Street Cred

There are a few things that I have to get used to all over again whenever I come back to Germany.  One is differentiating between the proper/formal way of saying “you” (Sie) and the informal way (du).  Other things are more exciting, though, even life threatening.  Take the following example, for instance:

Bike Paths

What are these dangerous zones, you might be asking yourself.  The former “no man’s land” between east and west Berlin?  Nah – something much more dangerous.  They’re bike paths.

Oh yeah, that’s right – instead of having bike lanes on the side of the streets, part of German sidewalks are reserved for folks on bikes, which is like every fifth person.  All of these death machines are equipped with a sweet little bell on it to let innocent pedestrians know that they’re about to have tread marks up their back.   I remember the first time that I ever went to Germany, I had no idea why part of the sidewalk was marked off.  Later, I learned to fear that bell, that passive aggressive dinging.  Because bikers don’t slow down or even slightly veer out of the way.  Hell, no!  You’re in their lane. Once, while I was still in the fog of my first case of jet-lag, the incessant dinging didn’t register quickly enough, and some Deutschbag’s handlebars clipped my elbow.  I don’t know how it didn’t jerk his handlebars to the side, sending him sprawling onto the pavement.  Obviously, that wasn’t his first rodeo.

Even when I got here a month ago, I had to retrain myself to stay away from the bike lanes.  On my second or third day, I found myself walking along a sidewalk without paying 100% attention (heaven forbid!) when a bike nearly plowed into me.  I escaped without physical harm, but I did get a quick Verpiss dich! (piss off!) from the friendly biker as she peddled on.  But don’t worry about me – I’ve learned my lesson again.  Now I don’t even have to think about it when I hear a bell ringing even a quarter-mile away.  My legs just atomically jump out of the way, leading me to safety.  It’s like a nightmarish version of Pavlov’s experiments.

But don’t you worry – the bike lanes aren’t the only comment-worthy aspect of German street life.  What can be so exciting about German streets that I’d blog about them?  Street-crossing signs.   In America, we have a white outline of a man and a big, orange hand that flashes to tell us when we can and can’t cross the street.  Hell, sometimes, it’s even more straight forward and it’s just spelled out for us:  “WALK” and “DON’T WALK.”  In Germany, there’s a little green and a little red man.  In Berlin, the situation’s a little unique though – because the former West and East sectors of the cities had different Ampelmännchen, little street lamp men.

In the West, they were pretty straight forward and nondescript.  In the East, however, both Red and Green sported a fancy hat.  While the wall has since come down, the different Ampelmännchen still patrol the streets.  Or, maybe “rule over” is a better phrase for what they do, because in Germany, these red and green men are like gods.  They dictate when you cross the street, and they are not to be disobeyed.

Seriously.  It’s almost funny how Germans will not cross the street unless there’s a green man telling them it’s okay.  Forget that you have eyes and a brain and can deduce on your own that, if there’s not a car in sight, it’s okay if you cross the road.  NEIN!  Red man says NEIN!  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen crowds of Germans waiting at an empty intersection, glaring at the red man for not letting them cross.  I guess no one wants to be “that guy” and take the first step across the street and out of line.

I once crossed a street on red, and I heard a mother telling her young daughter, “See that’s what you’re NOT supposed to do, okay, sweetie?”  That’s no joke.  I would like to see these folks in Boston, where even my little heathen self cringes at the sight of pedestrians and automobiles playing a game of chicken at every intersection.

East Ampelmann

Meet the East Berlin Red and Green Men

West Ampelmann

And here you have the West Berlin Red & Green Men

And to end my post on peculiar aspects of German streets, I leave you with this picture.  Don’t worry, you’re just as dumbfounded as I was, and still am.  It’s on the side of a building in Berlin, near Checkpoint Charlie.  I think it’s meant to be art.


The man’s….ummm….extremity goes on for another two stories.

When I stopped to take a picture of this masterpiece, a few other passers-by also took notice.  My favorite moment – maybe from my whole stay in Berlin – was when a probably 85 year old woman giggled and told her best friend, “Oh my goodness!  Talk about an elephant trunk!”  

Categories: Travel | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Street Cred

  1. Great post. One of my best culture blend moments was when I was crossing the street in Reykjavik with a French friend, and he started telling me how SERIOUS the Germans are about their driving and sidewalk rules. I’ve also learned just being around a lot of German exchange students in Iceland: if there is a German in the car, just let them drive because 9 out of 10 times, they are positive that they are the best driver….because well, they are German. Duh.

    • While the devotion to the pedestrian cross walk signals kind of blows my mind, I can say that it sounds to me like the process of getting a German driver’s license is really strict and expensive – with the idea that only the best drivers are on the road. And I guess if you’re going to offer highways with no speed limits, you better have great drivers!

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