The last time I was in Munich, Germany was 20 years ago. My father and I visited Dachau concentration camp, and in a subsequent fit of bummed out-ness made a high speed burn to the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen on the Austrian border, where we numbed ourselves to the horrors we witnessed with high altitude Alpine journeys and visits to Neuchswanstein and Hohenshwangau castles. Fun fact: I have my own version of Ludwig's "Venus Grotto" in my garage. It's an old bathtub next to a broken air hockey table.
A different sort of horror awaited me on my return last week, namely the city's annual Oktoberfest. The festival is billed as the largest "Volksfest" in the world, and has been held every year since 1810, more or less (those pesky World Wars). This particular trip had been booked since last February, so while I had plenty of time to gird my mental loins for the scale of the endeavor, it isn't until you get there that you get a sense of just how massive the spectacle is, and how ill-prepared most foreigners are for it.
The act of traveling to Munich and attending the festival was actually at the behest of a friend, who was turning 40 and suggested going in order to complete one of his "bucket list" items. I was intrigued for two reasons, 1) as I mentioned, I've been to Bavaria before and generally found it a lovely place, and 2) I've never bothered to put together a bucket list. And even if I did, my outlook is so bleak in general I'd probably include stuff like "buy both volumes of The Eagles' Greatest Hits" or "shop at every H-E-B. in Katy."
In any event, air/hotel reservations were secured well in advance. Hotels in the area fill up quickly, and we didn't want to spend half a day on trains (reasons for this will become apparent shortly). We ended up at ArtHotel Munich, a decent place three or four blocks from the Theresienwiese, the four-and-a-half million square foot "field" (it's entirely paved) named for Therese, the wife of Crown Prince Ludwig I, and here endeth the history lessons. We flew Air Canada, linking up out of Montreal, the better to conceal our dirty imperialistic Yankee origins.
Fine, it was cheaper.
A word about air travel. I don't know how often any of you flown overseas in recent years, but it is ... amazingly easier than it was even at the beginning of the (21st) century. On both flights, our (coach) seats had built-in TV screens with a variety of movies and TV shows to choose from. A far cry from my first trips across the Atlantic, where you brought four books and a Walkman and hoped you had enough batteries to make sure you didn't end up talking to the couple who were going to London so they could "see where Princess Di got married."
Flying in Munich also meant no additional pain in the ass commute from Frankfurt, a three-hour journey at best. My friend (we'll call him "Barry") and I checked in and ambled over to the Theresienwiese (or "Wies'n," as the locals refer to it). We weren't trying to find a seat, as we were universally advised that trying to get into a tent on the weekends is kind of like nabbing a Saturday night reservation at Uchi (local reference!). Sure enough, the place was packed, with thousands already jamming the spaces between the various beer tents and many more trying to get in.
One thing to note about Oktoberfest: no seat, no service. Beer isn't served on the grounds at Oktoberfest, only in the beer tents. In retrospect, this is a pretty smart move. There's no charge to enter the festival, after all, so what is currently a fairly controlled boozefest could descend into an orgy of drunken violence rivaling your average ladies' book club.
Still eager to get our beaks wet, we hit the Hacker-Pschorr Brauhaus for some grub. And, of course, some liters.
It was shortly thereafter that Barry and I made probably the biggest mistake of our trip: we found a sports bar (Champions, in the Munich Marriott) and met another friend ("Jim") to watch the Seahawks-Texans game. It was one of the two American football games being shown at that particular establishment, much to the chagrin of the Bundesliga fans present, who complained loudly when the bartender changed the channel. Should've won the war, fellas.
We all know how that ended. Much amusement was had watching YouTube clips of the aftermath. Less so taking abuse from the Seahawks fans seated next to us (and in Seattle jerseys, no less). I'm pretty sure I made a few "12th Man" cracks that I'd saved up from my UT days, but things get a little hazy at that point. I know we returned to the ArtHotel bar and Jim bought everyone shots. Pro tip: to combat jet lag, consume mass quantities of Jim Beam Honey.
Feeling far from chipper the next morning, we nonetheless wolfed down some breakfast and headed to the tents. Sure enough, arriving around 10 a.m. on a Monday to secure a seat in a beer tent is a sound plan (and possibly a sign of serious alcoholism). We settled on the Hofbräu Festzelt, mostly because it was the closest one to the entrance.
Before I forget, here are some random German expressions you should know for Oktoberfest:
"Darf ich mich zu dir sitzen?" - "Can I sit here?" "Ich muss pinklen." - "I have to pee." "Wann kommen die busenfrei Damen?" - "When do the topless women get here?" "Ernsthaft, Ich muss pinkeln." - "Seriously, I have to pee." "Wo sind die Bubistricher?" - "Where are the rent boys?" "Mein Hund ist krank." - "My dog is sick." (for some reason, the German CDs I listened to for a refresher thought it important I know this). "Wo kann ich mich übergeben?" - "Where can I throw up?"
The beers, as you've probably heard, are served in a liter mug called a Maß. Whatever tent you're in, that's the beer you get (I was as surprised as anyone to learn Hofbrau wasn't just a steakhouse). And if I had to impart a key takeaway from my brief experience at Oktoberfest, it would be: slow your roll. A liter is approximately 2.2 beers, and the stuff they serve is roughly 6 percent alcohol (Bud Light, by comparison, is 4.2 percent). With all the toasts, introductions, and standing up to sing that goddamn "Prosit" song every 15 minutes. You'll be two liters in before you know it. And before noon.
And that's not even counting stuff like this:
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Needless to say, I was feeling pretty groovy by early afternoon. Deciding it was a wise move to stretch my legs, I left the tent and wandered the fairgrounds a bit, trying to get a bearing on the rest of the festival.
And that was when some Fraulein puked on my jeans. To be continued.