The Ampelmann Says Go


Almost all East Berliners follow the traffic rules as if discovery of any minor infraction would land them in the old Stasi secret police interrogation room. The Stasi must have had informers on every street corner, watching to see what happened at every change of the traffic lights.

the secret police in Berlin
The interrogation was brutal.

“Do you know why you are here?” asked the Stasi interrogator. He was a grey-faced middle aged man with tiny eyeglasses. His fraying uniform was rumpled like he had slept in it. But he was still tired, and cranky. I don’t think he liked his job.

“No. I was near the Alexanderplatz.” I said. “Next thing I know I woke up here.”

I wanted to take the U-Bahn to the Museum of the Wall at Checkpoint Charlie. I was going to read about East Berliners attempting to escape the communist DDR. Some of them made it to the West; many of them were shot within feet of freedom.

I had been standing across Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse from the Alexanderplatz in the heart of East Berlin. I needed to cross the street. Since no cars were coming, I calmly strolled across the road to the other side. I had made a big mistake.

“Let me inform you of your recent subversive, anti-socialist activities. It has been reported by multiple sources that you disobeyed a direct order from the Ampelmann. The Ampelmann never told you to go, and you ignored him and went across the road anyway.” I could see the man was prepared to recite the relevant regulations if necessary.

“Uh, ok. Who is this Ampelmann? I never saw any police officers telling me what to do, or not do.” I pleaded ignorance.

“The Ampelmann is the organ of the state that prevents chaos on the roads. If you disobey the Ampelmann, it could lead to the complete unraveling of the socialist worker’s paradise that we have here. We can’t have that. Furthermore, you might get hit by a car and killed.”

From the back corners of my brain I started to grasp what he was talking about. I had noticed that at every intersection in East Berlin there were interesting lights for the crosswalk. Instead of a bland stick figure of a humanoid illuminated in green to indicate it was safe for pedestrians to cross the road, there was something else. Something with more style. The figure was confidently striding forward to a utopian future, or perhaps a bread line, bent slightly at the waist, arm extended. On top of his head was a snappy fedora at a jaunty angle. The Ampelmann!

traffic light in East Berlin
The Ampelmann says go!

“When the Ampelmann shows up in green, you may safely cross the road,” he continued. “When the red Amplemann has his feet together and his arms crossed, you must wait.”

Now I understood the programmed behavior of the Berliners. At every crosswalk, pedestrians wait like robots for the Ampelmann to tell them to go. They do not even think about crossing the road without the Ampelmann’s blessing. The Berliners do this even when the road to be crossed is a very minor side road, perhaps ten feet wide, and there are no cars in sight for kilometers and several minutes. They might even wait half an hour.

Once in a while some brave, independent, free-thinking and rebellious person (usually a young man with piercings and tattoos) ignores the Ampelmann and goes for it. He looks left, right, and then left again, and steps off the curb. The other pedestrians stare at him in shock and disgust, like he has taken the last piece of apfelstrudel at the family reunion. How dare he disobey the order of things! The Ampelmann must be followed at all costs. Our enlightened leaders have told us this for over forty years. What would happen if we thought for ourselves? Anarchy!

The Ampelmann out for a stroll

I felt something bump me from behind. It was a young woman carrying several packages from the Kausthof Galeria, the big department store next to the Alexanderplatz. She was smoking. Everyone smokes on the streets of Berlin. As she exhaled her toxic plume into my face as I turned around, she muttered something in German. Probably excuse me.

“Hey, watch where you are going,” I said.

She answered me in English. Everyone speaks English in Germany.

“I’m sorry. The light is green. Why are you still standing here?”

I must have drifted off while waiting for the light to turn. I know I had waited long enough. The crowd of shoppers surged forward around me like water in a stream. I was the rock stuck in place.

I didn’t know what to say, so I turned back, tilted my hat forward, and moved one foot in front of the other across the street. Ahead of me, the green Ampelmann was striding forward into the future, with one leg still in the past.


The Ampelmann has become a popular figure in post-unification Germany. There are Ampelmann shops selling all kinds of Ampelmann-branded products. This may be part of a nostalgia among some Germans for the old days of the DDR.

Ampelmann shop in East Berlin, Germany
Everything Ampelmann for the serious collector

The Grand Tour of Europe

The Grand Tour of Europe

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, many upper class British young men traveled a traditional path through Europe called the Grand Tour.  The Grand Tour served as an educational rite of passage whereby the traveler learned about culture, history, architecture, and the arts. The traveler became knowledgeable about classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and was usually accompanied by a learned guide.

The Grand Tour of Europe
The Traditional Grand Tour of Europe

The itinerary for the British traveler started in Dover, England, crossed the English Channel to France or Belgium, and then continued down through the middle of Europe to Italy. Finishing in either Rome or Naples, the traveler might take a ship back to England.  Grand Tours lasted from several months to several years.

