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.
The weekend began with my wading through the English snow, using two suitcases as balances, to Kings Cross - the new home of Eurostar. It isn't any better than Waterloo, per se, as you still get the over-self-important French women pushing past you, but in theory the journey is 20 minutes quicker. i.e. 20 minutes longer spent in the Belgium bars. However, thanks to last years fire in the tunnel (which scuppered our plans to attend the Brussels Beer Festival) the journey is currently 20 minutes longer. i.e. 20 minutes longer spent in the Eurostar bar.
After (nearly) boarding the wrong tram to hotel, we got cleaned up and headed out. Did we:
- Beer in "the Roy"
- Food just off St Catherine
- Beer in the Delirium
- Absinthe in the Floris
The answer was actually all of the above!
The usual Friday night beer session managed something quite unusual - a bar tab of what we estimated at 15,000 euro. Apparently, I was very personable, funny, and interesting at the Delirium. I couldn't remember, and became worried that it might have something to do with the record of 3 glasses of champagne, and 3 bottles of wine I'd inveigled on the Eurostar coming over.
Although warmer than England, Belgium was colder this year, due primarily to the conference being 3 weeks earlier than usual. But at least it wasn't snowing. My room was small but cosy, and seemed like a good deal at the time, as it included a continental breakfast. Alas, I'd forgotten what this meant: one croissant (slightly dry), a piece of bread (slightly drier) and some jam. This was not a breakfast fit for a king-size hangover. I made a mental note of this, and headed out.
Once I knew I could never be in time for the 1st talk, I decided to walk the 50 minutes to the ULB campus. For all the walkers that attend FOSDEM, the route and journey is quite simple. From the centre, you begin by taking any reasonable route to Naamse Poort, past whichever cathedrals/shops you like, and then stay on the road until you reach ULB. En route this year I noted that Flageyplein is no longer a building site, and has a new glass bus shelter that wouldn't look out of place in London, the market by the lakes weren't there and there's what looks like an "Oxfam Computer Bookshop" - which instead of being full of 2nd hand ZX81 programming manuals and such gems, is actually two shops sharing a single sign: an Oxfam Computer Shop, with 3rd rate PCs, and an Oxfam Bookshop with 3rd rate books. In foreign.
Talks-wise, the RPM talk was too hot and sweaty to think, but fortunately the content was so surface-level it didn't matter. The Ada room was disturbing full, so I never got to advance my n00b status in the language. Curiously, the preceding hour was a Q&A session on the language, it's future and structure, attended by (presumably) semi-experienced Ada developers - so why no one left the room when the beginners track started was a mystery. So instead we talked outside, drank beer, ate Chimay Blue cheese (yes - it exists!), and fawned over the Pico projector and laser keyboard being exhibited in the AW building.
The Reverse Engineering talk, which I'd seen being prepped earlier in the day, was good and re-iterated the work I'd done previously - only Rob made it sound easier than it general is! The BUG talk (the longer of the two taking place this weekend) was good, and just the right side of a sales pitch for my ears. I still want one - but not at the current price... or exchange rate...
Heading back to change ahead of Saturday night's activities I was confronted by an angry, abusive, and threatening Frenchman. His body ordour suggested beggar, but I couldn't be sure. Whatever he was needing to convey, none of the 50 or so pedestrians wanted to help. Even when I beat a hasty treat and had him follow me, did those who'd seen him earlier want a second chance of assisting. Needless to say, if this were my first introduction to the city I would be wary of returning. But I've learned that you can't judge a country by its nutters. The same way I'd hope we Brits aren't judged by our hooligans or politicians.
There were three or four different plans on Saturday, and I couldn't attend them all. The first was to meet at the Floris bar for absinthe at 9pm. Being more of a beer doyen, the 400 pages of absinthe confused me. Especially the one called "Reality absinthe." So I was kind of relieved when no one had turned up and was re-directed to "Gnome Event" at my ever favourite, "Port Noire."
In truth, I'm not sure why it was a Gnome event as there no reserved area, no Gnome sales pitch, and no free beer. Or at least, none that I was privy. Was I in the right place? Every bar on 'FOSDEM Saturday' is full of geeks in black and logo'd T-shirts, so no-one could tell it if this were right or not.
