Monday, March 23, 2009

Signs of the times

When we used to drive in France, before we became experts thanks to the School of French Driving, we were frequently puzzled by road signs. The white circle with the black slash. The yellow diamond on a white ground. The red-rimmed triangle enclosing the black x. But no other sign was quite as puzzling to us as the exclamation point. A triangle trimmed in red, sometimes with a white background, sometimes with a yellow, and, in the center, a large, emphatic exclamation point. We would pass it on the road and think, ! . What now? What do we look for? What does it mean? It would leave us with a lingering sense of unease.

Then we went to driving school and they gave us--well, we bought--a copy of the Code de la route, the French driving rule book. (Insert here joke about there being a rule book for French drivers.) The first few pages were devoted to signalisation, to signs. And there, on the bottom of page six, the last sign to be explained, was our ! triangle. What did it signify? Dangers, said the code, for which there are no corresponding signs.

In other words, when you find the ! sign on your route, it could mean anything. Godzilla could be around the next corner (there's no monster crossing sign), or a bit of road could have washed out in this morning's rain, or someone could be pruning the hedge alongside. Slow down and watch for monsters. Make sure the road is still there before you continue. Look out for guys on ladders with chain saws.

It is a useful sign, the !, it seems to me. Especially these days, when it can feel like there are so many dangers for which we have no corresponding sign. How do you signal a failing economy? Global warming? Health care crisis? And that's just the front page news. It doesn't include all the domestic crises, the ailing relatives, the thousand small crises that unspool in a life. This morning as I drove along the upper lane in the village on my way to French class, I passed a ! sign in the road. It had a yellow background, which denotes, in code de la route parlance, that whatever it was referring to was a temporary danger. That this, too, shall pass.


  1. We have those here in Burundi and they crack me up. It's pretty much the only sign they use. We just keep driving along until we see if it's ditch diggers, or monsters, or what have you. It's always a surprise.

  2. G, our geologist friend, had a textbook for one of his classes called
    ATLAS OF LIFE ON EARTH. It has a spiral time line, and the first chapter is "In the beginning: 4550-545 Million Years Ago." Half way through, the chapter is "Triassic: 248-205 Million Years Ago." At the tippy, tippy end of the spiral--and an embarrassingly small amount of time when I consider my usual importance--is the age of man. And the last bit is about current endangered species.

    It's on my coffee table. It helps, perspective

  3. They have those in Italy too. One day we were exploring a village on foot and there was the exclamation point sign next to the road! (It always makes me feel more animated.) My husband was taking pictures and he happened to put the camera to his eye just beyond the sign, stepped back for the perfect shot and he disappeared! I turned around and he was gone! He had stepped into a hole that was about 4 feet deep but only wide enough for one leg so his other leg was sticking straight out but half of him was gone and, oh my...the exclamation point was an under-statement for the sounds coming out of his mouth! Anyhow, we knew then that theses signs should be respected. Thanks for the memory.

  4. I think I need a couple of those signs for my house. One for my kitchen, one for my sewing room...definitely one for the garden. Oh yes, also for my teenage son's room