There are some things that you hear about and just have to experience yourself — once, at least, if your curiosity leans that way. I think if we were to play a word-association game, most people would come up with Oktoberfest or Beer festival (or die Wiesn, if you’re German, Germanophile or Germanophone), if Munich was tossed at them. Not necessarily the other way around though. When I told a friend I was going to the Oktoberfest, she asked, “Bangalore?” Case of imitation and sincere flattery, I gather. There are other Oktoberfests from Bali to Canada...but there’s obviously the first and real thing.
A motley bunch of us (the roll call went India, China, Hong Kong, Korea, South Africa, America), all new to the phenomenon, were to visit it for the first time, courtesy Munich Airport (reserved tables at the Hippodrom tent) on Day 2 of the festival. Speculation about what to expect began earlier, fuelled by the Korean journalist’s cryptic revelation that a website report on the opening day had mentioned horseshit, broken heads and topless women. All this is easily explained. As per tradition, the first keg of beer is rolled in on a horse-driven cart to the Schottenhamel tent and the celebrations declared open by the Lord Mayor. And horses will, of course, do their business as horses do, men will brawl as men do after immoderate amounts of beer that don’t come in quantities of less than tankards of a litre (eine Maß), and women, no less traditional, will toss away their brassieres — well no, actually that’s not a traditional custom. A friend, born and bred in Munich, who has been going to the fest since he donned his first pair of lederhosen says that this principally happens in the Hofbräu-Festzelt tent, hugely popular with the American and Australian tourists, where a bulbous-nosed music conductor mascot, Alois, is hung from the ceiling. The same friend (I should introduce him now, since much of my education on the fest was ‘what Frieder said’) tells me that on certain nights, Alois has to be brought down and unburdened before he collapses ignominiously, laden with a hefty, colourful collection of brassier.
It all really began 199 years ago when King Ludwig I and Therese of Bavaria married in 1810 (this has to be the longest celebrated wedding ever, for a couple who have long since gone over to the other side!) but while the first celebration was a (grand) horse race, subsequent celebrations mutated into the Oktoberfest as we know it now or as I know it now (the 176th in 2009)... If you are one of the yearly six million and a half (give or take) who has done the Oktoberfest in the last century and a half, you don’t need any further telling — you have your own story to tell.
It would be easy to reduce Oktoberfest to just mere drunken revelry... It is that too, but aside from a few brawling or excessive sods, it’s a giant party, full of gaiety, abandon and camaraderie, where a large number of German (and often, other visiting nationals) men don their lederhosen (leather pants) and hats, and the ladies their dirndls (gaily coloured full-skirted pinafores over frilly bodices), and let their hair down. Mind you, this tradition of letting your hair down is taken seriously by the people of the land. In keeping with good health and propriety notions, the local government tried to impose a ban on smoking in the tents this year. The government fell.
Since the focus of the festival tends to be on the vast quantities of beer consumed in the beer tents, one tends to neglect to mention that the event also draws large numbers of responsible citizenry of all ages — the Theresienwiese grounds are open from about 10:30 in the morning, and besides the large giant wheel, they have all manner of heart-stopping rides, horror shows, shoot-and-win-your-sweetheart-a-teddy challenges, shops replete with Oktoberfest memorabilia, candy, food...just about everything you would expect or want at a fair.
Ah, the food... for one cannot live on beer alone (unless you listen to my friend Frieder, who insists that since it was first brewed by the monks with all the elements that go into bread, it is merely a liquid substitute for...). Besides the various stall offerings, which obviously include dizzying varieties of local sausages, the tents are a hand-holding affair between a brewery and a gastronomic restaurant of note, so you can be assured that the fare will not be mean, and they often have their own famed specialities — succulent varieties of ox preparations at the Ochsenbraterai, weisswurst veal sausages at the Sieber Wurstbraterei, grilled fish at Fischer-Vroni...and then, there is the standard Oktoberfest fare in every tent including roast pork and chicken, pork knuckles, bread pretzels and potato knödel (dumplings), red and yellow cabbage and the spicy Obatzda Bavarian cheese.
