30 September 2019
Beyond the beer, some surprises worth discovering
Summer is over. Germany is like Camelot – at least regarding the punctuality of the weather, not so much the bursting into song – so on September 1st it cooled off right on schedule. But here in Munich, there’s another sure way to recognize that fall has arrived. From one day to the next, men exchange their Bermuda shorts for Lederhosen, women doff their jeans for Dirndls – it’s Oktoberfest time!
I’m strolling through the festival grounds with my high school friend Susan and her husband Bill, who were looking forward to seeing the beer tents. That is, until I tell them about something far more intriguing than a bunch of drunks and a brass band covered by cloth on stilts.
“Most people can’t find it,” I hinted. “And no one ever believes that it’s real until they see it for themselves.” Once I made the mistake of going to the beer tents beforehand and couldn’t find it in my foggy condition among the throngs of people and stands.
I wasn’t going to repeat that mistake.
“Are you kidding?” says Susan. I recognize the familiar expression of disbelief on her face. She’d heard about this somewhere, maybe in an O’Henry story – or was it Charles Dickens? – but they don’t really exist, do they?
Yes, they do. And that’s where we were headed. To the flea circus.
My first visit to the Floh Circus made me an instant convert. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a tiny bug pull a miniscule carriage in a circle. I have therefore made it my mission to take any and all tourists that come my way to this unique attraction. The chuckles of disbelief no longer faze me: see for yourselves, I say. I long ago gave up describing it and just take people there whether they want to go or not.
But we first visit Munich attractions, starting with the Glockenspiel at Marienplatz in the center of town. We’re in the midst of a crowd of tourists, phones held high, waiting for the action. Two sets of figurines turn slowly to the quaint clanging of bells. At the top, tiny knights on slightly less tiny horses commemorate the tournaments that were held on this square in the Middle Ages by rolling towards each other with lances poised. One of them eventually gets knocked over and is forced to ride on precariously perched on his mount. Middle Ages family fun worth recreating.
The crowd oohs.
Next up are a set of figurines in the lower half of the Glockenspiel, the cooper dancers, Schäfflertänzer. They are dressed in traditional red-and-white costumes, standing on one leg, ready for action, like Bavarian Ronald McDonald clones about to pee on a tree. The city promised to perform the dance every seven years out of gratitude for being spared from a plague epidemic. As one does. After the jousting ends and the knights are still, the music changes and the dancers slowly begin to twirl on one leg and move in a circle.
The crowd aahs.
At the top of the town – the New Town Hall tower
Just one more sight before we head off to the highlight of the day. You can’t miss the view from the top of the Rathaus, the Town Hall, I insist. Not only can you see the Alps from up there, you can look down on the city’s picturesque red roofs, spot the Olympic Village off in the distance, admire the vast green expanse of the English Garden and much more. Plus, hardly anybody goes there. It’ll be quick. We proceed to the elevator.
There’s a huge line.
Ah yes, I almost forgot – it’s that time of year again. Squeezed into the haphazard line, we strike up conversations with the other tourists.
“We’re headed to the Bavarian National Museum next,” says a woman from California. “Or the Deutsch something…”
“…the Deutsches Museum,” I chime in, nodding and feeling like a cool cosmopolitan insider. I’m not a tourist, after all. I freaking LIVE here. “Pretty cool, but huge.”
“And the Bavarian National Museum.”
I shake my head. “Boring! Go see the flea circus at the Oktoberfest instead!”
“Seriously? What is that?”
Another convert in the bag. I grin in triumph. It’s the little things in life.
We descend from the tower into crowds of people who are obviously Oktoberfest enthusiasts. Nearly everyone is wearing Tracht, the traditional Bavarian outfit. It’s like Halloween, except that it lasts two weeks and the choice of costume is limited, a narrow definition that suits the German need for rules quite well. Lederhosen are made of deerskin or a reasonable facsimile and combined with a rough linen shirt which often has a sort of lumberjacky checkerboard pattern (as I believe it is known in expert circles). Over the shirt comes either a woolen Janker jacket or a knit cardigan.
