It was 6 a.m. on a Monday, and I smelled like a brewery. A small backpack held my other sets of clothes and a camera in the storage bin above my seat on the train. A German man in his mid 30s – all designer glasses, expensive suit and blond hair – stopped and cocked his head in my direction.
“Oktoberfest?” he asked with a knowing smile.
I nodded and smiled back.
“Francais?” he asked me, thinking that I must be French since it was the train back to Paris, where I lived at the time.
I told him I was an American, he eyed my ridiculous new “drinkin’ hat,” beer-perfumed shirt and the three empty 1-liter steins I’d picked up and gave a low chuckle.
“I hope you found it enjoyable,” he said, his hand making a motion to tip a hat he wasn’t wearing before he ambled off to another spot on the train.
Enjoyable? Yeah, that’s putting it mildly.
Three days earlier.
My arrival in Munich late on a Friday night was unlike pulling into any other train station. I stepped onto the platform and wondered if I hadn’t actually been dropped off in a beer hall.
Men in lederhosen and women in brightly colored dirndls filled the cavernous terminal. Some flitted about and talked excitedly, others supported staggering friends and a few sat against the wall, bleary-eyed. All the ones I could see were drunk.
I found a map and made my way to my hostel, which was charging me the outrageous sum of €180 for three nights. Drop the zero off the end, and that’s what a non-Oktoberfest weekend would have cost. But you’re only 26 once, right?
No one was at the front desk, but I managed to call the after-hours number by borrowing a phone from some other Americans I happened upon in the lobby. The poor German man who checked me in couldn’t figure out who I was, despite my handing him my passport and writing “Hostels.com” on a pad. After a few phone calls, much talking at me in progressively louder yet still friendly German, he got frustrated and stuffed a key in my hand. I agreed to meet the other Americans at 6:45 the next morning and shuffled off to claim my barracks-chic bed in a four-person room.
My alarm went off, and I somehow managed to get up, dressed and down to the lobby at the aforementioned ungodly hour. A quick ride on the Unterbahn left us at the Theresienwiese stop, and there was no question we were in the right place. Thousands scrambled up the stairs and into the new day. Not wearing lederhosen, I was in the minority.
The five of us picked one of the 18 large tents at random. They hold 3,000 to 5,000 people each, and we figured we were sure to get a spot, but it was now approaching 8 a.m., and we were far from the entrance, a disorganized horde in front of us.
I made friends with a German woman in line – she overheard me mention I was a journalist, and she was looking to get into the PR field – and she, her brother and American friend became part of our group.
At 8:45 we made a mad dash to find a table, and in my mind’s eye the scene of everyone rushing in among the tables looked like a Plinko machine someone had dropped all the balls into at once. Somehow we secured a table with a trio of Aussies. The unfortunate ones milled about, trying to squeeze in, their faces ashen at the fruitlessness of the endeavor.
Nine a.m. isn’t an hour I was used to seeing, and I certainly didn’t drink so early, but I joined in the table-pounding and the shouting as more than 3,000 voices called in unison: “Bier, bier, bier.”
And the servers rushed about, some carrying as many as 14 liters per trip. At €9 per liter of beer, most of us gave them a €10 note, and I realized they must get obscene amounts of tips each day.
It was only after I got my beer that I realized we were in the Hacker-Pschorr tent. Raised glasses, shouts of “Prost!” and it was on. Twelve hours earlier, I hadn’t known a single person with whom I was then drinking. But that didn’t matter.
By the second liter, we were all belting out lyrics to old songs most of us were hearing for the first time. I still have no idea what I was supposed to be saying, but a band on a central stage gave us music, the servers sold us beer, and I was living the dream of millions.
Periodically, someone would stand on a table and attempt to chug a whole liter at once. Success brought cheers, while failure brought a formidable amount of booing, even from those of us who know we could never even give it a fair try.
By mid-afternoon, four or five liters of beer in, it was time to leave. My eyes stung from cigarette smoke, my vision was blurred with each tentative step forward, and at that point, walking really was just the successful act of not falling down.
Back in the daylight, the sounds of merriment muted, I saw a hillside full of people sitting and sleeping. A woman clasped her hands over her ears. A man was passed out nearby, one shoe having fallen off.
We parted with our German friends and wandered around the city. Marienplatz looked the same as it had when I’d been in Munich before, and we were all more interested in finding cheap food than reconstructed Gothic architecture at the moment anyway.
Wienerschnitzel, french fries and water. Then relaxation on a grassy field near Marienplatz. Then back to the hostel for a nap. Only I wasn’t tired, so I wandered around before stopping back at the train station to down some sausages on a bun.
An hour or so later, I met my friends again, and we were headed back to the Hacker-Pschorr tent.
We stayed until they kicked us out, standing on the benches, drinking more beer and having fun shouting song lyrics we might have been getting a better grasp of.
That night, my almost-there mattress felt more comfortable than goose down, and I was out until 4 a.m. when a pair of Polish sisters – new tenants in my room – wandered in and got settled in their beds.
The next morning, the sisters and I became friends, got breakfast and headed to Theresienwiese. What followed was much the same as the previous day, but with new faces, as my American friends were touring nearby Dachau, and I wasn’t in the right state of mind to visit a concentration camp. I did later, but I’m not sure I’m ready to write about it yet.
On that late-September Sunday in 2009, I was enjoying Oktoberfest to the fullest. I drank, I sang, I drank, I ate, I drank, and I managed not to drink too much. I happily succeeded in dodging the messes of those who did drink too much. Even my camera made it through the trip despite my happily handing it to all manner of intoxicated folk to take more than 200 pictures – most of which need never see the light of the Internet.
And so it was I found myself near the exit to Hacker-Pschorr near closing time. I’d visited other tents – Paulaner, Hofbrau, Hippodrom, Spaten – but I just plain liked Hacker-Pschorr the best.
The Polish girls wanted to go ride the carnival rides. I managed to shake my head “no” without loosing my balance, and we said our goodbyes.
Monday morning came too soon, and no hostel worker was even awake to check me out, so I locked my key inside my room and headed to the train station, sure that the hostel would eventually charge the credit card with which I’d reserved the room (It’s been three years, but that hasn’t happened).
And sitting on the train, smelling like a brewery and clutching the empty steins, I couldn’t stop smiling.
Oktoberfest practical info:
Oktoberfest takes place on the last two weekends in September and the first in October. If you want to go, book your lodgings early, as they tend to fill up fast, and the prices are at a premium.
Reservations for tables can be made at many of the beer tents in advance, but you can otherwise usually find a spot as long as you’re in a small group.
You can get excellent food in the beer tents, and the bathroom situation is very efficient in the larger tents.
DON’T STEAL THE MUGS. Seriously – I saw several people getting arrested for trying to sneak them out. It’s not worth it.
Check the official Oktoberfest website for other practical information.