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.Wednesday
This years FOSDEM jaunt started on Wednesday morning, with an early train from London and a two-day excursion to Antwerp. Having been planning this trip for 6 months previously meant I had plenty of time to find and download a stand-alone map of the lowlands. Naturally, reality meant that it didn't happen until I arrived in the lounge of the Eurostar. 50 minutes before departure. Leeching on the nearby hotel's wifi. Of course, you get 20 minutes for free. Which, if you forget, means your 485MB download will pause for an inexplicable reason after 20 minutes, requiring you to restart the wifi, and then continue to download. At least the app is free... if you don't want the UK maps. Which is fine. When I'm in the UK, I'll use Google through my phone. When abroad I'll use the app. Assuming that my phone doesn't have issues. Not that 3 would mess up my phone twice in two years, would they...? Spoiler alert: they do!
The journey itself, both to Brussels and then onto Antwerp, was uneventful. At least, uneventful to anyone that wasn't there. I suffered a Kronenberg because (despite advertising Leffe for the last 3 years) there's never been any in stock on my train to Brussels. Although if you've never hearded north out of Gard du Nord you will pass Rue d'Aerschot (on your right) which, despite appearances, is not selling lingeries since the models in the window move. And are the items on sale.
On arrival in Antwerp it made sense to take copius photographs of the station and find the hotel and dump the bags. It was an Ibis. So we left the station on the most inhabited side, and heading towards the green square signage that declared itself as an Ibis. Alas, it wasn't the right one. We were booked into the budget Ibis. So instead of a view encompassing the (truly wonderful) train station, communal square, and zoo, we were in an Ibis situated next to a car park, and above a Lidl. Oh well - the touch lights worked, it was clean, and at least the wifi worked. Or rather, it worked in 50% of the rooms we'd booked. I was lucky that it worked in my room which meant I could use the wifi to complain to 3 that I had no mobile coverage at all, and certainly no 'free data roaming on the continent' as they'd been advertising.
Our exploration on Wednesday covered a surprisingly small area of the town, governed by how far we could walk before the next rain/hail/snow storm drove us off the street quicker than a front loader truck gathering its harvest for Soylent Green. In between the bouts of freak weather, we found Bier Centraal (Ok, but dull) where my love for bitterballen was re-ignited, a church (closed), a bistro, and a few other places. Unfortunately, our quest for evening food was less successful as the recommendations on our list were either closed or non-existent. The number of available restaurants (i.e. 'open') was limited, but the one that was (Bistro) was very nice. Maybe the others had given up competing!
So my first impressions were of a nice city, cleaner than Brussels, and somewhere I was looking forward to exploring.
Even the racist in the lift – speaking with a German accent, complaining about the Germans – didn't dampen my hope. Except for the 10 seconds when we were actually in the lift with him.
It started with an early morning walk to get some photographs. I found, by accident, the closed church from the previous day. This time, however, there were workmen loading tools from their van into the church. So I followed. I'm not sure what the 'Veiligheid eerst' sign meant, but it was red, had the word 'verboden' on it, and a man with his hand in the 'stop' position. I played an ignorant tourist and went in anyway, fully expecting every door to slam shut behind me, the room to start spinning, and for me to wake up in an episode of 1960s Avengers. Or be a prisoner in The Village.
Of course, 3 hadn't fixed my phone, so there was no way to call for help.
But I at least got some peace without any other tourists to walk into front of my shot, and so got several nice photographs, proving the risk was worth it.
From here I took a random wander back to the main street, bus station, and various side streets. One sporting a record shop with a copy of an album with my magic mentor, Kovari, on the cover. The things you learn. On the way back to the hotel, to start the day proper, I stopped in at a supermarket for a genuine Belgian breakfast - Kriek and waffles. Unfortunately, once you opened the bottle cap of the Kriek, you found there was a cork. And I didn't have a corkscrew. Our best effort to coax it out failed, so that bottle had to travel home with me, instead. So I had water for breakfast. #fail
Thursday was planned to be our photo tour day. Or a trip to Doel, the ghost town on the other side of the Scheldt river. With the help of reception we checked the logistics. Public transport would be a 2 hour trip, and the taxi would be an expensive half tour detour just west of the middle of nowhere. Neither had a high probability of getting us back before night fall and the descent of solitary madness. So, instead, we agreed to return in the summer, when we'd take the ferry.
