Date: 27 September 2015. Happy birthday baby sister.
Location: Sunday evening British Airways flight from Munich to London, Heathrow. Tired. So very, very tired.
On Saturday we wake at six thirty am. It’s dark and cold. It’s like Christmas. Very soon seven hungry, excited boys and girls, in colourful lederhosen and dirndls, make their way to Hackerbrücke station to follow the brightly-attired crowds to the München Showgrounds. We are grizzly indeed as we queue for the famous Hofbräuhaus tent to open. There are thousands of people doing the same. It’s a little grim. At 9am the gruff, buff German guards open the doors and there’s pandemonium for ten minutes as people run for tables. We get one on the back balcony and, while its a little apart from the key action on the main floor, we’re sandwiched between an Italian stag party and a Russian one so we’re not overly concerned about it getting dull.
In this bleary-eyed group are Chandler, Monica, Paris, Twiggy, old law firm friend, China Doll, and visiting friend from home, Cullen. We’ve all gone to lengths to ensure our costumes are for for purpose, shipping them in from Bavaria to London before packing them in our hand luggage back to Bavaria. Or, in Paris’s case, wearing the dirndl her German exchange host family helped her pick out back in the day. Or, in Twiggy’s case, wearing the dirndl she’d worn to her first Oktoberfest when she was twenty one (and still fits!).
Or, in Cullen’s case, wearing a short, tight, poly eBay ensemble.
Unlike the authentic lederhosen, Cullen’s festival costume is all on piece and wraps around his legs like unforgiving satin leggings. It is unclear how he will manage to pee during the day. The boys are delighted with the outfit situation for a dirndl has an unmistakably friendly effect on a woman’s décolletage. There are frequent semi-indignant cries from us of, “Eyes up, boys!”
At 9.05am a busty Frau comes around with large, doughy pretzels glittering with salt crystals and then another comes by to drop seven 1L steins on the table (and request seventy euro). It’s 9.15am. We’re grinning like idiots. The Hofbräuhaus tent is just huge. I’ll learn later than it seats several thousand fraulein and heren sitting elbow to elbow with strangers on wooden benches. Occasionally someone clambers up atop a table and holds aloft agiant beer which they then proceed to skoll to riotous applause. (If you’re a girl all you really need to do is get through 100ml and you’ll be cheered — though how loudly largely depends on and what gets flashed when you jump down off the table.)
The day starts properly when Chandler, goofing around, cuts his face on the salt of his giant pretzel and bleeds on it. The first injury of the day — and there will be many. Chandler is soon soothed by his second mass of beer for the day.
The beer served at Oktberfest is carefully controlled — in quality, not quantity! There are only around five brewers entitled to craft and serve this beer, including Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu and Augustiner. All venues at the festival serve these beers.
In Melbourne one usually orders a ‘pot’ of beer (around 280ml I believe). Sometimes you’ll share a jug between a few mates and I think this may be around a litre. In contrast, in London it goes without saying that you’ll always have a pint. You can sometimes get away with ordering a half pint — but only if you’re a girl and also able to tolerate the barman’s scathing look. In Munich, you’ll get a mass: that’s 1L of frothy, cold, sweet and wheaty beer every time.
Each of the key brewers has its own ‘mega tent’. We argued for a while about the permanence of these festive monsters. They’re so sophisticated, they must be here all year round (they’re not, I’ll learn from Wikipedia later on). They’re huge structures, holding up to 8,000 people. And they’re not some empty warehouses with a few bars. In fact, they’re the opposite. They’re warm spaces with rows of tables (you can’t get a drink if you’re not seated) serving beer and beer-friendly food. Their ceilings are festooned with ribbons and German folk decorations: swathes of Black Forrest-esque greenery, maypoles and murals. The centre of each tent features a bandstand where a German brass band entices the hall into singing along with drinking songs (German, but you can fake it) and international classics like Sweet Caroline. Spontaneous chants of ‘Hey, heeeeeey baby — huu ha! — I wanna know-ohhh if you’ll be my girl!’ break out every hour or so.
The aim of the game is to get into one of these massive tents but it really is is a game.
After our early success, we get unceremoniously and unexpectedly ejected from Hofbräuhaus at 11.30am. Bemused and frustrated, we find that all of the other mega tents are closed, already swollen with hungry thirsty revellers who are unlikely to budge from their prized benches for hours to come. We survey the situation and, a little disgruntled and with our buzz fading, eventually we secure part of a table in the Pschorr biergarten and make the best of it. We make friends with everyone on the surrounding tables. Everyone does. A couple of hours, a few mass and a bit of schnitzel later we decide to try our luck at HB once more, via a coffee, as the beer has made us dozy and Cullen is looking more than a little worse for wear. His eBay lederhosen have broken. Monica buys him a coffee — which he promptly spills all over her in thanks. We head to the tent. Using our feminine wiles we manage to get to the front of the pack (I hesitate to call it a line, for it’s really a muzzy, thronging mass) and wait impatiently. Around 6pm a security guard asks those of us at the front of the crowd, “If I lift the barrier, will you walk quietly and slowly?” The crowd nods yes. He lifts the table. There’s a stampede.
To be frank, the evening from here is a blur of warm tones, cool beers and dancing. A sense of camraderie pervades everything and there is much singing and much clambering on tables. The atmosphere is electric and you have the distinct feeling that you’re experiencing a type of euphoria that your counterparts living in 1800s Bavarian villages might have enjoyed. It’s a type of hedonistic, human happiness — borne of alcohol, full stomachs, people and song — that must have endured throughout time.
Come Sunday I wake up with shocking mystery bruises, a beer-stained dirndl blouse, a little badge that says ‘Spatzi’ and hilarious videos that will cause Paris (who has crawled into my bunk bed to wake me up) and I to convulse with laughter.