Top 50 of 2017
Original Post Date: August 11, 2017
Writer’s note: Given all the recent controversy surrounding Germany, I thought this was the right time to share my experience at Oktoberfest. Enjoy.
When I was a junior in college, I spent the fall semester studying abroad in southern France. Two of my friends were studying in Florence, and because our academic programs were so pathetic, we were able to take 3-day weekends and travel all over the place. We would meet up in Paris, London, Copenhagen, and other cities for a few days of idiocy and sightseeing. But the most absurd weekend we had was in Munich at Oktoberfest.
Oktoberfest is the largest beer festival in the world, held annually in Munich, and sponsored by the biggest breweries in Germany. Each brewery has its own tent capable of seating around 10,000 people, all of whom have the same objective of sending their liver into a coma before noon. The most renowned of these tents is the Hofbrau tent, which is where we decided to post up for most of the weekend. But before I get into that, I need to backtrack a bit.
My dad has a business partner in Germany whose daughter had generously offered us a room in her flat for the weekend. I arrived on Thursday night and spent the evening discussing history and philosophy while drinking tea with our lovely host and her fiancé, presenting an identity that, in short order, would be so violently deconstructed it would make them wonder if they’d ever met me that night. Following our provocative and inspiring discussion salon, I retired to my quarters early, knowing the entire weekend lay ahead of me. Meanwhile, my friends from Florence were taking an overnight bus all the way from Italy, scheduled to arrive at 8AM the next day. Sleep proved elusive because I was so excited to drink in the morning (that’s the mentality of an alcoholic!) but I eventually nodded off, visions of beer-toting, lederhosen-sporting lads and bavarian wenches dancing in my head.
The next morning, I met my pals at the bus stop. They were bleary-eyed and exhausted, but we were 21 and “rallying” was as simple as drinking a redbull from a local convenience store. They dropped their bags off in our little room and splashed some water on their faces before we all hopped into our host’s car. The festival was on our host’s way to work, so she’d offered to drop us off. Now keep in mind– this woman lives a normal life. She was on her way to WORK on the Friday of the last weekend of Oktoberfest. This immensely-polarizing contrast, between her behavior and ours, will come up at numerous points throughout the story.
The three of us descended into the festival around 9:30AM. Due to our early arrival, we had no problem entering the enormous Hofbrau tent. Once inside, the world opened up into one of the greatest party scenes I’ve ever seen. Before us, as far as the eye could see, were row upon row of festival-goers downing massive steins of glowing amber lager; picnic tables full of visitors from Italy, Holland, Spain, Australia, and more, all wearing the colors of their country and singing their native drinking songs; platters of steaming bratwurst, schnitzel, and roasted chickens sending off delicious aromas that quickly blended with the overpowering smell of beer, cigarette smoke, and sweat that permeated every corner of the tent. It was a feast for the senses, and we all looked at each other with massive smiles, knowing we’d found what we’d traveled so many miles to experience.
We were ushered to one of the few remaining tables by one of the hostesses. She was dressed in the traditional Bavarian beer maid outfit: hair in braids and boobs mashed together like two tectonic plates that sent tremors from tip to toe.
We ordered a round of beers and began to acclimate to the raucous scene. It was only 9:30AM, but it was clear that the majority of the tent had established themselves hours prior. Every few minutes, a table would raise their beers in unison and start yelling. This would catch the table next to them, and in short order, the entire tent (all 10,000 people) would be raising their mugs in a toast. It was the world’s largest waterfall, and I couldn’t wait to wrap my mitts around a mug and plunge my nose into its frothy depths.
In short order, the beers arrived. It’s important to take a moment here to explain the metrics of an Oktoberfest beer. First, they come in a stein, which is 33 ounces, and the beers are about 9% ABV— just over twice as strong as your typical Bud Light. In other words, ONE beer at Oktoberfest is roughly equivalent to drinking 6 cans of Bud Light back home. I’d been cautioned about the strength of the beers, but given my surroundings, I was in no mood to tread softly. In our first hour at Oktoberfest, I drank 4 beers, or about 24 Bud lights. I don’t have a particularly high tolerance for alcohol anyway, so things unravelled quickly.
