I don’t know why, but I was expecting Oktoberfest to be much smaller and cozier. While I was in Kraków I got a lead about a guy who’d be really interesting to meet – a Hungarian busker named Hetye, who’s developed a strategy for finding free dinner by asking at the doors of restaurants that are about to close whether they have any food that’s going to get thrown out. I sent him a naive, enthusiastic message before I left Kraków, saying I’d be looking out for him playing his guitar on the streets of München, and hopefully we’d see each other without too much trouble. This was sheer silliness.
I got to the festival in the evening (after much wandering around aimlessly and a little bit of time spent at the Marienplatz, including fortuitously getting there exactly on time to watch the glockenspiel show, despite not even remembering that München is the city that has those dancing copper figures in the belltower that dance to the glockenspiel music, much less knowing what time it plays). When I rounded the last corner and emerged into the Wies’n (the party grounds), I was pretty much completely overwhelmed. I’d been picturing a broad, open, cobblestone square, with beer gardens here and there, and people sitting down on benches or whatever to enjoy a leisurely brew. Ha! This was a land of giant carnival rides and densely packed concession stands, but most importantly, teeming masses and throngs and swarms of people. Most of them quite drunk. Many of them wearing Lederhosen or Dirndl. The first time I saw this clothing I could hardly keep from busting out laughing. But at Oktoberfest it’s everywhere, the standard uniform of either the local who has a suit of it because tradition calls for it and you wear it at weddings, or the tourist who thinks it’s absolutely hilarious to wear Lederhosen around or that a Dirndl makes her look oh so sexy and she’ll be able to taunt a lot of boys. Guess which one is more numerous. I heard many things as I walked through the masses, though most of it was in German so I couldn’t really understand. I understood the German drinking songs well enough. I also understood the odd conversation in English between tourists, and they weren’t really about anything, just the gossipy sorts of things that people say to each other when neither of them has too terribly much going on upstairs. I wasn’t really expecting to meet interesting people here who I could have intellectual conversations about the nature of the world and society, though. You don’t come to Oktoberfest for that, you come for the Gemütlichkeit.
This is a word that sometimes gets used as an example when someone is talking about words that are untranslatable. At least, I’ve heard it in that context. It means something like “coziness and a deep sense of camaraderie and friendliness.” We used to have an English word that was related to it, meet as an adjective (“It was very meet”), which meant something like “suitable”, but that fell out of use and only left behind another word that linguists talk about a lot, helpmate, which is used to point out that words’ histories are sometimes kind of bizarre. Helpmate came from a phrase in the Bible that was translated by the King James translators as “an help [that is, helper] meet for him,” but then people misunderstood it as “an helpmate for him.” Anyhow, we no longer really use either one, so they’re just curiosities that people who ramble too much about language, like me, bring up when they’re ostensibly writing about something completely different.
It was a while before I really experienced Gemütlichkeit. The first night, I didn’t want to get into the festival too much, because I was carrying my big inconvenient backpack and just wanted to be out of the way. All I did was look for (and find) free food all over. It’s unnecessary to buy one of those giant pretzels, by the way. People lose patience with them all the time and you can find them all over the place. As well as sandwiches and sausages and pastries and lots of stuff.
The second day I hid my backpack in some underbrush and went to the festival unencumbered – but it was raining. Nobody likes a rainy Oktoberfest. I showed up in the evening after some wandering around town and some trying to meet Hetye. He turned out to be quite the elusive fellow. At 6:30 after he failed to appear I went to the beer tents. They call them tents (Zelte), but that’s only out of tradition. You could call them halls. Or warehouses, even, because that would give you a better idea of the size of them. Though not of the contents, because they’re full of row after row of densely packed tables, each one with a dozen or more people crowded around it, standing on the benches, each drinking beer from a gigantic Maßkrug. But the thing about the tents when I went there that day was, everyone else wanted to be in them too, because it was raining. So they were filled even beyond capacity, enough to give a fire marshal a heart attack, and so there were strict, evil-faced people at the entrances to all of them, holding closed big metal gates and only letting in people with really good reasons, which counted me right out. The best I could’ve told them was that my wool sweater was getting wet and I wanted to stop it from getting any wetter because it takes forever to dry.
