Parking & Keyboards In Provence.

The beauty of traveling virtually anywhere these days is the proliferation of the internet cafe. Whether you're in the middle of Bolivia, the remote towns of Tuscany or tiny villages of the French Riviera, chances are you're glance away from an internet cafe.

Most of the time when I'm traveling I bring my Apple PowerBook. Not sure why I choose to add the wait to my luggage and risk of theft, but it's my choice. Perhaps my security blanket. But it IS my choice.

But bringing your own computer into an internet cafe in Piensa Italy, for example, can be troublesome. Even though there's a switched hub within arms reach of a CAT 5 cable, when the guy running the cafe tells you it's impossible to connect to the internet without using one of his computers so he hands you a telephone cable and suggests dialing up, no amount of convincing will get you anywhere.

So there we were. Heading east on France's A-8 peage “freeway” in the early part of the evening. With a tad of insight that told us it would be tough to find an internet cafe open in St. Tropez or Saint-Raphael, we decided to take our chance and pull off the highway in Toulon, a larger city on the western tinge of the eastern Riviera. Bryan a bit nervous that we're dropping in on a busier town that we've never been — wondering how the hell we'd find an internet cafe just “driving around”. I assured him we'd find one, it would just take a little confidence and tenacity. Within 5 minutes of pulling off the A-8 I spotted an internet cafe. It looked open from the window of a moving car. I blurted, “there it is, let's park.”

It's nearly 8PM at this point. We soon find ourselves i the dark and dingy narrow alleys of Toulon. And I mean dark. Shady looking store fronts with corrugated garage doors pulled up halfway to reveal transactions of who knows what going on. Then the sex shop. We find ourselves in the no-drive zone of Toulon. We find ourselves making circles and circles looking. We look. But we never really find a parking space. Then we spot a municipal lot. A flashing digital sign reads “complet.” It doesn't take a French dictionary to understand that. And no matter how many times I pushed the green button hoping for a ticket and the gate to rise, it was a losing proposition.

We drove in the alleys again. Not a parking space. Frustration is building. Tempers are flaring. And this was going to be easy. At 9:00 we find another lot. But finding the cafe from this lot is another challenge. We wonder and spot another sign that says “Internet”. We walk into a smokey bar where locals planted firmly in chairs with beers in one hand and cards in the other. Poker? There's not a computer we can see — at least through the cloud of smoke in the room. People stare. We leave. Let's find the cafe I spotted.

We finally walk into the cafe at 9:30. An hour and a half dicking around Toulon. Ehhhhhhh. We have to pull the attendant off his headphones and away from his internet-based game he's so involved with. I ask the longtime question, he says there's no way I can plug my computer into his hub. It's OK. Just get me a seat so I can do my internet business.

Internet business on a French keyboard. You've got to use the shift key to use numbers. The “S', “W” and “M” and “period” keys are in wacky places. It's impossible to do anything fast without sounding like a moron through your email. But we're patient. If we can park in Toulon, we can deal with a French keyboard. Ah. Vive le France.

And we're loving it. More tomorrow….

Photo: Cheese shop in Saint-Raphael, France.