Thursday, November 23, 2006

I'm Brewed Best at Oktoberfest

I left for Munich September 24th, because contrary to popular belief, Oktoberfest actually is celebrated the last two weeks of September.

The festival started hundreds of years ago, when a Bavarian king decided to throw a big party for his daughter’s wedding. It needed to be the biggest party imaginable, so the king demanded that everyone MUST party VERY HARD as part of the celebration. No wonder why this tradition has been carrying on for centuries, right?

On weekends, fest fanatics line up at beer tent entrances around eight in the morning. When the tents finally open two hours later there is a giant free-for-all rush to the benches. People leap over chairs like show jumping horses, slide across tables like they were waxed car hoods; it's a complete head to head, neck to neck, elbow to face battle for the perfect spot. It seems ridiculous -- the bier tents can fit up to 10,000 people, and there are 11 tents.

With this vision in mind, Verena and her friend Astrid insisted we be at the tents by 9:30 (Verena is a friend of mine from Austria, more than friends since we had spent the last eight months being roommates in Amsterdam.). Even though it was Tuesday morning with dismal weather and rain, I agreed. Even though I read weekdays at Oktoberfest did NOT mean hoards of people stampeding to and through tents, I agreed. Even though everyone in my hostel room, which was about ten, thought I was nuts and typically "American" for getting up at nine to drink beer, I agreed.

No one was there when we arrived at Oktoberfest, except for the employees. The place was peaceful, like a calm before the storm, and I was thankful for the opportunity to have this festival of chaos all to myself for a moment. Oktoberfest is an actual fair, well-equipped with rollercoaster rides, fun houses, carousels, horse rides, souvenir booths and food stands. Lots of food stands. Food stands with brats, currywursts, whole chickens, fish sandwiches, fish on massive skewers, pomme frites, schnitzel, sugared almonds and nuts, ice cream, big ginger heart-shaped cookies to wear around the neck, human-size pretzels and more.

Verena had a friend who was working one of the tents as a beer server, so we spent some time with her before getting our drink on. Inside, beer tents don't have much of a "tent" feeling. In fact, it takes about 8 weeks to set up and another 12 to tear down these mammoth constructions. There are hundreds of tables and benches lined beside each other, and a balcony in the back reserved for classy friends and families. In the middle of all the tables is a platform on stilts, a floating island that produces oompa music all evening. There are full kitchens that take up an entire side of the tent, and four different corners that pour beer in steins. The floors are wood paneling as well as the walls, the roof has giant colorful sheets that drape down from above. It's much more than a beer tent; it's an elaborate beer hall for the king's daughter's wedding. Right!?

As a beer server you have to be two things: a female, and a female with Wonderwoman biceps. As you probably already know, there is only one stein size to drink from and that's a liter. The women that serve try to lug up to six full liter steins in each hand (After hearing this, I told Verena's friend to flex so I could feel her guns. Impressive!). The shifts are usually 10 to 12 hours -- a nonstop, on your feet fiasco of rushing back and forth to deliver hundreds of beers to thousands of drunk Germans. Not your thing? For 3,000 euros a week, the latter is easy to overlook.

By 11a.m., Verena, Astrid and I sat down for our first round of beers. We had a prime spot -- right below the music stand. The beer tent was still very empty, a sea of vacant beer benches just waiting to be covered in sticky booze and brats. We belted a hearty "Prost!", held our liters of beer with our right hands, looked at each other straight in the eyes and took a drink of our first of many fine Bavarian beers. The southern part of Germany is known for their weissbier, or wheat beer. Yet Oktoberfest doesn't serve liters of weissbier, each brewery involved in the festival serves a special autumn dark and flavorful pilsner. There is no beer menu; it's either a liter of special beer from the brewery or special beer mixed with sparkling lemonade for the weak ones. My friends and I were not weak ones.

The rest of the trip is really blurry for me. Hah, no just kidding. The important thing when drinking beer at Oktoberfest with thousands of Germans is to pace yourself. For every liter you drink, eat a human-size pretzel or mouth-watering bratwurst. The whole time I was there, never did I see people being dragged out, passed out or flipping out at others. Everyone is friends with everyone and happy to be singing lame German oompa songs while dancing on the benches. Every night, that's how it ended -- people dancing on the benches. It was a group thing, too, usually happened around 5p.m. When one person stands, everyone in the entire beer tent will stand. When one person sings a prosting song, everyone in the entire beer tent will sing a prosting song. Those oompa players on the floating island brought the term "crowd control" to a new level.

Apparently, this festival is one of the few times where Bavarians can wear traditional clothes. By this I mean leather trousers that end at the calves and are held by suspenders for men, called leiderhozens; or dresses with lace underneath that puff out at the bottom and give women breast boosts, called dirndls. Both outfits can cost up to thousands of euros, and are worn on rare occasions only. The rest of Germany considers these outfits to be ridiculous and old-fashioned. I, however, though they were great and snagged the cheapest dirndl I could find.

In total, five of us survived three full days at Oktoberfest. At one point, my friend from Denmark turned to me as said, "I may have a SLIGHT drinking problem..." I thre in a "Whatever happens in Munich stays in Munich," and then mumbled something about two weeks of healthy food and no beer might be a good idea.

Towards the end, Rikke would tell me, "Everything stay in Munich except for last night when you turned to me in your dirty dirndl after dancing to that stupid Robbie Williams song with some old grandpa pinching your ass as you yelled 'I LOVE BEEEERRR!', right?"

"No," I groaned as I waited endlessly for my plane back to Amsterdam, "That should probably stay in Munich, too."

The one truly listening was my body -- my stomach gurgled, brain sloshed and eyed bled a unison "Yes it should.....SOS.....SOS....SOS!"

Audrey "Stein Me" Sykes

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