In the past several weeks, I have had two very interesting cultural experiences.  The first one I wrote about in my last letter.  The trip to Egypt and Jordan is still on my mind, and it was truly an experience I will never forget.  Just the fact that visiting some of the very special sites in Egypt and then being able to walk through the kilometre-long gorge to see the ancient glories carved directly into solid stone in Petra were both childhood dreams that have now become part of my realities.  It was an incredible trip.  And then there was the cultural experience I had the other evening.

I had gone to Munich to work with a client group, and after the very long day, we all went to visit one of the cultural centrepieces of Bavaria.  Yes, we went to Oktoberfest.  Oh my. 

I was born in Milwaukee.  When I was in my mid-teens, I can remember going to the first Summerfest event on Milwaukee’s lakefront with my brother to see Freddie ‘Boom-boom’ Cannon.  If you don't remember who he was, that's okay.  I try not to remember a lot of things too.

Summerfest was an event that the city fathers developed as a way to both do something positive with the area, as well as stimulate tourism (which really means money) for the community.  The Lakefront festival was the brainchild of someone who had once visited Oktoberfest and had seen what a money-spinner it could be.  I knew all this from growing up, but it wasn’t until almost 50 years later that I actually experienced a bit of what the real Oktoberfest is all about. 

My mental model was that it was all about thousands of people walking around consuming mass amounts of beer and having a good time.  My mental model wasn’t exactly right.  There were tens-of-thousands of people, and they were consuming incredible amounts of beer.  And whilst it did appear that they were having a good time, I think that many of them might not have a great morning the following day.

Oktoberfest is one huge party.  Actually, a party on steroids.  After making through a massive entrance area, we plunged through the crowds until we found the Hippodrom, a tent that we were scheduled to have dinner in.  I am not even sure if the term ‘tent’ is appropriate for what we walked into.  The Hippodrom was the largest tent I had ever seen.  It was filled with three-thousand people sitting at long tables covered with huge beer mugs.  If they were not there, I am sure Airbus could use it to house one or two A380 planes in.  (Just a side note here.  According to what I have found out, the Hippodrom wasn’t the largest of the venues at Oktoberfest this year.  There were eight tents, all sponsored by different breweries, that held about 6,000 people each, and one tent, sponsored by the Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu brewery, that held a tad over 8,000 people.  We didn’t go to that tent, but I think it was the size of Scotland.)

As we made our way through the assembled throng, it was clear that these people were having a good time.  It could have been stimulated by the obvious camaraderie of so many people coming together.  It could have been stimulated by all the singing and loud conversations that were taking place (the level of noise in the tent was akin to sitting in a room filled with boom-boxes set on turbo-high).  It also could have been stimulated by the size and number of beer glasses that were being drained faster than the assets of a Wall Street bank.  As I am not exactly a beer-fancier, I asked for something a bit less toxic, but I did actually try the beverage of the moment.  I had been told that the best German brewers would put together special blends of their best products just for Oktoberfest, but to my less-than-finely-attuned-taste- receptors, it just tasted like beer to me. 

On a riser on one side of the tent, a band was playing.  Yes, this was a large group of men in leiderhosen, serenading the throngs with their renditions of traditional Oktoberfest songs, such as, ‘Que Sera Sera,’(Isn't that a French song?),  ‘Achy-Breaky-Heart,’ (Oktoberfest meets Dallas Texas apparently), and eventually, a true German version of ‘Roll Out the Barrel,’ or at least that it what is sounded like.  At least this sounded like something I would have expected to hear at an Oktoberfest.   And then every fifteen minutes, the band would crank up “Ein Prosit,’ which would cause everyone to stand up and clink their litre-sized beer mugs in a toast to something…probably the need to consume more beer.  The noise level was a few notches above deafening, but amazingly enough, it did appear that many people were having real conversations.  Having said that, they could have just been shouting back and forth, 'what did you say?'  or 'was your mother drunk when she sewed those leiderhosen?'

The service staff was fabulous.  I have no idea how many there were, but it didn't take long to notice all the young women in red-check dirndl's whizzing back and forth carrying more mugs that the Governor of California could lift.  One of the client group told me that the women can earn between 25,000  and 30,000 euros in tips during the two-week extravaganza.  Yes, I am sure that they all report their income to the tax authorities. 

We could have sat there for hours.  Actually, I could have sat there for hours.  I was enjoying the spectacle and the food.  In all fairness, I have no idea what I was eating, and if I would have known, I probably wouldn't have touched some of it. But it was good (and I wasn't even drinking beer!)

As our group got up to begin to walk around more of the grounds that had become Oktoberfest, a woman came up to us and asked if anyone in our group wanted to have their breath checked.  For only 5.50 euros, you could ‘rent’ a breath-a-lyzer so you could see if you were in any condition to drive home (assuming you actually did go home at some point). Whilst no one in our group felt the need to use this service, it did strike me as another clever money-spinning franchise, which Oktoberfest was full of.  It also struck me that many of the people who probably did use the service would also need help standing whilst exhaling into the little machine.  

After wandering around (in the cold…yes, I am a weather wimp) and stopping at another venue where I was told the beer was even more special than at the Hippodom (it still tasted like beer to me), the group headed off to discover what other fun things they could experience.  I, on the other hand, being the party animal that I am, found a taxi and made it back to the hotel to do some follow-up memo's on the business meeting.  On the way back in the taxi (the driver of which appeared to be a graduate of the Henri Paul School of Motoring), I began thinking…if I was not here on business, with a group of people who really wanted to experience Oktoberfest, would I have gone there?  It didn’t take me long to realise that the answer was no.  But it also didn’t take me long to realise that being a part of a real Oktoberfest was a cultural experience that I am glad I did.  Ein Prosit!



going through the gorge at Petra

the Hippodrom

some of my 3,000 newest friends

and orgy of traditional Oktoberfest food and noise

Oktoberfest's version of Billy Ray Cyrus

in case you feel bad you weren't there...probably on iTunes

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copyright 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, James B. Rieley