The first time I walked through Oktoberfest (or The Wiesn)
I was a bit drunk before I arrived. Vaguely jet lagged, and tipsy enough that all I did was gawp. Walk and gawp. And I had very little understanding of what I was seeing or what I should have been doing.
The second time was just after noon on the first Sunday of the fest this year. It was crowded with families and everyone was checking out the rides. I was with Johanna and so I could do the awful thing that is so easy to do in this multi-cultural situation: I asked her questions like she was the spokesperson for the culture.
I learned the beer is pretty hard to come by on the Wiesn unless you are in one of the massive tents. I learned there are rides here that are traditions, and have been for nearly 100 years.
The trip after that, we definitely found the beer. Octoberfest beers are brewed to be especially strong, and you can only order in liters, so, for me, one liter isn’t enough, and a second is feeling pretty good. I have to really pace myself. One of my roommates claims to have had 6 Maß in a single evening at Oktoberfest. However, as far as I can tell he is still alive, and going to his job, so I am dubious. It was my fist time on the floor in the middle of a tent and all I could do was stare at the people, and watch the weirdness going on around me. There’s lots of men trying to dance with women. I’ve seen it be welcome as many times as I’ve seen the girls slip carefully away, avoiding the clutches of a drunk dude. One of the girls in the group I was with made out with 3 different guys in about 2 hours. Despite all this it was a weekday and relatively tame. I was still amazed how civil it really is.
The next time I walked through the Wiesn it was 8 in the morning, gray, rainy and dour. No one was there but people who were cleaning up from last night and preparing for the following day. This was maybe my favorite way to walk around the rides. Everything was quiet and spacious and there were a few roasted nut (gebrannte Mandeln) stands open. Trying to get a jump on their inventory for the evening, I guess.
Finally, I visited on a Saturday. Fully bananas. I was with Johanna again, and we were meeting her friends in a tent, and there we reports that the tent was closed except for one side entrance. Once around the side there was a small group of people trying to get in. Security guards held a rope and would only let in people as others would come out. A reasonable system. Except some people were already fully smashed and were jumping the line and running for it trying to get in. Most of the time the security guards caught them and threw them back into crowd. I hoped to get a good behavior reward and I stood there quietly waiting to be called. All that happened is that I was ignored. Kellnerin (waitresses) would come over and select groups based on size to lead to open tables, but eventually, somehow they determined the tent wasn’t full any more and the rope was dropped. We all rushed forward.
I thought we were getting in, but we were actually only getting access to the Biergarten outside the tent. There was an entirely different holding area to get in the tent proper. We smashed into this cattle chute with everyone else. A crazy mix of languages was buzzing through this new crowd. We waited, pushing against locked doors, everyone desperate for a beer, I guess. For a moment a security guard had to go and deal with a profoundly drunk person, and then another drunk person inside the tent saw our thirsty faces through the glass. He stumbled over and let us in before anyone knew what was going on. Probably 50 people flooded into the incredibly crowded tent.
What had been a weird Petri Dish on a Tuesday was now a chaotic test bed of human extremes. Just in my way to the table I saw people with bleeding hands from crashing their glasses together with too much enthusiasm. I saw this at least 3 times. I saw people standing there, vacant eyes, looking like either tears our vomit would come up soon. I pushed through a block of people and found an open area, a small space had been cleared on the floor because a guy had pulled his pants and underwear down and was standing there yelling in a heavy British accent. He was insisting one of his friend should touch his penis. He was pointing forcefully at his crotch which was covered by his fanny pack. Pretty cool, dude.
We got to our table, safe enough, and from there is was an experience more in line with what I had on Tuesday. Same songs, same beer, same drinking. It’s like there was a little pocket of madness and we walked through the middle of it.
Sadly still under the weather at that trip, I retreated around 10:30.
