attending the speakers buffet. At 50 euros (donation) it was a little steep for most of us, but was generally well received and considered a marked improvement on the buffet from two years previous.

The second option was more traditional. Eat in an overpriced tourist trap, then find a pub and drink beer. The pub was immediately next door to a lap dancing club. This may (or may not) explain the complete lack of women in the pub itself. Perhaps you have to wait until the club closes. As we were late in arriving, the obvious question was asked: "Did you get lost and go next door by mistake?" The obvious answer was given: "No. No mistake!"

The name of the pub still escapes me, even now, but it did perpetuate FOSDEM's Caligula-fixation. This horse, however, was more of the fairground variety, and less of the stuffed. Downstairs beer flowed from large glasses, small glasses, and boot-shaped glasses. Photographs were taken. Repeatedly. Amongst 10 people, 12 cameras were active. All digital. All flashing. All taking the same pictures as everyone else - which were of everyone else taking pictures of everyone else. Oh, and pictures of everyone else looking at the previews of the photos of everyone else. Upstairs featured a number of laptops and a dance-floor. Empty, naturally. Only Iggy Pop, and the classic 'The Passenger' could persuade anyone otherwise. The DJ extended the end of the record by nearly five minutes, while his side-kick accompanied the music with some good improvised harmonica playing, while the geeks continued to dance. Like geeks! However, the temptation to dance around ones laptop in white stilletoes and a mini-skirt was thankfully avoided.

After three songs, it was decided to move on. So, with typical geek aplomb, we moved to an alternative location and walked aimlessly in circles for an hour. On our route we passed, and passed by, several nice bars, the occasional strip joint and a swingers club. We also made comments, took photos, and acted like drunk tourists as we passed a shop window that contained teddy bears. Pink ones, and blue ones. Placed together in pairs on shelves and positioned performing provocative acts. With one poor teddy bear on his own. And with a limited supply of pink teddy bears, two blue bears had a whole pedestal to themselves. Also posed. It wasn't until someone took charge and said 'in here' that we got another drink. By this time, two splinter groups formed, one attended a large warehouse style bar with lots of space, good chilled music, and a cute waitress, while the others headed towards to the Manneken Pis where another chilled bar served a wider variety of beers. Later in the evening this group engaged in a new sport known henceforth as 'Beer-mat Buckaroo'. In this game, a group of people sit on the floor, crowding around the first geek to pass out. They then take it in turns to place beer-mats on his head, until he wakes up. Bonus points are awarded for balancing the entire beer glass.


Another taxi on Sunday morning. Another set of talks. The wireless network still wasn't working properly. But at least this taxi driver didn't smoke.

The conference ended on a high note with Maddog giving a very good talk. He covered many things from his past, under the banner of "just tell us some stories". Which he did, with his usual jest, humour and energy. And his usual 'I introduced Linus to Alpha' tale. No one minded. A packed hall rose to its feet as he thanked everyone for the last ten years of community spirit, and looked forward to the next ten.

The last talk finished at nearly half six, giving under two hours before the last train out of Belgium and into London. So upon leaving the ULB, we avoided the bus and opted instead for a taxi. The Saturday bus trip back into town had been horrendous. 75 geeks crowding onto a bus, speaking English, and trying to pay for a 1,20 ticket with a 20 euro note. Those with travel cards were then stood on the bus for at least ten minutes while the driver dealt with everyone. A driver who then proceeded to act out his vengeance on the passengers by testing the safety limits of the bus. Sunday's taxi ride however gave us enough time at the station so that we could sit down and eat some junk food, instead of standing up. In truth, the pizza wasn't all that bad, but severely lacking in meat for a meat feast.

The Eurostar home had echoes of the journey on Friday. This time, however, we waited for the train to move a full metre and a half before shuffling along to the bar. Here, enjoyable, but subdued, conversation continued for the whole journey. Future trips, conferences, allegiances (and Maddogs prediction of world domination by 2006) were being planned.

There was little time for sight seeing this year. The MP3 Disco Bar is still there, as is Crousty Sandwiches. And there appears to be a magazine called 'Gay Lips'. Although I can not confirm if this is new or not. We also spent very little time in the hotel, which was a shame, since the rooms were very good. Much larger than either the Ibis or Atlas ones. They came with a lockable safe, a shoe cleaning kit (in the form of KFC-style wet wipes) and a mini-bar fridge to keep all your chocolates gifts cool (fortunately, there was no extra charge for the use of their electricity). The rooms also provided access to a Playstation (for 3,97 euro/hr), and movies. The more movies you watched, the cheaper it became. Adult television was also available, from early evening until 11 o'clock the following morning. This whole session counted as one movie. Ten hours of porn for 11,50 euro. What the hotel didn't realise that you could watch French women playing tennis for free on the other channels.

Apparently there was a conference there, too! Maybe next year...