Signs, Signs

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind

I found the French autoroute system to be remarkable. The road ways were pristine, even with manicured medians and ditches. The system is every bit the equal of the United States Interstate system, complete with 120km/h (approximately 75mph) speed limits and dedicated rest stops comparable to the overhead oasis rest stops we from the Midwest would find enroute to Chicago on I-90/I-94. Our travels took us nearly exclusively from the South of France, through the Loire Valley, Normandy, and Champagne on the autoroute system. I can say that it was a treat to drive on such nicely maintained and convenient roads. Despite the wonderful driving experience, there was something missing. There was not a commercial billboard or advertisement sign to be found along the autoroute, not even a “McDonald’s ahead” sign.

Courtesy Web Photo

We inquired of one of our hosts if the French were just big fans of the 1970 classic Five Man Electrical Band song Signs or if there was something else at work. 🙂 As it was explained to us, commercial billboards and/or commercial signage are forbidden along the autoroutes. Commercial signage is found along the French roadside, but usually at the city or village boundary lines. There appears to be considerable debate within France about signage and billboards in general “blockin’ out the scenery.” The Five Man Electrical Band may have figurative with the concern for signs blocking the scenery, many in France are literal with their debate. Signs block nature, the people in France want to see nature and assume that tourists also want to see nature and not signs.

Don’t let me description of the autoroutes mislead you. There were standard road signs along the way displaying the same things that one sees on US Interstates. Speed limits, exits, distances to upcoming destinations, auto stops ahead, and of course my favorite “peage” (yes, the tolls ahead). The only other type of sign were the striking tourist attraction signs intermittently spread along the way. It should not be surprising that in a country known for art, even roadside information signs appeared to be a work of art on their own. Each sign highlighted an attraction in the region.

(Photos courtesy Google Images)

My thoughts wandered about how nice it would be for a tourism driven state like Minnesota to place signs such as these along Interstate 94 to highlight the Lake Wobegon Trail, Original Mainstreet, or a sportsman’s paradise near Alexandria. Very cool.

 “Thanks to the Interstate Highway System, it is now possible to travel across the country from coast to coast without seeing anything.” – Charles Kuralt,

Maybe Charles Kuralt was on to why we in the United States do not seem to mind that signs are blocking out our scenery. There isn’t much to see along our Interstate routes. Maybe it is the signs that keep us sane on long road trips across barren land. Who could imagine driving for four or five hours on an Interstate anywhere in the country and not see signage for a McDonald’s ahead? Families pass the time on road trips playing travel bingo, alphabet game or “I Spy” using every piece of signage available. Signs, commercial or otherwise are something we simply don’t think that much about. They are just there.

A visit to the Black Hills in South Dakota show how signs actually become part of the experience. It all begins with the “Welcome to South Dakota” sign as you enter on I-90. Then the kitschy and fun Wall Drug signs start to grab your attention. Where in the heck is Wall Drug? Do they really offer free ice water? 5-cent coffee must be really bad. Then there is this quirky Corn Palace. The signs pointed the way to the Corn Palace ahead as well. Once you make it past Mitchell, Wall and the Badlands, the end destination comes into focus, Mount Rushmore. Signs pointing where the Alfred Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest” was filmed escort you to the monument, then the climatic final sign welcoming you to the monument.

With two quick vibrating blasts from my mobile phone, we were there. We crossed the border into Belgium. We were driving from Northern France North en route to Brussels. I wasn’t expecting a large “Free Ice Water in Belgium” sign, but may be a sign at the border with a simple “Welcome to Belgium,” “Bienvenue en Belgique,” or “Welkom in BelgiĂ«.” As it turns out, only good old Verizon welcomed us to Belgium…and that was merely a kind reminder that International roaming data rates are obscenely expensive. How anti-climatic.


