It is winter in Australia, and my kids are into skiing. So every weekend at the moment is spent at the snow, a three-hour drive from where they live in Melbourne.
About twenty minutes out from the ski-fields the road begins a long ascent up into the mountains. And this past weekend, as we rounded a sharp bend, I noticed an exceedingly strange sign. A yellow square, on the diagonal, which looked a lot like any other warning sign you might see while motoring along, with the following words printed on it: “Caution – Crossing Ahead”.
But unlike other signs of this sort (which in Australia can include those designed to prevent you from colliding with emus or kangaroos), this sign had on it the silhouetted shape of two gnomes. A big one and a small one, with pointy hats and frilly boots, leaving no doubt as to its meaning: “take care, in case imaginary elves suddenly run across the road“. What the…?
It turns out that a particular tree by the side of the road to the snow has become the de facto residence of the local gnome community. A small collection of these creatures (in garden statue form) now live in a hollow of the tree, in what is affectionately known as the Gnome Home. It has become a tourist attraction of sorts, and according to my kids, also a weather predictor – if there is snow on the ground by the Gnome Home, it will apparently be a good ski season.
Which got me to thinking: I see a lot of signs travelling around, that provide everything from information to directions to warnings, etc. Most of these signs blend into the background, so that I barely notice them. Until, that is, I see one that stands out, like the Gnomes Crossing sign. Which always serves to remind me that travel can occasionally have its delicious little surprises.
So here they are: my global collection of Nine Really Excellent Types of Signs.
Type One: Place Name Signs
The most obvious purpose of a sign is to tell you where you are. Every town, village, road or byway will have one. Given how many they are, it is no surprise therefore that they don’t always read exactly as intended.
On the internet the most famous such sign is the one welcoming you to the English town of Cocking Fuckborough. Alas, however, this is a fictional sign, created by a photo-shop artist. Still, in the real world signs for places like the town of Dildo in Newfoundland, Canada, are sure to entertain. As is the sign on the outskirts of a town in Maryland, USA, that reads: “Welcome to Accident”. Or like the signs for Intercourse, Pennsylvania; Hell, Michigan; and Hooker, Arkansas. Not to mention the inexplicable sign for the town of Zzyzx in California, which I guess was named using leftovers in a game of Scrabble.
The British have their fair share of strange place name signs, too. Like Cocks, in Cornwall; Penistone in Yorkshire; Twatt in Scotland; Titty Ho in Northampton; and Sluts Hole in Norfolk. Of course just about any sign in Wales is ridiculous, like those for Crymych (not to be confused with Cwmystwyth), Bwlchgwyn, Rhydymwyn, Ysbyty Ystwyth, and the sign with the world’s longest official place name on it: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Try saying that one quickly, three times in a row.
Not to be outdone, Aussies can offer up signs for such memorable spots as Iron Knob and Banana (in Queensland), Come by Chance, Burrumbuttock and Tom Ugly (in New South Wales), Cock Wash (in South Australia), Tittybong and Upotipotpo (in Victoria), and Woodie Woodie (in Western Australia).
Although the bizarre place name crown has to go to those fun-loving Austrians. Not only do they have a real village with the truly unfortunate name of Fucking. Not only did this village try to change its name about seven years ago, only to have the application rejected. But now the citizens of Fucking make a living off their signs, when tourists come to take their picture next to one. Either heading into town or, better yet, when leaving. Where a big red line through the town’s name implies, obviously, “No More Fu….”
Type Two: Restaurant Signs
When you need to eat there will almost always be a sign pointing the way, although often these can get a bit mangled. Especially in Asia and Africa, where the market for English language signage far exceeds the pool of people capable of writing an English language sign that isn’t idiotic.
How else could you possibly explain the Cabbages and Condoms restaurant in Thailand; the Ghetto Happy Dining restaurant in Japan, the Flavour of Negro and Eat My GF restaurant chains in the Philippines (the “GF” apparently stands for Garlic Fries, btw), the Dghddugduwyvefdnt restaurant in China (Google translate gone mad?), the Vagina Tandoori in India, the Golden Shower buffet in Tanzania, or the Butt Sweet House in Abu Dhabi, to name a few.
That said, the English-speaking world seems just as competent at being incompetent. The road sign for the Fu King Chinese Restaurant in Florida must be one of the most photographed restaurant signs in the world. Sherrill’s Diner in Tipton Indiana is also well photographed, what with its large advertising signboard: “Eat Here and Get Gas”. Then there is the Casa Labia café in Cape Town, Canada’s famous Lick-a-Chick fast-food joint, and Crappitos Italian in Houston. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget England, where the attempted combination of two popular menu items into the name of a restaurant hasn’t quite worked. I mean, would you want to eat at a place called “Chick-pizz”?
