I learned something important about signs just before setting out on this van-adventure.
I learned it in a Facebook group. An unexpected place perhaps, but perfect for a gentle lesson in the art and importance of reading signs when in unfamiliar territory. Signs, I propose, are vital for the traveller.
I rolled into a virtual Facebook Town, populated (I’m certain) by fun-loving folk gathered around their common love of travel. Excited to meet others who shared my exuberance for life-on-the road, I roared down the main street, screeched to a halt in the first parking lot I saw, and promptly chatted up my new neighbours. Before long we were cutting up, making jokes and having a great-old-virtual-time.
On my way into town, I had given the customary and cursory glance at the signs along the road. This is good practice when coming into unfamiliar territory; obviously one needs to know the speed limit. There were the expected ones: no advertising, be respectful, keep things clean etc, and also one that stood out because it made me smile. A warning. About something I thought was cute. It tickled my funny bone. It doesn’t matter now, what it was. It’s irrelevant. What is important is that it struck me as funny and because of this perception I thought it was a joke; so when I left the group after much jesting about this and that, I referenced the banned subject, thinking I was being clever and “in” on a community joke.
WRONG. I was not funny. Nor clever!
I had, in fact, made a very human and common travel mistake; A typical tourist mis-step. I made assumptions about the meaning of the sign and as a result did something uncool in this new community I was inserting myself into. I was, however, fortunate to be brought into the light quickly by the moderators of this lovely group, who gently explained the very legitimate reasons behind it, which, when explained, made perfect sense. They remain an awesome group and I am wiser for the now-sort-of-funny experience.
The learning I experienced in that lovely group persisted as I set off on my actual journey. I have never seen so many signs I don’t understand since that first sign-bumble on Facebook. How was I to know this was going to be such an issue?! I’ve since come across signs in different languages! Signs with pictures I don’t understand! Signs that tickled my funny bone but I’m sure aren’t actually funny! So many signs, and so many possible mis-steps! Surely, this is why some people are seriously afraid to travel. I think I get it now. Who wants to risk not getting it right? This is why people stay home.
All these signs got me thinking about community, and this adventure I am on. I got thinking how each community I pass through- virtual or otherwise -will have a history of shared experiences, disappointments, pain, successes, losses and joys. There will be communities arranged around blood ties, cultural identification, spiritual beliefs or geography; each having explicit or not-so-explicit guiding principals, customs, expectations or taboos. These things will, in part, define them as a community. It’s becoming very clear to me that until I understand some of these things about a community, it will be nearly impossible to behave respectfully and gently as I am visiting it without some real sensitivity.
I got to asking myself, how will do this? How will I travel gently and respectfully as I move in and out of communities as a visitor? How will I read the signs – actual signs or less obvious signs like facial expressions or social interactions – if I’m not a member of that community with a shared history to draw from? I don’t want to be a bumbler!
I think maybe curiousity is a good place to start, so I’m staring with that. I’ve been stirring up a big pot of curiousity stew. Curiosity is a powerful force and I’m discovering it might be able to save me from making at least some assumptions.
So what does curiosity when travelling look like? Here are some of the interesting signs that have presented themselves to me in my first ten days of travel and will help illustrate my point.
Lets have a look at the Fish symbol on what looks like a garbage bin on the outskirts of a northern Quebec town. Curiosity sounds like this in my head: “I am in Cree Territory in the far north. I wonder if this a Cree-inspired symbol? I wonder if this is actually a bin to deposit literal fish bones? Or are fish bones a culturally relevant local symbol for “garbage” generally? Do people in town bring their fish bones all the way to this bin, or is it for a fish processing plant? Why is it way out here? Who picks it up? Where do the fish bones go from here? (if that’s what they are?). How much fish do people up here actually eat, because that’s a big-ass bin!!
So, you see, curiousity keeps my mind open and ready for any number of answers. If I didn’t have curiousity, I might make an assumption that could sound something like this. “Wow, Cree people sure eat a LOT of fish”. Imagine if I just left it at that! What if the fish symbol was actually graffiti and it didn’t mean anything at all? (for the record, this sign remains a mystery)
And how about this cool stop sign, in French and another language? I recognized the French, but what group of people uses these symbols? Is each symbol a letter or a word? Is this an official language this far north? Why don’t I know about this language? Who or what group makes sure local road signs also have this language on them? I actually ended up googling this sign, because I was so curious, and learned that it was, in fact, in Cree, but not an official language in the area. There just happens to be a relatively large number of Cree-folk living in the area. I saw this sign first, which obviously fed my “potentially-faulty-fish-bin” theory!
Another dillemna, to the left. Why is with this child lying down? Why is she sad? Why are her socks falling off? What do these words say? (I know so little french, I couldn’t even guess) Ok, I admit it was posted together with a 30km/hr sign, so I assume it had something to do with not hitting children with your car. But if it HADN’T been with a speed limit sign, I could have been very confused. My poor brain might have come up with something totally ridiculous like, wow, French parents must really think it important their children wear socks. I may have deduced it meant something like, be careful children, if you lie down here, your socks might come loose and even fall off. Don’t let this happen to you.”
Pip and I encountered this sign on an early morning walk at Jacques Cartier Park. Were we about to meet a fierce wolf or a friendly fox?
Is this where it crosses the road? Should we proceed or not?
So, as you can see, signs can be vital indeed, as the good-hearted traveller tries to get a sense of new surroundings. My advice to travellers of both the virtual and non virtual types? Read the signs, literal or otherwise. Don’t assume to understand the meaning behind the sign. Look for clues and context. Be receptive to a wide variety of meanings and be ready for signs to make perfect sense in the context of a community you know nothing (yet!) about. It’s wise, as well, not to laugh at signs too quickly! (at least out loud) Finally, Google can be a dear friend for the truly curious.
Curiosity will help replace assumptions, and we all have them. If you are fortunate, it will also help keep you from being a total bumbling tourist while visiting someone else’s unique, and special, community.
Just so you know, the sign with the sock-challenged child had nothing to do with socks. For some reason, my poor brain just felt sure it was the socks that were important. It was, of course, a sign warning motorists to slow down, as the child who could get hurt could be their own.
This loose translation provided by my bi-lingual daughter, who reminded me (once again) that I can be a little warped and should, because of this, be particularly cautious when reading and interpreting signs in new communities.