Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Oktoberfest Part I: The Journey

The first time I ran into the word ‘Oktoberfest’ was around age seven. I was learning how to spell the names of the months and days of the week (Wednesday of course being the toughest to remember). I saw a poster for Cincinnati’s Oktoberfest, and asked my mom why they misspelled the name of such an easy month. She told me it was a German festival. I didn’t completely understand that the German’s would spell months differently and thus from an early age assumed the Germans to be a goofy people.

Three days ago I set out to Munich to see if Oktoberfest was really all it was cracked up to be. I’ll spoil the end…it was.

I was invited by my friend Lindsay to join her and a group of OSU design students who are all studying abroad in Germany. They tell me Germany is the place for design, if not for window screens (Reference explanation: For some reason the Germans have an aversion to screens meaning in the summer and early Autumn there are copious insects flying through buildings. Not sure why the screen hasn’t quite caught on here, yet.). Lindsay was in my class that went to England in the Fall of 2004 and Athens in the Spring of 2006. I’ve seen Big Ben (an international symbol of England) with her and the Parthenon (an international symbol of Greece) and she was kind enough to invite me along to see a Stein of Beer (an international symbol of Germany).

Friday was a national holiday (Reunification day, when the walls came a tumblin’ down) so the group was planning to gather as early as possible in Munich so we could get into one of the beer tents, massive structures erected by each Baverian brewery where oompa bands play, the house beer flows like water and lederhosen is the most fashionable get-up around.

Unfortunately that meant catching a train from Bonn at 3:30 in the morning. At such wee hours on a national holiday the public transportation of Bonn is shut down. Thus after about three hours of sleep, the last I would get before experiencing the full force of Oktoberfest, I was hoofing the seven kilometers from my dorm to the train station. I was hoping that once I got onto the train, I would be able to catch a snooze. I underestimated the enthusiasm of my fellow passengers. When I boarded the high speed train in Cologne, bound for Munich, it was about 4: 30. Already there were people getting the party started, cracking open cans of Kolsch and Weisbeier. I began to doubt how much I would nap.

I met Lindsay on the train. She’s studying in a Essen, a town just a bit north of Cologne (or Köln to the Germans) so we caught up for a bit and tried to get comfy in our seats. I like to think I’ve acquired a particular skill for sleeping on public transportation. At the beginning of high school when I would take the bus in to St. X, I would zonk out as soon as my butt hit the seat, no matter how loudly the MND girls behind me discussed the weekend party scene. In Kenya I made a solid first impression by falling asleep on the Unimog, a monstrous transport vehicle, as it bounced through the mountains north of Nairobi.

None of these experiences fully prepared me for sleeping on a train with rowdy, pre-drunken Germans. As soon as we settled in, the singing began in the next car. There were probably fifteen to twenty voices that all knew the same songs and they belted them at the tops of their lungs. Lindsay and I decided they must be a rugby or soccer team, which made asking them to hush up at 5 in the morning a bit intimidating. One of the songs they shout/sang was the bass line from The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army”

Bum BaBum Bum BaBumm Bum (If you don’t know the tune, you should look it up. It became the anthem of this trip).

At 9 AM when we finally rolled into the main station in Munich. I still didn’t have much more than four hours of sleep under my belt. Adrenaline and stamina would just have to sustain me. At the station we waited for Juliane, a German Design student who studied at OSU last winter and spring. Last year the American design students introduced her and her colleagues to American college life. Now she’s returning the favor.

Can you spot the lederhosen?

While we waited, I got to experience my first pay-as-you-go bathroom. The entrance fee was 70 cents and you weren’t allowed to use full Euro or two Euro coins. There was a conveniently placed change machine that would help you convert your bulkier money into smaller coinage. The problem was most of the people that needed to use the bathrooms and change machines were, until very recently, Oktoberfest revelers which meant their fine motor skills had gone the way of their dignity and their inside-voices. As I stood in my line/blob I watched a rain of change hit the linoleum as people first missed the slot in the change machine, then missed the slot by the bathroom door. Finally an attendant, rolling his eyes in frustration, stationed himself by the change slots and guided drunken hands to the appropriate spot. Welcome to Munich.

Soon Juliane and Chris, Lindsay’s boyfriend, arrived and the four of us set off to find our accommodations for the evening before doubling back for the party. Hotels and hostels are incredibly expensive and must be booked by your third birthday if you want to stay within walking distance of the fairgrounds. Considering I didn’t even know I would be in Germany until last May, other arrangements were made. Juliane reserved three tents for our group at a camp on the outskirts of Munich.

After taking the train to the edge of town, we piled out and began wandering the parking lot, our directions being “follow the white sign.” We saw no such sign. We asked passers-by if they knew of a campground nearby. All were confused. None were helpful. After a few more distressed calls to the people running the site, we were told we were on the wrong side of the train tracks. As soon as we were pointed in the correct direction, we saw a single piece of computer paper with the words “Wissencamp” inked across it in 30 pt. lettering. I don’t know how we could have missed it.

We crossed a field as it started to drizzle. Entering through a cattle gate we saw this:

A soccer stadium wrapping around a couple hundred dome tents. I felt like I was at a scouting camporee. Then we entered the registration tent that doubled as a the camp bar. Jagermeister paraphalia adorned the walls, while Aussies, Kiwis and Italians adorned the benches. It was around 10 AM, but most of them were already clutching a stein of booze. Not quite a scouting camporee.

Outside there were portable bathrooms and showers that looked like they’d been airdropped by the UN for refugees. When I saw people stumbling out of the shower, wrapped in a towel to ward off the 45 degree chill, the scouting similarities completely evaporated. There was no way in hell the Scouts would voluntarily bathe.

Then we turned and set our sights on Oktoberfest…

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