DrupalCon Lille 2023: A Personal Account of Adventure, Learning, and Community

My First DrupalCon Experience at DrupalCon Lille 2023

Binny Thomas

The Prelude

In the middle of July, I, Binny Thomas, got an email confirming my scholarship to DrupalCon. I had only applied to it randomly without expecting much. Hey, what's the harm in asking, right?

However, with the mail, it became an adventure of epic proportions and a life-changing experience. I have been with Drupal since 2010, became a professional Drupal Developer in 2012, and started contributing in 2013. I had heard of DrupalCons initially, but I considered that too far-fetched and way above my league. I had attended Drupal camps and Drupal meetups in my 13 years, but this was the first time I was propelled into an international DrupalCon, and my mind began racing at the prospect.

Overcoming the Visa Hurdle 

In my life, I have never even planned a local trip myself. Now, I was suddenly faced with charting a complete trip to Europe. The biggest hurdle was getting the visa; everything depended on it.

You must apply to VFS Global with many supporting documents to get the visa.

  • Flight bookings to and fro
  • Hotel bookings for the entire trip
  • Visa cover letter 
  • ITR documents 
  • Company approval
  • Salary slips.

Since I was unaware of the whole process, I was sure there would be slipups, which inevitably happened.

During the process, I was in contact with my friends and colleagues who had gone before, especially my friend Anto Jose. They had suggested the rough process and what needed to be done. Anto generously took on the role of the travel planner.

Travelling to Bangalore to get my visa ready took a lot of time, and overall, I wished the experience was a bit smoother! There were a lot of last-minute changes to my visa application, and I had to book a new hotel for the first day of my travel at the last moment. It was very hectic, and I was unsure if the Visa would be approved, but I had an inner intuition that it would materialize.

From India to Lille

Plenty of Mishaps: Learning Experiences, Perhaps?

My accommodation cost me way more than I expected, primarily due to a lack of planning. For example, I booked a costly hotel initially for Visa purposes with the hope of cancelling it later since my friends had also booked the same hotel, but it turned out that they would charge for a day as cancellation fees. Similarly, booking hostels instead of hotels would have been much cheaper. Not to mention the time, I booked a room on the wrong date.

I had taken a large suitcase and carried a lot of spare clothes and shoes which were unnecessary for a trip to Europe. A large suitcase becomes a liability when you travel frequently. What should have been a walking trip became one on Uber as I had to carry the heavy luggage.

My visa credit card was my companion throughout the whole process. You do not need to carry cash, as credit cards are accepted almost anywhere. Purchasing a travel card would be a good idea if liquid money is required. This is available from many well-known banks and only requires a copy of your visa and passport. You can never be too careful when carrying emergency medicines as they are not readily available in Europe, unlike India.

Travelling is very cheap in Europe; buses are cheaper than trains when considering inter-country travel. Last but not least, for those travelling from India to Europe for the first time, the toilets in Europe have only toilet paper.1 Be mentally prepared for that ;-) 

Volunteering

During this process, the DrupalCon organizing committee asked me to consider entirely optional volunteering, but I readily agreed. I was given many choices, but I volunteered to be an onsite person for The DropTimes upon request of my former colleagues, now a part of TDT. They managed to convince the organizing committee to let them be a volunteer option, and I got two birds with one stone.

The Storm Before the Calm

The day before the flight, I frantically bought stuff and went to every shop, splurging on myself. In retrospect, I should have bought less and done some shopping from Europe, which is part of the experience.

Tarun Udayaraj, a member of The DropTimes, and a friend and colleague agreed to drop me at the airport at night. We had to go around and explore the city before arriving at the airport, but it started to rain, and the rain continued. We noticed the rain was turning into a downpour, and the streets were beginning to flood. Bikes and scooters were starting to float in the water. So we decided to go to the airport much earlier before it flooded. Might be an exaggeration, but it felt like Poseidon scheming against me not to reach the airport!

My flight to Delhi was at 6 am. and arrived at Delhi airport in the afternoon. The customs check-in was initially smoother than expected, with the officer not asking questions. But I goofed up and went through the wrong gate, inviting the ire of the officials and giving me a heartache. It was the only untoward incident in the whole journey.

Arrival 

On arriving in Paris after a 20-hour long trip, I felt strange; I went through immigration, which was very smooth, and the staff was courteous. I took the free metro to the railway station. I was still determining if I was doing everything right and just went with the flow. At the railway station, I threw up, and that's when I realized the root cause of the strange feeling. You should eat a little on international flights. I felt a bit distressed as all my clothes were soiled (all the restrooms were closed).

