Click here for a link to an album of photos illustrating the event whole weekend.
We hopped on the train and started to acquire more and more passengers, the men mostly festooned in lederhosen (the German overalls), the women in dirndls (the apron and bodice combo usually accented with copious...bosom). We weren't quite sure which exit was the best for the festival, but the crowd was. We joined a river of humanity up over a bridge, past a bunch of Clydesdales hauling kegs and up to the main entrance:
Note: In this picture that hoods and umbrellas are out and up and the sky is a bit ominous. It can only be a memorable day at the fair.
The festival is really like an enormous state fair with less 4-H competitions and more public drunkenness. There were expensive games that were probably impossible to win, unhealthy snacks (though I think candied, roasted almonds might be a little better for the heart than deep-fried Twinkies), and massive rides that seem especially exciting because you may actually be putting your life in danger by strapping yourself in.
The main attractions at Oktoberfest are the beer tents. Every brewery in Munich (and many from the surrounding Bavarian cities and towns) set up huge semi-permanent tent/beer halls that hold 6,000 or so people around sturdy benches and tables. They have to be sturdy so wobbly, middle aged tourists can do a polka without breaking something important. The "tents" themselves are up year round. Building a real, massive beerhall would be a bit pricey, so calling it a tent lets people know that it may be a bit drafty. There was a Paulaner Tent, a Lowenbrau Tent, a Hacker-Festzelt Tent, a Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu tent and so on.
Despite having so many tents and so many benches, it's a good idea to put in a reservation at one of the tents, much like it's a good idea to reserve a room years in advance. That way, if it's raining when you arrive, you'll have a ticket and can get to shelter with a sort-of solid roof above you. Again, this was a spur of the moment trip. We had no such tickets and our group was about a dozen people. When we got to Oktoberfest we trooped up to a beerhall as the heavens opened and we were told by the bouncers there was no way in hell of getting in.
Really, the only way in without a ticket, is when someone leaves. The tents don't have bathrooms (again, to be real buildings selling alcohol, they would need such amenities) so you get turnover when someone has had one liter of beer too many. There are plenty of horror stories of people just letting loose where they stand rather than leave the revelry in the tent. With lunch fast approaching and the rain pouring even faster, no one was going to give up there spot, let alone a dozen spots, so we moved on.
The next hour or so was spent inspecting the elaborate facades and exteriors of the beer tents, many of which featured moving figures and neat logos of the various breweries. None of them featured places to sit and even less had places to be dry. Finally, a group of us threw in the towel and found a small restaurant at the fairgrounds that served food and beer. It was at "Der Bratwurst" that I finally had my first Munchen beer. You order it either as "Mass" or "Kleines." A "Mass" is a liter. "Klienes" is a half-liter. Normally when you go to a bar your options are "Gross" (large, 0.5 L) or "Klienes" (small, 0.3 L). No one messes around with 0.3 L at Oktoberfest. We stayed snuggled in that warm restaurant, summoning up the will to wait outside more tents for more elusive seats. We made awkward friends with our table-mates, an older couple that helped us translate various Bavarian dishes on the menu while maintaining slightly bemused smiles at our sheer American-ness.
At this point, Juliane was our only native German. The others had arrived earlier and gotten into a tent, or by this point had found a way to get in. This left me as the only other person willing/able to smash together a few German words and phrases. The other Americans didn't have the benefit of a crash course in Marburg. Fortunately, the festival and city are well prepared for a bunch of English speaking tourists and language problems wouldn't crop up until later in the evening...
After a lunch of Käsespatzle, basically Bavarian Mac and Cheese and basically delicious, and two rounds of beer, we were ready to walk back out the door and up to the tent where the rest of the group had managed to weasel in. We stood at three different doors for an indeterminate amount of time, getting excited ever time they opened, and crushed every time they snapped closed again, defended by security guards clad in leather gloves. It's tough to take someone seriously when they're wearing leather pants (lederhosen). It's simple to take someone seriously when they're wearing leather gloves.
A man suddenly appeared at my elbow promising to get us in for cash. We warily asked for more information. He snapped up two members of the group, asking for payment and promising to come back for the rest. He didn't. Five of us remained. The most I had seen of the inside of one of these gargantuan structures was through the open kitchen door when waiters, clad in warm coats, scampered in and out bringing refreshment to people sitting at the outdoor benches, despite the drizzle. If we had a smaller group, or a warmer group, I might have lingered and finally gotten in after a few hours of waiting, but this wasn't the time or group.
We wandered off. Now what? We found a slightly covered biergarden serving Paulaner. As we stood waiting for a decision, a dude with a crate of filled classes offered them round. I bit. We wandered on. I spent the rest of the day hiding my glass in my jacket, trying to make sure my new souvenir didn't wind up smashed in the street. It was a difficult task, but I'm happy to say that my Weissen glass sits on the shelf above my head as I type.
At this point we headed into the city, giving up on Oktoberfest. I left the place without once hearing the sounds of Polka or a chorus of "I don't want 'er you c'n have 'er, she's too fat for me." But I was in good company, enjoying roasted almonds and the Spice Girls painted on colorful carnival rides.
Our journey into the city lead us first around the city center. By this point the light was fading and the stores had closed. But there were a few signs of life including someone selling buckeyes.
One of the first questions I remember asking my parents was, "What's a buckeye?" and I had always been told, "It's a killer nut. It's poisonous. That's why it's such a good symbol for our state and largest university." "Oh, that's weird." Well, I'm here to tell you that in Europe - where they do many numbers of strange and wondrous things - they eat buckeyes. It's a special breed, of course, and it's roasted until it pops out of its shell. It has a very starchy texture, something like nutty mashed potatoes, and are best enjoyed while listening to a street band play a little Klezmer clarinet. We still didn't have enough alcohol in our systems for a group that had been to Oktoberfest, so we found a restaurant under the City Hall, a massive, reconstructed Medieval-ish building that squats over a huge subterranean restaurant that had a table readily available. It was warm. We could sit. We could chat. Then we got up again, searched out another bar, ordered another round and waited for the rest of the group that had actually gotten into the tents to join us for the voyage back to the campground. We stayed in that bar until everyone was falling asleep in their steins. Juliane shepherded us back to the train station and we miraculously found the correct track. We settled in for a long ride, anticipating our sleeping bags while praying the tents we rented had actually repelled all the rain we had stood through.
Then the train came to a halt somewhere half-way between the middle of town and our destination on the fringe. We were informed that the train was closed and we had to find another way home. Thus began a relay race to the taxi stand. By this point there were eight of us, and they don't have many nine-seater vans in Germany (or at home), but we tried to search one out anyway and frustrated the cab drivers. Some members of our group were not in a very coherent state of mind, so explaining options and decisions wasn't very effective. We just needed to get everyone in a car and get home. I lead one group as I could tell the driver where to go (sort of). In the land of the blind, the one-eyed-man is king (or to blame if the blind wind up abandoned in the suburbs outside Munich).
By some stroke of stupid luck we made it back to our cozy soccer stadium, stumbled through the cold and the puddles, and zonked out, Oktoberfest a distant, wet memory.