Grand Tours are a thing of the past.  The days of the landed gentry wandering the capitals of Europe seeking knowledge and life experiences are long gone. Instead, today we have gap years, study abroad programs, hippie trails, and sabbaticals.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that offers an eight week sabbatical after every seven years of service.  Add in three weeks of vacation and I don’t have to sit in a little grey cube staring at a computer screen for almost three months.  My sabbatical is fast approaching.  I have looked forward to it for at least a couple of years now.  I’m going to make the most of it.

I can’t do the Grand Tour.  There is not enough time and money.  But I can try to do some portions of it.  In reverse.  I’m starting in Rome, Italy.  My plan is to detour first to Greece, Turkey, and Israel.  After returning to Rome, my Grand Tour will take me to Milan, Lake Como, the Berner Oberland, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, London, Bath, and the Cotswolds.

I invite you to follow along.

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Fat Tire Bike Tour and the Ku-Damm Fashion Show – Berlin

Today we took the S-bahn and U-bahn to Alexanderplatz in the eastern part of the “Mitte”, the heart of old East Berlin.  There is a tall TV tower at the base of this plaza.  This was the meeting place for the start of our bike tour for the day.  About 15 people were in our group, mostly Americans, but some Germans too.  Our guide was a young guy from Florida.  He explained that he was a German major in college, hard graduated last December, and had come to Berlin for six months.  He was very funny, and entertaining in telling us about all of the sights.

 We toured by bike all over central Berlin for the next four and 1/2 hours.  It was a great way to see all of the main sights in a short amount of time, without doing a lot of walking.  It was easy to ride the bike in the city, because it is very flat.  We stopped at several of the main cathedrals and churches, parks, plazas, remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the Reichstag building, the site of the Fuhrer Bunker, the Brandenburg Gate, Potzdamer Platz, the Victory Column, the Tiergarten, and more.  At each stop we heard some of the history of the site.  Mid-way through the tour we stopped at a café in the Tiergarten for a sausage sandwich.

Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, Germany
I could bike across the old border....

 By the end of the tour it was starting to sprinkle on us, so we ducked into an Internet café for an hour to give everyone their Internet fix that they had been missing the past few days. 

 After making our way back to the hotel for a change of clothes, we took a series of U-bahn rides over to the west side of the city, to the heart of fashionable West Berlin for our evening walk.  After getting out of the subway at the Zoo station, we walked down the Kufurstendamm (the “KuDamm”) the main shopping avenue of West Berlin.  Several blocks of the road were blocked off from traffic.  The road was filled instead with carnival rides, food stands, souvenir stands, and even a fashion show runway with male and female models showing the latest fall fashions for young people to the beat of Euro disco music.

 It was a full day of sightseeing in our tour of Berlin.  Despite the bike-riding, my feet were very tired by the end of the evening.  We just saw the highlights.  I think on another trip, we could spend two or three more days in Berlin to check out the museums, zoo and other time intensive things to see and do in the city.

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Potzdamer Platz Please – Berlin

This morning we said goodbye to everyone and left Laka.  There were a few tears shed as we packed up the car and hit the road.  We drove northwest toward Germany.  I expected a 7 hour drive, but we got to the outskirts of Berlin in about 6 hours.  For about the last 2 hours in Poland we drove through a road construction area.  They are expanding the single lane road into a freeway.  It was slow going.  We couldn’t find any good places to stop for lunch either, so we just had some snacks along the way.  By the time we got to the Berlin suburbs we were hungry enough to stoop so low as to go to McDonalds.  We were ready for some American-style food.

 Our hotel in Berlin (the Movenpick) is very modern and trendy.  It is very different than the hotels we have stayed in the rest of the trip.  Berlin is hip and lively.  Since the architecture is new, a lot of the buildings are very modern and futuristic looking.  The hotel is a couple of blocks from Potzdamer Platz, one of the main plazas of the city.  Our room was on the top floor, with four big skylights in the ceiling.

Brandenburg Gate
Dusk at the Brandenburg Gate

 In the evening we walked around the Potzdamer Platz.  The day had been warm, and it was a nice summer evening for a city walk.  There was an exhibit in the plaza about the Berlin Wall, including a section of the wall.  There is a brick line in the roads and sidewalks showing where the wall used to stand.  We then walked down a couple of blocks to the Brandenberg Gate.  I read that the gate was constructed in 1791, and since then has been the symbol of Berlin.  During the Cold War, the gate was just inside the eastern side of the wall.  We had dinner in an Australian café in the Sony Center, a new entertainment complex adjacent to the Potzdamer Platz.

What's left of the Berlin Wall
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