Letter from Prague Seeking a message in the proliferation of Czech signs

18-01-2014 02:01 | Chris Johnstone

There seem to be signs for everything, everywhere in Prague. Perhaps the best policy is to try not to take any notice of them and hope that they will go away.

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Photo: Olga ŠtrejbarováPhoto: Olga Štrejbarová I remember reading some time ago that Czechs set a European, or perhaps world, record for the number of signs that crop up in their streets. I cannot find the source now but it has stuck in my mind. I tend to give the assertion a big dose of credibility, partly through suspicion that sign makers are in cahoots with local councils or the ministry of transport.

At one square on my stroll to work this morning I counted around two dozen signs, mostly traffic and pedestrian, but also one from the local rubbish company with instructions on how to use the containers for recyclables.

Five minutes further on, the local council has painted signs on the paths through the park seeking to segregate walkers and cyclists. The trouble is, from my point of view, is that they don’t make much sense. The signs lead up a steep hill which I have never seen a cyclist attempt on two wheels.

At the top there is another sign in red. If I interpreted this literally, it would say something like: “No old men with hats holding young girls by the hand and no unaccompanied bicycles.” In truth, I’m not sure what this message is all about.

There are also the other bits of irritating street furniture, such as the benches facing onto a wall and not looking over the valley or those company sponsored seats that look like they would leave you with lifetime backache if you tried them.

Back to the signs, and perhaps some sociologists could paint a bigger picture here about Czech society’s need for direction from above or the legacy of 40 or so years of Communism. I don’t know, and perhaps that’s not a path to go down without any signs at hand.

I will confess a sort of secret here, that I don’t like signs much at all. When I walk deep in thought on the street I bump into them and when I drive on the road they complicate life with too much unwanted information.

I passed my driving test in Britain with a very scant knowledge of road signs. Looking back on it, I think the examiner had to pass me because at one stage he directed me down a one way street by mistake. I protested, not because I had seen any signs, but because I remembered it was a one way street from previous practices.

At the end of the test there was a huddle between the examiner and my instructor and I was given the surprising news that I had passed and was let loose on the roads.

I have limited knowledge of the Czech equivalent of the highway code as well. When driving in Czech towns or cities I have a sort of tunnel vision. I take the view that the biggest danger comes from fellow drivers and look out for them to the exclusion of everything else. I think this prejudice is probably shared by my fellow road users as well.

My survival so far has encouraged me to ignore any pointers suggesting a different policy.

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