The International Writers Magazine: Oktoberfest
Yes, the hedonistic Munich-based beer festival is rowdy, raucous, and raunchy. The kind of hazy place where tourists and proud Bavarians stagger together, to clink steins of amber lager and eat mountains of oversized food: entire Bavarian chickens, wurstl sausages, gigantic pickles, and massive pretzels. Above all, they drink beer – one-litre mugs at a time, known in Germany as maß.
Oktoberfest 2005: one festival, 17 days, six million visitors, 6.1 million steins of beer, 95 oxen, 482,000 chickens and 560,000 pork knuckles.
Our original Okoberfest game plan was to spend our first day relaxing and sightseeing in Munich. However, that plan went out the window when a giggling group of party-goers stumbled past our hostel. Curiosity won over and we decided to wander onto the fair grounds to check things out. Just take a peek. It couldn’t hurt right? It was only 3 pm after all. As it turned out, our day had only gotten started.
The first thing we saw at the entrance to the fair was a poster of David Hasselhoff – the Baywatch star who was once - and still is - a hero in Germany. Then came the fair rides. Spinning, whirling, gravity-defying, vomit-inducing, rides. Next, the music. Faint at first, and then building into a cacophony of accordions, horned instruments and boisterous cheering. These were the drinking songs we would never quite understand, but would grow to love anyway during our 48-hour stint at the festival.
What the heck, we’ll just take a looky inside the first drinking tent we see, we shrugged. And so gingerly, we stepped into the Hofbraeuhaus, destined not to emerge until midnight. The ‘tent’ was not really a tent at all, but a semi-permanent structure that houses 9,000 beer-drinking rowdies. Some, we could tell, had been there since the 9am bell, blankly staring out from under their pointy grey souvenir hats; swaying gently under their own weight with tilted, half-full steins in their hands. And there were more than a dozen tents just like Hoffbrau dispersed throughout the theresienwiese grounds, seating 100,000 people altogether. ‘Ein Prozet. Ein Prozet. Geme … something …something … keit …’ singers trailed off as they sung along to the most popular drinking song, and raised their steins in the air, beer overflowing onto the tables and their brand new Oktoberfest t-shirts. Then a barrage of misplaced American songs followed: ‘New York, New York’, ‘Take Me Home, Country Road’ and ‘Hey! Baby’.
A bar maid wearing a dirndl – the Bavarian woman’s traditional bust-popping dress - walked by our section. Why not grab ‘Ein maß bitte?’ When she returned, she was bear-hugging 10 steins, each weighing at least two kilos – as legend has it, the festival record is 18. She slammed them down on the table with vigour and started collecting the money. When one man took his drink without paying, she tore up one side of him and down the other in German, grabbed the beer out of his hands and stormed off, smiling sweetly at the next table as she took their order.
Though the festival runs for just under three weeks, rumour has it that good waitresses can clear up to EUR10,000. Many of them work in Munich’s beer halls the rest of the year or have had their jobs handed down to them through generations.
A couple steins later, we were caught up in the circus atmosphere, singing along with the songs and cheersing our neighbours ‘Ein, twei, g’supta!’
Later that night, amidst the chaos, we met a middle-aged Bavarian man, dressed in traditional lederhosen – which literally means ‘leather trousers’. As someone who has been attending Oktoberfest for most of his life – and surviving – he had a piece of advice for us:
‘These tourists, they don’t know the trick to drinking,’ he said knowingly as he dug into his hearty chicken and potato dinner and took a long swig of the Bavarian nectar.
‘You drink a few steins, then you eat’. He proceeded to break a pretzel into pieces and hand them out to everyone at our table.
‘Now you can drink some more,’ he said with a grin, gesturing to the beer. And drink we did. And drink. And drink.
Bavarians have been celebrating Oktoberfest since 1810. The festival, which they affectionately call ‘die Wiesn,’ began as a celebration in honour of the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and his new bride, Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen – tongue twister, I know. The original festival featured horse races, which later transformed into an agriculture and food fair. In the beginning, the festival actually did start in October, and lasted for five days, but because the Bavarians were having so much fun, they decided to prolong it, and push the start date forward into mid-September, when the weather is better.
Thousands of locals still attend the event. Many tend to stick to the more traditional tents, while the younger Bavarians and backpacker crowd gravitate to tents like Hoffbrau, which has a reputation for being one of the wildest of the bunch. The locals we met were very friendly and hospitable, including Pietre who wore a cut-off jean vest, plastered with iron-on patches, depicting derogatory slogans against the opposing football team. His mum had been sewing them on for him since he was 10.
‘Forgive me if I’m smelling,’ Pietre said bashfully. ‘But, it is not my belief to washing this jacket’ Pietre taught us that the final words to the drinking song ‘Ein Prozet’ were ‘gemutlichkeit’, though we ended up mumbling it just the same.
The rest of the night blurred into a haze of colour and sounds: clinking glass, green vests, boisterous laughter, brass horns, wide smiles and copper-coloured lager. Last call came quickly, and we were soon outside the beer tent again. Our eyes adjusted to the blinking fair rides. The aroma of roasted nuts, candyfloss, and musty beer filled our nostrils as we staggered our way back to the hostel. Our first night had passed at Oktoberfest and our stein-carrying hands were grooved with temporary bruises between the thumb and forefinger – a common symptom, so I’m told. The next day would repeat like a better version of Ground Hog day – a different day, a different beer tent.
We left for Berlin soon after, our clothes coated with dirt and beer stains, our ears echoing with the phantom lyrics of 'Ein Prozet'. And to this day, ‘New York, New York’ has a whole new meaning. A few tips for future Oktoberfest visits: Bring nothing of value; wear your grubbiest clothes; and, most importantly, bring a map and address of where you’re staying, because it is a long journey home after the last stein is poured - even if you only live five minutes away.
© Amber Turnau May 2006
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