An Unexpected Journey

I just spoke at the first RubyMotion conference in the magical city of Brussels, Belgium. RubyMotion allows a developer to write iOS apps in the Ruby programming language. It came onto the scene last May and has already attracted a loyal following. The conference gathered enthusiasts from around the world. I explained how a blind person uses an iPhone, how developers can make their apps more accessible, and about my own journey learning to write apps. The speech went over well, and the trip makes quite a story.

This makes up the first part of a trilogy giving a blow by blow account. I believe in gonzo journalism, in other words the idea that truly objective journalism doesn’t exist, so you may as well just throw yourself into it and give a completely subjective account. If you would rather skip ahead to the technical details of the conference, you may go to the second part. Otherwise sit back, open a nice Belgian beer, and enjoy.

For me, it all started in early December when I got the mass mail about the conference. “Yeah, right, like I could go to Belgium.” I thought, and my pinky finger reached for the delete key. Suddenly a higher priority impulse came through my brain. “Why not? Hold on!” it implored, and my finger recoiled.

I stopped and seriously thought about it for a few minutes. I figured it couldn’t hurt to find out more information. A discussion had started on the mailing list and I chimed in. A guy named Ryan replied and said he’d go and could help me. Then Laurent, the creator of RubyMotion and organizer of the conference, emailed me himself. Someone had directed him to my post, and he assured me they would do whatever I needed. He also felt very excited about the idea of a talk about accessibility, and encourage me to strongly think about it.

Now this had started getting interesting. I had gone from almost deleting the email, to strongly considering giving a talk. And they cover some of the cost for a speaker. And they would have vegetarian food, belgian beer, chocolate, and waffles. And I would get to meet a lot of amazing people, and maybe turn a few of them onto the importance of making their apps accessible to VoiceOver. Goddess had spoken. It would happen. I had to do it.

For a little while I sort of forgot about my little Belgian fantasy and went about my business, which largely involved learning RubyMotion. Details needed filling in. I had no idea how I would get there, who I would go with, or what I would say. The whole thing seemed like too much to think about.

In January I joined Indy Hall. That totally changed my life. On that first day I learned of Philly Cocoa, a local group for Mac and iOS programming. My mind raced at the prospect of giving a version of my speech in front of this group. It would give me a way to practice before going half way around the world.

You can read what happened next. The main speaker bailed, so Mike, the organizer, needed a topic. The pieces slid together like a puzzle. I gave my speech that night and it went over well. Mike described the audience as spellbound. I considered this a good sign and submitted my proposal to speak at #inspect.

I felt so nervous and excited. I tried not to think about it, though did start improving my speech just in case. Then a few wednesdays later I went back to Indy Hall, got a chair massage, and while writing another article I got the email I had waited for. They had decided to accept my talk. It had really happened. I would go to Belgium!

This immediately set a chain of events into motion. First I had to figure out if anyone would go with me as a guide. My sister Ashley had just moved home, so she made a logical choice. Of course she accepted. I also had some packing and getting ready to do. And it wouldn’t hurt to brush up on RubyMotion more.

Somehow we did all of these things. I got luggage together and my mom helped pack. My sister got some nice clothes from our aunt. And at the last minute my brother had the suggestion to buy a nice outfit or two. I got a suit and a more casual business outfit with a cool corduroy jacket. I also bought a New Trent battery pack, which gives six full iPhone charges. I felt prepared…sort of.

While attending another talk at Philly Cocoaheads, I realized that I needed slides. I feel accustom to hearing my code, but of course most people see code. I panicked slightly, then remembered all my friends. First my friend Rachel tried to make slides, but ran out of time and sent me what she could. People said they needed work, so I posted a frantic message to Indy Hall’s mailing list on Friday, with two days to go. A member named Adriano responded and volunteered to help me. He does advertising and visual communication for a living. I came into Indy Hall and we met briefly. As you will read he worked for hours and even missed a train home to complete them. Hopefully this article will get him a little business.

Speaking of business, I needed new business cards. My buddy Nick, who runs Wingnut Art helped me in the past and did again. We whipped up and he made a business card design to go with it. He made a graphic of Grade II braille which says my name, a cool little idea I thought. We wanted tactile business cards to give the full accessible experience, but the UPS truck didn’t come in time. I picked up some free temporaries on my way home from Indy Hall.

I also had my speech to think about. I gave a rehearsal in our condo’s common area. People liked it but gave some valuable suggestions. Make it less technical and more personal. Emphasize what a difference the iPhone has made in your life and in the lives of the blind. Add more humor. And get better slides. With these harsh but true words I left for Belgium, having very little of an idea what to expect.

Ashley and I said good bye and made it to the airport two hours early. This gave us time to get a last reasonably good meal in America. We found our way to the Cita Bistro. I had a veggie burger and we drank beers. I could see the appeal. I felt calm and ready.

When I checked into the gate on FourSquare, the tip said: There’s nothing like a new beginning. We boarded the plane with our backpacks and some neck pillows we had bought in a shop in the airport. Ashley recommended them and they really did save the flight. At first we sat on them to break them in, then we put them behind our heads and they helped so much.