Finding Private Hagen – Post Script

My Finding Private Hagen series highlighted the service of Private Albin Hagen whom was killed in France during World War II. Private Hagen was a member of the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate) whom was comprised of Norwegian American and Norwegian troops who were purposed to liberate Norway from the Nazis. I recently watched an impressive DVD that told the story of the 99th from their formation at Camp Ripley, MN, to their mountain training in Camp Hale, CO all the way through the Battle of the Bulge and the eventual return to Norway by King Hakkon. The DVD includes vintage footage and provides a historical context for the contributions of the 99th. The highlight of the production is the interviews with surviving members of the 99th. Hearing first hand accounts of how the 99th fought to their breaking point in Malmedy in the Ardennes and how they were welcomed into Norway as heroes brought both smiles and tears…sometimes simultaneously.  I highly recommend the DVD for not only those with interest in the 99th and for the World War II history buff.

For more information on the DVD, visit the website dedicated to the 99th:


The story of:

99th Infantry Battalion (Separate)


Moore Travel

Whether or not you know who Gordon Moore is, you have experienced first hand the impact of “Moore’s Law.” Moore’s observation that the computing power of integrated circuits doubled every 24 months. This rapid pace of change drove advancements in technology that resulted rapid change, with newer, faster and cheaper advancements arriving every two years. To frame it in the here and now, the computing power in your smart phone two years from now will be double of a new phone purchased today, and it cost about the same or less than today’s phones. Moore’s Law is also on full display with our digital cameras and devices. Photography technology that was in the price range of professionals or high end enthusiasts a few years ago is available today at the consumer level. Thanks to Moore’s Law sharing  your travel photos and telling your stories through photos has never been easier or less expensive.

My wife and I took our 2001 honeymoon in Montreal & Quebec City, Canada. These were great cities, but unfortunately our memories are just that, memories. We were not early adopters of digital photography by any stretch of the imagination. We actually purchased our first digital camera, a Kodak DX3500 days for for leaving for Canada. In addition, we also packed a Yashica 35mm point and shoot camera with zoom. At that time of your lives (before kids), these cameras seemed good enough for our needs. Capturing and sharing every moment to share had not yet become an important part of lives.

The Kodak (see a 2001 review) only had a 2.2 megapixel digital zoom, not an optical zoom and 8MB of internal storage and used the now obsolete compact flash expansion storage format. To cut through the chase, the wrong storage card was purchased and after twelve shots the camera’s internal storage was full. This was day one in Montreal, with four days to go. Luckily we had the other camera and film. Oh yes, ISO 200 film. We were able to take a few rolls in Montreal, but as we were packing to leave for Quebec City, we realized they were gone. A frantic search ensued in our hotel room, but the rolls in their nice little plastic containers were no where to be found. Those memories of our honeymoon were gone.

This isn’t a cry for us post, it is actually more of a glass half full look. How can there be a glass half full when you lose two whole rolls of film??

For those of us old enough to remember the days of 35mm film photography, we may recall out of a roll with 24 exposures there was a good chance that two photos per roll would not have turned out. Maybe they were under or over exposed, or may be just out of focus. The processing and development model of film photography also impacted how we took photos. Knowing that we were charged for each photo developed by the photo lab, we may take one or two of a subject, thinking that that was good enough. One or two tries really isn’t enough to find that perfect shot. In capturing the great  limestone cliffs of Etretat, France I took somewhere between ten to twenty shots to find the right one.

The film photography experience also meant even if a photo ‘turned out,’ it may not look like the shot you intended. We have prints taken in 2002 in the Louvre in France featuring the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo that are really, really, bad. One can barely make out the subjects of the pictures. The photos remain in our photo album to this day, as they are all we have from these world renown works of art.

Then you had shots that turned out OK or may be even had the potential really good, but an unsuspecting passerby found their way into the photo or worse yet, your photo appears to be more of a passerby’s beer gut than the subject itself. Ugh.

Considering the over and under exposed, the bad, and the just plain ugly, we would have been lucky to have had ten “keeper” photos out of the lost rolls from our honeymoon.