Anyway, there was no choice but to move on. I was in a distant land, far away from home.  I reached an underground railway station, and it was eerily quiet, and the people were sparse, unlike the Indian railway stations. I asked a French lady the name of the station I was supposed to go to, and she looked confused. Then I realized the French pronunciation was a bit different, and on tweaking the accent, she responded positively.

And then it happened, in the distance, I saw a glow of lights, and then it appeared, the TGV from Paris to Lille, the world-famous high-speed train of France, famous for breaking records, the one I had only seen in television documentaries. Here I was about to ride it.

The journey was anticlimactic as it was at night, and I could not experience the train's speed. Also, the internal ambience felt similar to the new Vande Bharats.2 It might have been a different case 10 years back, but it was still a real experience as few had the privilege to experience it.

On arrival at Lille, I was greeted by a familiar face, Anto, my unofficial tour guide who had already arrived at Lille a few days prior. I was finally relieved to see a familiar face. Together, we went to my hotel after booking an Uber. 

The Beginning

I settled down at the hotel for the night.  I continued to rest in the morning due to jet lag and did not explore much. Still, after Anto called me, I went to the venue Grand Palais Convention Center, Lille, in the evening just to get a feel of the vibe, and we decided to attend a conference on speaker training. I took some pics for TDT.  Then, I had a quick walk around Lille.

On the day of DrupalCon, the convention centre was filled with activity. The stands were full of people with many familiar faces and names. I could see the people behind a lot of online personas. I suddenly came face to face with some of my former clients. I did not think they would recognize me, but they did, which was very pleasant.

Binny Thomas with Anusreekumari and Anto Jose and DrupalCon Lille venue
Binny Thomas with Anushrikumari and Anto Jose at DrupalCon Lille venue. 

After going through the stalls, I decided to attend one of the hallmark events of DrupalCon, the Driesnote. I found a place for myself in the auditorium. Dries started his presentation with a fairy tale story of how Drupal came to be, how people used Drupal, and the future of Drupal. It was a very engaging presentation, and I was focused on it entirely. It gave me a very informative look at Drupal, and I also understood why it was held in high regard by the Drupal world.

I also took pictures and posted them to the TDT volunteers' WhatsApp group all this time. Driesnote was followed by the awards ceremony, especially the Women in Drupal initiative.  I managed to cover these events and went around covering the other events/sessions occurring on the same day.

The pace of the sessions in the following days was similar to the first day and did not disappoint. I managed to sneak into the stalls in the main hall, get in touch with the individuals there, and make good connections while simultaneously passing on information to the TDT editorial team.

In between, I also ran into some of my former clients, who immediately recognized me, and we had quick conversations. I also ran into other developers I worked with but did not know directly.

There were a few famous India-based Drupal companies whose names were very familiar to me, and it was pleasant to see the people behind the labels. We soon struck up a good conversation.

Enjoying the French Nightlife. 

Every day after the conference ended, my colleagues and I would explore Lille and experience the nightlife. We visited the Grand Palais and the town centre. It was a new experience for me: the famous European experience people yearned for. The roads built for pedestrians were not crowded and had very few cars. It was cold and not humid. The buildings had history and heritage. Most importantly, the photographs looked awesome, and it's safe to say Lille did not disappoint.

Drupal Trivia Night

One of the highlights of the entire con was the Drupal Trivia night on the final day of the Con; everyone was there to enjoy the event. My colleagues from Axelerant and I formed a team, and we joined the fun and tried to answer as many questions as possible with many more photo ops. 

Contribution Day

The final day of the event was the contribution day.  I had considered exploring the city of Lille, but Anto coaxed me into attending the event. I was a bit shy and self-conscious about meeting other contributors, to be honest.

I came to the venue around mid-afternoon. I got a seat after receiving the first-time contributor badges from the organizing team. The person leading the discussion and teaching contributions was a familiar face. It was none other than Michael Anello, or Ultimike, as he is commonly known in the Drupal world. He is the founder of DrupalEasy. I had encountered his articles multiple times throughout my Drupal career and never imagined meeting him in person. He was humble and sweet, and he showed me the new way to upload patches to the Drupal core, which was new information for me.  

I got in touch with the other Drupalers at the table and helped them run the automated tests for their core patch. The core patch was accepted; my name was also associated with it since I worked on it. One of the core maintainers was present at the venue, and with much fanfare, our patch was accepted and committed to upstream during a live session. Although my contribution was small and negligible, it was indeed a memorable event.

A fan moment with Randy Fay, the creator of DDEV. 