So Thursday became our photo tour day. A random walk around their China town (one short street, not much longer than London's Gerrard street), some interesting buildings, the cathedral, the pier, the port, the cranes (oh, the cranes!) and eventually to MAS.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Of the places en route there was the cathedral – stunning in its construction. Amazing in its size. And frustratingly expensive to enter. (I'm not even convinced I can agree with a place of worship that charges money for entrance, in much the same way I'm not happy thatthe UK aristocracy charge for entrance to their stately homes, when they were built by tax-stealing, feudal land grabs, and treading on the poor. I.e. my ancestors.)
Anyway, opposite the cathedral was a nice little beer shop where the owner was trying to coax us into drinking his free beer samples. Wanting a steady hand for my photographs, and a clear head in which to compose the shot, I managed to summon enough willpower to decline. However, he did mention a Trappist beer tasting in the shop at 7pm. We now had a plan for the evening!
From here we looked at several cafes, and eventually found dinner on Antwerp's Grand Place. A positive reflection of the one in Brussels, but with fewer people, and equally as good food and beer. Just across from Grand Place we spotted Gollem, with a beer fridge that exceeding my own... we now had a plan for the early evening.
But back to the walk - the pier, the docks, and MAS. This is an interesting-looking square building where each of the 10 levels is reached by an escalator at 90 degrees to the one on the floor below. Once you reach the top, there is a perspex prison wall around you with holes where the brave can point cameras. Those with proper body cameras can safely rest their lens in these holes to get their shot. Those of us with phones had to rely on our grip. Which, with the intense winds and severe cold, was a sobering experience. Luckily, I lost nothing. And gained a few nice pictures. Which meant the day was a success.
The return journey took in the harbour, where I made a note to look up mooring prices in St Katherines Dock, a diamond exhibition, and other random streets. There was also a snack bar called 'Boobies ' where you could have a nipple... sorry.. have a nibble on run-of-the-mill sandwiches. Strangely, it was not a front for a strip club in any form. Except that the guy behind the counter had bigger breasts than at least 4 of my exes!
Our evening contained beer. First at Gollem. Then the beer shop. The tasting was a little late in starting, so the owner plied us with the free samples we didn't get earlier. And some whisky. A good bonus. The tasting itself was held in Dutch, with the important bits given in English for just us two. This was fine. While the others chatted and asked questions, we quietly drank. When they refilled the empty glasses, ours were the only ones worth re-filling. Double helpings all round! It made the fact that the beer tasting was a paid-for event more palatable. (Pardon the pun.) In fact, it was more of a cheap bar than a tutored tasting, since the level of knowledge probably matched my own from 7 or 8 years ago. (Note to readers that think that sounds smug: I'm also a beer sommelier in my other life!) To be honest, we didn't really go for the beer, since I'd had them all before - we went for the distraction, which I assume is why they were there, as it felt strange that a group of Belgians, known for their love and knowledge of beer, would need a tutored tasting.
Exhausted with all the beer, we wanted nothing more than to head back the Lidl...sorry, hotel... and get some rest. But not until we'd had a quick pint for the road at the interesting pub on the corner.
We started the day with a casual saunter through Antwerp, culminating with a late breakfast, which started around lunch time, at a small café called De Varkenspoot. And, since it started around lunch time,that meant I could have a Triple Karmeliet for breakfast... er... I mean.. lunch! The fare was standard, with a very interesting take on a bacon omelette (you use whole rashes of bacon) and bread by the way of a good range of wholesome sandwiches. As with Wednesday's dinner, the wholly Dutch menu meant playing it safe with whatever words we recognized, and could coax English translations from.
We walked back to the station, via yet another random route, and accidentally stumbled on an opera house. As you do. Before we left, we stopped into Bier Centraal one last time. But only because there was space in the back, so we could take photographs of ourselves drinking beer in empty beer barrels. Well, we might have felt like gypsies, but you gotta get a gimmick...