As we geared up for our visit to France in 2011, I researched many cameras in the sub-$500 range. This was to be a two week visit, we were going to see many great sites, so I wanted to make a significant upgrade in the camera department to ‘do it right.’ We already had a Canon PowerShot SD1100, in pink, which was a great little camera as well, but I was looking for something a bit…manly for this visit. decided on a camera highly recommended by Consumer Reports, the Canon PowerShot G12. Consumer Reports recommended the G12 due to a nice combination of superior point and shoot capabilities and features typical of a standard DSLR. It was my experience that the unit lived up to its hype and g12

Reviews comparing the G12 to the current market of digital cameras miss it’s best feature, simplicity. The smallish, but rugged housing makes the G12 easy to stow or grab to get a shot at moments notice. The G12 is also unassuming. While Europe in general is very safe, in major tourist areas pick pockets and petty thieves prey on tourists. Large camera lenses and even thick camera straps will draw attention from not only camera enthusiasts, but to the petty criminals looking for a quick score. In addition to not having protruding lenses, the G12 helped maintain an understated image with it’s functional plain, black narrow strap without a prominent brand name label.


Millau Bridge, France 2011, Taken with a Canon SD1100.

The SD1100 also traveled with us and was my wife’s primary camera. The 8-megapixel point and shoot camera with a 3x optical zoom took great photos of the Millau bridge in southern France and many other places along the way. In addition to the advanced DSLR features and rugged housing, the G12 also featured 10 megapixel images and a 5x optical zoom which were each superior to the SD1100. I found a great deal online from Best Buy where the price of the G12 just happened the current retail price of the Canon SD1100. In my mind I had purchased twice the camera, two years later for essentially the same price. I think that Moore guy was on to something. 🙂

When receiving compliments for the photos taken in France and Spain, I usually  give all the credit to the camera. The camera was only one half of my digital photography team, the other have was my trusty iPad. It should not come as a surprise that the iPad is absolutely awesome for traveling. It is easily stowed, easy to use and is truly designed for the photo enthusiast. Each night I took my camera’s memory card  and imported the day’s photos into the iPad via the SD card adapter. From there I would simple delete photos that were not up to par, then crop and save any others that needed editing. I found cropping and saving with the iPad infinitely faster and easier than connecting a camera via USB cable to a PC and importing into an editing program like PhotoShop Elements. These features allowed me to take images that would have been in the ‘meh’ category and turn them into images that tell our stories.

 Before After

The Cathedral in Sevilla

The Tomb of Christopher Columbus in Sevilla, Spain, 2013.



The Monument at Omaha Beach, France, 2012.



Loire Valley, France, 2012

I created an album within the app for each city or region we would visit to help us remember just where we were.  The native app does not share with Flickr, however the affordable iPhoto app from Apple will not only share photos with Flickr, but it offers a whole host of photo enhancement options and seamlessly work within the context of previously set up albums. The albums on my iPad have taken the place of a traditional print photo album as I simply take out my iPad and use the retina display to show the photos in all their splendor as imaged by the Canon G12.

Together, the G12 and iPad make a great traveling companions that I recommend for travel at home or abroad.

Getting There

“Kids, Big Ben, Parliament….again”

Everyone who has ever traveled has had a Griswold moment at some point, whether they are at home or abroad. The combination of air travel, sleep deprivation and simply being in a strange country will make Griswolds out of the best of us. Some of us more than once.


Narrow, hilly streets in a Lozere village.

We were traveling to a small village in the Southern French department of Lozerein June 2012. Our plans included flying through Paris to a smaller regional airport in Claremont-Ferrand which was approximately an hour and a half from our bed and breakfast in that sphotomall village of Le Villard. Understanding that this was a small village, we took it in stride that the GPS in our rental car was unable to find the address of the B&B in its database.We did what we thought was the next best thing and entered an address in Le Malzieuville, the next village over, hoping there would be road signs or something that would lead us to our destination. It had been a few years, say ten or eleven, since I had driven a car with manual transmission. I was riding the clutch hard, but doing alright, only killing it a few times in lower gear through the narrow, hilly, cobblestone streets of Le Malzieuville. We may have only drove around the village for fifteen minutes, but it felt like an hour. A long night of flying and a four hour layover in Paris had left both us dazed and confused as we searched for any sign of “Le Villard.” Finally we conceded defeat and stopped for directions in a park where an older couple happened to be sitting. My wife got out, explained our situation. (My wife speaks both French and Spanish and I speak neither. Therefore she got the job of admitting we were lost.) My wife contended that not only could the old couple have been not been more nice and we happened to be only a few kilometers away from our destination! Great news indeed!


