Friday, October 12, 2012

Once in a Lifetime Oktoberfest

The magic words:  Munich Oktoberfest!  I’ve been to festivals that call themselves Oktoberfest, but none can rival the real thing.  Why?

In Munich, it’s larger, and lasts longer, than anywhere else.  The Oktoberfest grounds are the “meadow” in the middle of the city, where the first such party was held about 200 years ago by the Crown Prince of Bavaria and his bride so the people of Munich could celebrate their marriage. It lasts just over two weeks.  More than a dozen enormous beer halls are temporarily built on the more than 100 acres of  a former meadow called “Wiesn”, each tent serving one of Munich’s beers along with traditional Bavarian food, and extravagantly decorated.  Each beer hall, and the adjacent grounds within its precinct, can hold from 1,000 to as many as 11,000 people.  Those in the know can reserve tables in advance.  If you’re not in the know, you can usually enter one of the big tents or their grounds if you arrive before 11 am.

On the day we arrived in Munich, we followed the crowds to the Wiesn, just to see what was there.  The carnival portion, which occupies at least as much land area as the beer tents, large and small, is the largest such I have ever seen, and I’ve been to the Sandwich Fair in New Hampshire!  At night the lights of the rides and booths selling food and junk were dazzling.  We quickly learned that many of the large beer tents get closed completely to new entrants, both indoors and out.  Some tents still allowed people to enter their outdoor area, and we found seats with a table of nice folks outside the Ochsenbraterei.   Beef was the main dish, and Spaten was the beer served.

Sitting and watching the crowd go by, we were amazed at the sheer numbers of people wearing traditional Bavarian folk costumes (“Trachtl”).  I was reminded of the advice given to me by some nice American young people I’d met earlier in the week:  lederhosen and dirndls are almost mandatory!  This is one of the many things which distinguish the Munich festival from its imitators:  it celebrates the folk heritage of Bavaria.  The beer, the music, the food, and the clothing are all integral parts of this heritage.

At our table that first night, we met half a dozen twenty or thirty-somethings, all either originally or currently from Munich, who would never consider missing Oktoberfest.  They kindly spoke English with us, advised us what to eat, and answered all our probing questions about the event and their country.  We stayed long enough to finish a “Mass” (the one-liter mug of Oktoberfest beer), which when properly sipped can last a couple of hours.  (If you drink it much faster than that, you’re likelier to become a “beer corpse” because the alcohol content is higher than that of regular beer.) 

When we returned the next day, we’d stopped at one of the dozens of temporary “Trachtl” shops opened in every niche between downtown Munich and the Wiesn, and bought a dirndl for me.  Instantly, I looked like a native, and not just because of my Bavarian ancestry!  We consequently arrived at the Wiesn later than we’d intended, and the first few beer tents we came to were already closed to new entrants.  When we came to the tent called “Kafers Wiesn Schanke”, the guards assured us it was closed, but then turned their backs to us.  A few people strode confidently past us into the Kafers’ grounds, and we followed.  We stayed there for the next ten hours.

At first, after realizing that even the outdoor tables were packed full, we stood and perched against railings, just watching the crowd.  After a while we realized that some waitresses were tasked with serving the people standing where we stood, and got hold of a Mass of Paulaner Oktoberfestbier each.  With that in our hands, we fit right in.  Nearby tables of people got used to our presence, and included us in their toasts.  Just when standing was really getting old, seats became open at an adjacent table, and we sat down there as fast as we could. As the hours passed, we found seats in different parts of the Kafers’ outdoor tables, made friends and talked for a long time, and then moved along, making yet more new friends in our new location.  In fact, everywhere we went, people were very friendly to us, introduced us to their friends, and made us feel welcome.

We enjoyed people watching as much as interacting with them.  For one thing, the festive clothing was endlessly interesting.  The only identical dirndls I saw were worn by employees as a uniform.  Otherwise, the range of dirndls was just amazing.  Cottons and brocades, modest and skimpy, old and new, each one pretty in itself and becoming to its wearer.  Menswear was, while oriented around lederhosen, also widely varied:  gingham or homespun cotton shirts, different lengths of pants, sweaters of dark wools, vests of printed velvets, and tailored collarless wool jackets along with thick knitted knee socks made each guy look a little different.  The overall impression was that everyone had worn their best party clothes to the city’s biggest party.  If I hadn’t been in traditional garb myself, I would have felt out of place, but as it was, I fit right in.

Sure, lots of unpleasant things happen at Oktoberfest, whether in Munich or not: dead-drunkenness, fights, robberies, health incidents…of course.  Still, millions of visitors come every year to enjoy the party with no personal experience of the downsides.  Most attendees in Munich are Germans; the statistics I found, which are over ten years old, are 85% Germans, 15% foreign visitors.  Certainly, Americans love Oktoberfest!  But for Bavarians, it’s the best party of the year, a chance to see and be seen by old friends and new, and to be glad to be Bavarian.  I sometimes think many Americans long for that sort of social identity, that sense of belonging to something persistent over time, as well as that ability to have fun together.  I’m pretty sure we don’t allow ourselves to have real Oktoberfests in the US, possibly because we don’t trust our social fabric to be strong enough to withstand all that fun outside our own homes.   Bavarians know, however, that their social fabric is run through with steel threads.  Time and tradition will do that for you.