I took out my iPad to hear some music. I had spent a day copying things over. And of course since I have iTunes Match, none of it actually copied. This really bothered me. It seems to go against Apple’s “It just works” philosophy. If I copy music into my “Automatically Add to iTunes” directory, and if I have my iPad set to sync, then shouldn’t it just copy the music over? No, it puts it…in the cloud. So after all that I had far less music than I wanted. I cursed iTunes Match and tried to enjoy what I had. In the past a music collection could take a bag in itself, now it could fit on a tablet or phone. Pretty amazing.

The food sucked of course. We made the right choice eating beforehand. When they served breakfast, they gave us bagels instead of pastries. Why? We comforted ourselves with the knowledge that we would soon eat far better.

After seven hours we landed. We got our baggage and found a cab. In Belgium, the cabs actually have nice cars. We got a Mercedes Benz. It kind of reminded me of Uber.

He practically gave us a tour on the way, pointing out historically interesting buildings. This always amazes me about going to Europe. You can walk down a road or see a building which humans have used for hundreds of years. We saw the EU Parliament building. I asked what he thought of the European Union. He said most Belgians like it, because it brings a lot of jobs to the area.

We finally arrived at Le Meridien Brussels, our home for the next eight days. They hadn’t prepared our room yet, so we waited in the hotel’s cafe. To my delight, they had raw chocolate croissants. I fell in love with Brussels with my first bite. Ashley noticed the open pubs. In America they don’t open until eleven. Not here.

After a fine breakfast we made it to our room. Except they didn’t give us too beds, so we had to wait. We napped then moved to our new room, the one we would stay in. We rested some more then went down to the hotel’s restaurant.

We had amazing meals. Ashley had veal. I had celery risotto. And of course more beer. For dessert, Ashley had a raspberry chocolate cake and I had a 100% Belgian apple pastry with chocolate sauce. I also had some sweet wine. I felt satiated.

After that, Ashley suggested going out. Why not? We wandered around, and found the Delirium Cafe. It seemed like quite the happening place, according to FourSquare at least, plus they held the world record for the most beers served in a venue. I had drank a Delirium Tremens back in America, so had heard of the brand, but this blew us away. I had a local blond ale and a raspberry beer which would go well with the summertime. We came back to our room where I listened to music and rested. We had arrived.

Before I continue, I have to mention the communication situation. We spoke to several AT&T representatives, as well as friends, and they all said to just keep my iPhone in airplane mode and not even worry about trying to get a cell plane for only nine days. This article agrees. Because of this decision, I could only communicate when I had access to wifi, which happened much more rarely than you might think. I came to consider it like a commodity.

The hotel wifi didn’t let us sign in with the standard way. They had to give us a pre-paid access code. It change daily, and renewing it became a maddening occurrence. At least they paid for it.

Finding wifi in public proved almost impossible. Very few places offered it. This would plague us throughout our journey. Delirium did offer it, as did one or two restaurants, but nowhere else. This made me feel disconnected. I have really become used to the constant connection. Its absence began to make me feel cranky.

The next day we woke late. I wanted breakfast. We ended up at a nice local hotel cafe, where I had a spectacular omelet. They didn’t make it like they do in the States, they just scrambled the eggs, then put the ingredients on top of it. I got mushrooms and potatoes, and asked for garlic as well. That with some Earl Grey made a perfect breakfast. We walked around and bought some chocolate at a local shop. Then we came back to the hotel.

We sat on couches and relaxed. We ordered beer, and they brought us these wonderful goblets of Leffe Blond. “Can we drink it on the couch?” asked my sister. “Of course.” replied the server. For us this summed up the whole feeling of the place. Of course you can drink beer on the couch. Of course you can have beer brought to your room. Of course…

We met a woman named Chris from New Jersey. She works for Godiva. My sister wanted her to get her a job. We saw a Godiva shop but dismissed it, because we had it in the States. Chris informed us that it tastes different here, more bitter. THis intrigued us.

Before I left I had emailed a friend who lived in Brussels. He introduced me to one of his friends through email, and we met that night for dinner. He had reserved a table at a vegetarian restaurant, which suited me well. I don’t even remember everything I had, a buffet-style assortment of goodness, but I enjoyed it all. Stefan really helped make the trip even better!

We thought we had beaten jet lag, but the next day we woke up at 05:00 in the afternoon. We had woken up earlier and had breakfast downstairs, but then we went right back to sleep. This threw us off, we had to go to the RubyMotion Speaker’s Dinner at 07:00. We showered and dressed. I put on my new casual outfit with the cool corduroy jacket.

It always feels cool to walk around a new city. Ashley noticed the architecture immediately. They have a lot of older buildings, and they don’t just keep making everything new like we do in America. I could use echolocation to at least see the differences in their shapes and sizes. All the streets had cobblestone. Philadelphia has some so I felt used to it, but they had it everywhere.

The email said to meet them in front of the Grand Place. We just had to go across the street, and we stood in front of the Grand Place, wondering what would happen. I wondered if they would see me. I heard a group of people speaking English so thought I’d ask. “Is this the RubyMotion group?” “Yes!” I had found them. It had actually happened.

And with all the background out of the way, you may now continue to read about the actual conference in the second article in this trilogy.