And when it comes to messed-up restaurant signs, Australia doesn’t disappoint. Like a wonderful Chinese restaurant in Melbourne, with the slightly less than wonderful name of “Kum Den”. Or best of all, the dodgy advertising for a local McDonalds in a Victorian country town. Because when you put the “M” for McDonalds alongside the letters of the town’s name (“YASS”), and add the tag-line “open 24 hours”, you wind up with a highway sign that suggests you will soon be in a modern-day version of Sodom and Gomorrah. Figure this one out for yourself.
Type Three: Chinese Rip-Off Signs
Spend a bit of time travelling around China, and you will quickly learn that amongst the most common Chinese signs are those which shamelessly rips-off Western brands.
Fancy some fried chicken? Then pop into any one of the many KLG, MFC, or FBC outlets in China. Or try my favourite, OFC, the logo of which looks remarkably like Barak Obama, dressed Colonel Sanders style. Prefer pizza? Make for the nearest Pizza Huh. Handbags – you want the Cnanel store; electronics – the Sqny store; sneakers – either of the Nibe or Adadas stores (none of these are typos).
And then there is the absolutely unforgettable coffee shop in Liuzhou, which trades under the hard-to-believe-they-actually-called-it-this name of: Starfucks Coffee. I think the only reason the Starbucks guys haven’t brought legal action is they are all still laughing so hard.
Type Four: Japanese “Information” Signs
Long before China’s assault on the world of signage, there were confusing English-inspired Japanese signs. I remember, for example, seeing a sign in a small Japanese mountain town once, which rather perplexingly pointing the way to the “Wicket” (I still have no idea what that particular sign related to, but I am pretty sure they don’t play cricket in Japan…).
The hallmark of Japanese information signs though is that they are typically long-winded, and incredibly polite, notwithstanding their garbled content. So in Japan a sign advising you to “watch your step” becomes the rather charming “Because there is a situation where a step is bad, please be careful”. “Keep calm” becomes: “No matter how angry you are, no flicking over tables”. And “Don’t litter” becomes the mildly threatening: “You tossed your cigarette out the window. You looked like you were fleeing the scene of a crime”.
Indeed, anti-smoking information signs in Japan, usually bizarrely illustrated, are a whole category unto themselves. With such choice offerings as: “Please don’t smoke in all seats because we want to keep fragrance of coffee and bread”; “Would you stick a cigarette butt in a snowman that your child built”, and “Don’t smoke in a crowd – coats are expensive”. Although my personal favourite just has to be: “Before passing gas, I look behind me. But I don’t bother when I am smoking”.
Type Five: Public Toilets Signs
While still in Japan, that country’s public toilet signage is especially memorable. Take for example the sign for desperate people who might need to pee, which has the typical image of a male and female on it, only with their legs crossed. Or a fairly common Japanese toilet sign asking you to not dispose the paper you used to dry your hands with onto the floor. It sounds a bit strange in Japanese-English though – “No Tossing” – especially when accompanied by the image of a hand, shaped into a fist, and kind of shaking up and down…. Or like a sign seen on the wall of a Tokyo public loo once, that read: “Wooden Stick as Toilet Paper”. Honestly, I have no idea…..
Strange toilet signs are not confined to Japan though. All over Asia, there are signs designed to teach you how not to use a Western style toilet. Some have crossed-out images of people standing on, squatting on, or leaning over the bowl. But the more bizarre ones also have a crossed-out image of a person raising a single leg, doggy-style, against the toilet. The disabled toilet is often mislabeled: “Toilet for Deformed“. Other great Asian toilet signs: Caution, no washing hair or clothes in toilet (China); Please do not drop butt in the toilet (Thailand); and Please do not bring non-gender children into bathrooms (India). Not to forget the English version of the following sign in a China public bathroom commanding you, lest you have per chance forgotten, to: “Be Seated Defecate”.
Type Six: Traffic Signs
Traffic signs are everywhere, telling you where to Stop, to go Left or Right, to not drive down the One-Way, and so on. Signs meant to help you, yet which sometimes can be just a little bit unhelpful.
Starting with self-contradicting traffic signs. Example: a “Stop” sign, with another sign right underneath that says: “No Stopping at Any Time”. Or like the sign that says “Keep Right”, with an arrow underneath pointing to the left. Or like the sign on a bridge meant to indicate bike lanes and car lanes, but which instead suggests that bikes go on the bridge and cars go, well, in the water. Or like the sign in Alaska which warns that you are entering into an avalanche zone, no stopping allowed. Except that just five metres in front of it is another sign, indicating a bus stop, and for school kids no less.
Then there are those traffic signs designed specifically to confuse. Like ridiculously precise speed limit signs – how can anyone possibly keep their speed below exactly 17 ½ miles per hour? Or like signs when approaching incredibly busy multi-road intersections, which often wind up with so many squiggles and instructions on them they become more baffling than the intersection itself.
