At Munich Oktoberfest, an Ocean of Beer — And Inebriety
When one thinks of Oktoberfest in the German city of Munich, three things typically come to mind: hordes of men in knee-length lederhosen (German for “leather breeches”), gaggles of women in low-cut, bust-bearing dirndls (originating from the word “Dirndlgewand” or “maid’s dress”), and oceans upon oceans of fizzy, golden beer.
This year was a bit of a letdown, however, with a mere 6.3 million visitors guzzling 6.5 million 1-liter (2.11 pints) steins of beer (compared to 6.4 million guests who downed 7.7 million liters in 2013).
Yet despite the decrease in visitors and alcohol consumption, Munich Mayor Dieter Reiter said the atmosphere of the 181st edition of “Wiesn” — as locals call Oktoberfest — was “unbelievably pleasant.” Indeed, his opinion is backed by statistics: there were about 1,290 criminal offenses recorded at this year’s Oktoberfest (down from 1,525 in 2013) that resulted in 720 arrests (a decrease of 39 from 2013), which included an attempted heist of a trolley full of beer mugs (can’t blame the criminals for trying!) and at least one incident involving the destruction of a “monster”’ in a haunted house attraction by a visitor who claimed he was “spooked” by its appearance. At the official lost and found office, the list of odd items that turned up was only as exotic as 230 pairs of spectacles, two wedding rings, a set of dentures, a French horn, and a ball and chain (one can only wonder what is the story behind that particular item). Needless to say, no large scale happenings or surprises took place aside from the conceivable, expected and sometimes humorous intoxicated behavior. And while the Bavarian Red Cross treated some 7,900 injuries throughout Oktoberfest (most of which were scrapes and cuts), only 600 of those were alcohol poisoning related — a minute number considering the amount of beer that was circulating throughout like a gushing water fountain (or rather waterfall).
In all, the 16 days of the late September-early October festival, billed as the world’s largest annual funfair, came and went much as Oktoberfest has since its first incarnation in 1810. Back then, the citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities surrounding the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig (later to become King Ludwig I) to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen (for whom the 42-hectare Theresienwiese grounds that the Oktoberfest takes place on is named after), engorging themselves on mountains of meat, palaces of plate-sized pretzels (known as Brezen), cities of sausages (especially fatty white sausages of minced veal and pork back bacon known as Weisswurst), and, of course, enough beer to sink Atlantis. The first Oktoberfest may have been a gut-busting success, but it would be cancelled 24 times over the next two centuries for various reasons, most typically wars (which Germany was frequently involved in) and cholera epidemics (Germany also used to record more cholera cases than almost anywhere else in the Western world). Such Oktoberfest-less years would become known as “lean years.”
I knew virtually none of this, however, as I sat in a bus traveling from Berlin to the Bavarian capital. I’d been living in Germany for more than two years, yet had never set foot in Bavaria, the physically largest, second-most populous, and economically prosperous German state that’s also a magnet for tourists thanks to such sights as the Alps and the famed Neuschwanstein Castle (known as the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle). As the flatlands of the former East Germany gave way to the fertile rolling hills of the area also known as “Bayern,” all I really knew was that I would be meeting up with an old friend who lived in Munich, who said I could expect to encounter a few inebriated denizens once we made it to the main Oktoberfest grounds.
Nearly nine hours after leaving Berlin’s Central Bus Station (Zentraler Omnibusbahnhof or ZOB) on a double-decker bus operated by Berlin Linien Bus (a journey that cost a mere 43 euros, or about $53.86, at the youth price available to people under the age of 26), I found myself at Munich’s own ZOB, conveniently located at the Hackerbrücke metro station that would allow for quick access to the sea of humanity I expected to become immersed in at the Oktoberfest grounds proper. My good friend Kunal — who I’d first met while living in an artists’ colony in Berlin’s trendy Kreuzberg district for a few months — was soon there to greet me, and together we made our way to the Theresienwiese.
It was just before 6 p.m. by the time we reached our destination. Even if we’d wanted to turn around, the human tide was so thick that doing so would have been impossible. A giant sign hung above the main entrance proclaiming “Welcome to Oktoberfest” (“Willkommen zum Oktoberfest”) in large, gaudy letters — we were officially at the point of no return.
The stench was the first thing that struck me, even before the din of noise louder than a jet engine. Enveloping and all-encompassing, it smothered us with an olfactory assault fouler than even an entire warehouse full of rotten eggs and sour milk. The smell was a smorgasbord of overpowering aromas, from succulent, sticky meat, human body odor and cigarette smoke to urine (rivers of it, I surmised), sugar-encrusted fried food and, of course, beer. Yuck.
Next came the noise. While Oktoberfest draws visitors from across the globe, I was struck by the languages spoken by the tipsy multitudes. Or rather, the lack of languages; it was almost all German. Then again, about 72 percent of Oktoberfest visitors are actually from Bavaria, according to Munich city statistics. At least it was a language I understood.
The third thing I noticed was the view. Anyone with eyes would’ve dropped their jaws in awe. As someone interested in fashion, I was dumbstruck by the dirndl’s ability to transform any woman, regardless of her age or body type, into a voluptuous vixen. Buxom blondes, brunettes, redheads, and every other hair color known to mankind could be found with a swift turn of one’s head. I thought such a thing was possible only in cheesy (and lurid) romance novels, but all of their bosoms seemed to be ample, and all of them seemed to be heaving. It was, to put it crassly, a sea of boobs. Why did I get the feeling Oktoberfest isn’t a big thing in Saudi Arabia?
Although “long considered the dusty uniforms of an older, more conservative generation of Bavarian women” (as the New York Times puts it), the dirndl is having a bit of a fashion moment at present, with new designers like Claudia Nowka (of the Alpenmädel line) retooling the history-steeped dress with novel fabrics, cuts and patterns to fit an era where most people arrive at Oktoberfest by car or plane rather than horse-drawn carriages. Red satin seemed to predominate, but there was also plenty of pink, green, gray, white and powder blue. There were also dirndls with leopard prints, multicolored laces, and more. Bodices, blouses, full skirts and aprons came in a variety of fabrics, from silk to cotton, linen, velvet and wool. I even spotted a black dirndl — the dark-haired woman wearing it had multiple piercings and tattoos.