FOSDEM 2023 - Amazing while it lasted

By André Jaenisch on 15.02.2023. About 10 minutes reading time. This text is estimated to be fairly difficult to understand.

The first weekend in February is FOSDEM. This year, the conference was done in hybrid mode. Some talks were remote only (namely those in Devrooms starting with a D.) while the majority took place on-site of the campus in Brussels.

Somewhat out of a whim I applied for a talk at the JavaScript devroom last December and got accepted. The subject sounded interesting but during the research (after I got accepted) I realised that my story wouldn’t pull off. Nevertheless I decided to travel to Brussels to give it.

I mean, surely among so many smart people I could be rest assured, that the attendees would take basic safety measures even if it was not mandated by the state, right? Oh boy, was I wrong!

Friday, 3rd February

Since I am now a freelancer, I booked a stay in my favourite hostel for Friday to Monday so to have no stress. I mean, I have to take the Deutsche Bahn. Infamous for delays and cancellations in Europe. Surprisingly the trip towards Brussels was unspectacular. A little delay of an hour or so, but I catched all trains. Only to realise, that I forgot my charger for the laptop at home. Not cool if you want to show some slides.

Luckily the larger enterprises have shops in different countries so I could pick up a Lenovo one in MediaMarkt in Brussels around the corner of my hostel.

Since I arrived in the afternoon I had enough time for a small walk through the city. At daylight! This makes so much of a difference! Half jokingly someone on Matrix asked me to buy a Belgian waffle because those in England happen to be not comparable. So I did :-)

In the evening I planned to stop by with the FreeCAD meetup in the hope of having some exchange with people there. Turned out they collaborated in a single room and I was sitting in the floor outside so to not disturb them. I haven’t worked with FreeCAD before. At least I had some shelter from the weather.

Surprisingly Brussels had no snow in the first weekend of February this year. I miss that. Another sign that the climate catastrophe is upon us.

As it is tradition there is some gathering of FOSDEM attendees on the evening before the conference starts but I couldn’t remember the name. After some… unhelpful replies on Matrix I took the offer and met some people from Sweden for dinner. We had quite some nice chats and I could grab some Weblate stickers from a group that had a meal in the same location. Yay. We shared our love for ThinkPads and Fairphones at the table. Towards the end it got quite noisy in the room but all in all it was an enjoyable evening. Thank you for the offer!

On the way back to my hostel I finally learned the name of the location (Delirium Cafe) which wouldn’t have been too far from my stay but I already had dinner. In the end it was a good decision not to visit it given the number of people that arrived there even if the FOSDEM organisers stressed that the event there was not official. Didn’t stop people, huh?

Saturday, 4th February

So on Saturday morning I had a small breakfast (because the Belgian idea of what to serve of breakfast does not match mine) and walked over to FOSDEM. Given that my day to day job involves so much sitting around having some walk is a welcome change. I discovered a bakery on my way and decided to buy a bread because my stock would likely not be enough to cover me the whole weekend. I had some trouble to communicate my intent because the folk there spoke neither English nor German and I can’t speak French. Luckily some other customer helped out. Next challenge was to change 10 EUR to pay for the 2 EUR bread. I mean, c’mon! I was sent over to a grocery store across the street and came back with coins. Lesson learned: bring coins.

I arrived at the campus a little late and decided to have breakfast (with tea and breadrolls) before meeting people. But first thing had to take precedence so I queued up for a hoodie and grab some stickers. I mean, that’s why you go to conferences, am I right? I even managed to get one of those rare cURL ones!

I rarely get to Brussels, so I promised to bring back a Belgian comic home, a so called BD. Usually I try my luck with the bookstore close to the university but they had an amazing Christmas sale in 2022 and no Belgian comics in stock any more. Luckily I asked for another opportunity and had to walk a little down the street to Club to pick up one. They have a large variety to choose from, but the present was well received. Phew!

Since most talks are about to be recorded anyway I prepared a list of them to watch afterwards and seized the opportunity to meet people from the Fediverse face to face. For the majority on my list, this actually worked out.

The only appointments I really wanted to take part in revolved around NLnet. For one because I was asked to but also because I applied for a grant to cover my expenses to work on Forgejo full-time this year for a couple of months.

I was pleased to see people talk about this project on the campus and happily clarified questions whenever I could. For example I overheard someone chatting with someone else about the soft-fork and the relationship to Codeberg and could make clear, why we took that decision. It’s a relatively young project but seeing that people are aware of it made my heart sing. They care! I hope you do, too :)

After I finished the K building for grabbing stickers I went to the other ones. At building J I met some people whom I had seen the last time before the pandemic. It was reassuring to have someone I could ask questions without fear because they were at the same spot a few years ago and happy to share their lessons. Once I arrived in a quiet place I recapped the learnings in an e-mail so I can re-read them whenever I need.

