Putting the 'World' in World Wide Web to the Test

I've never been to France, largely because I'm told it's absolutely teeming with French people. Although I don't know any French people personally, common wisdom--or bigotry, if you will--holds that authentic French people are insufferable.

Fortunately, we live in the Internet age. So I decided to see how much of France I could experience without exposing myself to the French people.

Of course, I know that a virtual experience pales in comparison with the real thing. But think about it: 10 years ago, this visiting-France-without-leaving-home idea would have been impossible instead of just silly. And it turns out my experience was far more international than I expected. That World Wide Web thing is more than just a slogan.

My France plan was simple. First, I would try to use the World Wide Web to order some genuine French accouterments--literally, "stuff"--and then see what I could see in France with my modem.

I also resolved to get some authentically nasty French food, perhaps some sort of fantastically overpriced substance made from animal organs.

Something in a tin would be appropriate since the French, who are famed for their cuisine--they developed those fabulous sauces as a way of disguising rancid meat--also gave us canned food.

I wanted to order something loathsome in a can directly from France, and thought I'd gotten lucky straight off. The Google search engine now offers a built-in translation capability. I went to the home page for Yahoo's French operation, got Google to translate the pages on the fly and settled in for some shopping.

My first pick was some Andouille de guememe-Bernard, which is made from chaudin of pig. The rough English translation of chaudin is chitterlings. Yep, we're talking pig stomach, folks. Mmm, mmm. Just what the doctor ordered.

Unfortunately, not what the Dave could order. I went through the buying process, but, at the end, a friendly message popped up: "Sorry, but this store is closed." Attempts to buy other items such as foie gras at other online French stores through the Yahoo site were also thwarted. So far, this whole Internet thing was a big bust. Dump your stock! Again!

But then an inspiration: I would order French-made products through U.S. suppliers. I got two pounds of chocolate truffles from Legacy Gift Box in Oregon (http://www.legacygiftbox.com), a bottle of Fortant De France Cabernet from Internet Wines & Spirits of Illinois (http://www.internetwines.com) and a box of restaurant candles from Restoration Hardware (http://www.restorationhardware.com).

To further set the mood, I ordered a paper kit that reproduces the Eiffel Tower. In miniature, of course. I ordered it through http://www.paperlandmarks.com, which I thought was a company in Massachusetts. But it turns out that's just where the U.S. operations are based. The paper Eiffel Tower was shipped to me from Latvia. That certainly makes me feel better about the $49 rush-delivery charge for a $9 kit.

Anyway, within 72 hours after all the orders were placed, voila!--the goods arrived. Score one for the Internet.

Thus equipped, I dragged a dining room chair onto the world's smallest balcony, and placed my computer, chocolates, wine, candles and Eiffel Tower model--which my friend Stephanie helped assemble--around me. Now it was time for a little sightseeing.

I normally prefer to wander about on my own, but because I was pressed for time this trip, I opted for a guided tour. A visit to http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paris/hist gets visitors a description of Paris landmarks. There are, unfortunately, few pictures.

But that's OK because there are lots of Web cameras scattered throughout Paris, many of which are available at http://www.abcparislive.com/paristour. And the famed Louvre, stocked with masterworks looted from cultures around the world, has an astonishing Web site at http://www.louvre.fr/louvrea.htm.

You can even visit the gift shop online. And what better way to pay tribute to the Impressionist movement than by buying a lousy print that turns something vibrant and illuminating into something flat and uninspiring? But because the cost of this non-trip was headed for a little more than $100, I figured I'd skip it.

Still, that was a small price to pay for a trip to Paris without having to deal with the French.

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Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.

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