But in terms of sheer amusement value you can’t go past traffic signs that make absolutely no sense at all. Such as the following gem from China: “The street intersection counter-clockwise in counter-clockwise”. Or like a sign in the Cotswolds in England warning drivers: “Slow – Kittens!” (presumably therefore it is OK to run down fully grown cats?). Most memorable of all though is a central Tokyo traffic sign, advising “No Elephants Allowed”. Incredibly useful, don’t you think, given the large number of elephants that normally wander through the hyper-crowded streets of Japan’s capital…..
Type Seven: Warning Signs
Signs are also a nifty way of warning passers-by of potential danger. Like in Edinburgh, Scotland, where a famous sign warns pedestrians of the risk of getting hit by a passing vehicle – some might say quite graphically, given that it depicts a stick-man pedestrian airborne after impact with a car. In South Africa an often photographed road sign warns: “Danger Ahead – Fasten Seat Belts and Remove Dentures”. Romania’s most famous contribution to the world of signs shows a silhouette of a person, holding a bottle, and crawling on all-fours. With the warning words beneath: “Drunken People Crossing”. Frankly, the only thing weirder than this sign is the fact that it has not yet made it to Australia.
There are countless signs warning of the danger of local animals: be they bears (USA), polar bears (Finland), moose (USA), lions (Africa), camels (Middle East) or kangaroos (Australia). Although a sign I saw recently in South Africa perhaps took things a bit far, in that it warned us to watch out for those most dangerous of creatures, penguins.
However the sign that wins hands down in this category is a quite common one in the United Arab Emirates: “Beware of Road Surprises”. I mean, why bother being specific, when with the one sign you can cover yourself against any and all possibilities?
Type Eight: Information Signs
Signs are also very often a source of useful information. Like a sign in the Netherlands that says: “Beyond this sign you might encounter nude sunbathers eating waffles” (sadly its not a real sign – another internet-only made up one).
But there is no shortage of real world signs that can provide moments of sunshine in an otherwise boring day. In Morocco once, on the edge of the Sahara desert, I saw a sign with an arrow pointing the way to Timbuktu. Below which the sign-writer had felt necessary to clarify: “52 days, by camel”. Just as entertaining is the door signage in a Manchester shopping centre, that says “Pull”, underneath of which another sign says: “In an emergency, Push to Open”.
And for sheer entertainment value you can’t go past badly translated dual-language information signs. Take for example a sign in Swansea: “No entry for heavy good vehicles – Residential site only”. A local council employee had emailed a government translator to request a Welsh translation of the English. He got a reply by email, which he then proceeded to have printed on the sign underneath the English text before it was installed. Only it turns out the Welsh words on the sign were actually those of an email auto-reply, and meant: “I am not in the office at the moment – send any work to be translated”.
The greatest information sign in the world though comes to us from a small village Italy. Somehow, someone in the local authority felt it was really, really important to inform passing motorists of the fact that in their village, the world’s oldest professionals are always on hand. Hence a sign that tells everyone the score: “Attenzione – Prostitute”.
Type Nine: Weird and Utterly Useless Signs
Finally, we come to those signs that do not fit into any other categorisation. China, as ever, providing a rich vein of these, including notables such as: “Beware of Safety”, “Please Don’t Be Edible”, “To Take Notice of Safety, the Slippery are Very Crafty”, and the impenetrable: “Multiply by Step Beard Know”.
But for me, the best types of signs are what we might call “anti-signs” – those whose very existence as signs is fraught with contradiction. Of which there are surprisingly many examples. I mean, what possible point is there to the following miscellany of signs: “Road Unsafe when under Water”, “Touching Wires Causes Instant Death – $200 Fine”, “If door does not open, do not enter”, or the truly oxymoronic: “Anyone caught exiting through this door will be asked to leave”.
Other great examples of totally useless signs: a board in front of a very steep narrow staircase in China, indicating that no bicycles, motorbikes or cars are allowed; a sign pointing out “Library Closed until Opening Time”; a slightly self-defeating sign in England pointing the way to a “Secret Nuclear Bunker”; an entirely inexplicable “Caution – this sign has sharp edges” sign; and a sign spotted in Thailand once: “No swimming if you can’t swim”.
But really, when it comes to signs that defy any rationale attempt at explanation, you can’t go past the existentialist brilliance of a sign supposedly photographed in rural England a few years ago, which simply reads: “SIGN NOT IN USE”.
So there you go – a quick dive into the weird and whacky world of signage. I am sure there must be many more out there, so please let me know if you come across any that brighten your day. After all, as they say on a sign in Japan: “The cool cowboy flicks his cigarette butt into the street, but he lives in a different movie”.