Arriving in Munich at eleven on a Friday night in late September is one of the most alarming things you can do. It’s like stepping into the aftermath of a street riot, the sound of shouting, police sirens and breaking glass all around you. We even witnessed a fight outside a restaurant where one of the pugilists was in a wheelchair. That alone would be distinctly unsettling, but the hordes of drunks staggering past you and launching themselves obliviously into the traffic, inches from death at every junction, have one more disturbing feature to undermine any confidence in your sanity you might have had at the airport—they are all dressed exactly as you remember from the grimmest of Grimm’s fairy tales in your childhood. You see, it’s not just the staff who wear lederhosen and dirndls at Oktoberfest, it’s everybody.
In the daytime it’s not as intimidating. The traditional dress looks quaint in a modern urban setting, as if there is an Amish convention in town. Indeed, the prospect of acquiring such an outfit starts to become attractive. When else are you going to get such an opportunity to look like a berk and still fit in with everyone around you? The costumes are surprisingly inexpensive, and C&A has a splendid selection. Once you have donned your ridiculous outfit and trooped towards the festival like members of a superannuated Von Trapp tribute act, it’s time to join the party. You are told that there is a main area where the beer tents are clustered, which forms the epicentre of this vast and sprawling festival. But nothing prepares you for the spectacle itself. The so-called tents are actually vast warehouses, each with a capacity of several thousand and two sittings a day. And there are several of them, representing the major breweries: Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Hofbräu, etc. We were in the Paulaner one, but I suspect they are interchangeable. I heard that the beer that is consumed in industrial quantities is conveyed via underground pipes right into the giant machines that fill the steins. There’s some Vorsprung durch Technik in this fairy tale.
You are advised to book in advance for this orgiastic ritual, it’s highly organised and naturally you can do it all online, and you’ll probably be wanting a table and some benches for those more reflective moments. It’s also important to have a raised surface to stand on when singing along to whatever toast the band has prompted. This comprises a full brass ensemble playing an eclectic mix of pop songs and German drinking songs, the main one being something called Ein prosit, which they bash out every 15 minutes. Our group was blessed with a couple of native German speakers who didn’t bother to offer a translation and didn’t seem to mind that we never grasped the words, but dutifully climbed onto the benches and sang along regardless.
There is food on offer, which is welcome after a couple of hours’ solid drinking. I only saw chicken and chips, but there might have been more choice. You’d expect sausages and schnitzel, wouldn’t you? In any case, whatever it lacked in sophistication, it did have the necessary absorbent qualities. We greatly admired the hard-working, super-efficient and immensely strong waiters and waitresses, and then there were the other staff patrolling the aisles to peddle hilarious souvenirs. The more drunk we became, the more attractive this tat was. Wouldn’t it amaze and amuse everyone if I wore that comedy wig? I’d be a right one. A year on, I can’t remember a single item that was on offer and I don’t much regret that I never seemed capable of getting anyone’s attention and making a purchase.
Some time in the evening, one of our party had an unfortunate incident with a broken stein, possibly as part of a toast gone wrong. If this was in the UK, the steins would be plastic and nobody would be allowed to stand on a table. Strangely, as the injured party went off in search of medical help, and the staff ably mopped up the blood infused beer puddle, the rest of us in our befuddled state carried on drinking and singing with all our might as if nothing had happened. I do remember staring curiously down at the carnage at table level, admiring the swirls of pinkish tinged beer puddles, but the band were striking up and there was another round of Ein prosit to be performed and not a moment to lose. The casualty gamely rejoined us later with his hand stitched up, full of admiration for the medical staff, and resumed his beer consumption at the same steady rate.
It was the sheer volume that got us in the end. I wouldn’t say we were especially drunk when the band finished and time was called. In fact, we felt we had drunk ourselves sober, and the cool night air did the rest. But there was definitely a bloated feeling amongst the group after all those confusing continental measures as we headed off into the night. Now, of course, we had earned the right to be part of the marauding gang of boisterous Hansels and Gretels streaming through the Munich thoroughfares, and the whole thing didn’t seem nearly as intimidating as it had the night before. If a pugilist in a wheelchair had squared up to me at that point I probably would have taken him on, provided my leather shorts could be preserved intact. I’ll be needing them for next year’s Oktoberfest, or perhaps a fancy dress party.
Chris Benson (Bristol, October 2015)
Chris works terrifically hard at his publishing job in the English city of Bristol. He lives in quiet obscurity with no cats. He also rides a bicycle quite regularly and plays a lot of sport, often with a hangover and sometimes gently under the influence.