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On the trail of the wild world web

By Allan Ostergren


"Avez-vous Internet?", I asked as I finished my glass of beer and motioned for the check. It seemed a natural question to ask, even in a small village in rural Luxembourg. After all, it’s the dawn of the 21st century, and in Europe there’s supposed to be a cybercafé on every street corner. Certainly a hotel should have an Internet connection to serve its guests and walk-in patrons.

After a few minutes, the waiter came back with my check and the answer to my question: "Non . . . pas Internet."

Later that day, we snacked at another hotel restaurant in the picturesque tourist Mecca of Clervaux, and got the same answer.

Two days later, in another small village we asked once again. This time, the hotel manager came out to personally reply to our query. "I’m sorry, we do not have Internet . . . but if you go to the hotel up the road, the son of the manager there is a computer freak, and he will probably rent you some time on his PC." In a few minutes, we were standing before the reception desk, impatient to review the e-mail that presumably was piling up in my in box.

"Yes, he does rent time on his computer for people who want to use the Internet," the receptionist said, "but he is out for a drive right now, and I don’t know when he will be back."

It started to come together. Luxemburgers are savvy people. They get up in the morning speaking Letzebuergesch, communicate in French at work, and watch German TV at night. Like other Europeans (and Americans), they all have their own computers and don’t need to go out to access the Internet.

It had been a long time since I had a REAL vacation, and in the past, keeping in touch was the last thing I wanted to do. But this time I thought it would be nice to at least check my e-mail. You can look up your messages on your own time and either respond or not respond. If something urgent comes up, you can deal with it and get on with the fun. Otherwise, after being away for 18 days, you would likely come home and spend hours deleting 500 junk messages cluttering up the in box.

But accessing the Internet abroad is not that simple. Unless you have an 800 dial-up, you can’t just plug your laptop modem into a local phone jack and get your access provider (their encryption systems are a state secret, and can’t be exported). Your wireless connection may not work either, since there are several incompatible standards to overcome. There are shared access numbers that will get you into your account, but if you can just get onto the Internet, you can go to your service provider’s Web site and access your messages, or look for one of the free Internet mail services that let you forward e-mail to their site for viewing.

Still, as I packed my luggage, getting onto the Internet just didn’t seem a likely problem. There were thousands of Internet cafés to choose from. We were planning to visit friends and relatives who had computers. My wife’s cousin had to have Internet, because he had sent e-mail greetings; and other friends we were going to visit had three adult children who were computer savvy. No need to pack that list of cybercafés, because all I had to do was get our friends to turn on the PC, click on their Web service, and turn the mouse over to me.

Or, so it seemed. When we arrived at my wife’s nephew’s flat we found that his Windows had crashed, he had reformatted and reinstalled the operating system, and just couldn’t remember how to configure his Web access. Two of the best friend’s children were out of town, and the third had Internet access via a laptop from work; the laptop was not working. We were back to square one.

Then bingo! A trip to the library at a local technical university revealed a row of PCs with free Web access. In a mouse click, I was on America Online and ATT.Net: five messages read, thirty-two pieces of junk mail deleted, and eight messages sent out. The next day, I was on a narrow street in the Hague, walked into Café Tweeduizendvijf, and asked "do you have Internet?" I was led to a back room, past rows of game machines and finally a PC screen. A key unlocked a drawer beneath the monitor, revealing the CPU, a keyboard and a mouse. I had found a cybercafé. I read the return mail, deleted twelve more pieces of junk, and paid $2.50 for the session. It was fourteen days into our vacation and only four days until I would be back at home at my own computer.

As I fly back from Amsterdam, I read about the great progress being made in wireless technology. Cell phones are beginning to take on the characteristics of hand held computers. More than a quarter of Japanese consumers are expected to have hand held Internet access by the end of the year. French waiters are calculating the tab and sending credit card information wirelessly from your table and through the air. Once the standards are worked out, travelers will be able to access the Web from anywhere in the world, exchange messages, buy and sell stock, and download the latest viruses . . . as long as their batteries hold out.

I’ll just have to wait until the next time I’m ready for a vacation to check it out. Maybe then they’ll have a feature that can also find my bags.

Allan Ostergren is president of DACS and a closet computer novice. He makes up for it by asking questions, learning from mistakes, and looking things up.