I am a neo-yuppie, son of a baby boomer yuppie. I’m upper middle class and Taco Tuesdays. I am hip music with a side of sweaters. I grew up near New York City and if I was better at budgeting, I would have a Polaroid camera. I drink espresso black just to fit my hip online persona; I don’t take particular pride in this, but I know what I am.
So what’s the most predictable path for first quarter of my junior year at Cal Poly with the pretentious archetype I fill? What’s unoriginal, but with just enough paprika to shake things up?
Four months in Germany and greater Europe screwing around and pretending to be Ernest Hemingway, of course.
I am a journalism major, after all.
Why should you care about what I’m up to? Despite the fact that the college-student-in-Europe thing is a bit played-through, this continent is a completely different face of humanity than home, sweet San Luis Obispo. And if your only impression of Europe is the tacky souvenir your uncle brought back from the honeymoon of his second marriage, then I’m here as a second opinion.
Europe is several thousand miles from Cal Poly with at least as many cultural differences, lifestyles and experiences. I’m here to bring at least a few to you.
To start this column on the right, inebriated foot, I’ll talk about the largest beer festival in the world: Oktoberfest, which I was fortunate enough to go to last weekend in Munich.
Munich is a beautiful, medieval city where the main avenues of walking feature the same dulled cobblestones Bavarians walked over hundreds of years ago. In the U.S., a building aged 350 years is ancient. In Germany, 500-year-old churches are only approaching middle age.
What began as the celebration of a royal marriage in early 19th century Bavaria, devolved and evolved into a massive festival of beer and carnival rides; a strange combination.
Today, a series of fields converted into parade grounds host the event. A labyrinth of tents and mechanical attractions cover the grounds. Trailers selling souvenirs and serving food plug the holes between swinging pirate ships and outdoor seating. Tractor trailers crawl up the main stretch to bring this to that and what-have-you to where. A thousand things happen at once, but the festival’s identity is never lost in a shapeless chaos, as is often the case with parade grounds and some alcohol.
The real attraction is the concentrated Wild Wild West that happens inside the tents. There are six major breweries in Munich that accommodate Oktoberfest: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner and Spaten. Each has its own tent, where attendees can sit on sticky, wooden benches and drink some of the best beer in the world by the liter. The bigger tents have a capacity of about 6,000 people. That doesn’t mean you won’t have to wait to get inside.
Our ragtag crew of Cal Poly students and a couple from other American colleges got to the Hacker-Pschorr at 7 a.m., two hours before the tents open, and we were far from the first arrivals. Young people, the only demographic of people dumb enough to be up this early to drink, had the entire tent surrounded.
At 9 a.m. the doors opened. Roving groups flooded in, hunting for a table to monopolize. We were able to overtake some Italians who tried to commandeer two tables. At precisely 9:03 a.m., I’d never wanted a beer so badly.
The inside of the tent looked like it came straight out of a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. It looked large from the outside, but gigantic from the inside. The ceiling was painted baby blue with clouds and along the walls were cute cartoon buildings of a nondescript stereotypical German town. They carried an infantile, innocent aesthetic which was weirdly ironic considering it contained a celebration of beer culture and everything that comes with it.
Most of the attendees wore traditional Bavarian outfits: the lederhosen and dirndl, which contributed to the childlike look of everything. The dirndl is a dress which splits at the waist, with frilly shoulders. The lederhosen is essentially leather pants and suspenders. If every third person didn’t have an undercut, I might have had trouble estimating ages.
Beer maidens in dirndls slid up and down the rows, carrying six liters in each hand with super-human dexterity, dodging the dazed and confused. A liter of beer, with an alcohol percentage bolstered to 7 percent just for Oktoberfest, cost 10.30 euros. If you expected the maiden to come back to your table later, you paid an extra euro. A firm talking to from my bank account would come later; I accidentally spent over 100 euros.
Over the course of the next 10 hours, Americans, Italians, Germans, Austrians and the nondescript came and left our table. Empty glasses, crumpled paper, coffee cups and cigarette packs littered the long table like a minefield. By early afternoon, benches were places to stand, not sit. Music played, but always manhandled by 6,000 voices sort of knowing the words — better than any kegger I’ve been to.
Then, there is the Oktoberfest Challenge — a true test of grit. People attempt to drink an entire liter in one take. Here’s the rub: You have to drink it in front of an entire tent. Self-subjection to a hazing exercise with a stadium-sized audience. If you can’t complete it, people throw food at you. When someone at our table successfully completed the challenge and immediately left the tent to puke, it was time to leave.
The entire event was admittedly, a bit messy. That said, there was something different about this experience than other realms of alcohol consumption. This celebration, which does facilitate and encourage the consumption of plenty of beer, felt much more wholesome than just getting drunk. Beer is ingrained in Germany’s very old culture in a similar way to the cobblestones and cathedrals. At the heart of it, that very old culture as a whole is the emphasis of the celebration, not just seeing things through the bottom of an empty glass.