A German pogonophobe


It came as quite a shock for me to discover, during my last couple of hours in Berlin, that its sparrows are pogonophobic.

Perhaps I’d had far too many other distractions to cope with during my time there but, for whatever reason, the city had kept this one final revelation hidden up its ornithological sleeve until the last minute.

I’d arrived at the Hauptbahnhof in good time to catch my train west so I sat down on one of the concrete blocks outside the main entrance and looked impressively pensive and melancholy.  I sipped a sad coffee and took reflective bites out of my final apfelnussrolle, all the while looking thoughtfully into the middle distance.

The woman on the next concrete block was feeding a large and noisy flock of sparrows with croissant crumbs.  I smiled wistfully and generously threw down the dregs of my apfelnussrolle so that the sparrows could vary their diet a little.

They ignored this nutritional goodwill completely so I threw down another speckle or two, sure that they would be unable to resist the tempting combination of nuts, sugar and pastry.

I was wrong, though.  They seemed to be mesmerised by Lady Bountiful’s croissant crumbs and turned up their beaks at what they obviously took to be my pathetic scattering of tasteless, un-sparrow-like, morsels.  I felt perplexed and not a little badly-done-by.  I had, after all, given up almost an eighth of a mouthful of my breakfast for the little reprobates.

I was about to storm off in a huff of self-righteous pity - membership of the RSPB obviously counting for nothing amongst these Teutonic upstarts - when Lady Bountiful, smiling sweetly, asked if I was English.

Why - I thought to myself - when they haven’t even heard me actually say anything, does no-one ever ask me if I am Greek or Brazilian or Swedish?  Why does no-one ever assume that I’m a Dane or a Pole?  What is it about me that confirms to total strangers that I’m definitely not a Canadian lumberjack or a salmon-fisherman from Norway?      

I desperately wanted to assume a look of utter bewilderment and reply to her in Welsh (a technique I’m ashamed to have used on several occasions upon being accosted with ‘yoo arrrrr inglis, yes?’ on a train or in a public lavatory) but resisted the temptation.  I admitted proudly that yes, I was English - and that the sparrows evidently had a bad case of collective avian anglophobia.

She pooh-poohed this suggestion with a wave of her hand and, in a flawless accent, invited me to look around.  Had I noticed, she asked, the unusually large number of bearded men?

I told her, with more truth than she knew, that I had.  Observing the pleasing preponderance of facial hair had been a passing highlight of my time in Berlin.  Shameless, full-face beards - shaped and trimmed to within an inch of their lives or left uncoiffured to make their own way in the world - were, indeed, noticeably common here and several of them had tempted me off the path of virtue during my sojourn.

And then came the revelation.

Sparrows, she averred, do not like men with beards.  That was why they’d ignored my apfelnussrolle -  a repast which, if offered by unbearded men (or, of course, women), they would have devoured voraciously.

The look on my face must have been a melange of pity, indulgence and fear. 

She got up and walked over to me.  I was beginning to wonder if a suitcase on wheels has the qualities necessary for an effective weapon when she said ‘Here - take some of these morsels and we will throw them to the sparrows together, side by side.’

I was a stranger in a very strange land and decided that resistance was not only futile but unwise.  She sat down next to me - smelling of 4711 - and we threw our crumbs down on the paving stones.

Needless to say, the wretched sparrows flew as one bird to Lady Bountiful’s feet, hungrily pecking at, and fighting over, every single morsel.  Mine, on the other hand, were left untouched.  It was as if I’d offered them chunks of cement or great mouthfuls of wrought iron.

I was cold-sparrowed.  They collectively sent me to the German equivalent of Coventry - probably Düsseldorf - evidently believing that, if they so much as cast a glance in my direction, I would trap them with birdlime, put them in a pie and eat them - like people do in Italy or France.

The little blighters wouldn’t come anywhere near me and it dawned on me that this strange and unexpected woman, who accosted bearded men outside Berlin’s main railway station with the sole purpose of proving how unsightly and unattractive they are to sparrows, may actually be right. 

As my train pulled out of the station, I even began to wonder if it wasn’t only sparrows that had pogonophobic tendencies.  Has Mother Nature ordained that other creatures are averse to men with beards?

More work needs to be done on this subject.  Someone should get EU funding to carry out the necessary research and write a smug little thesis on a topic which, I am convinced, has been hitherto neglected.  After all, animal dislike of facially hirsute men like me could go some way to explain certain hitherto inexplicable and upsetting occurrences that have befallen me over the years.


About 80 miles west of Berlin, I had to change trains at Stendal.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time between trains to explore it - which is a pity because (according to Wikipedia) it has ‘a university, a market and a psychiatric rehabilitation clinic’.  My kind of place, then.  I should have mentioned it to Lady Bountiful.

My second train took me north to Uelzen, which was a different kettle of fish altogether.  My timetable allowed for me to spend over an hour there, which is much, much more than it merits.

Uelzen’s problem is its station, which was joint winner of the German rail enthusiasts’ Station of the Year Award in 2009.

2009 must have been a poor year for stations because Uelzen’s is grotesque.  It was completely refurbished and tarted up for some sort of competition in 2000 and has now attracted over 3 million visitors.

I didn’t know any of this when my train pulled into the station and I disembarked into a nightmare of wavy lines, candy-stripe ornamentation, multicoloured arabesques and frivolous excrescences.  It’s a nightmarish combination of Disney and Hitchcock; pink and bubbly and vaguely, horribly menacing.

The shopping hall and central staircase looks as if it’s made of gigantic, poisonous toasted marshmallows with a shrivelled, dead mushroom stalk at its centre.  Complicated brick- and tilework constantly lead the eye towards a promised land that turns out to be something banal and utilitarian, like the toilets or the tobacconist.

Uelzen station seemed to lift everyday eccentricity to dizzying new heights.  The station was quite small - as befits a town not much bigger than Durham - yet contrived to have platforms numbered up to 24.

And my third (and final) train was timetabled to leave from platform 16, which I could not find.  I was forced to wander round this preposterous confection three times until I found a sign to platform 16 hidden behind a florid and entirely superfluous stucco outgrowth that defies description.

In truth, I began to suspect that it was a kind of practical joke laid on, at a cost (I’m told) of 10 million euros, for uncritical railway enthusiasts.  When I discovered that the name of its architect - Friedensreich Hundertwasser - translates as PeaceEmpire HundredWater, I was sure of it.


The two-coach, country train from platform 16 carried me north-west from Uelzen through woods and heathland, by farms and villages.  Tractor drivers waved from fields, and children from schoolyards.  We wandered ever deeper into rural, richly fertile Lower Saxony - a world about as different from Berlin as it was possible to get.

As the little yellow train meandered lazily past hedgerows and copses, stopping at wayside halts once in a while as if to draw an ageing breath, the day’s air of surreality - spooked sparrows and a faux-Gaudi railway station - began to give way to unreality.  The train was carrying me out of the present altogether and into the past.

Munster station was deserted in the cool and quiet afternoon sunshine.  No-one was waiting to catch the train and only one person got off:  me.  I sat on a station bench for over an hour.  And as I looked around, completely alone, it was 1952 and I was three years old.  The housing estate opposite the station did not exist and the road that ran through it and into the town was a country lane again.

Amsterdam and Berlin became mere distractions.  Munster was the broken heart of my German journey and I knew that my pilgrimage to honour unbelievable courage and to redeem unimaginable despair and terror had begun.

Less than a day later, I had realised that many people endure their own private holocausts and that each of them deserved a memorial like the one I'd seen in Berlin. 


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