Around 11AM, I stumbled out of the tent into the sunlight. I had lasted exactly one hour. I wandered out of the festival and into the streets of Munich. At some point, I realized I was lost and I sat down against a tree on the median of a busy road. I pulled out my phone and called our host’s number, ignoring the fact that she was at work.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“In the woods.”
“The woods? There are no woods in Munich.”
“There’s only one tree, but it’s definitely a tree.”
“Do you see any street signs?”
“I see a person.”
“Hand him the phone.”
I hand the phone to a homeless man who is standing with a cardboard sign, begging for money from cars stopped at the light. He takes my phone, hangs up, and walks away. He took my phone as a donation. I’m in no shape to protest, so I just sit back down against my tree. As far as I’m concerned, he earned it. The world is a confusing place.
I take stock of my options and try to stand up using the tree behind me as a pole, but quickly slide back down, the bark scraping my back, gently exfoliating my skin. It’s pleasant. I’ll stay put for now.
Some amount of time passes. All of a sudden, a black Volkswagen screeches to a halt in front of me. The driver rolls down the window and, miraculously, it’s our host. How did she find me? She yells at me to get in the car. I crawl over to the back seat, open it, and sprawl out in the back. It turns out that she had called my phone after I handed it to German Jesus, who had picked it up and told her where I was. Despite taking my phone, he saved me. What a lovely man.
When we arrive back home, I throw up in the sink. I then pass out, at noon. What a day!
Meanwhile, the more responsible contingent of our group is having a wonderful time back at the drinking fair. I find out later that they ate a bunch of chickens, went on some rides, drank a bunch of beers, and had a wonderful time until about 7PM, at which point they started to feel a little woozy and came back to base. They are pleased to find me asleep in bed, as they had no idea where I had gone, whether I was alive, or if I’d been recruited into a neo-nazi revival community.
I wake up at 7AM the next morning. Let’s do some math. If I went to sleep at 12PM the previous day and slept until 7AM the next day, that’s 19 straight hours of sleep. 19 hours!! When I woke up, I had no idea where I was or what had happened. All I knew was that I felt more rested than I ever had in my entire life. I felt like a 10-year old again: I wanted English muffins and lucky charms for breakfast; I was ready to tell Abby Attwood I had a crush on her right after lunch; I started thinking about my halloween costume. But then I rolled over and saw my two sweaty, farting friends lying next to me and realized that I wasn’t 10 anymore. I’m 20. And I’m in Germany. And it all starts flooding back. And how do I feel? Fucking fan-tastic! I purged my system before falling asleep for 4,000 rem cycles. I’m ready! Let’s fire up round 2!!
We head upstairs for a few eggs. I offer a sheepish apology to our host, who laughs it off good-naturedly. Perhaps she still feels bad about the wars. She gives me a “told-ya-so” about the strength of the beers and begs me not to throw up in the sink again because she had clean it out with her hands. Ugh. Sorry Angela Merkel, but this dragon cannot control where it breathes fire. We wash down our meal with some water (go figure!) I’m wearing the same pair of jeans and LL Bean campfire moccasins with no socks. At least I have a clean shirt. As we head towards the train station, I notice that this neighborhood is actually quite beautiful. There are small parks every few blocks, and the houses are neat and humble. Everything seems comfortable and purposeful; nothing is out of place. It would be a cool place to live if you were into “doing your part” and “working hard.”
The train system is a marvel of modern technology, a reminder that this country is so disciplined and punctual that they nearly conquered the world twice. We have little trouble finding our way, as there are about a dozen young people wearing the festival garb on the train with us. I study their faces: they look fresh, clean, eager. What a bunch of first-day rookies— they know not what they face. By contrast, we are grizzled veterans, wearing our hard hats and lunch pales with a determined dignity. This isn’t our first day heading into the coal mines; our knuckles are blackened, our hands are raw. We exchange knowing glances, imperceptible nods, small acknowledgments that separate us from the greenies among us. Whatever happened to respect? They should know their place. As the tram descends into the mines below, the dark, pre-dawn sky fades overhead to a small speck. We switch on our headlamps as the earth slowly swallows us whole, day after day, heading to scrape its bowels clean of the mineral death; she, in return, filling our lungs with a poison. It is not the life we chose, but we wear it proudly.