The nice old farmer who helped us out.


Our B&B.

As we found Le Villard, saying it was tiny, would be overestimating its stature. First glance provided us with a view of three, maybe four houses and one farm, but no sign for the bed and breakfast. Where else was there to drive to? The only road into the village ended up in a farmyard. We were left thinking how can we be lost in a village the size of a backyard?? We were again fortunate that a local was out and about. This gentlemen appeared to be the farmer and an old one at that. My wife explained to him that we’ve been driving all over and could not find the bed and breakfast. I assumed that we had taken yet another wrong turn and would be heading back to the main road. As my wife got back into the car, she had quite a different message. We were a mere 50 feet away from our destination. We had passed the bed and breakfast…twice, and by golly there was a sign on the building with the name of the bed and breakfast. After hearing our story of driving all over the next town and the countryside looking for the bed and breakfast. The old farmer, like all old farmers I’ve ever met, shared a nice bit of wisdom with wife, “at least you were able to see more of Lozere.” Indeed we had.

Fast forward to one year later and we move on to Spain. Our arrival story had a very familiar Griswold-theme. We were due to arrive in Malaga at approximately 4pm local time, after a connecting flight in Paris. The plan was to arrive in the city, pick up some food and water, hit our hotel sleep the night and start experiencing Andalucia right away in the morning. Our plans were thrown a bit of curveball due to a three-day French air traffic controller strike. Our flight into Malaga from Paris was delayed four hours, pushing our arrival time to after 8pm. At least our flight wasn’t cancelled. We fared far better than many other travelers we witnessed at the Charles de Gaulle Paris airport. It was not a great start for our travels, but not a catastrophe.The reviews of the Ibis Cuidad Centro Malaga hotel on Trip Advisor completed it as a nice and affordable hotel, but hard to find. Learning from our previous experience, I pre-configured our own GPS with the hotel’s coordinates and even printed a Google map to use as a back up. When we arrived and were picking up the rental car, the experience could not have been more pleasant. The gentleman behind the counter didn’t try to pressure us into buying the collision insurance and offered the option to upgrade our rental for 80 Euros. 80 Euros not only gave us the next size up in car, it was an automatic. It was red and it was a Mercedes. He had us at “it is an automatic,” but a Mercedes B-series was icing on the cake. Things were looking up for a smooth journey to our hotel.

Our Chariot

Our Chariot

We stopped at a nearby supermarket for some food and water, the drove towards the hotel in Malaga’s city center. Our GPS was doing well and it was not yet dark, and off the left our left we spotted our hotel across a


The pedestrian bridge to our hotel.

large aqueduct that ran right through the heart of the city. As I was looking for a left turn or roundabout, the GPS told us to go right, so we went right. There must be some turn off that will take us across the aqueduct. As we snaked through the narrow streets, we were going in the wrong direction and further and further away from our hotel. We knew we were off course when the GPS took us right back to the spot where it told us to turn right. And guess which direction it told us to turn? You guessed it. Right. Which direction did we turn. Yes. Right again. And if you are following along, where do you think the GPS took us to this time? If you guess that it took us back in a circle to the exact same spot, you would be correct. We could see bridges over the aqueduct ahead and attempted to take a different turn here or there on the subsequent attempts (Yes there were more than two or three) to find some magical turn that we missed to get towards the bridges. The bridges were a mere mirage, as they were in fact pedestrian bridges and we circled around to end up at the exact same spot again and again. It was now pitch dark, we were mentally and physically exhausted. We needed to get to the left, but could not. We were the Griswold’s….again.

“..there’s Big Ben…Parliament..again. Why can’t I go left..”

