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Survivor: Oktoberfest, episode 3 (the final one)

While the Oktoberfest dust has finally settled (although the fest complex is still under deconstruction), I still feel compelled to finish this trilogy. In this episode, I will recant bits of my experience inside the beer tents…where the party really happens.

Munich’s six major breweries host fourteen beer tents. They may call them “tents,” but tents they are not. Most of the de-constructable wooden structures are made to look like centuries-old Alpine chalets (their appearances belie how quickly they were constructed), and some look more like sports arenas. Regardless, all are huge with capacities in the thousands. Here’s a handy guide to the tents.

Beer tent example. Image by DerHexer, Wikimedia Commons

The construction for this beer village began (from what I can recall) back in July (though it might have been June). It was fascinating to watch the village grow and evolve over those months. Each time I passed by Theresienwiese, something new had popped up–a roller coaster here, a beer tent there. I am sure a photo time lapse of the Wiesn’s construction exists somewhere out there, but I am too lazy to look for one.

If the walls of the tents could talk, I can only imagine the tomes of stories they could tell.

I ended up going to Oktoberfest four times over its 16 days, and I got to experience the three different faces of its party: morning, afternoon, and night.

I will say the morning, perhaps the more authentic of the experiences, was my favorite. The crowd was much sparser and more civilized. Most “early” morning festers go to eat the traditional Bavarian breakfast: Weisswurst, Breze, und Bier (white sausages, pretzel, and beer). I appreciated how accepted it was to drink a liter of beer before noon.

A tamer time inside a beer tent. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The rowdiness starts to rise with the afternoon shift. Then, each tent’s band begins their long day of playing their shared repertoire of Bavarian oompapa, traditional Oktoberfest tunes, and pop songs you typically hear either on the dance floor at American weddings or on 80s and 90s radio stations. Needless to say, the music gets better the more you drink.

The afternoon is also when the crowds begin to really pour in. Since you are only guaranteed a seat if you have a ticket (which you or your company must have purchased months in advance), it can be a struggle to either nab a table or get in the door. On the busiest days, mobs of people have to wait their turn outside to join the fun inside. I have heard if you are female and are wearing a “well-fitting” Dirndl, it is much easier to convince the bouncers to let you in. Typical.

Inside, the beer flows freely, dissolving inhibitions and lubricating singing voices. As more beer flows, people begin standing (sometimes precariously) on the benches–sitting becomes a silly idea, not that you would really want to sit on the (by then) beer drenched and muddied benches anyway. By the night shift, many of the tents become a joyous riot.

A rowdier moment inside a tent. Image by Diego Delso, Wikimedia Commons.

On the only night I experienced the late shift, my friends and I entered our first tent completely sober, and it was quite a shock to witness the tent’s contents in a clear state of mind. The air was heavy with body heat. The mass of people made it nearly impossible to move. People were dancing in the isles and attempting to dance on the benches, all the while singing at the top of their lungs. Fortunately it didn’t take us too long to find empty benches, although our waiter herded us quite gruffly onto them–it was clear he knew how to handle drunk people, but was probably sick of it.

As I sipped my first Mass, I couldn’t help but just stare in (somewhat troubled) awe at the spectacle of humanity around me. Really, I don’t think I quite have the words to describe it accurately. A fight nearly broke out at a table near us, and all I could think was what a chaotic mess that could cause (fortunately the fight fizzled quickly). At the table behind us, a poor inebriated soul sat with his head on the table, sleeping, while his buddies all danced and sang around him. I tried to drown my rising concern for human dignity with my beer.

But by the second tent and second Mass, the night became much more fun. Suddenly the songs became much more enjoyable, it was way funnier to watch the stupidly drunk people do their stupidly drunk things, and it really did seem silly to be sitting on the bench when you could be standing and singing with everyone else.

So, in the end, I survived Oktoberfest. And it really was as they said: you can’t survive, or enjoy, Oktoberfest without drinking beer. Well, I can check that one off my bucket list. “Ein Prosit” to that.

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Surivor: Oktoberfest, episode 2

The Wiesn outside the beer tents is quite a spectacle. Curiosity led me to take a stroll (sober) around it on one of Oktoberfest’s traditionally busiest days (the second Saturday) to get a better big-picture view of the event. Drizzle dampened the day, but certainly not the fest-goers spirits. By the time I had arrived, around 1pm, the drunken revelry was ripe.

I think when King Ludwig I first declared Oktoberfest, he had no idea what it would become. While it began as a party to  celebrate his marriage to Princess Therese and thereafter evolved into an annual fest around a horse race, the end of the race tradition in 1960 catapulted the event into the display of commercialism and debauchery it is today.

Oktoberfest circa 1900 looked quite innocent.

Oktoberfest now is really just a huge carnival that can easily overload your senses. It’s not only its highly alcoholic beer that can make you dizzy, but so could its flashy carnival rides with names such as Top Spin, Techno Power, and Flip Fly. Blaring music accompanies and keeps tempo with each ride; e.g., “Will you be my girl” was the tune for an older, more traditional ride involving swinging pirate ships, while techno music powered the nerves of those on the wilder rides.

A birds-eye view of Oktoberfest now. Image by Mummelgrummel

People’s intoxicated reflexes and aim are tested at carnival games–most of which seemed to be some form of “shoot the [insert object].” Vendors try to lure your gaze with ueber-kitsch–from Lebkuchenherzen (inedible, but colorfully decorated heart-shaped cookies) to Bierkruege (inaccurately called Biersteins by Americans), stuffed Bavarian cows to “I survived Oktoberfest” t-shirts–which I imagine seem more enticing the drunker you are. And the smells of roasted nuts and sausage hang in the air, teasing you into a case of the munchies, whether drunk or sober (the smells coaxed me into buying a chocolate-covered banana, which was unfortunately not as tasty as I’d hoped).

Lebkuchenherzen. But don’t eat them. Image by Rado Bahna

Then there are the random, ad-hoc “side shows” that naturally occur in a crowd of drunk people. I watched one man try to unsuccessfully lug his incredibly intoxicated and rather rotund friend, who was slumped in a stupor on the ground, to his feet. An ambulance parted the crowd, and one jovial chap tried to impress his friends by hitching a ride on the back of it. A constant crowd hovers around a ride that entails burly men pulling fest-goers up a conveyer belt, so they can ride a mat down a large slide. The audience is most amused by the cocky male fest-goers who don’t think they need any help getting on the conveyer belt–more often than not, they really did need the help.

Needless to say, after about 45 minutes, my senses were sufficiently over-loaded and I needed to abandon the Wiesn quickly. Once again, the warnings were right–it’s really only fun if you’re drunk (or under the age of 12 and too captivated by the shininess of your surroundings to care).

In the next, and last, episode of Survivor: Oktoberfest, I describe the experience of the beer tents.

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