Signs of Things to Come … in Russian.
Much of the time during my trip to Russia and China three years ago I was in a group with local guides. That was easy … comfortable. All you have to do is pay attention and listen for instructions and stick with the group.
But I was traveling on my own for almost two weeks before joining the group in Moscow for the train across Russia to Mongolia and China. The fact is, no matter where you travel you depend on signs to get you where you need to go: to a public bathroom, to a scenic lookout, to the railway station, to your train.
Icons help a lot, and in France or Italy or Germany or Switzerland much of the time the words on the signs look like the corresponding word in English. In Milan, you know you’re going to get something to eat when the sign over the door says “Ristorante”.
Chinese characters pose a problem, of course, but a lot of the signs in China—in fact most of those that would be helpful to foreigners—are also in English. You get the information you need, even if the translation isn’t quite right. (I wonder if the Chinese grumble about that the way Americans do when our signage include Japanese characters.)
I found it much more difficult in Russia where almost all the signs are in the Cyrillic alphabet. In fact, it occurred to me somewhere along the way that the experience must be what it feels like to be illiterate. You find yourself looking for other clues … icons, for example.
It can be disconcerting in railway stations if the departure time for your train has changed or if it’s running late. You’d better know the train number … it could be your only clue as to where to go and when.
It’s particularly worrisome when the design or the layout of the sign gives the impression that its message is important … that it’s warning you of something. Big red letters with lightening bolts or multiple exclamation points. That’s when you sharpen your instincts and, in particular, pay attention to what everyone around you is doing. Or NOT doing. I confess that I took a stab at learning the Cyrillic alphabet before I left on the trip, but gave up after a few half-hearted sessions.
I did find the perfect solution, however: I hired a guide.