Okay, I’ve been there. Done that. Here’s the picture that proves it. Now, where’s the real Germany?
I don’t know when I turned into such a cantankerous, old, anti-social SOB, but huge numbers of drunken revelers bumping into me and spilling beer on my coat is not really my idea of a good time. Maybe thirty years ago it would have had its appeal, but if this is what I want now, I can go to a football game in the US, where I can at least watch the cheer leaders when I get bored. Although, I’ll admit, there were some nice looking women at Oktoberfest, but I would have thought there were more scenic places in Germany to get groped.
|Oktoberfest Our reporter and his son, each with a maß of beer, in an outdoor beer garden on the last weekend of Oktoberfest. I guess we could have chosen a less crowded day to come, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference. Too many people, too much beer, too high prices, too few toilets and too little sunshine. There are days when I think I am getting too old. But I am keeping a list of things I am going to do the next time I come to Munich, and Oktoberfest isn’t on it.|
Probably the only experience in my travels I have enjoyed less was standing (there are no seats) on the Reading side of a soccer match in England, having beer and the F-word hurled past me in the direction of the home team for well over three hours one Sunday afternoon. (God only knows what they were saying to the opponents.) To be charitable, I didn’t hear the F-word once today, and I was drinking with a whole table full of Englishmen. So, in that sense, Oktoberfest is more like a gentle drunk, not one so tightly hinged you have to watch him every second for fear he’s going to whip out a knife and come after you.
This spirit of “fun” at Oktoberfest may explain the lack of obvious security. I only saw them once, four big burly guys with shaved heads and black uniforms who came over to inquire about one of our table companions who had not moved for some number of minutes (no one was counting). The woman perked up enough when they tapped her on the head to mumble “Ein bier, bitte,” so they left her alone and went elsewhere. Apparently, they only throw you out if you are fighting, harassing women (I’d be curious to know their definition of this!), or too far gone to reach for your wallet.
|Pretzels Better have something to eat if you are on your way to Oktoberfest. Here Brian and his friend, Jeff, stock up from a sidewalk vendor. Eating one of these big boys pretty much maxes out the whole Adkins carbohydrate allowance for the year, but they taste so darn good!|
Think Denver Broncos football, the State Fair, and an REM concert all happening at Mile High Stadium simultaneously, but without any parking, and you will have a fair idea of what is going on in Munich. There are carnival rides, food booths, a 100-year-old strong-man machine where you hit the lever with a mallet and try to ring the bell (no one did while I was watching), and huge beer tents that seat 5000-6000 people each. The tents are surrounded by outdoor beer gardens to handle the overflow crowds from the tents.
The only attraction to the tents (apparently, since we didn’t even get close enough to the tents I could peek inside) is that you have a band playing and you get to breathe a year’s worth of carcinogens in one sitting. I guess everyone stands on the table benches and dances, or--really--just sways to the music, since there is little room to dance. I think I get the idea from just being in the outdoor beer garden, but I’m told that after a maß or two the inside atmosphere becomes especially appealing. I’m prepared to accept this on faith.
|Princess Theresa Here it is. If you look closely in the very center of the picture, you will see a statute of Princess Theresa, who started this party 200 hundred years ago by giving away free beer to the peasants when she was married to King Ludwig. These days the beer is a long way from being free. I don’t know how much money is spent at Oktoberfest, but it is no surprise to me Germans enjoy free health care from the State.|
To handle this huge crowd, there is one portable toilet that allows perhaps 10 people to use it at a time, back there about a half mile from where you are currently crossing your legs and hoping no one orders more beer for your table. Most people (men, in my experience) risk the 40 Euro fine (which seems sensible to me) and just walk over to the grassy area near the fence, where the drunks have passed out, and let loose. So, to add to the festive atmosphere, you have the acrid scent of urine wafting in and out of the more appetizing smells of baked chicken and pretzels. (If they were going to enforce the fine, they would need a police force roughly the size of Poland’s current population, and there is some question about whether you could even fit that number of extra people on these grounds.)
|Coming Through! The pretzel man makes his way though the crowd with shouts of “Outta my way!” and “Coming through!” You have to realize everyone is drunk. No one is going to move for you. Get used to it! So the pretzel men, as well as the waiters and waitress bringing drinks, shout a lot, but nobody moves, so they just push on through. If you find yourself in the way of the drink guy, you get about a gallon of beer sloshed on your jacket and shoes. A foreigner, say, who didn’t realize drinks could be priced so exorbitantly high and who came unprepared (they don’t take American Express here!), could almost get free drinks just by following one of the drink guys around with an empty glass and catching the spill-over.|
The rule in the beer halls and gardens is you have to be sitting to drink a beer, but it has been relaxed today to allow for the overflow crowds. The amended rule is you have to be sitting to order, but once you get your beer you can do whatever you please, including walk around the fairgrounds with your mug, apparently. We sweet-talk a nice lady into standing for a minute while one of us sits and orders. Brian tells me the beer at Oktoberfest is specially brewed to have less fermentation (so you can drink more of it) and a higher alcohol content (so you can pass out faster). This is a sadistic touch I hadn’t really anticipated from the monks of Munich, although having married a Catholic woman I can see the imprimatur of the Church all over it. And even though this edict appears at first to contradict economic theory, I guess the faster you can shovel them out, the faster you can get the next penitent in his seat. There seems to be no lack of volunteers choosing this version of purgatory as punishment for past sins.
|A Puny Load Look out! Here comes the drink guy! But this weakling only has about half a load. I’ve seen the drinks piled up two mugs high, perhaps 10 or 12 in each load. And they are heavy! I have to use two hands to drink mine, at least until I get it down a little ways. (I’m blaming my bum elbow when people point out how lame my drinking technique is.)|
The thing about drunks is that while some of them can be totally obnoxious, others can be hilariously funny. To some extent this depends on how much beer you have consumed, of course, but it’s true there are genuinely funny people, too. There are more funny people at Oktoberfest than obnoxious ones, and it is fun to watch and listen to them carry on. (Of course, I voice this from the perspective of someone who is not passed out over in the grassy area near the fence. I’m not sure what those guys are going to think when they wake up, but they probably won’t share my charitable view of humanity.) My point is that you seldom lack for something or someone to look at.
|Elvis Shows Up Elvis suddenly showed up behind me! There were about five or six of these chaps, all wearing wigs and fake moustaches. I don’t know why I thought this was particularly funny (although there wasn’t much beer left in my mug at the time), but I did. I kept trying to figure out why anyone would wear a disguise to Oktoberfest. The more I thought about it, the more I could see its practical value. You could go up to a vendor and order sausage, for example, with impunity.|
We didn’t stay too long. For one thing, we never did find a place to sit down, so we were standing the entire time. But after one beer and a giant pretzel, I had seen about as much of Oktoberfest as I needed to, I think. I’ll be able to tell the eventual grand kids and the casual friends I have currently in Fort Collins I was there. I’ll make it sound more raucous and rowdy than it was, of course, because that’s what storytellers do. But for now, I’ll just get on with exploring the parts of Germany that seem more important and worthwhile to me. Or at least I will as soon as I can see straight again. How much beer was that, anyway!?
|Oktoberfest Celebration A waitress takes a short break with her appreciative customers. Girls, beer, and bread. I guess that’s reason enough for a celebration. But if I come back to Munich in the future, I’m going to make sure I spend the last two weeks of September somewhere far up in the Alps, listening to a German quartet play the Bach sonatas.|
Copyright © 2006 David W. Fanning
Last Updated 11 January 2006