Wired Italia

It’s late May. I’m in an Internet café in Rome with my wife. My brand-new wife, that is. It’s the second day of our honeymoon. We’re about three blocks from the Coliseum.

We really shouldn’t be in this café. In fact, I had intended to completely avoid computers on this trip. But when you travel, things don’t always go as planned.

For instance: When we arrived yesterday, my luggage didn’t. So instead of touring the Pantheon, we spent the rest of the afternoon shopping for cheap boxer shorts. But now, Alitalia Airlines has miraculously recovered the bag – complete with undergarments – so it’s time to see the sights. Historic sites, not Web sites.

Still, it’s been four days since I’ve been online and I’m feeling withdrawal pains. "This will only take a minute, honey," I lie. I need my fix.

The Internet café is dimly lit, with identical IBM-compatibles in rows on either side of the wall. A well-dressed young Italian woman takes our passports and 2,500 lire – about $1.50 – for a half-hour.

"Prego," she says with a smile and leads us to the only available machine. It’s a Pentium III, with tons of RAM. We load Internet Explorer, and I’m pleased to discover it’s the latest version. Just like my computer at work.

We log onto the Hotmail (www.hotmail.com) site and set up an e-mail account.

"If we can find Web access in other cities," my wife notes, "this will be cheaper than calling home."

It occurs to me that the only other times I’ve sat in a common room with so many other people using PCs is at school or work. Sitting here in this communal setting, it’s hard not to think about working. What else would you use a computer for? Before we leave, I can’t resist the temptation to check up on things back at the office. I point the browser to metrotimes.com and skim the front pages. I spot a rare typo in the Music section. I quickly fire off a teasing e-mail to the editorial staff.

My wife laughs: "You’re supposed to be on vacation."

Under the Tuscan gun

It’s a couple days later. We’re in Sienna, a pretty town in Tuscany, Italy’s oft-glamorized rural province. The tour book describes this medieval village as quiet and quaint.

While it’s undeniably beautiful, there are tourists everywhere. The natives are understandably stone-faced. We should have known something was wrong at the local trattoria where we ate lunch: There was a photo of Sting on the wall eating lasagna with the head chef.

For now, we could linger in the grand piazza with our gelati-guzzling compatriots from Florida and Wisconsin. But instead, we make our way toward our second Internet café – to find the real Italy.

The café is located in a converted 13th century wine shop. There’s an interesting mix of people here – Italian college students, an older woman who looks to be on her lunch break and, yes, a few other tourists. We check our e-mail and surf the Web for a more authentic place to spend the night.

We learn that there are agriturismo – Italy’s rural version of the bed and breakfast – all over Tuscany. Many of them have Web sites, and we’ve just found an available room in a place near Bologna. I ask the girl behind the counter if these cafés are everywhere.

"Of course," she says. >

I decide to revise my earlier plan – using the Web while abroad is a good thing. It’s very strange, yet surprisingly familiar. The Internet behaves exactly the same in Rome as it does in Royal Oak. Sure, the radio stations may be speaking a foreign language, but on the Net all your favorite Web sites look just as they do back home.

And then it suddenly hit me – this really is a World Wide Web. Next to us, a thirtysomething fellow rants in English to his broker over a cell phone. (Just about everybody under 35 seems to have a cell phone here). I sneak a peek at his computer screen – apparently he’s a day-trader and something’s wrong with his account.

Later, at the agriturismo, we watch Italian TV. I can’t understand most of it and realize I’d rather be online.

Unfortunately, the nearest Net café is miles away. An Italian commercial for a new mobile phone with advanced Web capabilities blares from the box. Says the announcer in broken English, "It’s social life support."


After three more days in Tuscany, we’ve fled the roaming packs of tour buses for less-traveled parts. We’re in Bologna, Italy’s seventh-largest city. There are Internet cafés everywhere. Later, back at our rented room, the telltale whine of a modem connecting to the Web drifts over from the next apartment. Ah, the comforting sounds of home.

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