MUNICH, GERMANY — Now that the Wies’n season is behind us by a couple weeks, I think it’s safe to take stock in what was our first experience in Munich’s most famous event. Life is a series of lessons — and at Oktoberfest, they come fast and furious.
Lesson the first: Learn your vocabulary
1. No it’s not Octoberfest… and rarely is it even Oktoberfest; it is the Wies’n, short for Theresienweise or Therese’s field — the site of the legendary Oktoberfest celebration dating all the way back to when the festivities first began at the wedding of crazy King Ludwig I and his wife, Therese. Needless to say, they knew how to throw a good party in 1810, and this is where it is still found.
2. It is not a stein; it is a Maß. A tourist drinks a stein of beer, a Muenchner drinks a Maß of bier. Maß is an abbreviation for Maßkrug, the standard size and container of beer that is represented by the 1 liter glass mugs that are iconic of Bavarian biergartens and the Wies’n. Many tourists are tempted to steal these massive beer goblets as souvenirs, but if you are caught, it can come with a hefty fine. More on that later…
3. Not pretzels; Brez’n. And these are not the flimsy cardboard sticks that your local bartender puts out to make you thirst for another watered-down Miller Lite; these are half-kilo monsters of bready, yeasty, salty goodness. And, combined with three or four Maß of bier, this generally represents the entirety of your nutritional intake on an average Wies’n trip.
4. Prost. It might be the most important word in the German language. I feel for the poor tourist who is caught giving a limp “cheers” while all the Bavarian lads around him clink glasses.
Every culture has a term for celebrating a drink, but in Bavaria, the process is near sacred. At just about every chance possible (and especially at the singing of Ein Prosit — see below), everyone within arm reach will clink their Maß and — very important — look each other in the eye and exclaim “Prost!” thereby ensuring a frothy gulp and seven more years of… well, you will figure it out.
Lesson the Second: The Wies’n giveth and she taketh away.
Yes, there is a lot to be gained from the yearly beerfest, but a lot can be lost too. Let’s take a personal stock of my Wies’n profit and loss sheet.
- Innumerable liters of bier consumed
- Enough pretzels (Brez’n) to choke an elephant
- Four — count ’em — four glass Maß from various Munich brewery tents. We almost went for the cycle, nabbing one from each of the six major breweries, but Hacker-Pschorr and Paulaner somehow eluded our drunken grips.
- An argument for addition by subtraction — although we swiped four illegal souvenirs from the Wies’n, we made it out without a single fine. That’s something over 100,000 other people can’t claim.
- Surprisingly, one pair of relatively intact Lederhosen — at 150€ a pop, I consider this not only a good investment, but a profit as well
- At least 100 new friends-slash-drinking-buddies (just don’t ask me their names)
- No fewer than four out-of-towners and one American girlfriend gone missing (although all were eventually re-found — hurray!)
- An expensive dental bridge — don’t ask; suffice it to say that my new dentist considers this squarely in his profit column
- At least three working days following Wies’n trips spent praying to the porcelain god
- A digital camera — we weren’t stupid enough to bring our good SLR, but consider this a reason why the photos on this post are relatively lacking
Lesson the Third: Let’s talk Tracht
“Tracht” is the term for the traditional set of clothing worn by Bavarians during the Oktoberfest season and beyond.
For girls, that would mean the oh-so-flattering Drindl dresses and for gentlemen that would start with the world-famous Lederhosen and follow with a slew of other accessories (ankle warmers, really?) that would put a South Beach designer to shame. No, these are not German stereotypes, but the actual outfits worn by the VAST majority of Bavarians, other Germans and visitors during the fest.
Molly and I decided early to get on board, obviously, and it turned out to be well worth the cost. When you are standing ten people deep trying to get into the Augustinerbrau tent, who do you think they are going to let in first, the good German couple done up in leather and plaid or the guy with an Ed Hardy T-shirt and Pumas (sorry, Troy)? It’s pretty clear.
Lesson the Fourth: A tent, is a tent, is a world unto itself
For those that haven’t been, it’s hard to imagine the topography of the Wies’n. A field of maybe a couple square kilometers, with various “tents” set up boasting the names of Munich’s six most important breweries. It sounds like some sort of half-baked, beer-focused hippy fest until you actually experience it.
The tents are where the magic happens, although I’m not sure “tent” is really the appropriate term. These massive, semi-permanent structures can be as much as six stories high, seat thousands of revelers and are so intricately decorated, it’s hard to believe that they are built up and torn down every Wies’n season. But they are. Nevermind the fact that the crews spend roughly half the year preparing for the event.
So let’s take a peek at what you might find if you’re lucky enough to make your way into a tent. The center of the action is the bandstand, where brass Oompa bands of twenty-plus members set the heartbeat of the celebration with a seemingly unending litany of traditional German drinking songs, broken up every second or third song with the inevitable “Ein Prosit” — a kind of call to arms for those that haven’t been putting away Maß at an alarming enough rate.
The outside edges of the tent consist of a continually flowing Gulf Stream of people moving from bathroom to table to correct table to bathroom and back again.
The vast expanse of the tent is made up of plank table and benches — ironically the tables are generally used for dancing on, while the benches are — to the best of my knowledge — used for breaking your inevitable drunken falls. This central seating area is literally a heaving, growing mass of humanity — drinking, eating, singing, fondling. And feeding this epic mass are the poor waitresses that somehow wade through the madness to deliver liter upon liter of bier, plus pig knuckles, potato salad, Brez’n and other fuel for this massive celebratory fire.
Literally, I will never think of the word ‘tent’ in the same way again. More like covered madness.
So consider that chapter one on the treatise of the Wies’n. The beauty part is, next September, the days will once again grow shorter, a chill will touch the air and the sound of banging hammers and tuning brass instruments will be heard from the direction of the Theresienwiese… and it will all begin again.