If you’re a man over 50 and are comfortable with that fact, you can go all out with a hat festooned with a curious shaving brush-like object known as a Gamsbart, a generous tuft of mountain goat hair. Its original purpose was to show off the wearer’s hunting prowess, but nowadays these pricey decorations are more proof of deep pockets (and sartorial daring) than anything else.
Men sometimes string a silver Charivari chain across their belly, the Bavarian version of the charm bracelet. It is festooned with boar’s teeth, silver coins, cross sections of antlers and other trophies that boast the wearer’s Bavarianness. And if today’s (and yesterday’s) roast pork dinner manifests itself with a prominent bulge between the wearer’s suspenders, no matter: The Oktoberfest is the one occasion where a beer belly is oddly fashionable.
Women wear Lederhosen, too, but they mostly wear tight-fitting Dirndls that are one size too small to flatter their figures. For a period of two weeks the women’s movement is erased from history and everyone runs around in corsets and giggles like schoolgirls – the beer helps a little, too.
Well, a lot. It’s mostly the beer.
Some modern Dirndls have short skirts, but the original ones come down to mid-calf and are made of specially made heavy linen. It’s a great opportunity for a grown woman to play dress-up in public. No one will bat an eye. After all, they’re playing dress-up, too.
Tourists are in on the act, too, but who wouldn’t be? If it’s Halloween and an impressive mummy walks past, you naturally want to counter by being an equally imposing witch. The downtown pedestrian zone of Munich is lined with stores selling complete, inexpensive outfits from the felt hats with feathers for both men and women down to the clumpy Haferlschuhe, literally“coffee mug shoes,” which is pretty much what they look like.
For those of us who are working rather than playing (grumble grumble), it’s easy to forget that it’s Oktoberfest time, right up until the moment when you board a train and find it filled with people who look like they just jumped out of a Goya painting, Mary Poppins style.
We wade through the crowd and hop on the train to the Theresienwiese, which my phone has handily translated for me as Meadow of Therese, which is technically correct – and ridiculous. It’s like calling the Notre Dame the “Our Lady” or the Taj Mahal “Indian White Onion Temple Thingy” (go ahead, google it. I dare you.) Theresienwiese is simply the name for the Oktoberfest fairgrounds, located on what was originally a meadow outside of town, named after Queen Therese Charlotte Luise of Bavaria. She was the wife of Ludwig I, the grandfather of the more famous Ludwig II who built Neuschwanstein castle that served as the inspiration for the tall spires of Disney’s trademark.
Then I remember: It’s Tuesday, family day, when families get special discounts. The train is full of families decked out in their Tracht, smilingin eager anticipation of the sugar-coated nuts, rides and games. Riding the human wave, we spill out of the U-Bahn Theresienwiese exit which, right now, is used almost exclusively by Oktoberfest revelers.
“Oh my God!” exclaims Susan, glancing over her shoulder down the escalator. Behind us is a wave of people surging onto the platform and the escalator as if Moses just parted the Red Sea. Anyone who does not want to go the Oktoberfest would be forced to go there anyway. We follow giant signs pointing us in the right direction under the watchful eyes of neon-clad security guards.
The Beer Tent
“We won’t get a seat,” I warn. “It’s a beautiful day, so there will be a lot of people.” We walk into the Spatenbräu tent, run by the brewery of the same name.
It’s our lucky day. The tent is only two-thirds full.
“Table for three?” says a waiter, approaching us. Now this is a first. Usually you have to wade through the tables to beg for a spot, squeezing between groups of half-drunk (or fully drunk) people on benches.
Comfortably nestled on a bench while I enjoy my beer, I look around. Each tent holds tens of thousands of people and would not be complete without an oompah band. I’m always tempted to call the band members Oompah Loompas, but I have a feeling most Germans wouldn’t get it. In the evening, when the crowds get increasingly raucous and inebriated, people start to sing along to the music. There is a standard set of Oktoberfest songs that all the Germans know. Tourists catch on fast, and in no time the whole crowd is singing and swaying.
