The Spiegelei Incident

Ah! the Eurovision cheers from Hamburg… And a  song with physics in the lyric wins. Having had my brain melted by the whole thing (see twitter stream…) I think I am now infatuated with a 19-year old German with a mockney accent. Oh well, it’ll pass.

Regular readers will know I worked in Hamburg. The most common reaction when this comes up in conversation with strangers (taxi-drivers, policemen, old ladies on buses…) is to assume I was a soldier (presumably in a role not involving haircuts or heavy lifting). The second thing people say is “Reeperbahn, eh? Phwoarr”.


I did like the Reeperbahn. Sort of a more explicit version of Blackpool, really. Actually I haven’t been to Blackpool for ages, maybe it is explicit too now. When I had visitors, an evening on the Reeperbahn was pretty much obligatory. These kind of blur into one, except for a particularly bizarre all-nighter which culminated in the most surreal experience of my life so far.

Usually we’d sit in various pubs, then go dancing. The sex industry stuff was really only a part of the scene, there was some actual good nightlife there too. However, three of us (the other two may identify themselves here if they so choose) decided to really thoroughly visit some of the strip bars & pole-dancing dives one night. (Not the brothels!)

We chose carefully, making sure of a “free” drink with the entry fee so we hadn’t lost out even if we had to leave in a hurry. Some of the dives were enjoyable, but the last one wasn’t. It was about 4:30 on a Sunday morning by now, it had been a long night and I expect no one involved really wanted to be there. This was a large number of “free” drinks later so I wasn’t looking around very carefully, until a rather large, naked foot appeared, way too close to our noses. I put the still-nearly-full bottle of lager in the inside pocket of my jacket, and we left in a hurry.

One great thing about Saturday nights in Hamburg is the Fischmarkt on Sunday morning. Opening 5-ish, it’s an invigorating mix of very proper early-morning shoppers, and the dazed-and-confused remnants of the night before. Like us. There are fish, plants, bad bands, coffee, beer, and most importantly bratkartoffeln mit spiegelei – an enormous mound of fried potatoes (mit speck und zweibeln) with three fried eggs on top. Just the ticket.

Annoyingly when I got to our table, having negotiated my way unsteadily across the cobbles from the the big pan with the potatoes, I was one egg down. Looking back, I saw it, lying on the cobbles, glistening, still whole and unsullied. Of course, I went back for it. Unfortunately, as I bent down to get it, some git poured beer on the floor right next to it. I stood up and looked around, but they’d gone. I bent down again. More beer!

Eventually I gave up, and made my way with my two remaining eggs back to my by-now-paralytic companions, who had been watching the whole thing. I complained to them about the beer, and when they could speak, they explained that the bottle in my jacket pocket was responsible.

This wasn’t the surreal thing.

That was about eight hours later, when, after an eel curry and not enough sleep, I went swimming. (I was a lot younger then.) Having swum, I was sitting beside the pool drinking hair-of-the-dog in the civilised way you can in Germany, when the lights suddenly dimmed, everyone got out of the pool, and some strange music started. A line of small children, aged variously between 5 & 10 and wearing odd hats, trooped in. They climbed into the pool one-by-one, and as they did so, an adult lit a candle mounted right on top of their heads. They swam round the pool (about 40 of them if I remember right), little ones barely keeping the candle above water. Then they climbed out. As they did so, the adult snuffed out each candle in turn. They trooped out, the music stopped, the lights came on, and everyone carried on as though nothing had happened.

I still have no explanation. I blame the eels.

Also a version at The Guardian, and see Chapter 4.5 of Smashing Physics.


About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Cosmic Shambles and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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3 Responses to The Spiegelei Incident

  1. Mike Seymour says:

    I laughed so much when I read this! The swimming pool episode was new to me, but the egg incident is so familiar that I really had to think carefully to realize that I wasn’t there at the time. When the story was told to me, by one of those who was, it painted such a vivid (and hilarious) picture in my mind that it became an almost-real memory. I remember re-telling the story to others on several occasions, adding to its realness. Reading it again after, what? fifteen years? it really confused me that this part of the story was so real, but others didn’t sound familiar. Surely my memory of the rest of the evening could not be so far wrong? And then, only slowly, the memory of being told the story, on a somewhat similar Sunday morning, came back to me. I guess this is what they mean by collective memory.

  2. teobesta says:

    This reminds me of my first time in a public pool in Nagoya (we’d been turned away from the fun one down the road with the hot spring and everything as it was full to capacity). Everyone was happily swimming around and suddenly some music came on and everyone had to get out of the pool. They formed a circle around it and started doing the exact same moves to the rhythm of the music. It was the kind of thing that makes you look around for the hidden camera. Turns out it was the daily radio calisthenics (performed in offices, construction sites, schools, etc!) only at the pool it happened on an hourly basis. I was truly amazed.

  3. Paul Wolborsky says:

    Well, it’s Germany. Do you really need an explanation?

    However, if you were outside, and it was daylight, the light dimming should be a red flag. ;>

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