After a few tense moments, we regrouped to take a left turn prior to the aqueduct and most likely committed the first of many moving violations in Spain. We managed to snake through a new set of narrow streets in the dark to find an Ibis Hotel, but it was not our Ibis. My wife managed to talk to the parking garage attendant of this Ibis who was quite animated in conversing with me wife. From my point of view, I wasn’t sure if he was angry or trying to be helpful. Regardless, his gestures were unmistakable. He was pointing for us to park our car there. Then he marched his two fore fingers on his hand and pointed to building a block or so away, in some attempt to tell us to walk in that direction. My wife confirmed that we were to park there and the building in the near distance was in fact our hotel. I was sick to my stomach and ready to pass out, but once again thanks to a total stranger in a strange land, we at last found our hotel.

The wit and wisdom of the old farmer from Lozere was lost on two cranky and exhausted travelers from Minnesota. We were just thankful that there was no more of Malaga for us to see that night.


Out of the blue, our seven year-old son asked me over the weekend “what does the Fourth of July mean?” I stumbled a bit in my answer. Trying to stay with why we celebrate and attempted to provide him with some meaning as to why we have a day off to get together with family and friends. From the confused look on his face, my response did little to connect in his terms how declaring our independence from England in the 1776 is the reason why we have fireworks, barbeques and hot dog eating contests.
We are blessed in the United States to have not only generations, but centuries separating today from when the United States were colonies in the British empire. In attempting to answer my son’s question, there is not a first hand reference I can provide to truly relate the notion of Independence or freedom. As I thought about how I could have better answered his question, I was brought back to 1995.

In 1995, Eastern Europe was crawling out from the malaise brought by the fall of the Soviet Union. That Summer I was fortunate to be living in Helsinki, Finland on an internship and cultural exchange following graduating from college. One of the side trips for myself and the other interns stationed in Finland was a long weekend in Tallinn, Estonia.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania make up the Baltic Republics that were occupied by the Soviet Union from 1939 through the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1991. These countries were not set up as satellites, as was the case of East Germany or Romania. They were flat out annexed into the Soviet Union. The history books estimate that up a quarter Estonia’s population was expelled following the annexation and the Soviets repopulated the republic with Russians with hopes of diluting traditional Estonian culture and to keep the lid on nationalistic tendencies.

Estonia is a beautiful country located a short ferry ride from Finland to the North and West, but shares a contentious border with Russia to the East. I have a fond recollection of the Estonian countryside, adorn with tall pines that reminded me of Minnesota’s North shore. As the ferry pulled in to the Tallinn harbor, the onion-shaped domes of the Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral came into view. Someone in our group, it could have been me, made the smart remark “is that the Kremlin?” tallin-cathedral The signature Russian Orthodox architecture and the medieval Old Town were marvelous gems, but eighteen years tallin-old-townlater my memories of Estonia are far deeper than the architecture.
It did not take long to understand that this was going to go beyond sight seeing and be a true ‘cultural experience.’ To be polite, post-Soviet Tallinn was lacking the polish of the West. To be less than polite, this house had the appearance of a foreclosure and not a fixer-upper. The infrastructure of the country was in shambles after years of Soviet rule and neglect. Perhaps 35 or 40 years earlier, Tallinn would have been considered newly minted, with cookie cutter apartment buildings and a modern public transportation system. In 1995, the polish was long gone. Like the former owner of a foreclosed home, without the cash or incentive to invest in the upkeep of the public infrastructure, the Soviet Union simply let it rot in place.
The streets were not filled with current European auto brands, but rather occupied by a large number of Soviet-built cars (yes like a Borat car) still limping their way along. The streetcars or trolleys in Tallinn appeared to be broken down buses that were retrofitted with a boom to connect to the overhead power lines. We were off the ferry no more than a half an hour when I had a true “cultural” experience. A fully packed tram car pulled up to the stop. Our hosts motioned for everyone to get on, as there was no guarantee that the next car was going to come soon or at all. We piled into the car, getting up close and personal with the locals. Not only were we uncomfortably packed like rats, there was a stench in the air that told me that the norms of personal hygiene here were different than my experience to that point. There was also a realization that the ability of the car to take us to our destination was also in doubt. Our accommodations for the long weekend were a small school building in Tallinn, where classrooms outfitted with gymnasium mats for beds. The school had running water and showers, but the facilities were not up to Western, and especially US, standards. And to me, those standards included a general expectation that toilets would equipped with flip down seats. 🙂

