Prior to my arrival in the Netherlands, I knew next to nothing about the cultural phenomenon that is Oktoberfest. I assumed it must take place in October, and I knew that beer was involved. Other than that, nothing. When my friends and I learned about a local student organization that was leading student trips there, however, we quickly pounced on the opportunity to attend. The student organization (Way2Go) planned everything: the bus ride there and back, our lodging (a giant circus tent in the middle of nowhere, but we’ll get to that later), breakfast, and perhaps most importantly, the knowledge of do’s and don’ts in the world of Oktoberfest.
But first, I’ll give some background facts about Oktoberfest, all of which I learned on the bus ride there. Oktoberfest began in 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig was married to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in Munich. A horse racing event was held in honor of the marriage. The horse races and the festivities that accompanied them (beer-drinking) continued up until 1960, when the horse racing was dropped and only the festival came to be dominated by beer.
After reading the informational pamphlet put together by the program, my friends and I settled back in our seats, shared a bottle of red wine that we for some reason decided was necessary to help us sleep through the 9 hour bus ride, and fell asleep to the sound of Russell Brand’s absurd performance as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. We were awakened several hours later, at 5:30am, and were told that we had stopped at a gas station to change into out Oktoberfest costumes. Dazed and excited, we tumbled out of the bus, into the rain, and ran to the gas station bathrooms, were the girls donned their dirndls and the boys struggled into their lederhosen. After two more hours on the bus, were were in Munich.
Our bus dropped us at the train station and we left all of our belongings on board to be dropped off at our campsite. After reading online that purses well ill-advised, I had nothing on me but my phone, some money, and my umbrella. The whole group of us, two busloads worth of students, began to march through the cold, damp, early morning streets of Munich, munching on soggy sandwiches and following the trusted navigation of our group leader’s iphone towards the fair grounds. At first I felt ridiculous, dressed the way I was, but it quickly became evident that we were hardly the only people on our was to the festivities. Though the streets were not yet crowded, the increasing number of people clad in dirndls and lederhosen made it clear that we were nearing the grounds. When they finally appeared before us, I was completely taken aback.
I knew that Oktoberfest had beer. What I didn’t know was that it also has roller-coasters, a Ferris Wheel, and countless other carnival rides. Never have I been to a place where childhood and adult ideas of “a good time” come together in such a way; except perhaps in Las Vegas. We immediately made our way towards a tent, where a large crowd of people had already began to form a “line”. People were jostling one another, trying to get close to the entrance, and I made futile efforts not to jab strangers with my umbrella. As I observed the crowd around me, I discovered that dirndls and lederhosen were in no way the only acceptable Oktoberfest attire. People were sporting everything from sports jerseys to giant baby costumes. And then, the doors were open.
The beer tents at Oktoberfest operate on a first come first serve basis. The only way to order a beer is to sit at a table, and the only way to sit at a table is to get there and sit down (or stand) on it before anyone else does. The moment the doors opened, the entire crowd surged forward. People clambered over tables, pushed one another, and shouted in German, Spanish, Dutch, English, and what seemed like a million other languages. As I ran through the entrance a security guard snatched my umbrella from my hands. I stared at him in bewilderment for a few seconds before running onward to avoid being separated from my friends. Miraculously, we were able to secure a table. At 8:30am, breathless and ready for our beer, we were informed that no beer would be served until noon. We passed the time playing cards and chatting with the Australians who were sharing our table. I contemplated trying to take a nap on the table, but decided that the chances of actually getting any sleep were highly unlikely.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, noon rolled around. A marching band began to play and everyone began singing in German. My friends and I yelled along with the tune, making random sounds and smiling. And then, after nabbing the attention of one of the bar maids, we were served our beer! Beer at Oktoberfest is not served in bottles. It comes in steins, which are each 1 liter. I literally could not hold a full stein with one hand, and after “only” one I was feeling quite good.