Bier hier, Bier hier....

 

It is difficult to know where to begin in describing the Oktoberfest.

 

It is chaos.

 

It is organised chaos.  And chaos as only the Germans can organise it. 

 

There is that old joke:

 

In heaven, the chefs are French, the police are English, the engineers are German, the bankers are Swiss and the lovers are Italian.  In hell, the cooks are English, the engineers are French, the bankers are Italian, the lovers are Swiss, and the police are German. 

 

Since we are talking stereotypes we could add: in heaven the beer festivals are organised by the Germans; in hell they’re organised by the English.

 

Certainly it is a frightening prospect to imagine the immense consumption of beer that goes on in the tents spread about the Theresienwiese showground taking place on English soil.  I don’t suppose there would be a nose left unbloodied or a shop window unsmashed or a flat screen TV in stock. 

 

Fortunately the general run of things in Munich, clouded as it is with a sort of giddy haze of inebriation, is also seasoned with a word (and feeling) that we find inexpressible in the English language.  Gemütlichkeit.

 

What does this mean?  Well, it roughly translates as “good feeling” or “comfortable jollity” or "happy ambience" or “cosiness” or all of these things wrapped up in a single word.  The idea being that so long as you are feeling plenty of Gemütlichkeit you are unlikely to bop your neighbour on the nose, even if he does spill your rather capacious glass of beer, or gaze a little too wistfully at your girlfriend’s dirndl. 

 

I suppose the closest we come to this in England is going to a football match.  Which is not very close at all.  Perhaps we get a little closer when one of our princes gets married, but we can only expect one more occasion like that in the next 30-odd years.

 

Meanwhile, the Bavarians will be playing host, year in year out, to a throng – no, a multitude – of foreigners who want to come and experience something that really is unique in all the world. 

 

But what makes it so? 

 

Is it the dress?  The unabashed manner in which 21st century men parade around in leather shorts and braces?  The pigtails and healthy-looking chests of Fräulein heaving nearly a dozen litres of beer on to a table in their delicate fists?  The pointy Gandalf hats perched cockily above a thousand pairs of rosy cheeks?

 

Or the music?  The relentless jollity of the Bavarian and Tyrolean songs, played again and again until even the most monolingual of visitors starts to catch the lyrics?  The swaying chorus of strangers singing together until their voices give out?

 

Or it is the beer?  A sweet golden liquid that makes you wonder whether any other kind of beer deserves to go by the same noun?  (Wasn’t there a court case in which the Germans claimed just that?)

 

Or the company?  The fact that a polyglot crowd of nations comes together to behave as if they were the best of friends, and all differences seem to be put aside (at least for an hour, an afternoon or a day).

 

Of course, it is all of this.  To some it is irritating.  To others it is endearing.  But it is uniquely Bavarian.  And for a couple of weeks at least, people from around the world are happy to leave their national identities at the door and pretend to be Bavarians, if only for a bit of fun. 

 

But having fun on the last Saturday of the Oktoberfest is easier said than done.

 

 

**************************

 

Lecka and I left behind the stale-smelling corridors of our hotel, where accents betrayed visitors who came from every conceivable part of Australia (and a few other countries besides).

 

Girls rushed in and out of rooms excitedly fixing their hair, gossiping about men’s names that brought shrieks of laughter, while hitching up stockings and tugging on the corset strings of unfamiliar dresses.  Downstairs, bleary-eyed looking men pulled on dark glasses before stepping out like vampires into the blinding October sun. 

 

The foyer reeked of beer and cigarettes, and the expectancy that everyone was going to do it all again on this bright autumn day. 

 

Feeling very civilized for having gone to bed sober, Lecka and I ventured out for some breakfast and called up Christian to see where the others had got to.

 

Apparently Chrissie was on strike.  Or at least very nearly so.  She was so sickened by what she had seen the evening before that she had been fighting to get on an early flight back to Hong Kong.  Taking a more positive view, she was missing her kids and wanted to go home to see them.  (They are quite adorable, I suppose.)

 

My entirely selfish response was, “She’s gonna see them tomorrow anyway.  She can’t break up our group yet.  Tell her I only rode myself into the ground to get here in time so we could enjoy this together.”

 

“Yeeaah.  She doesn’t really care about that,” said Christian, flatly.

 

“It’s OK though.  We’re coming.  She’s just not in a very good mood,” he added.

 

Indeed she was not.  When they arrived, I could tell from the crossed arms and the forced smile that she was holding herself in.  Had she been a Greek goddess, by now she would have been casting about her with bolts of lightning willy-nilly, just for the hell of it.  There was ire in her blood, you might say.

 

Still, I figured even her most hardened resolve would melt with a short dousing of Gemütlichkeit once we got inside a tent.

 

But this was the challenge.

 

It seemed a bit ridiculous to have to be worried about this when it wasn’t yet 10 o’clock.  But previous experience had shown us that on a busy weekend day, it was next to impossible to get inside a tent without a booking after the clocks struck noon.  And amazingly, you cannot get a beer for love or money at the Oktoberfest unless you are seated at a table.  There are no bars.  Only beer-maids. 