Then it was a train to Brussels, and back to the hotel, to practise the FOSDEM talks, before meeting up with friends for FOSDEM-oriented beer and food. For an evening beer we decided on Au Bon Vieux Temps. For an evening meal we decided that T Kelderke was suitable. But it was too busy, and the staff too disinterested to acknowledge us, so we left for Le Cap. It was empty, but somehow still managed a lack lustre service. But I still enjoy their food.
It was then onto a stupidly-packed Delirium, where I managed one drink before calling it a night.
I arrived at ULB around 11 am, in time for a keynote - my first in maybe 10 years. (Bonus laziness point: I haven't read the last N years of my own diary to work out the _actual_ last time!) My main take-away from the session, however, was that there were lots of newbies. Boy, did that make me feel old! And alone, knowing there was even less chance of meeting old friends this year. The talk itself was good, but fluffy, and covered identity. For me personally there wasn't anything I hadn't heard a few times previously at FOSDEM, which was when it dawned on me... Although they're not the first to say such things, it doesn't matter because everyone still needs to hear it. Us old-timers don't need to, which is probably why we still in the pub while the newbies go home early on Friday night, so they can attend Saturday mornings. After all, they have 15 years of geek history to learn!
I used the opportunity to get connected to the legacy network (Dear Organizers, please don't switch of IPv4 for good, some of us rely on it.) But being unsure of how long the network would hold for me, I managed to fire off a single tweet “If I stop tweeting about #fosdem2015 I'm either dead, or have lost wifi. Not sure which is worse! ;)” Those that know, know!
Most of the morning was spent getting reacquainted with my oldest friend in the area – the campus itself – and getting a beer in preparation for my 13.20 talk. I also managed my first nose bleed of the year, so was continually worried about that... which didn't help. Ultimately, luck prevailed.
I had uploaded my presentation to Pentabarf. Added it to a USB stick in ODT, PPT, and PDF format. Reformatted it to iBook format. And added it to some random office suite I'd found for the iPad. Nothing could go wrong... but guess what happened? The lightning talk's laptop machine broke, so we relied on the kindness of J. Random Stranger to supply his for the first talk.
I gave my talk to a packed room, with standing room only, and even finished under time giving an opportunity for questions. I know many speakers who dislike the questions component of a talk. I love it. Both as a speaker, and audience member, as it lets you see a little of the personality behind the software. It also indulges my propensity to show-off in what passes as geek stand-up comedy! In my case, an improvised joke about the NSA!
p.s. If you were at that talk I made a remark about this diary. It contains my thoughts on Bulgarian girls, beer, and the current audience. So, if you're reading this to find out what I thought of the audience then you can stop reading now... I'm not telling you! :)
After this talk I headed to UB to give my second talk of the conference; this time on CHDK - the Canon Hack Development Kit. Each year seems to have a personal theme. It was while waiting outside UB that I realized this years - anonymity. While waiting in the cold for the preceding talk to conclude, and the room to empty, I realized that none of my shivering companions knew who I was! I'm not famous by any stretch. And certainly no oil painting. But my picture is on the FOSDEM site next to my bio, it's on my web site, and various other books and articles I've written over the last 15 years. But despite this, no one had noticed I was stood beside them, listening to them theorize about the content of my talk.
Or maybe they were just trolling.
Or that I've aged badly since having that photo taken!
In any case, we waited for (what seemed like) hours while the previous audience streamed out of the room, leaving me to believe there'd be no one left, and the 20 people outside would be my entire audience. Luckily, there was 100 people left when I entered. I set up my iPad (quietly panicked at the 23% battery life) and patiently awaited my audience, which eventually swelled to 200+.
All-in-all the CHDK talk seemed to go really well. I had been buoyed by reading the tweets about my previous talk (words like “Amazing” and “Very entertaining person!” always make one feel welcome) I was continued to be pleased by the subsequent tweets (“ready to send my old camera in Space :) amazing talk.” and “Suddenly cameras are a lot more fun to play with!”) so I'd had a good FOSDEM by the time I headed out for a 3.30pm lunch.