Each tent also has a large and loud (though not as loud as the crowd) live band, churning out popular numbers as the crowds sing along, and frequently lead the anthem of the Oktoberfest, whereupon just about everyone clambers on to their wooden benches, and sings along — if you want to go prepared, here are the words in Bavarian (you’ll catch on to the tune): Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, Der Gemütlichkeit, Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, Der Gemütlichkeit, Oans, zwoa, drei, G’suffa! No mystery about the words; a toast to a moment of well-being, one, two, three, down the hatch... Rules of the game — you comply.
I am easily impressed at the capacity of regulars at the fest who I met there — not only do they go often (most evenings over a fortnight), they stay the distance till the tent of choice shuts down, they move around sometimes to join different friends in different tents, and they put it away. And however much you might scoff, seriously, 6 to 14 litres of beer in a row and still standing? Well, maybe reeling, but still back the day after for more? And singing at the top of your voice, regularly jumping up on to and down off the bench, and hoisting that large, heavy glass to one’s mouth, or for a toast — this is not activity for lightweights. Our hosts at the Hippodrom tent kindly advise us on how to cheat — order an alcohol-free beer on the first round — nobody can see the difference. This is sensible advice only on account of the alcohol levels — it’s still a tankard of heavy liquid golden grain. But it’s the numbers that count if you want to preen. However, bravado and a desire to brag can lay low stalwarts on these grounds.
A central aspect of this giant party feeling is that you have complete licence to enter into conversations with perfect strangers — and indeed must — it is standard expectation to engage in dialogue with people you’re huddling against on a packed table, with barely elbow room enough to lift your glass! There is no expectation that the conversation will have to be informed or scintillating. There is a good likelihood, depending on the hour and length of time that you’ve been there, that it’ll be anything but informed, but it could still seem scintillating. You may not make friends for life but you’ll probably say, “See you next year, same time, same place...”
I asked several regulars what took them (or not) to the festival. Some of the locals came because it was just an extremely good excuse to — well, to not put too fine a point on it — get wasted. Others, because it provided the perfect opportunity to get together with a large number of friends, or run into old, forgotten ones. Some male out-of-towners I met schlep it across the country, leaving behind their wives and children. Male bonding time.Though one friend insisted he had known the other since kindergarten, while his friend insisted it was high school — the stuff scintillating conversations are made of. It matters little. They’ve been coming together for the last 15 years. Another told me that his wife refused to accompany him these many years, but had expressed a sudden interest after newspapers reported that Bayern Munich footballer, Luca Toni, had been spotted carousing at the event.The ‘not’ gave standard replies — too many drunk, noisy people in a messy place. One dastardly act of a bomb about two decades ago also means that in efficient, clean Germany, there are no dustbins on the fair grounds
Buoyed by my sterling performance — I outlasted the other nationalities in the group — and survival of my first visit, I do a second visit, trailing behind my friend, the expert, Frieder, who gives me completely unverifiable myths, legends, local lore and gossip before we squeeze ourselves (there are good reasons for reserving a table!) on to a bench in Frieder’s preferred watering hole — the Augustiner-Festhalle tent — preferred, because he’s a stickler about his brew. They still serve their local weißbier from traditional wooden kegs rather than stainless steel vats.
We clink glasses and start conversing with the couple sitting beside us, as one does. He works in communications, she in a software company. They have six children at home (she is mother to all six, he to the last two) between the ages of 2 and 13, the eldest babysitting the others as the couple take their annual break at the fest. The conversation takes a bizarre turn to sun signs and we discover that she and I, across continents and time zones, share exactly the same birthday, down to the year. What are the chances of that — that we would be sitting next to each other — in a place with a footfall of 80,000 to 100,000 a day!
Frieder and I have a nightcap Maß at the smaller but trendier, snootier Weinzelt, which unlike the others that shut by 11:30pm, is open till 1am, before we walk or weave home, thankfully a short distance away. It is highly advisable to stay within walking distance of the fest, if you intend to be making merry. Outside the grounds is the real world once again. This is a city where you can easily get arrested for driving drunk — even on a cycle!