There was then a quick bar hop to Poechenelle Kelder by the Mannekin Pis (if you visit, remember to say hello to the old general) for some more beers. And then onto Floris for Rum.
Saturday's late night event for the committed (read: alcoholic) was Rock Classics. A club playing, as the name suggests, classic rock songs from the last 40 years. This lead to the argument of what should constitute "classic". In the Red Corner was the broad genre of 60's and 70's, featuring the Stones, The Who, Led Zep, and their contemporaries. This side had a significant boost when 6 consecutive tracks by The Doors came on. Manifique! In the Blue Corner was 80's to 90's with Rammstein and early Metallica. And even though one Paradise Lost song sounds just like Discovery Channel by the Bloodhound Gang, the Blue Corner won as 10 consecutive One Second tracks were played, all from the same album, One Second. But it was a good night, and I arrived back at my hotel just in time for breakfast. Instead, I opted for sleep before my talk in the morning.
I had the foresight to set my phone alarm at 2 o'clock the previous morning, so I was up in time for my talk, although I did miss the first couple of hours of everybody else's lectures. Sorry.
Fired on adrenaline - and a curry sandwich and beer for breakfast - I made it to the lightning talks room in time to watch the preceding presentation. FreedroidRPG is a good looking RPG with some nice ideas, and was a good visual presentation.
Tias was his usual keen and pleasant self and introduced the acts well. I also like him because he scheduled my talk to start after my hangover had gone.
My talk was the second in the afternoon, at 14:20, and I was pleased to see about 12 people enter during the preceding talk so I knew that some people had come specifically for me! It went well, and I somehow managed to deliver it much faster than in the rehearsals. At least I managed to meet some fellow game developers (Hello!) and discuss the idea of a games track next year. Oh, and I even got to sign a copy of my first book - which was nice ego-boost.
I then attended the X graphics talks. They had good material, but were more of something you "go away and think about", rather than anything you could discuss in a pub with friends. I also tried to find someone with a working wi-fi connection so I could see if I'd won the BUG. It turns out I hadn't, so I'll just have to use a mobile phone to implement my ideas!
This year, Red Fedora's were on-display in full force, like there must have been a sale on at 2004-Fashions-R-Us. I plan on creating a distro called 'Fez Linux' and book Tommy Cooper impersonators to talk at my 'Fez Linuz Conferences'... but I digress...
The day finished with an overly-positive American.
One new feature of the conference this year was the FOSDEM bus. Free - of course! To deliver people to Midi station in the evening. Those catching the evening train made it with good time (but continual worries about having missed the last one), while the rest of us tagged along for the ride, learning how optical illusions work. While waiting, however, one of our number discovered a wireless point called "goaway". Ironically, it was open.
On Sunday evening, while the city was apparently "fermi", we ate drank, laughed, talked, boozed, chuckled, gossiped, sipped, grinned, chatted, swigged, snickered and bantered - but you had to be there to appreciate the specifics. If you weren't there - don't go home so early in the future!
Sunday has now been christened an "Alien Abduction" night. It's where you look at your watch at one point and it reads 1am, and you look next and it's 4.30am. The only possible explanation for the time loss is that you were abducted by aliens. Not only that, both Alien Abduction, and Alcoholics Anonymous both have the same initials - "AA". Coincidence? I think not!
It's also the only time I can get a call at 2.30, and not get worried that it's an emergency.
Monday began with a phone call and what now seems like a normal Belgian Breakfast - beer. Some friends, some new friends, and I, all met in the Delirium for cheese, salami, bread, and beers.
One tip we discovered was that, when rushed, have a Floris Apple beer. It's light to taste, contributes some fruit to your 5-a-day, and is low in alcohol. This also reminded me that some other friends and I had sponsored a pig. For those unaware, we pay for the pig and its upkeep, and when its "ready" we take delivery of a small truck of meat. I made a note to self: ask the farmer to feed our pig some Floris Apple beer. At least then it will be pre-seasoned.
From here the day was very casual. Beer and chocolate shopping. And what has traditionally been "Ferme le Lundi" became "Il pleut le Lundi", making walking tours, bike rides and other outdoor pursuits the less glamorous option. This forced us inside to drink. Anyone listening to our conversations would be intrigued as for how long a bunch of geeks can moan and complain about having to drink beer, drink whiskey, and eat chocolates.