I was surprised to learn about the Hacker Public Radio who had a stand in the building. You see, they offer a podcasting platform to host anything that you might think interest another hacker. As long as you have a microphone and are willing to license the episodes under a Creative Commons license. I think I have found a good use for my RODE NT-USB going forward. This might be the place to have English speaking content for me, so I can focus my homepage on German in the future.

I was a bit disappointed by the measures LibreOffice took with their stand. You see, having some marketing material such as pens already helps a project to gain recognition in the population. Binding the condition to hand out those to take part in a list of areas of contributions was too much for me. I’m already involved in more projects than are good for me. Luckily I provided a segway to the person next to me so I could leave without anyone noticing. Bummer.

I noticed that there was a book reading event for the Ada book. I picked up a copy in English and went there. Even managed to get a signature by the author! That alone was worth it.

In the evening I walked back home. I was so much on my feet that I had no interest in more social activities.

Sunday, 5th February

The next morning I figured out the breakfast buffet a bit better and tried a baguette. Way to dry. I discovered that there is marmelade in different flavours so I could at least have a sweet breakfast this time. How do people get started without nougat creme, though?

I was a little late (as always) so I tried to take a bus. Unlike my memory told me I couldn’t figure out the difference between the options chosen to me by the ticket machine. Could be that I have too bad experiences with German ticket systems but I would expect to find some terms and services explaining me whether I can interrupt a trip, take an itinerary in the opposite direction, how many stations I can take etc. The only information offered was a QR code for the delays at the given station. I bought two tickets in the assumption that I will have to use the second one on my way back to the hostel.

Oh, and the bus was full. Like crammed. Shouldn’t try the 71. I went with tram instead and missed my catch-up line. Oh, well.

In the previous years it used to be that a devroom was devoted to a single subject for the whole weekend. Therefore I was surprised to not be able to find the Open Source Design devroom and only realised later on, that this year the organisers switched the focus of rooms between days and even within a day. I can imagine this is one of the aftermath of two years of virtual FOSDEM.

Nevertheless I ran into some Penpot people in the cafetaria and could grab some swags. I plan to work closer with them in 2023 to design prototypes for Forgejo and perhaps even my own pet projects. SVG rocks!

Out of a whim I decided to listen to the Lightning Talk about Keyoxide, a project I was lurking in on Matrix. If you have social profiles all over the place (like me) it offers a way to cryptographically proof that those belong to you. Sounded interesting. It was also one of the rare hallways discussions I participated in. I’m glad I did because I also got to know the developer behind Pixeldroid. That’s an Android app for Pixelfed, an image app that is part of the Fediverse.

Sometimes it makes sense to take a seat in the talk before the one you are interested in. This is how I attended the NASA Open Source talk. Somewhat science-y, but I can’t see myself dealing with space data. Perhaps if I run into more ecological repositories. I’m disappointed that so much of their code is hosted on GitHub and AWS cloud (Azure in the works). Yes, large datasets and not their core competency. But I would like to get away from proprietary systems if I can.

The closing keynote was quite short this time. Since I could stay for another day I helped with the teardown of the conference and had dinner with the staff and volunteers.

Monday, 6th February

My way home was rather adventurous. First there was a strike on the way across the border, so I was anxious whether my train would depart at all. Especially since an attendee had to switch to a bus in the night before. Then when I made it across the border without problems my catch-up train departed from another station. Yes, station, not track. So my reservation was nil. I could take another train without problem („One of the upsides of digitialisation” I was told) and planned to hop into the train home from Mannheim. Except that one was cancelled. In the end I managed to get home with just an hour of delay.

When I arrived back home my Corona Warn App showed me a high risk contact for Friday. I assume this might have been the elder man sitting next to me. Unmasked. I tested negative with a rapid test and have not shown symptoms since then. But I took caution to mask whenever I was in the midst of people or indoor. Many other people did not.


My most memorable moment at FOSDEM was a chat with someone from the Fediverse who came originally from USA and now lived in Germany. I learned so much from the conversation there and gained courage to try more hardware projects in the future. When paid people are allowed to break expansive hardware, I might as well with the electronics that pile up at home.

The biggest regret I had is with the people there. Only a handful of people masked up. Yes, it’s true. Belgium does not require one to wear a mask in the public anymore. Nevertheless the pandemic is still among us. Worse, it is turning into an endemic, that is, we will have to deal with COVID-19 year after year now. Given the huge number of participants (even if they were less than in previous years) would make you think that you try to keep your distance and wear a mask whenever there is a gathering. But nope.

I understand that the organisers couldn’t do much about it. It was already hard to get the windows to open so to air a room. I was shocked to learn from some staff that they seem to welcome getting affected to build resistance. I mean, science already told us that there is a risk of the opposing effect to happen. Worse the immunity will decrease the more often one gets infected.

Given all this I think, I will limit myself to conferences going forward that signed the Public Health Pledge to take responsibility for the people they host at their venue. FOSDEM showed me that neither the organisers nor the attendees are willing to take responsibility. So 2023 might as well have been the last time I went there.