Day 1 vs day 2:
Sorry, I lost myself a bit there. Heading into Saturday, I remember feeling nervous. I was 0-for-1 so far, and it was a BIG zero. Like I had swung at the first pitch, lost control of the bat, and sent it sailing into the stands where it killed Michelle Obama. My first day at Oktoberfest was a national tragedy-level blowup. But everyone deserves a second chance. Batter up!
Saturday morning at Oktoberfest. It’s the last weekend of the 3-day festival, and we’re all leaving Sunday morning. My flight is at 10AM tomorrow morning, which doesn’t register as problematic because it’s 24 hours away. Might as well be a year. More on this later.
We arrive at the tents and dive in to Hofbrau again, but with a slightly more reserved attitude. I was so humbled by the force of Oktoberfest on day 1 that I have no choice but to offer it the respect it deserves. The first drink I order is a shandy, which I nurse for about 2 hours. We were told that the best part of the day is actually the night party at the tents, when everything turns into a massive dance party and people take their clothes off. I wanted to make it to this promised land.
Around 3PM, my friend Doug and I walked outside into the glaring sunlight. It was like the opening scene from Saving Private Ryan. Everywhere you looked, people were keeled over, throwing up, or already covered in their own throwup. So many people incapable of walking. It looked like the tent on the set of “The Walking Dead.” Doug and I walked up this steep hill and sat on a guard rail, overlooking the entire scene. We were both pretty disgusted with humanity from this viewpoint. There was a lot of unsavory behavior happening around us. One dude was fingering a girl twice his size in the grass. There were dead bodies sprawled everywhere. Dead bodies. I looked at Doug and said I’m never coming back to this place. He nodded in agreement.
An hour later we get a text from Max. “WHERE ARE YOU GUYS?! I’M DRINKING! HOFBRAU!” Down the hill we go, clutching our hats, stumbling, leaping over the corpses, over the dude fingering the baker’s daughter, all the while giggling like school girls. We’re back! This is the beauty of traveling with 3 people. All it takes is one to get the other two back on board.
We get back to the tent. It’s a VERY different scene. Remember, I haven’t seen Oktoberfest past noon. This is completely uncharted territory. And it’s worth it. People have leveled out a bit, and it’s no longer the day-drunk sloppishness that we saw outside. The energy has picked up, the band is playing hits like “Sweet Caroline,” 10,000 people are singing along, and we no longer worry about pacing ourselves. Within an hour, we’re here:
My friend Max is wearing a sorting hat, which is telling him he’s a Hufflepuff. Not sure where my shirt went but at least I’m happy.
It’s now about 10PM. Somehow we get wind that the tents close down in an hour, and we are yet to procure the most important souvenir of Oktoberfest: the Hofbrau stein glass. Most people manage to sneak these out under their shirts or in their purses. At this point, I have neither a shirt nor a purse. Doug and I devise a plan. Max is not included because he failed his CTE test. We decide to walk out into the courtyard area of the tent with two mugs, where I’ll toss them over a wall into the street into the waiting arms of Doug. Simple, right?
A few quick things to note: the wall was about 15 feet high. On the other side of the wall was the main walking street of Oktoberfest, which was extremely crowded. The plan was for Doug to walk along the wall until he found the exit, walk out into the street, then come back and stand opposite me on the other side of the wall. We couldn’t see each other, but once he’s in position, I would throw the mugs over the wall to him. He would spot them in the air, get under them, and catch them as though he’s catching a baby falling out of a window.
Reasons we thought it would work:
- We are athletes.
Reasons why the plan was doomed to fail:
- Lack of signal/bird call.
- German police.
