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.


I arrived in Brussels ahead of the crowds, on Thursday evening, after an unusually good journey. The only inconvenience was while an old woman blocked the Eurostar gangway while trying to work out if her seat (number 57) was higher or lower than the 15 (the one in front of her) and whether she had to walk forwards or backwards.

When I reached Gard du Nord I took my normal route out of the station to the hotel. That is; I took what I thought was the normal route, but turned out to be a detour around the station before I resume my original course after spotting a familiar landmark. Note to self: use Rogier station in future.

After checking in, I dumped my bags and, upon realising I'd be too late for a quiet nights supper on my own, headed out for a beer run, and take-away snack. Having used the same hotel for the last three years I am aware of the nearest necessities: off-license is at the top of the road, and turn right, with the burger and kebab house about 100 yards after the guy trying to entice people into his special night club. And by people, we mean adults. And by adult, we specifically mean men!

The beer run was eventful. The burger was not. After waiting an extraordinarily long time for the burger he finally got around to adding the cheese. Deciding to splash out, I'd asked for a cheeseburger, and was prepared to stump up the extra 50 cents for a layer of prime Belgium cheese on top. The last time I bought a burger, the cheese was an extra 10p. So for 50 cents I was expecting something special. Consequently, I grimaced as the cheese slice was lovingly peeled out of the thing cellophane envelope and layered onto the burger. The meat tasted odd, too. However, the ketchup was wonderful. If anyone wonders why Belgium has the best chips and the best ketchup in the world, it's because no one wants to suffer a late night burger!

I sloped back to the hotel with my prizes and had a drunken night alone in a hotel room poetically dreaming of Oscar Wilde and writing lyrics for a new song.


I awoke moderately early the next morning and had a hearty breakfast of (unintentionally) dry {bread and cheese}. This was to give me subsistence for the trek around the city. I had never photographed any amount of Brussels properly before, and today was to be my first time. I'd taken a few shots with my old (low resolution) digital camera previously, and I'd got some snaps from my analogue when I first visited Brussels to see a friend of mine (now moved back to Paris.) So I had the opportunity to photograph the cathedral, palace, Grand Place, Congress Column and botanical gardens. More importantly, I had the opportunity to photograph on my own which meant I could return to some areas when the sun was in a better position.

Most of the city is familiar territory to me now. The only new place I visited was the Museum of Musical Instruments. It has a good collection of piano roll machines and automatic instruments, along with some highly decorative harpsichords and pianos upstairs. A very high percentage of the exhibits come with audio clips fed directly into your wireless headphones so you can hear the instrument. This included all the tribal drums being played in situ, and the obscure Welsh horns. All very illuminating and inspiring - but no substitute for being allowed to experiment yourself. I'd originally paced myself to cover the six floors and then head out for a late lunch. However, it turns out that half the floors are either not open to the public, or have nothing but libraries or coffee shops on them. This didn't matter as the rest of the exhibit is worth attending. My only chagrin was that I was forced into leaving my camera in the cloak room, despite everyone else being allowed theirs and blatantly filming in front of the security guards L

Shortly after leaving the museum I got a text saying a friend of mine had arrived in Brussels and was I ready for beer? I checked my watch. It was still on my wrist, so it was certainly beer time! I hit reply on my phone and waited - no answer. I looked at the screen and realised it had switched itself off. So I tried again. Again, it switched itself off. I walked towards the Grand Place in the hope of a better signal, but no. T-Mobile had a tyrant of abuse levelled at them through the ether in the square that day. But since I can only swear in England and German I doubt they got any adverse publicity from me.

It took over an hour to transcribe my friends phone number (between instant switch-offs and breaks to calm my blood pressure), by which point I was grossly annoyed. I was further kicked in the head by my inability to find a public phone box. They were nowhere to be seen. And even after finding a row of three I couldn't persuade any to take my coins, credit card, or Anglicised charm. With no further options, I headed back to the hotel to use the one in my room. A couple of trips to reception to find out how to call reception, and/or an outside line later, and I was connected to my friends phone. While I was worrying, he'd been drinking, and I went along to meet him for a drink before the evening sessions when we'd be going for, er, a drink!

