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 early in Brussels since I had some other business to attend to (garnering interviews for my beer podcast); so I arrived at the pub having spent the day talking about beer, sampling new beers, and learning about beer. So when I found a table with some friendly computer geeks I was glad of a change of conversation... consequently we talked about beer, sampled new beers, and learnt about beer. So no change there, then. This years best discovery was "Equinox", although I believe we also emptied the bar of Affligem.
The Friday night beer session this year had a change of venue, and was held in the Delirium Café. Most of us were upstairs (which is technically the ground floor, since until late last year there was only a basement bar here) but some had ventured across to the Absinthe bar. They had all promised to return later on in the evening, but none did. (Perhaps they forgot, or perhaps they were absinthe-minded?)
While it was unsurprisingly busy, it was also very smoky. Having lived with a smoking ban in the UK for the last six months it is very easy to forget what smoke in pubs is like.
Conversation and beer flowed as freely as it does every year, with design plans for laser harps and other musical instruments being drawn up, quantum singularities and space travel discussed, and questions as to who was the "lad" in Chelsea Hotel #2 by Leonard Cohen (it's Janis Joplin, BTW). Some magic and mind reading also took place, but this petered out by an astonishingly earlier 1am. Remember, on Friday people are still enthusiastic about the conference so plan to get home at a sensible hour. There was only one casualty this year, as someone had lost his bunk partner who also happened to have his entrance card. And bag. And phone.
There were plans among some of the London groups to meet for a hangover-busting fry-up in the morning, before heading to ULB for the 2nd lecture of the day. By the time we'd made contact I had decided to make my own way to the conference and enjoy a breakfast of sweets and cheap foreign energy drinks. The early bird this year got a goodie bag containing various stickers and a natty hard cover notebook. This stayed with me for the rest of the week, and demonstrated its quality by surviving all the following escapades.
I made it to the talk on BSD project structure (which matches what I already knew, but it's nice to know we're all going in the same direction) and to those on games development (which I'm almost professional bound to attend, but I can never understand why). All well handled, and well attended.
On our various traversals about campus, the word "fellatio" had been introduced. (Don't look at me!) It could almost be a road name. Especially in a foreign country. And I still don't understand how anyone resisted asking a passer-by, "we're looking for fellatio, how can we get there, is there fellatio anywhere around here".
Speaking of which, we stopped to get a hot dog from the newly installed van by the Janson lecture theatre. "Un hot-dog" should be a simple enough order, even given my lack of French, you would have thought. Alas, after talking my order and turning around, the woman in the van promptly forgot and started cleaning. Ho hum. The ketchup was nice, though.
After the last talk, we headed back into town to our respective hotels via the scenic route. Where "scenic route" is the technical term for getting hopelessly lost on the wrong tram, and walking for 20 minutes from Gare de Nord. En route the conversation had re-introduced the fellatio joke. Of course, this author is respectable enough to have not been there, and therefore knows nothing about it.
The evening began with a return visit to the FOSDEM magnet that is "the Roy", before heading off to the Caralou for food. It was an obvious tourist trap, with an obvious menu, but we'd secured the upstairs room for the group of 30+ geeks there, and even managed to get a separate bill for our table. The food was very good, albeit served very slowly, with all three dishes of cabonarde flamande , lamb, and duck meeting the approval of the foodies present. After querying the bill (note to waiters: giving a table of 5 a bill containing 6 main courses is too obvious; just charge for extra drinks like you normally do!) we headed off for beer in a small bar off the Grand Place. By "small" we mean one with a total occupancy of about 30. And an outside toilet. And only accessible through a gate, down an alley, and round the corner. Despite this, we weren't the only Debian users present as I borrowed a chair from two others on the next table. Such is Brussels.
We stayed here for the rest of the night, giving and receiving lessons on beer tasting, Ruby continuations, Tony Hancock, Galton and Simpson, sysadmins Vs. developers, and Fortran. And despite the anonymity afforded by this report, if Fortran is introduced to the conversation some of you will be able to guess at least one of my drinking companions!
We were all home at 2.30am. Some geeks photographed the local porn channel, some nearly fell asleep whilst walking, and some stopped for a kebab. All-in-all, a thoroughly respectful evening, bordering on the sedate.
Armed with a map, stout walking shoes, and a head to clear, I decided to walk to ULB. Surprisingly, it's less than an hour, and in that time only one bus passes you, so paying for the journey doesn't get you there much quicker. And the bus is always over-full due to its infrequency.
Walking also gives you a chance to appreciate the other features of Brussels. The roads, for instance. So good, they name them all twice! The market beside the river, where you can get bread, cheese, mead, and hand made furniture. You can also ponder the logic of traffic lights and drivers, as both pedestrians and cars turning appear to have the right of way. However, the typically sane rules of city driving still apply. That is, a green light means "go", an amber means "slow down to stop", and a red light means "accelerate now and you might just make it".
I went to some talks, but they weren't as good or as varied as those on Saturday. Perhaps the organisers had realized the hangover quotient was too high to warrant any extra effort here, so by 12 o' clock, we decided to head out for food. When leaving the campus we saw two lines of geeks talking briefly about themselves, writing things down, and moving on to the next one. It was probably a key-signing party, but it looked more like a geek version of speed dating. Alas, if it was the latter, it would have certainly given new meaning to the phrase "don't fancy yours much"!