Our tour included three night admission to a rock festival called “Rock Summer” featuring bands such as Simple Minds and Mike + the Mechanics. The festival grounds shared an seemingly uninspiring name of the “Song Festival Grounds.”  The grounds were packed each  night with tens of thousands people who were loving every moment, including the strange lineup that included the thrash metal band Biohazard providing the lead-in for 80’s one-hit wonder Simple Minds.
As we discovered many of the local specialties…such as this and this…we began to loosen up and absorb the history of Rock Summer and the Song Festival Grounds. Music and singing is a long held national tradition spanning decades and centuries. Estonians would congregate and sing national songs to show their patriotism. Throughout the fifty years of Soviet rule, Estonians still got together to sing, but were not allowed to sing their national songs or waive their flag, under threat of imprisonment or worse. In 1988, the tide turned.The cracks in the Soviet Union were showing on the fringes, including Estonia. In May of 1988, what was dubbed the Singing Revolution was born.The people attending a small music festival linked hands and sang along with the first of performance of Estonian patriotic songs since the Soviet annexation in 1939. The Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn became center court for the Singing Revolution. In May of 1988 300,000 people gathered there to sing patriotic songs and dared the Soviets to do something about it. Rock Summer continued the non-violent fight that very August despite the real threat of a Soviet massacre to quell the start of the Singing Revolution.

One of our daytime visits was to Paldiski, which as the last outpost where Russian troops maintained an outpost until 1994. Spectacular limestone cliffs on a paldiski-limestone-raypeninsula overlooked the Baltic and made the outpost a strategic asset for the Soviets in holding Estonia.The base was used as a nuclear submarine base and even housed a nuclear reactor that remained in Russian hands long after Estonia’s independence from the Soviet Union. We arrived in Paldiski after a scary train ride and a considerable hike. The passenger car on the train seemed to shake uncontrollably as it traveled on a single track. In my mind I envisioned a scenario where Estonian dissidents were placed on this train prior to face the firing squad or being forced over the cliffs of Paldiski.

In 1995, Estonia remained in euphoria, no longer in fear of being shipped off to Paldiski or worse. An independent Estonia meant that Estonians could celebrate Rock Summer with infectious joy and without fear. It was clear that the people of Estonia saw their house as a fixer-upper and were more than happy to do the fixing themselves. The new capitalists in Estonia must have found that connecting Estonia with all things American was good business. There were street vendors around the Image2festival grounds selling a number of American themed trinkets that celebrated an Estonian/American friendship. (And they sold things dirt cheap!) imageThe Estonians appeared to view America as a beacon of independence and freedom to which to aspire.
The opening night featured a band called Stiltskin from the UK. At the time, they were a hair metal band hanging on to their fleeting fame in Eastern Europe. They were quite popular in Estonia and the crowd created a scene reminiscent of Moscow version of the Bon Jovi the Dead or Alive video. The crowd near the stage was raucous and yes in the mosh pit there was one guy sitting on a buddy’s shoulders waving an American flag for full display. In between songs, I believe the lead singer of the band said something like, ‘we’re not from America, we’re from the UK.’ Perhaps the guy in the crowd had a case of mistaken country of origin, but I think the lead singer guy missed the point of the gesture. A mere five years earlier, such a gesture would have been a clear taunt of the Soviets and the guy could have been jailed or worse. In 1995 this was a symbolic act in celebration of independence and freedom. The joy and energy in celebrating what this festival represented was infectious and it became clear to me that it didn’t matter who was on stage or what the festival was called or what the name of the venue may have been. This was a spirit of joy in being independent and free.
I think back to the Estonian guy waving the US Flag. When his seven year-old asks what Independence day is all about. His explanation will come quite easily, because he lived it.