Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - April 15, 2011

Signs of the times

I think it's natural to want to travel to distant places to visit iconic structures such as the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben or the Alps. But husband Art has frequently pointed out how easily I'm amused by the smallest things. I must admit he's correct. In fact, our recent trip to Vermont got me thinking about one of those - travel signs.

Slowly but surely, international signs are appearing on our highways and byways. For example, a large white H on a blue background informs the traveler that he or she is on a route to a hospital.

But many differences remain and, for some reason, they humor me.

A typical example involves the London subway system that Brits affectionately call "The Tubes." Subway entrances can be found all over the city by watching for a red circle with a blue horizontal bar through it. The name of the station or just "Underground" is printed in white on the bar. This symbol is so common that tourists buy tons of T-shirts with the underground's symbol.

Near where passengers board the trains, the phrase, "Mind the Gap" is invariably seen. It's a reminder to be careful not to allow your foot to slip between the platform and the train car. It amuses me because it isn't something we Americans would be likely to say. And I guess I'm not the only one amused. Tourists snap up T-shirts and boxer shorts with "Mind the Gap" printed on them.

I am also amused by another common British sign frequenly seen in connection with their interstate-like high speed roads. A driver approaching such a road will encounter a "Dual Carriageway ahead" sign or when he leaves, a "Dual Carriageway ends" sign. I can't say I ever think of my car as a carriage - a term I associate with an earlier time. So when I see such a notice, I half expect horse-drawn coaches to appear.

In Germany, the exit from a major road is typically marked "Ausfahrt." It is equivalent to the English word, "Exit." But for English speakers, it frequently brings something else to mind.

During one Christmas years ago at his folk's home, Art had been taking pictures when he accidentally snapped the camera shutter. When the prints came back, he discovered he had taken a perfectly framed shot of his Mom's posterior as she walked past. The following year, he framed that picture beside one he had taken of an "Ausfahrt" sign and gave it to her as a gag gift. He said everyone in the family got a big laugh out of it, but the next time he was home, it had somehow gravitated from a place of prominence on the desk top to inside one of the drawers.

When we visited a friend in New Zealand, we encountered yellow warning signs that showed a car tilted up on two wheels with skid marks behind it. The words, "When Frosty," convey the message that a glaze on the road may leave it slick. But for me, a Frosty is a cold ice cream drink I buy at Wendy's.

During our recent spring break trip to Vermont, we encountered many "Frost Heave" signs. They were located anywhere that the winter freezing and thawing had caused the road to rise up or sink in. But "Bump" signs were also common. We weren't sure why they differentiated between them for we were jostled around the same.

A somewhat famous television incident involved a road sign. Before Jay Leno hosted "The Tonight Show," Johnny Carson was at the helm. And before him, the host was Jack Paar. Paar told a joke about a woman moving to Switzerland from Britain. She had located a property she liked, but on return to Britain to prepare for her move, she realized she hadn't seen a toilet in the place. She wrote to the real estate agent asking about the WC - water closet. This is a common term in Britain and is widely used on signs . The term was an unfamiliar one to her Swiss landlord, who instead took it to mean Wayside Chapel - something common in his land. He replied to her letter by stating there was one several miles away and it was open twice a week! He added that it was so popular that there were rarely enough seats to accommodate all who arrived. He suggested she consider coming early.

Times have changed! NBC found the joke to be so offensive that network officials censored it and Paar walked off the show in protest.

Personally, I hope that road signs unique to different locales remain. If they were uniform all around the world, it would make our trips a little less entertaining.

Of course, entertainment is not always what the traveler is seeking. Art mentioned how he was traveling with a friend in France once and it was getting late. They needed a place to stay, so when they saw a sign with an arrow and the words "Hotel de Ville," they thought they were in luck.

Following subsequent signs proved to be no problem. However, when they arrived, they discovered that Hotel de Ville is the French term for City Hall.

... And they weren't renting room either!

Left, typical "tube" sign on a London street; right, travelers are cautioned
against dropping something - such as a limb - between the train and the platform.

Left, slick road warning in New Zealand; right, a Vermont caution sign
warning of a road ahead damaged by freezing and thawing.

2011 Index