Today I enjoyed a meal of the exotically sounding "gyros frites", which in reality turned out to be kebab meat and chips. Naturally, this was complemented with the fruit juice and water supplements of Belgium--Jupiler and cherry beer. In addition to the usual conversations where we discussed the problems of world peace and third world hunger (the solutions to which the margin of my notebook was too small to contain) we worked out how many fruit beers were necessary to fulfil a healthy diet of five portions of fruit a day. The answer is 60, based on a minimum fruit content of 8.5%, and 330ml of cherries constituting a "portion". There is a natural advantage with Belgian beer that you can easily have a mixed diet by substituting Kriek with banana beer, strawberry beer, and coconut beer at your desire. Other suggestions involved swapped two fruit beers for a Guinness to provide the necessary iron, and that wheat, malt and hops are probably close enough to being a fruit or vegetable to make up one of our "five a day" portions, making Hoegaarden a very real alternative.
The food was good, but a little slow in coming, so we headed back to lecture theatre a little late for a talk on robotics, only to find a notice on the door "-EFULL". Only at FOSDEM would anyone understand its meaning, or have the intention to write such a sign. We weren't alone in our non-attendance, even those that arrived early were suffering the 'standing room only' mosh pit inside the door. Note to self: offer a talk on robotics and the world will love you.
Unperturbed, we headed for the bar to chill out, before I had to head off to give my talk on the home automation suite, Minerva. While here I met up with three other London geek cells, all of whom I see more often in Brussels than London. Such is life.
I arrived in good time to prepare for my talk, only to be told there was a problem with the slide transitions. After struggling with the French keyboard (but using a qwerty mapping, the positioning of "select all" (ctrl+A) and "quit" (ctrl+Q) have an interesting side effect), and the help of the organiser, we managed to remove the transitions just as the preceding speaker finished his presentation. We went up on stage, and it was still broken. Confused, we converted it to PDF and used that instead, then set-up the pointer to use the PDF viewer, then hooked up the microphone headset–all in full view of the audience–and we still started on time! These organisers are superstars.
The talk went well, and I've just started "paying" for the joy of delivering it, by way of the support and query emails I now get as a consequence of my new found FOSDEM-fame!
The evening was a quiet evening of beer and food.
By Monday morning, the main contingent had gone home, but there was still a few of us left to enjoy Brussels in the daylight, and work off our hangovers with a brisk pub crawl. We had planned to delay returning home for another week, and spend time in Brussels and any surrounding areas that took our fancy.
The rest of the week
During the first few days we visited the Star Wars exhibition (good, but expensive, and situated on a street called 'Picard'), the Da Vinci exhibition (where less than one quarter of the exhibits were Da Vinci originals), and, er, more pubs.
On Wednesday we headed out to Westvleteren to try some of this fabled beer. And yes, it is as good as they say. And you are limited to 6 bottles per person from the shop, if its available (they ran out while we where still there). So if you ever plan to visit, take as many tea-total friends as you can manage. You can also try all three of their beers (the 12, 8, and 6) in the café opposite the abbey. I tried the 8, 12, and then 6. And then 8. And then 8. And then 12. And then 6. And then 12. And then I left. In a zigzag direction.
The café also does very good pate.
Venturing further afield, Thursday and Friday were spent in Köln. Where, between us, we took 4.6 million photographs of the cathedral, and drank almost as many beers in the BierMuseum; which is not, as the name suggests, a museum, but a pub on the river. The cathedral is impressively large, with many, many, layers of detail on the outside. Internally, it is the stained glass that is worthy of photographs, and despite its place in world heritage it lacked any of the paranoid security measures usually present in the UK. A truly pleasant and non-threatening environment. And unlike the commercial leanings of St. Pauls, you are not charged for going in.
Köln is also home to a chocolate museum. It is informative, and intelligently curated with exhibits from various cocoa-producing regions, descriptive hoardings, a set of working chocolate making machines, and a small indoors tropical forest with cocoa and banana plants. It was unfortunately lacking in tastings, but fortunately lacking in corporate largess. Both are surprising for a sponsored museum. Naturally, all of this changed when we got to the shop. I have never spent so much on so little chocolate in one trip before! The chilli chocolate liqueur is worth the investment, though.
The other highlights of Köln were the Mälzbier, and being able to have cake for breakfast. Oh, and the demolition of German engineering stereotypes outside the concert hall. Basically, there is an open square beside the concert hall which you are not allowed to walk over because it vibrates and interrupts rehearsals and performances in the hall below. And they employ between 4 and 10 people, all day every day, to stop you from doing so.
Saturday involved another trip, this time to Maastricht in the Netherlands. This was primarily focussed on beer and food ("trio wild" with hare and wild boar was fantastic, as was La Trappe beer), but it provided a wonderful bookend to the FOSDEM trip. Despite its (and our) focus on Free and Open Source projects, what was clear is that the community is stronger than the software itself, and something that gives giving, which is probably why we continue to support it so much.
But if you're not a fan of public displays of emotion, just remember we drunk a lot beer, talked a lot of geek, and had a conference in the middle somewhere. See you all next year!