Friday night in the Roy d'Espagne is the same as it is every year. Lots of beer. Lots of people. Lots of fun. Even the incident where we arrived at our pre-determined restaurant, only to discover it had closed down, seemed enjoyable. The resultant second choice of pizza was a good meal in compensation. And, as always, good company. From here we moved onto the 'coffin pub.' I'm not sure if that's its proper name, but it has coffins for tables and the beer is served in skulls. So coffin pub works for me. Other geeks had found it too which created an instant rapport. Despite this 'coolness' factor, the lager is pretty poor (despite requiring you to be quite rich) and resulted in one of our group (a bloke) throwing in the women's toilets! This was either through drunken stupidity or sheer genius - thinking no one would ever walk in and find him driving the porcelain bus. Not to matter! Being able to sing and whistle along to Duran Duran's The Chauffeur at 3.00am on Saturday morning, with a blue led pen, will remain with me for a long time. At least, it will remain with me now that I know that's what I was doing at 3.00am on Saturday morning! (Video evidence on request bribery)

I got home, more than a little tired and watched some TV. Namely, Scooby Doo in French. What can I say - it's not scary. Not even in a funny way. French Shaggy is not cool. French Scooby is not goofy. And French Velma is not sexy. So when anyone tells you that all French women are sexy, just ask them about French Scooby Doo!


An overly tired me got up in time for breakfast (somehow!) and headed down to the bus stop ready for the first lecture. Of the afternoon. I'd only missed RMS (who I've seen several times before) so I didn't care. The sessions I did see were good, although there was very little material I could not have gleaned by reading the 'about' section on their respective websites.

The early evening involved a short detour to get some cheese. This year's best discovery was the Chimay cheese that is very nice, but needs bread to level the taste out. I recommend pain du chocolate, but you mileage may vary. This shopping trip put us a little behind schedule, so we missed our rendezvous at the pub. (Sorry, guys!) Instead, we met up with a different group of geeks for a few beers, before leaving ourselves on a mission to find food. Our little group of four made it to the ever-reliable Falstaff for chicken, bacon, chips, foi gras, mussels and the usual Belgium faire.

At midnight we left and headed around the Bourse (in the wrong direction) to Celtica, a late night Irish bar and nightclub that was open until 7am. The remaining three of us stopped in for a quick one before bed, since we were all quite tired.

After the first pint we realised that two of us hadn't bought a round, so we stayed for another.

After the second pint we realised that one of us hadn't bought a round, so we stayed for another.

After the third pint we didn't feel tired anymore, and were happy to repeat the above.

When we arrived in Celtica, they had an Irish folk guitarist playing standards that everyone in the pub knew. He player the drunken pub singer-cum-fool very well, and was a much better guitarist that he let on, as we discovered near the end of the set. Once he'd finished his set, the pub switched to standard rock classics with a strong Irish bias. Upstairs played more modern happy dance, cheese and party songs. We stayed downstairs. We all talked and surveyed the scenery until our age caught up with us and we headed back to bed - although not the same bed, obviously!


After navigating the police in the hotel lobby (yes, really!) I put my bags in the storage room, and trundled off for the final day of lectures. Again, I only arrived for the first session of the afternoon. But the usual suspects and I met up during the course of the afternoon and planned our exit strategy for the evening. It was to leave just before the end of the final talk (a good one, alas!) to beat the crowds to the tram, collect our bags, and get some food.

Our return to the hotel took two detours to the waffle stand and kebab house. Both worthwhile trips, although it did mean we were on the Rogier platform a half hour before the Eurostar was meant to leave... from a station that wasn't Rogier. And when we though it wouldn't get worse, someone mentioned that boarding closes half an hour before departure. Bugger!

Contingency plans where made. Upon arrival we were to start running to the check-in desk, since we thought that by being out of breath showed we'd put some effort into our timetable, and hadn't spent the last hour gouging on waffles. Halfway to the check-in gate we change plans again, and thought it better to claim we were still on UK time. This required us to change tact entirely and appear leisurely and sedate. And without panting.

As it turns out, we needn't had rushed since others were still arriving, and we could board fine. Up until about ten minutes beforehand, it seems.

We were booked on the last train out of Brussels. As was everyone else. Our train was bustling to the point of annoyance, and having the carriages wrongly labelled didn't help. A packed and inconvenient train journey followed, exacerbated by lack of sleep the preceding night. And further exacerbated by everyone else; all of whom believed that they were in the right carriage and everyone else was in the wrong. Once the worst offenders left at Ashford we managed to lower our blood collective pressures and complete the journey in relative peace.

I can't even remember when I got home, as I was too tired to look at my watch. Not that it's important to the story. It shows that a good and thoroughly exhausting weekend was over and I could get on with my quiet little life in London - where I only burn the candle at two ends.