 

Skipper and C waiting

Commencement of a long day

 

So I was chivvying us all along to get into the queue for one of the tents.  We arrived at the grounds where there is a grand alley that stretches for perhaps 500m to the south, on either side of which stand the huge tents.  Each one representing one of the famous Munich breweries: Hacker, Lowenbrau, Hofbrau, the Hippodrome, the Schottenhammel, Paulaner, Augustinerbrau; and each one with its own particular atmosphere.

 

Already hundreds of people were arriving, picking up breakfast pretzels and coffee, on the run to get in a queue, from the little stalls lining the way that would later fleece festival-goers with over-priced gingerbread, lollipops, roasted nuts and hotdogs.

 

We picked a tent – the Hippodrome – and found our way to the queue around the back.  It seemed that we would be rewarded for our efforts to get mobilized early.  The doors weren’t open yet but we’d surely get in once they did.

 

We stood around in the crowd.  It was all slightly unnatural – everyone was dressed up as if they were going for a night out, but it was still only 10 in the morning. 

 

Girls chattered noisily and chain-smoked, while Chrissie leant again the fence and muttered that they were “barely old enough to grow pubes”.  Do you know what she’s talking about?  I didn’t.

 

Chrissie - has been happier

Chrissie - less than impressed

 

Anyway, you don’t need to know every detail of our day.  The doors opened and we got in, got a table and, without much trouble, got a beer.  A very large one.

 

It is also true to relate that not many sips into hers, Chrissie seemed considerably happier. 

 

Chrissie getting a little happier

....?!

 

We had sat next to a pair of South African sisters – the older called Liezl and the younger called Anna-Suzanna (or Ansu).  I couldn’t swear to what exactly is their connection with Germany, but their surname is Colditz so they appeared to have better claim to be manning a bench in Munich than we did.  Liezl is an accountant living in London with her husband, and she’d been taking her sister (a dance teacher) who was over from South Africa on a tour of Europe.  They still had Italy on their list of places to go, and were staying on a camping ground in Munich, which sounded…challenging.  We sympathized with them. 

 

The sisters Colditz

The sisters Colditz

 

I think they were literally a Godsend since they immediately befriended Chrissie, and gave her enough female solidarity for her to forget the odiousness of her situation for a short while.  They were also great fun for the rest of us and ended up teaming up with us for the whole day. 

 

Band members setting an example

The Band sets an example

 

It was around now that Skipper told me he was going to fly back that evening instead of staying the night.  His reason was that he wanted to see his wife.  Although it was grand to see that marriage was having the desired effect on him, once more I felt the short stab of the death of all things. 

 

Skipper and Lecka

Farewell Skipper

 

This week really was coming to an end.  And in only a few short hours, Skipper would leave. 

 

“I suppose we’d better drink up then,” I said and clonked my big glass against his.

 

Still, we had the whole day and soon the music would begin in earnest, and we would laugh and sing and slap each other on the back for a hearty fellow.

 

Or would we?

 

Along came a beer-maiden, unladen this time with her usual load of overflowing brews, and leant over our table.

 

“I am very sorry.  But you must to leef this table in 10 minutes, OK?  Vee haf anuzah seeting at Vun o’klok.”  (You’ll have to imagine the German accent – with apologies to German speakers.)

 

At this point, the air somewhat went out of my balloon.

 

We were soon ushered outside into the blazing sunshine.  Fortunately, having lost one table inside, we did at least find room on a trestle table outside in the “beer garden”. 

 

Here we sat for a good length of time.  It was all very well enjoying the sun and conversation, but I still had half a mind that this wasn’t what we had come for.  Or it wasn’t what I had come for.  I wanted the music and singing and the atmosphere inside the tent.  But this we weren’t to get. 

 

Liezl and Lecka

Lecka and Liezl

 

By the middle of the afternoon the sun and the alcohol starting taking their effect.  Christian and Christina left to go back to their hotel for a rest, telling us to give them a ring later so we could meet up again in the evening.  The rest of us tried to sneak back into the tent, despite the fact that the doors were now obviously closed, since the tent was full. 

 

Three of us got in and had snuck our way onto the edge of a table and even ordered a beer, but Ansu and Skipper were foiled by the doormen.  The group was split.

 

So instead, forgoing our spot after only a few minutes, we came outside to find them again. 

 

Ansu we found, but it seemed Skipper had decided to leave us to it.  He’d gone for the hotel, and then the airport.  It was all too bad.  This was not how the day was supposed to go.

 

A Munchner throng

Afternoon throngs

 

Even so, Liezl and Ansu were good company.  One of us then came up with the bright idea of having a go on one of the many fairground rides.  I don’t know why I agreed to this. 

 

I’d been feeling fine before I did this.  Afterwards, not so good.  Really not very good at all.

 

Ill-advised after a brew....

A very bad idea

 

I needed to lie down. 