Lunch was a simple portion of chips and a bottle of beer, since there wasn't anything decent in the pizza place, and nothing good in the kebab place. Coincidentally, I spotted an old work colleague from 8+ years ago, exchanged numbers, hoping to meet up in the evening. Alas, despite several messages it never happened as our respective evenings didn't coincide. (And by the time he'd arrived at our pub, it was too full for him to be let in, so we're planning a night in London.)
We returned from lunch in time for a few lightning talks (still my favourite place to sat) and Phil's 6pm talk on his recording all of TV.
As far as the evening went we had only one plan - leave Rock Classic sometime after 4am. How long after didn't matter - we just had to last that long. How we got there didn't matter - so long as we did. After checking a few restaurant suggestions online we found a place that's half-way between ULB and Grand Place, in Ixelles. So we took a slow wander there, stopping off for a beer on the way. Well - it was 7.30pm, and I'd only had 6 bottles so far! One of our places had an interesting approach to health & safety by placing a chair with its back 3cm away from the stairs; pushing the chair back would cause it to fall down the stairs. Luckily, another table opened up, so the youtube clip that some were eagerly awaiting didn't happen!
The place we ended up at was Au Vieux Bruxelles, a cute (but cash only) place on Rue St Boniface. It was small and busy, which presented us with a 10 minute wait for a table, but growing confidence in it being a local diner, for local people, of local quality. We were not disappointed. (Although the beer selection was lacking.) Food-wise, it was certainly the best guinea-fowl I'd had outside South Africa. Of course, I could just be saying that to point out that I've had guinea-fowl before, and that I've had it in South Africa. But would I be so shameless?!
So from here to Poechenellekelder for a quick one before heading to RC - Rock Classic. And naturally, what happens in RC, stays in RC. Except to say that 'Spunk' and 'Big Boobies' were enjoyed! Like I said, what happens in RC, stays in RC. I left around 5am having not fallen asleep at all, nor succumbing to beermat buckeroo!
I was up bright and early for a bus trip in to ULB, arriving around 10. Somehow! My voice was sore and croaky... I'll wait here while you make up your own jokes about 'Spunk' and 'Big Boobies'... OK?... Are you back? Good...
...so, I got to the ULB cafe and saw the queue for coffee that stretched to the door, 30 feet away. I also saw the queue for the beer, which stretched to the end of the counter. The algorithm for determining my morning wake-up juice was never that complex. But the sugar in the fruit beers gave me a (little) perk, so I had my beers and headed out, looking for the SDCC talk and a power socket. Preferably both.
Maybe my head was still a little light, since I felt the anonymity again. 5000 geeks in a small area. Of which around 400 had probably seen me talk the day before. Another 200-250 read this diary each year (so my logs tell me) and yet the only people that recognized me were my friends from London that I see more often in Brussels, than I do in London. Or maybe there's another reason!
I did manage to see the talks on Yocto and Potree, but a full devroom and failing wifi meant the PHP talks won't get consumed until the videos are online. But in truth, I'll probably watch the Yocto one again, as I could feel the effects of a 5am-9am sleep pattern beginning to affect me.
Luckily, we made it through the day without snoring through anyone's presentation – I think – and made it back to central for a beer, dinner, and an early night.
The evening meal was at T Kelderke which started promising, as the owner moved us from a small table next to a noisy group of tourists to a quiet one in the corner, but enthuisasm levelled out quickly as the horse wasn't as good as either of the last few years. Next year, I will probably omit this from my cycle of restaurants. At least the prawn starter (marked on the menu as 'scampi') was as good as ever.
Although everything is 'Ferme le Lundi' we'd still got a full day of shopping and exploring to do. We'd planned a breakfast beer at Poechenellekelder. However, since I last did it, they've stopped opening on Monday so we decamped to Delerium Tremens, instead. Here we got to watch the filming of a TV documentary/program/segment with a Belgian beer sommelier. As a beer sommelier I was naturally interested. But, as an Englishman who speaks fewer languages than Hitler had testicles, I was locked out. At least I could enjoy my beer. And the next. And the next. In fact, we stayed for far to many meaning we had to limit that days activities, and postpone some to the following day. At least there was cheese and meat to snack upon.
p.s. if anyone's curious as to which form of Englishman I am, I'm one that speaks English. All those pieces of software that list 3+ forms of English, e.g. 'American English', have a bug. There are only 2 forms of English. Proper English. And mistakes!