Now that is all my personal perspective from this Oktoberfest, from what it’s worth. However, it’s much more than these little snap shots and thing descriptions, and it’s genuinely hard to describe. It’s so big and so multi-faceted. I was talking with a Bavarian recently, and she said one of the problems is that Oktoberfest for Germany is a “volksfest” a festival for the people, but internationally its referred to as a “beerfest” which it most definitely is not. There are special beer brewed by each brewery, but the main purpose of the original Oktoberfest was to celebrate a wedding, and now what it should be is celebrating Bavarian culture.
Of course this is hard to defend in one of the bigger Fest Tents as a band relentlessly tears through “YMCA” while Europeans dance in the cheapest Lederhosen they can find. There are rumors of more traditional tents, and I hope to get some time in one soon. I’m not really “on the make” in a fest tent, so I think it’s keeps me from really getting into the full swing of the Oktoberfest tent. A local told me the best way to meet the worst people is on the floor at the Fest Tent.
Now outside the tents there are the games, rides and snack stands. In inebriated hazes I’ve purchased fries, a Kasestangerl (basically a stick of break and cheese) and a half meter long Bratwurst that I gleefully shared. There’s half roasted chickens on offer, and lots and lots of smoked fish, which I keep hearing is delicious but smells terrible. I’m going to wait to share one with someone who is enthusiastic, so I can better understand this thing. In addition to snacks there are smaller beer gardens and little stands to drink a glass of wine at, but if you’re looking for a big liter of Oktoberfest beer you have to be in the shit.
And the rides, there are no shortage of usual suspects, a lot of wonderfully unlicensed character usage, but best of all huge strange things that in no way make their contents clear. There’s Encounter which looks a bit like the alien’s liar from Aliens but there’s full size mannequins of Capt Picard and other Sci-Fi characters arranged around the 2 story facade. Inside is some kind of show that happens “primarily in your mind” according to the sign out front. There’s fun houses, and giant slides you go down in a sack. No Tunnel of Love, which is funny, I’ve never seen one, and now I feel like I should, once in my life ride a tunnel of love solo.
I suppose the replacement for the Tunnel of Love is the Geisterbahn or Ghost Train. There’s about 5 of these spread around The Wiesn, and each one is terrible in it’s own way. The Shocker has Inferno Rooms, and a Geist Klo (Ghost Toilet) out front. Daemonium is the worlds largest Geisterbahn, 3 stories tall, and 7 dollars a ride. I made the mistake of visiting the website for Daemonium, and it looks as lame on the inside as any other Ghost Train. Someday I want to find one of these that attempts an actual coherent story. What is the reason we’re being terrorized so?
However, my white whale for this years Oktoberfest was something I saw way back on that first trip, and have wondered about ever since. Die Fahrt Zur Hohle (The Journey to Hell) is a geisterbahn that pretends to have a unifying theme. So I did take a ride on it, and it was, on the inside, just like every other Ghost train, lights that suddenly flash on, scenes that are suppose to unsettle. Elements that are supposed to get a frightened companion to leap into your arms. I joked that I’d had more “angst mit Ein Fahrt zur Toilette.” I think this was another attempt at a joke in German that didn’t fly, but I liked it.
At the permitter of Oktoberfest there are loads of people drinking, having a quick bottle of lager before they go in, but you can’t bring bottles onto The Wiesn, so it’s become a structured system where the empties are collected around garbage cans, placed carefully on the ground, and poor folks come by and collect them to get the 15 cent deposit from each bottle. It is a miniature economy, that exists out at the Isar river as well, where drinkers happily hand their bottles over to folks who will take the time to return them.
I suppose I’ll stop here, because it’s as good a place as any to. Oktoberfest is too big for me to really cover, and especially since I want to see it in a positive light, while all the locals I know sort of roll their eyes. I’ve heard very good things about the many nearby fests that go unnoticed by tourists, and I look forward to enjoying them, but I know for sure, none of them will be able to match the massive madness of Oktoberfest.