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.Friday
This years FOSDEM was a more disjointed affair than usual for me. It started on the Friday when, through one reason or another, most of my peer group traveled on different trains, and stayed at different hotels. I left London Waterloo on the 7.15pm train, expecting a nice quiet journey, and to be drinking Belgium beer by 11pm. It was not to be.
The first problem came when the Eurostar left late, due to the previous train being delayed, and half the Brussels travelers being trapped in long queues. Fortunately for them, everyone got on the train before it left. Unfortunately for me, everyone got on the train before it left. This meant spending two hours suffering 12 'chavs' (a word, I believe, is descended from the Romanian word 'chavi', meaning child) who were going snowboarding with their beer, attitude problem, and iPod. With external speakers. Needless to say, I still haven't finished reading my book on regular expressions.
This problem was confounded by the ineffectual guard, and the previous train breaking down in the channel tunnel. Although the two events are not thought to be linked. This latter problem meant an unscheduled hour-long stop outside the tunnel. My over-tired, and over-active, imagination considered the most realistic on-board announcement: 'This station is. Outside the tunnel. Change at. Outside the tunnel. For. The stuck in the snow line. The going nowhere line. And the. You.re not going to get there on time line'.
At Lille, the volume, and my blood pressure, returned to normal as I settled into a gentle doze, just waiting for the train to arrive at Gare du Nord. Knowing I'd be on a later (although not late) train, I'd found a (cheapish) hotel between Gare du Nord and The Grand Place so I could drop my suitcase off en route, thus maximising my drinking time. I had memorized the entire route, searched the web for landmarks to double check my position, and made copious notes for the return journey - just in case I should return home drunk. In case, that is.
Unfortunately, as we pulled into Brussels the train driver announced that we were approaching the station. Gare du Midi! My feat of memory had omitted one minor fact - that of the starting position. So now I'm starting my journey in a completely different location. In truth, the announcement sounded like 'Gare du Nor...Midi', as if some giant conspiracy was unfolding before me, and Mr. Phelps would be tearing off a rubber mask, and set walls were poised to part, at any moment. But apparently, this is real life, and nothing like happened.
So, by tram and by foot I hurried back towards the hotel passing a beggar who asked me for 'Change du spare, s.il vous plait.' He then repeated in Dutch, Flemish and English. If the Belgium beggars are better educated than most of my friends, what would the rest of the population be like. Unfortunately, my first contact with a native resulted in him speaking to me in perfect English. Fortunately, his patter also consisted of a stock phrase: 'Lap dance?' With whom, he wouldn't say, however. But I did wonder what it is about my face, body language and demeanour that resulted in this advance in every country and city to which I've ever been.
I consequently arrived at the Roy d'Espagne at quarter to one in the morning. Unlike Britain, Belgium has slightly saner licensing laws, so I knew I was still able to drink at the typical Brussels brasserie that has become our home for so many years.
I paid my ten euros as a contribution to the bar tab and bought my first drink. Beer never tasted so good, despite being in an over-crowded sweaty pub with the Open Source elite. And my friends. I even found the good nature to apologise to Alan Cox when I turned around too quick and staggered straight into him.
Moving around the bar (slowly) I caught up with some old friends, made some new ones, and drunk the sum total of one beer before they called time (with one bell, not two). Feeling slightly subdued by the ten euro beer (it's good, it's not that good) I proceeded to help the bar staff clear away any unclaimed beer. My good deed for the decade. We also managed to find a small contingent that was more interested in finding another pub than going home, or to a pizza restaurant. It was then that we, a small, erstwhile group of geeks, made full use of the cultural diversity of Brussels by engaging in that most traditional of Belgium rituals: finding an Irish pub, and drinking until 5.30 the following morning. To be pedantic, we only drank in the Irish pub until 2.30, at which point we moved to the Irish bar next door for the remaining three hours.
The 'backtracking notes' I'd made previously came in handy. And I apologise to anyone that saw me making the journey. It must have looked like Charlotte Church on a bad day.Saturday
I missed the morning sessions. A little bit of good and bad news, I guess. This year the organisers had noted the lackluster attendance of the first session and either drew one of two conclusions.
During the day I attended several talks, mostly good. The talks at the Free and Open Source Developers European Meeting were about Free and Open Source Development. Held in Europe. In a meeting format. What else did you want to know?
Saturday evening was an untailored affair with a quiet sit down meal with friends in the side streets, just off Grand Place. Like all the tourist restaurants in that area, the menus outside invite you to sample set menus for prices between 12 and 20 euros. Inside, the non-set menus will set you back around 50 euros a head. For a geek, this WYSINNWYG interface (What You See Is Nowhere Near What You Get) is worrying, but no different to the experience of believing the pictures you see in public phone boxes. Apparently.
Still, it was still cheaper (and better food) than the dinner that the bulk of our party had enjoyed the previous night.
We ended Saturday night with a couple of quiet drinks in the hotel bar, before I retired to my room.
My room was a rather basic affair, but cheap and only 10 minutes walk from Grand Place (although in fairness, most of Brussels is within 10 minutes walk of Grand Place). I had a view the street, other hotels, and the cranes doing construction work opposite. They also had a sense of humour, giving me (a KDE user) a Gnome stall in the room, and (knowing I was here for a 'computer thing') sufficed with a single bar of soap for the whole weekend. I used nearly half of it.
The hotels lift strode across the line separating 'quaint' and 'antiquated'.
Belgium TV has the usual mix of news, sport, English programming and softcore porn you'd find from any country on the continent. Although here, the adverts for phone sex do include nudity. Although I didn't watch the 'AB3 PUB' channel, the basic format appeared to consist of:
Being up and bright and early on Sunday morning gave me enough time to get lost in the city before making my way to the ULB. I didn't intentionally get lost, but the bus I wanted (the 71) appeared to be out of service until April. Or, at least, I think that's watch my rudimentary French was telling me. Instead, a combination of Metro (to Louise) and tram (to ULB) seemed to get me there in time for the second talk of the day.
The rest of the day continued as a normal FOSDEM affair, which I've described many times before. We listened to good talks, made some notes, discussed the issues of Free Software, and wondered if Cleopatra bathing in milk was the first recorded instance of Bukkake.
As always, FOSDEM ended on a high note with a very good closing talk, although this year I had to leave before the conclusion of the Q&A session of the days final talk. My evening was taken up with drinks and dinner with a friend of mine, before returning back the hotel at a disturbingly sensible 12.30am.
There are many things about Brussels (and presumably Belgium) you subconsciously notice, but never appreciate until you discuss them. The vending machine serving beer, vodka and gin (as I described last year) now appears part of the normal fabric of Brussels life. Although the fact the vending machine can also (safely?) dispense of a box of eggs and a full six pack of beer (as I discovered on Sunday morning) is probably reason enough to consider emigrating.
Also, the width of the tram doors really took me aback. They are so narrow. I struggled with a suitcase. I'm sure most pushchairs wouldn't fit.
Finally, I should probably mention the bi-lingual nature of the city. With Belgium having two major languages (French and Flemish) it's mandatory to have all the street signs and road names listed twice. Adverts will have two slogans, or two separate posters side-by-side, to sell their product. This dual naming appears for everything - even the word for beer: which is either Bier or Biere. Obviously, the difference of one letter makes it important enough for both words, just in case the ambling drunk sees a sign for Bier and thinks, '.'Oh well, no Biere for sale in there - might as well go home'.
Which is what I did.