Walking around Berlin, few blatant signs remain as reminders of the German capitol’s divided past. One that does: the beloved Ampelmaennchen, the hatted characters that appear as pedestrian guides on Berlin’s traffic lights.
Also known as Ampelmann, the characters were introduced in East Berlin 1961 as visual cues to help pedestrians make better traffic decisions. The red Ampelmann has his arms out as a physical barrier, while the green Ampelman strides confidentially across the street. Almost immediately, they became popular, showing up in cartoon strips, TV shows and other aspects of East German life.
When Germany reunified after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the country wanted to standardize the pedestrian lights in both areas of the city. But people in the former German Democratic Republic loved the Ampelmann, and successfully campaigned to save him as a symbol of East German culture.
Now the Ampelmann is an unofficial mascot of Berlin, and a good representation of Ostalgie, a pop culture phenomenon based on nostalgia for artifacts from the GDR. You can find him on totebags, T-shirts, mousepads – even represented in gummi candy – at Ampelmann, a store that specializes in crosswalk paraphernalia.
I couldn’t resist buying an Ampelmann long-sleeved T-shirt.
There’s also an Ampelmann store on the Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s prettiest squares, with two Protestant domed churches and the gorgeous NeoClassical Konzerthaus. We’re staying here for our first night, courtesy of the five-star Sofitel Berlin Gendarmenmarkt. It seems like a great area to have as a base, as you’re close to Berlin’s premier boulevard Unter den Linden, the shops of upscale Friedrichstrasse and Checkpoint Charlie, as well as the sights on Museum Island. Yet the area is quiet, with very little street noise. So far, I’m loving it (if only this cold could disappear!)
I’ve been in Germany since Friday and will be here until Oct. 17. Look for more posts on Berlin, as well as the Saxon cities of Dresden and Leipzig, in the next few weeks. And if you have a great Berlin restaurant rec for me, send it along!