The evening involved food and drink with the same group as the previous night, but with the bar hopping governed by whatever brief let-ups of rain were afforded us. Firstly, Delirium Cafe and then onto a Chinese restaurant where we ordered too much food, then a place I know only as the "Corsedonk pub", down a little side street, before leaving at 12.30... only for the suggestion of an open "black door" which extended the night further. Again - you had to be there.
Over the course of the weekend, we'd got two new drinking games, and a problem.
The first drinking game is to quote, out loud, the next power of 2 in sequence. 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, and so on, with the loser having to drink from his glass. Quite easy to start, but more difficult past 256K. The second was a variation on the "in my bag" game. Where the first person says "I did an apt-get update and then installed ..." the name of a package beginning with 'A'. The next person follows with a package beginning with 'B', and so on.
The biggest problem, that I mentioned, was trying to work out if the perfect geek pub would deliver beer automatically by blimp, or helicopter.
Despite arriving at my hotel at 4am, there was no sleep for me tonight. Either due to the bad dreams of being accosted by wierdos, the possible breakage of my beercase - er, sorry, suitcase - on the journey, or being stopped by customs, missing the train...
Tuesday was a day of culture. Which meant I started with a cultural Belgian breakfast: beer. These were Equinox from De La Senne (8%, deep ruby to black with fruity hops and strong bitterness), Forestinne from Caracole Brewery (7.5%, the Elven bikini cartoon on the label introduces the svelte citrus taste of pine needles which is nice but mostly uneventful) and Taras Boulba, also from Brasserie De La Senne (4.5%, slightly cloudy, not as bitter on initial taste, but later balanced with quite a high hop content.)
The advantage of being English, and not working, is that it doesn't seem strange to be having beer at 11.30 in the morning, watching and drinking while the staff clean and tidy the bar ready for the workers lunch time drinks. They fix the signage, polish last nights dust from the jeroboam of St Feuillien Triple, and fold napkins, all accompanied by the Great American Songbook. At 12.15am the first of the lunchtime crowd arrive. All 2 of them. There was never more than 20 in here, and I eventually left to the sound of the Irish Rover.
My day of culture involved a planned four museums. Of which I managed three. The first was Hallepoort, at 14th Century gate that once guarded the city. It has been used as a prison, customs house, and church, but is now a museum, where the restorations have provided a lift to take you to the various floors, if you're not keen on the spiral staircase. There's various exhibits of armoury and antiquity here, along with video recreations featuring very undisciplined soldiers.
I then got onto Louise. (The street, not the woman!) If anyone makes the quip that you can get anywhere in Brussels within a ten minute walk then point them to Louise. In the rain. This roads appears to go on forever, and so took at least twenty to find the Rue de l'Abbaye on which the Meunier Museum is situated. This is a small, pleasant (and free) museum covering some of the work of the 19th Century painter and sculptor Constatin Meunier. His work is mostly termed as naturalism and realism, and worth seeing. As the only one in the museum (a party had just left) I got a personal tour of the gallery, and Meuniers studio, by the infectious curator. He is also a painter, and was able to give alternate insight to the various works.
From here I caught the tram back to the only museum that seems to open at 5.30pm: the Cinema Museum. This is almost secret, being as it is tucked next to a building site, by a side door, just off Rammstein. Speaking to the staff it seems that most of the exhibits are elsewhere now, with just a few zoetropes, mutoscopes, and some original pre-film exhibits (Muybridge prints, shadow puppets, persistence of vision demos, and so on.) If you can stay for the evening film, the 3 euro entrance is good value. Even so, just to sit and watch their digital restorations on the computer was worth it.
Alas, I couldn't stay, as I had to head back to the hotel, pick up my luggage and make the two stops to the Eurostar. I watched them X-ray my luggage contained 25 bottle of beer with not a flinch. So maybe I look like someone that would buy that amount of beer. Or that it wasn't uncommon. Or maybe she was more intrigued that all the clothes I was wearing incredibly bulky, and mismatched. Naturally, they were the ones wouldn't pack into the remaining space of the suitcase.
The journey home was uneventful and I got home at midnight, so exhausted that it's taken me this long to document the weekend.
See you all next year!