For people-watching, the Oktoberfest is hard to beat. People come here with one thing in mind: to have a good time. Everyone is in a good mood. Being packed in like this on a train would be unbearable, but here, jostling for space on crowded benches is seen as a valuable bonding session. The guy next to you at the table usually looks for an excuse to strike up a conversation (which doesn’t necessarily happen around these parts, where taciturnity is seen as a virtue) and finds one.
Today is no exception.
Susan doesn’t want beer and struggles to hear what else the waiter has to offer. The old man across from her taps his beer mug and points to the paper ring around the handle that says Alkoholfrei. That’s the solution. He nods knowingly.
My wandering eye spots a man two tables away who must be in his 80s. This guy looks like a real character.
“Look at that old man!” I say. “I bet he’s been coming here his whole life. Now his wife has died, along with all his friends, so he has to come alone.”
The outfit is 100% Bavarian and his hat is covered with commemorative pins. He sports equally impressive bushy eyebrows. He seems like the type of Bavarian that would wear that type of outfit to church. It’s not a costume, it’s a lifestyle.
“Those pins are probably the collection of a lifetime!” I exclaim, imagining how he took part in shooting competitions – or perhaps hikes – to win them. The longer I look at him, the more I am intrigued. He sways to all the songs and his lips move, vaguely mouthing the words. Probably does this every year.
I make a decision. “I have to get a picture! I’ll go ask him.”
“I dare you!” Susan pipes up. “Better yet, I’ll get a picture of you both.
I go over and bend down politely. “Darf ich Sie fotografieren?” I ask demurely, camera in hand.
The old man smiles up at me. “Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut,“ he says. My German is not good.
What?! How can this Bavarian grizzly bear of a man not speak German?
“English?” I ask, bewildered. My brain does not compute. Why is this Bavarian man speaking to me in English?
“Yes!” he beams.
“Where are you from?”
“Florida!” says my would-be authentic Bavarian widower. My carefully crafted story goes up in smoke. So even old American men like to play dress up.
I’ve learned something today. Tourists wearing Tracht are annoying after all.
The Flea Circus
In search of more originality, we head for the flea circus. We are the only ones present for this performance. The friendly Bavarian lady even does it in English for us.
One by one, she pulls fleas out of the drawer, each restrained by a thin copper wire. One flea is attached to a small block of wood, which gets passed around together with a magnifying glass. It reveals a tiny creature flailing its legs. It’s hard to imagine how anyone managed to catch it, let alone twist an ultra-thin wire around its tiny waist without crushing it to death.
The first show flea pulls a tiny load in a circle. “This is the equivalent to a human pulling a freight train,” she announces.
An actual human pulling a freight train would have been a tad more dramatic, but nevertheless, we are impressed.
Susan leans forward to get a better look.
Next come three fleas attached to tiny carriages. “It’s a race!” she declares. “Let’s see who wins!”
Well, nobody. They’re not moving. They are frozen in place, hooked up to their tiny carriages with the mega-thin copper wires. But then the lady taps her tweezers on the table and picks up a flea and holds it briefly between her thumb and forefinger to jar it into action.
“Maybe he’s sleeping!” She doesn’t seem surprised.
She replaces the coach flea onto the table, tapping her tweezers once more. Sure enough, they all start pulling the tiny coaches.
I look at my friend to see how she’s enjoying it. “What do you think?,” I ask. “It’s hilarious,” she says, without looking away. These things are tiny, better not let them out of your sight.
Next up: three fleas attached to miniature umbrellas. They twirl them around in place.
While we are watching, a horrible thought crosses my mind. Somebody could easily reach across the miniature stage and squash these Lilliputian acrobats with a single pounding of a fist, quickly putting an end to their performance once and for all. Apparently, the people who attend flea circuses are not so inclined, since otherwise they would have put up chicken wire to restrict access to the stage.
I dismiss the fleating thought.