What I did notice that there is still a lack of cash machines in Brussels. So much so that it's the only time you see a sign with 'BNP' and get excited. But, if finding a cash machine is hard, then a post box is harder. I think there's two.
The evening meal was Eritrean. Always good. Always filling.
After yesterday's lackadaisical approach to exploring, there were two museums were on the 'compulsory TODO list' for today - Musical Instruments, and Horta. Of the two, MIM seems to have more "issues" with tourists. Or maybe just foreign tourists. There seems to be a policy of no coats allowed. (Which of course have to be left in a cloakroom, where the owners take no responsibility for items left at your own risk, but not at your own volition.) But, as you wander around you notice a lot of people wearing their coats. And of course they're wearing coats – it's February in Brussels, and freezing.
And while coats are banned (but only for some of us), bags are permitted. But not checked. So any thoughts about it being 'security' or 'theft prevention' does not compute. Stupid.
Horta, on the other hand, has a door that you can (barely) open from the outside, and a doorbell that doesn't work - which meant we nearly didn't go in. Once inside we were informed that we couldn't take pictures. Why? The Horta family have a copyright on the items. It's a shame that my ability to speak French is only at the same level as their ability to understand the 'fair use' clauses in international copyright law - i.e. none. I was not the only to take umbrage with this, as I could see couples walking around singularly, so one could sneak their camera out to get pictures, with the other posing on the stairs. I used their positions, and employed my knowledge of theatrical blocking, to commit my own acts of minor photographic rebellion!
The evening meal was duck. And lots of it.
Despite my many years in Brussels (both for FOSDEM and personal reasons) I've never been here on the first Wednesday of the month. This is important because it's the only time there is a guided tour of Bruxella 1238, an archaeological site next to Bourse showing the remains of the Franciscan monastery from the same year. Being such a rare occurrence we were sure to get there at 10.15 for the first tour. That said, it was the only tour. In English. For the whole month. It was 10.10 before I noted that tickets had to be bought in advance, and at the Museum of the City of Brussels. Luckily it was less than 5 minutes walk so there was time to get tickets, and have a quick look the main museum before our guide took us around.
And when I say 'us', I mean all of us.
Everyone that wants a tour of Bruxella 1238 has to wait a whole month for the only time the guide is able to take you around. And how many people is that? Two. Us two. From London.
But it's a good, albeit short, tour and the guide certainly knows her stuff and adds a lot of colour to what few remains... er... remain.
After this, there wasn't much time before we had to head back to the Eurostar, and home. We got to detour to see the cathedral, a book shop, and stop in Magic Rubens for a beer in a bent glass, called Adler. Rubens was, alas, another disappointment. Whereas it once had magic shows, I could find no such references. And whereas it once had 100s of magicians on the walls (including several personal friends of mine) it now had 10. And only one of true international acclaim.
So, from here, it was back to the supermarket for take home beer. Poechenellekelder for one quiet beer. Literally one beer... between two of us, since they don't take credit cards and we were down to our last 5 euro. And even that one beer was interrupted when one of us had to pop out for cash, so we could drink together! They brought back the suitcases from the hotel, so I could pack the beer away before we walked back to the station. On the journey I realize my feet hurt quite a lot, probably from too much cobbled walking, and that there was space in my suitcase for another few beers. So, at the station, I filled the empty spaces in my case and waited for the return trip.
Long. Exhausting. Slightly painful. But as I stepped back onto the concreted proverbial soil of London, I felt as anonymous as I always do. Despite it being my home city. And if you measure a conference by the number of tweets, retweets, favourites, and new followers, I'd just returned from my best FOSDEM ever. I shouldn't have felt that anonymous, but I did. I stood alone on the train home with the quite contemplation that quotes Blade Runner.
"I've seen things..."Photos
I take many photographs of my trip. Mostly snaps, to remind me of the places, spelling, and chronology of the journey. Most are personal. But there's a few I don't mind sharing.