Doug sets off. I wait about 3 minutes. Unbeknownst to me, Doug turned the corner into the street and immediately ordered himself a chicken at a stall 300 feet down the wall. I’m telling you, there was chicken everywhere. Consequently, he is nowhere near the landing zone. After a little while, I figure he must be in position. I take the first mug, check my surroundings, and hurl it. It hits the top of the wall and smashes into a glitter of glass shards that land at my feet. Guess I need to get my back and knees involved. I take another look, determined now, and hurl the second mug. It sails over the wall into the abyss beyond. Unfortunately, a police officer sees this entire thing happen. From his vantage point, I’m just hurling mugs over the wall into a crowded street of people because I’m a terrorist. He sprints over to me, astounded.
“What? What are you doing?! Why would you do that?!” he asks, stupefied.
“Don’t worry, my friend is over there. He is catching them. He is athletic. We play catch all the time. Usually with a football or a frisbee. But these mugs are fine too,” I say, grinning. Logic for the win.
Next thing you know, I’m in handcuffs, getting dragged around the tent to the front. I can’t understand why I’m in trouble. He brings me to his superior—a very serious looking fellow. He’s surrounded by other officers and german shepherds, though I doubt they call them german shepherds over there, because that would be redundant. Do they just call them shepherds? Makes you wonder what they call real shepherds.
Anyway. He starts asking me questions.
Officer: “Why were you throwing mugs?”
Me: “We wanted them as souvenirs.”
Officer: “Who were you throwing them to?”
Me: “My friend. He plays sports. Always catching things. Very reliable hands.”
Officer: “Are you German?”
Me: “Haha, no of course not.”
Officer: “You look like us.”
Me: “I know…”
Officer: “Ok, if we see you again, it’s jail.”
Me: “Thank you.”
Major victory for the allied forces. They unlock my handcuffs. I trundle off into the night to find my friends. Heading to the drop zone, I find Doug gnawing on some chicken bones like a doofus. I tell him the story. He doesn’t care, offers me some chicken. What a crazy country!
Max emerges out of nowhere. Can’t walk and he’s soaked. Inexplicably wet. Still wearing the sorting hat. We head up the hill again, wander into some nightclub. The bouncer won’t let Max in because he’s had too many strokes. We circle to the back of the line and we all swap shirts, hoping it will fool the doorman. It doesn’t. We offer him 50 euros, he lets us in. Inside, an 80s cover band is playing the theme song from Baywatch. I start dancing with an English girl. Turns out she’s a doctor. This is good news because we all need medical attention, especially Max. This reminds me that I have no idea where he is. Doug and I look up to see that he has fallen asleep on the stage with the band, using the amplifier as his pillow. He gets carried out by the bouncers. That’s our cue to leave.
The next morning, I wake up at a hotel in the suburbs. My flight is in 2 hours. I run downstairs, hail a cab, rush back to the apartment where we were staying. I grab my bag and rush back to the cab. The airport is an hour outside of Munich and my flight is leaving in exactly an hour. I tell my driver, an older German woman, to fly like the wind. Luckily, her cab is a Benz E320 and we’re on the autobahn, which has no speed limit. She drives, not kidding, 140 MPH to the airport. Most incredible thing I’ve ever experienced. We get there in like 35 minutes. I rush in, run through security, sprint to my plane. It’s another RyanAir flight which means GENERAL ADMISSION seating on the plane. No assigned seats! I make the flight as the doors are closing.
I take the only available seat–last row, in the middle, between two very large black women dressed very well, wearing lots of makeup and perfume. By contrast, I am wearing the same clothes I’ve worn for 3 straight days. I’ve sprinted through the airport and I’m soaked in sweat, chicken juice, beer, cigarette smoke, and god knows what else. Somehow, I pass out. Halfway through our flight, the woman to my left is tapping my shoulder. I wake up in a daze.
“Please sir, you must stop farting. It is very hard to breathe,” she begs.
I look around. Every single person within 5 rows has their nose plugged. Some people are fanning their faces with the emergency pamphlet. Babies are crying. A moment later, the oxygen masks drop. I smell so bad that I’ve affected the cabin pressure. I go to the bathroom and sit on the toilet for the rest of the flight out of shame. To this day, it stands as the worst moment of my life.
That is all. Thanks for sticking with it. I promised myself I’d never go back to Oktoberfest, but after writing this, I think I’m ready to taste that sweet nectar again. Let me know if you’re in for next fall.