“How long does a flea live?” Bill asks. “Up to six months,” says the lady. That’s incredible. I’m glad these critters are safely wired to their wooden blocks, carriages and umbrellas. No chance of them hiding anywhere on me for the next half year.
The final, star performance is by the soccer-playing fleas. The woman holds the blocks of wood with the fleas attached close to a tiny goal net. The fleas pick up and throw miniature balls about
the size of aquarium gravel – and some even land in the goal!
This blows the fake Bavarian in the beer tent right out of the water.
A stroll across the fairgrounds
The highlight of the day behind us, we leave the tent and encounter a horse-drawn wagon. Even though beer is piped underground into the tents, breweries still cart barrels to the fairgrounds with horse-drawn wagons for show. These magnificent draft horses are dressed in the colors of the brewery and can often be seen standing on the fairgrounds with their master and are a huge hit with tourists.
It’s getting late and the crowd is growing. All variations of outfits walk by (with people in them, obviously; this is not a Dr. Seuss green pants with nobody inside them situation), many of which are not traditional – especially when it comes to the hats. There is someone somewhere in a Chinese factory who derives devilish pleasure from conjuring up new headwear for the Oktoberfest – just to see if people will actually buy it.
They will. Without fail.
One design consists of a chicken with battery-operated drumsticks that flap up and down. There are also devil horns with flickering lights mounted on a plastic headband. The Trinkhelm or drinking helmet is also an evergreen: Straws come down from the top of the hat to deliver a constant flow of beer. The average wearing time of these items is equal to the time when it was purchased to when the alcohol wears off.
“What’s with all the hearts on strings?” asks Bill as we pass a stand covered with them. “And what do they say?”
“They’re gingerbread,” I answer. “It’s, well, it’s a thing! You buy one for your sweetheart. The more beer you’ve had, the bigger the heart.” They’re strung on a ribbon and come in different sizes, with expressions such as Mein Spatz (my dear, or rather “my sparrow,” presumably meant for girlfriends who are picky eaters) or one of the many popular Bavarian expressions like I mog di (I like you) I liab di (I love you) or Lausbub (troublemaker).
Time to go. We board the Goetheplatz U-Bahn train at the opposite end from where we entered. People are carrying plastic flowers or stuffed animals that they won at the shooting gallery. Kids hold strings with shiny aluminum helium balloons of Disney characters, unicorns or teddy bears.
The later it is, the drunker they get. People stand on wobbly legs on the packed trains, laughing extra loud and shouting to and at each other across the aisles. Their breath reeks of beer as they munch the last of their sugar-coated almonds from a paper bag, proffering them to fellow passengers. But no matter how loud or boisterous the revelers, nobody takes offense or gets angry. It’s all in good (hic) fun.
For men, the advantage of drinking too much alcohol is that it makes them feel manly, despite the fact that they are wearing leather shorts, knee socks and an upside-down shaving brush stuck in their hat. Actually, the clothes may be the origin of Bavaria’s beer problem, uh, I mean tradition. Accountants, lawyers and bankers swagger about delightedly during this once-a-year, socially acceptable beer Bacchanalia.
But after two weeks, the play-acting is over. Everyone sends their outfits to the cleaners and puts on their day clothes. The Lederhosen-wearers reappear on Monday in suit and tie, their hairy legs once again safely ensconced in long pants with their beer bellies, no longer in fashion, once again sucked in and hidden away behind a dress shirt.
I see my friends off to their bike tour of the English Garden with a tour guide from Indiana wearing a Dirndl. I draw comfort from the thought that they’re taking all these stories back with them to the U.S.
My quest to tell the world about what is possibly the world’s last flea circus has taken a step forward, a supremely gratifying feeling.
Soon the huge fairgrounds will once again be deserted. Scores of workers will disassemble the giant tents, rides and concession stands, load it all up onto huge flatbed trucks and whisk it all away to storage. They leave behind a giant empty oval. Life returns to normal, until next year when the party begins again. With a fresh batch of fleas.