 

“Lecka, we need to go back to the hotel to find the others, now.  Liezl, give us a ring later and we can all meet up this evening, OK?   OK.  Let’s go, let’s go.”   The world was starting to spin now.  I was feeling less and less gemütlich with each passing minute.

 

A short taxi ride later and Lecka and I were riding the elevator up to Christian’s room.

 

He let us in.

 

“Where’s Christina?”

 

“She’s gone home.”

 

“What? What do you mean?”

 

“She’s at the airport.  I went to sleep earlier.  She just called me from the airport saying she’s got her bike and that she’d bought a flight back to Hong Kong for tonight.”

 

I had to take my hat off to the girl.  When she wants something to happen, it happens. 

 

Exit Christina - probably one of the two finest sisters-in-law in the world.

 

“Skipper’s gone too,” I said. 

 

“Yeah, I know.  So it’s just the three of us.”

 

“Looks like it.”  I looked passed him at his big double bed.  “I have to lie down.”

 

******************************************

 

I opened one eye, and my head started to throb.

 

The room was dark and I was on a bed.

 

I suddenly remembered where I was. 

 

I swung myself up and saw Lecka lying on the floor with his head on a pillow.  The last of the light was being swallowed up by the darkness outside. 

 

Argh, I didn’t feel good.  It must have been that fair ground ride.  Or maybe those nuts I ate didn’t agree with me.  For some reason, I just felt terribly sick.

 

Christian woke up, and then so did Lecka.

 

There was some debate between us whether we should stick to our plan for the evening.  It was after 10pm.  Christian had booked a table for us at a club in the centre of town, for which he’d had to put down a pretty hefty deposit.  The idea had been that this would be a fun place for all of us to go on to once the beer tents shut at eleven. 

 

But now there were just three of us.  And I felt awful. 

 

“Are we gonna go or not?” I mumbled. “I really don’t mind if we don’t.”

 

“No, come on.  Get your butt in gear, Theo, we’re going.  I’m not gonna waste all that money.”

 

“OK.  Fine….  OK.  Just don’t expect me to speak for a while.”  Meanwhile, the machine continued hammering in my head. 

 

We did manage to rally ourselves, get to this place, breathe the air.  Breathe it some more and (happily) begin to feel a little more normal again.

 

We called up Liezl and Ansu and told them they were welcome to join us if they wanted.  Meanwhile we went into the club which was filled with the apparent “smart set” from around the city.  Instead of beer, cocktails or champagne, instead of Bavarian drinking songs, dance music.  We almost could have been anywhere, but for the curious sight of young men and women getting on it on a busy dancefloor still wearing their leather shorts and fluffy dresses. 

 

Et voilà - such was the rest of the night.  There is little more to report, save that Ansu is indeed a fine dance teacher.  I’ve no doubt the potential she said she saw in me will never be realised, but I’m sure that’s no huge loss to the world of dance.

 

 

*************************************

 

 

Having parted company with the sisters Colditz somewhere around 5am, we three brothers managed a pretty respectable appearance on deck as early as 10 the next morning.

 

As we sat having brunch, we concluded that, though it was disappointing to have lost both Skipper and Chrissie the day before, perhaps these things happen for a good reason: the three of us couldn’t remember the last time we’d spent a day in each other’s company, without wives, girlfriends, parents or children.

 

The Town Hall, Munich

The Munich town hall

 

And very civilized it was too. 

 

Forgoing the opportunity to go and get riotously drunk at the festival, instead we cycled gently around the rest of Munich in the sunshine, chatting away about all the important things that brothers need to discuss from time to time, while taking in the river, the English Gardens, and dropping into the museum of BMW, the jewel in the crown of Bavarian industry, for an hour or so. 

 

Exhibit 1, BMW museum

BMW ingenuity

 

Unable to resist the chance to hear at least a few bars of “oom-pah-pah” music before I would have to leave it all behind for good, I suggested we round out our day with a final Stein in the Hofbrauhaus, in the centre of town just a couple of steps from C’s hotel. 

 

This we did, soaking in the positivity of each other’s company one last time before we went our separate ways. 

 

The Hofbrauhaus players

Bavarian brass

 

As Lecka said, as life goes on you don’t get opportunities to do what we’d just done very often anymore.  How could you expect to?  But this week was a time that he would never forget as long as he lived.  We’re lucky.  We’re three brothers that love each other.  And that is something for which he’d always be grateful.

 

Well, we raised our glasses to that. 

 

It says in the old book:  “A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

 

After these beautiful few days through Austria, I had no doubt this cord is stronger than ever.

 

Le fin du (notre) petit tour...

My brothers

 


Comments (1)

Said this on 12-8-2011 At 06:35 pm

 

Hello Theo

Great article! I look forward to reading your books one day...you write exceptionally well...whenever I read one of your articles, I find myself learning a few new things, laughing out loud and generally feeling inspired. Keep the faith and in the words of the great W. Churchhill...never, never, never, never give up!

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