Final night in Lille

On the final night of DrupalCon, we all gathered to have a final look around Lille. My colleagues from Axelerant, a few of the ladies from other Indian companies, Anto, and some international team members were there. I had my first taste of Sushi at a Franco-Japanese restaurant, and we all had a memorable group photo.

I had begun chatting with Michale Lenehman, an Englishman working in Germany, and he was surprised that I could speak German. We soon started a conversation in German, much to the amusement of the others. 

Cruising around Europe

All this time, I was officially on volunteer leave. My employer, Axelerant, has the option for volunteer leave, and this was the second time I used it.

With DrupalCon over, I was about to start my holiday and travel across Europe.

I said goodbye to Lille, France, and headed to Lille Gare with my suitcase. This was a typical European railway station, with the trains ending at the station and enclosed by a glass roof. There were French soldiers everywhere due to a recent bomb threat, and they looked dashing and stylish with their typical French berets. I boarded the first train to Belgium, my holiday destination. I had already booked hostels in Bruge, Belgium, Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and Dusseldorf in Germany.

I would typically travel to a destination, stay in a hostel for three days, and then move on to the next destination via train.  On the first day, I would settle down and unpack, get to know the place via brochures and the internet, and check out any tour packages that caught my eye. On the second day, I would roam around on foot or by tram and explore the place, sometimes with the help of tour packages. So, I was travelling solo across Europe, cheaply, covering multiple nations. Interesting stuff in Europe would be the beautiful canal trips, medieval city centres, and windmills of the Netherlands. Along the way, I met some of my former classmates and made some international friends, which was a memorable experience. Most importantly, I could get a lot of photographs to post on my social media handles to make my friends jealous.

Working Remotely

My final holiday destination was Dusseldorf, Germany, where I got there using the high-speed ICE train. Shortly after arrival, I visited my friends—a couple living there with their child—former Drupalers themselves. It brought a lot of good memories, and also homemade Indian food after a long time.

I had planned to take one week of voluntary leave to attend DrupalCon and one week of holiday to travel around Europe. After a discussion with veterans of Drupalcon, I decided to extend my stay for a month. I planned to stay in hostels during my holiday week and then continue to do so while working from there. However, to be honest, I could not think of working from cafes and then packing up and going as it was not my style.

I had discussed working remotely with an expert, the chief success officer of my company, Michael Cannon. He encouraged me to take up this opportunity and gave me valuable tips. He was doing the same thing, living and travelling worldwide, getting to know the culture. He was instrumental in setting up the remote working culture, encouraging people to work from anywhere.

I managed to get a lucky break while in Germany. The colleagues I met earlier helped me to get a house in Essen, Germany, through their mutual contacts. I got a good house with a nice flatmate at a very affordable price. Best of all, I could work in peace and enjoy home-cooked Indian meals throughout my stay there.

On the weekends, I would take a bus or train to the nearby cities of Germany like Berlin and  Cologne. I would talk with former colleagues there, stay with them, and enjoy the hospitality. It seems Germany had a lot of Drupalers who were my colleagues and familiar faces. I also found that I could converse in German quite easily, and my self-learning of Germany 10 years ago paid off. On my final weekend in Germany, I booked a Swiss tour package and managed to travel to Zurich and the Rhine Falls. Finally, I said goodbye to my new flatmate, left Germany, and left for France. 

The Ending

I arrived in Paris via bus on Friday, November 17th, and went to my hostel via the metro. Paris looked beautiful in the mornings, especially with the sun. I had one more day in Europe and wanted to make the best of it. I had a few things in mind, but the Eiffel Tower was obviously at the top of my mind.

I reached the Eiffel Tower after travelling across multiple metro lines. It was dark and cold at night, and I thought it would not have been such a good idea to visit at night, but seeing the first sight of something so famous bathed in a golden glow dispelled every doubt I had about my decision.

The Eiffel Tower looked golden and majestic, and I felt surreal. The stress of travelling alone dimmed my enthusiasm, but it was a good experience. I had to wait 2 hours in the cold to get a ticket, which cost around 20 euros.  The tower, thankfully, had elevators across multiple decks. The view was unbelievable and made up for most of the stress of the travel, and it was the trip's highlight.

Looking forward to DrupalCon Barcelona 2024!

  • 1As a tropical land, Indians use water on toilet commodes to clean themselves. Europeans might consider Indian toilets too wet even to set foot.
  • 2The literal translation of the Hindi phrase, 'Vande Bharat,' is 'Praise India.' It is the branding given to modern high-speed trains with fewer stops that could run on the existing rail network in India. With modern amenities, this train is more expensive than other trains in India. Rooting from Sanskrit, Bharat, Bharata, or Bharatham, is the alternate name of India in the local languages.

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