Saturday, September 28, 2013

Auf der Wiesn: Bier, Chicken and Shakespeare

We took Willem to Oktoberfest in Munich this past Monday after school, because we thought it would be mellow and less crowded on a weekday. (We soon found out that “mellow” and “less crowded” are not really a concept at any time during the most famous 16-day kegger in the world.) I had never been to Oktoberfest, and had no idea what it would be like. But here we are living in Bavaria, and, according to the unwritten laws of the land, going to the Wiesn is one of those things that you just HAVE to do, much like painstakingly separating your trash and recycling into about eight different categories, and getting the hell out of the left lane of the autobahn when you see a Porsche Carrera coming up behind you in the rear view mirror.

I suspected that Oktoberfest would be crowded and loud and beer soaked (which it is), a bit like spring break in lederhosen (kind of), and that I would be by far the oldest person there (I wasn’t, by a longshot). I thought I would have some fun but in a “Thank God that’s over!” kind of way, and emerge with some insights along the lines of, “How to survive Oktoberfest when you’re a 42-year old mom who is not a big beer drinker and is apprehensive about large crowds and costumes.” 

But who knew you could have so much fun on a Monday night with your family and a few thousand of your new best friends?

David, Willem and I made our way into the Augustiner tent, which was absolutely packed. It was a veritable sea of people in dirndls and lederhosen at long tables and benches. These tents, by the way, are massive, and most hold several thousand people. The militant-looking security guards had let us in even though we didn’t have a reservation, but we had to try to find a place to sit. We learned quickly to avoid the old, grumpy-looking Germans, several of whom shook their heads and issued us that deep frown you sometimes get here when doing things that don’t fit into the social order, like backing into certain parking spaces, or trying to order the famous Bavarian delicacy weisswurst any time after noon (mein Gott!) We had better luck with a table full of young Germans who let us squeeze in. They turned out to be a group of friends from the Black Forest, all university students, for whom Oktoberfest was their annual reunion.

Knowing I’m not the biggest beer drinker in the world, David tried to order me a kleine bier (small bier) from our server Michael, a bearded, pony-tailed, mountain of a guy who was a dead ringer for Robert Baratheon. We figured out right away that at Oktoberfest there’s no such thing as a small beer: it’s sold by the liter only, go big or go home. Well, ok then. So we got our beers, and ordered a few of those delicious roasted half-chickens that are such a nice break from all the sausage one tends to eat in this part of the world. Robert Baratheon brought us our food, and we ordered a round of beers for our new college student friends who had been nice enough to let us crash their table, and proceeded to have the time of our lives.

Across the aisle from us was a table full of young Korean tourists who immediately began photographing and videoing David and Willem, even though we told them right away that, full disclosure, we weren’t even German. We pointed out that the place was full of actual Germans that they could photograph, but David and Willem looked so good in their lederhosen and sang the drinking songs with such gusto that the Koreans didn’t seem to care.

We tried out the few conversational German phrases we’ve learned on our table mates, but the three of us are complete beginners and the Black Forest boys all spoke English really well, so for their sake and ours, we switched to English. They taught us some typical German toasts and asked us for some typical American toasts, and we were stumped. ARE there any typical American toasts? We couldn’t really think of any and said we’d have to get back to them.

The guy next to me—I’ll call him Hans, because I know at least one of them was named Hans—explained to me that he loved to practice speaking English because he thought it was a beautiful language, which gave me some pause because I’ve never really thought about it before. I countered that German was a fun language, with so many sounds that we just don’t have in English, and I love how the Germans squish several words together to make really long words. At which point he said, “But listen to this,” and right then and there amidst the noise of the band and the clinking of glasses and Robert Baratheon barreling by with six beers in each hand, Hans launched into the balcony scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.”

It was damned impressive. “Hans!” I said. “Well done. That was beautiful!”

“That’s why I love English!” he shouted, only it sounded like “That’s why I LUFF English!” and raised his glass.

When the band started in on a Rolling Stones medley (there’s always a band on a stage in these tents), everyone in the place got on the benches and tables to dance. Willem was rocking out with the Koreans and David was up on one of the tables and a couple of 60ish ladies in dirndls were boogying on the next table over, and then we did a high-velocity “Prost!” and Willem’s glass shattered but no one was hurt and it was mostly empty so it was ok. The security guards looked on benevolently and even Robert Baratheon cracked a smile.

It’s hard to describe how much fun it was. Though Oktoberfest is a festival organized around beer drinking, the communal nature of it, and the mix of people, and the festive traditional clothing make it feel more like a giant, dressy block party or a wedding than a kegger.

So…Oktoberfest. I’m officially a fan, and can’t wait to go back this week.

P.S. Just one word of advice, if you go: The spinning carnival rides are best attempted BEFORE any beer is consumed, not after.

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