Eventually I was allowed into a beer garden, more of a space between two tents where they figured out they could put a few more benches and serve more beers. Even that was competitive, but I sat there getting wet and cold but also drunk with some Spanish and Italian exchange students studying architecture in Berlin (apparently it’s the only thing you can study in Berlin), and despite everything, having a bit of fun.
The next day was far better, though. I decided not to think about Hetye all day, so I went whenever I felt like in the afternoon, and it was sunny, so people were allowed in and out of the tents freely, as God intended when He created Oktoberfest. Each of the main breweries in München has its own tent. Hofbräu Haus is nearly synonymous with Oktoberfest, and it’s probably the only name that a foreigner has much chance of having heard of. Unfortunately, the result is that their tent is full of tourists. I stepped into their tent and found it to be a beehive of people dancing to “YMCA”, and I quickly turned around and exited.
Hacker-Pschorr is far less famous and harder to pronounce, and accordingly their tent was full of somewhat less terrible people. The ceiling is decorated like the heavens idyllic – baby blue, with cottonball clouds and cherubim trumpeting the divinity of Hacker-Pschorr beer. Banners say things like, “Hacker-Pschorr – Himmel der Bayern” (Heaven of Bavaria). Under this I was to get drunk. I found a table where there were a few people speaking English, so I could understand what was going on, but also locals and people from other parts of Europe, a few of them cute girls wearing breast-enhancing Dirndl. And so I worked on passing the night.
Gemütlichkeit does exist. I was welcomed in almost instantly, and within an hour or so I felt like I was on my way to being just like old friends with everyone there. No one judges you under the Heavens of Bavaria, and the only problem you can have is an empty beer. I swayed to the rhythms of the songs they played in German and English, and periodically to the call for a toast, given to the whole hall: “Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit… ein Prosit, ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit!” – followed by the incredibly satisfying clunking together of hundreds of thousands of Maßkrüge. Those things are like holding a keg in your hand. One of the exchange students the day before said that hitting them together gives you the same sort of sense of power as sinking an ax into a barrel. It’s true.
In war, people you’d meet on the street and have no quibble with become your mortal enemies and you are forced to shoot them, at Oktoberfest, something like the opposite happens. A lot of the people there were probably the types who, if I started talking with them, would very quickly cause me to discover that I had an urgent appointment to be anywhere else in the world, but by the time I left the tent that night, they were well on their way to being best friends. If I’d gone with best friends, by the end we would’ve been family; if I’d gone with family, by the end we may have ended up conjoined. With this still resonating and humming in me, or maybe it was the alcohol, actually it was definitely the alcohol, I staggered determinedly back to my tent along the Isar River and went to sleep.
München turns out to be a hard place to leave. I stayed there a few more nights, though I never bought any beers. I did finally meet Hetye, only by being determined and taking an educated guess and also knocking on a door of what appeared to be an abandoned building except for the sound coming from inside of a virtuoso classical guitarist. He didn’t have all the answers I was hoping for to the question of how to do Europe for free, and I forgot to even ask him about his strategy for free restaurant meals, but we had a couple enjoyable evenings together, and a Kurdish guy who made friends with us showed me how to get beer at Oktoberfest without paying (it turned out to be blindingly easy, though the beer has a good chance of being flat). Though Hetye was a little clueless sometimes, I must say that his guitar playing was amazing. So I passed the time until I decided I was sick and tired of staying in München. If it weren’t festival time, there’s every chance that I would’ve found the city charming and wanted to stay for a long time. But during the festival all the locals shut their doors, all the establishments raise their prices and their security, and every quest for something else to do seems to inexorably funnel you back to the Wies’n and all the drunkards there. I could’ve gone back for more helpings of Gemütlichkeit, but I felt somehow like I’d graduated, and it would be like going back to visit my high school. So I got some cardboard and drew some signs and hitched to the Czech Republic. But I’ll leave that story for next time.