Summer is over. In Munich, there’s a sure way to recognize that fall has arrived. From one day to the next, men exchange their shorts for lederhosen and women doff their jeans for dirndls. It’s Oktoberfest!
I’m strolling through the festival grounds with my high school friend Susan and her husband Bill, who thought the main attraction would be the beer tents. That is until I tell them about something far more intriguing.
“Most people can’t find it,” I hinted. “And no one ever believes it until they see it themselves.” Once I made the mistake of going to the beer tents first and then couldn’t find it in my foggy condition among the throngs of people and stands.
“Are you kidding?” says Susan when I tell her about this attraction. 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 exactly where we were headed.
To the flea circus.
My first visit to the Flohzirkus made me an instant convert. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a tiny bug pull a minuscule carriage in a circle. I have since made it my mission to take any and all people who visit me to this unique attraction. The chuckles of disbelief no longer faze me. See for yourselves, I say, and chuckle no more. I long ago gave up describing it and just take people there whether they want to go or not.
“We won’t get a seat in a beer tent,” 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 just two-thirds full.
On a bench enjoying a beer, I look around. Each tent holds tens of thousands of people and would not be complete without an oompah band. 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.
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, alcohol-free. He nods knowingly. She orders an alcohol-free beer, also known playfully as “lead-free” beer.
My wandering eye spots a man two tables away who must be in his 80s. This guy looks like a real character.
I point him out to my friends.
“Look at that old man! 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.”
His outfit is 100% Bavarian and his hat is covered with commemorative pins. He sports equally impressive bushy eyebrows. Then I get an idea.
“I have to get a picture! I’ll go ask him.”
I walk over and inquire politely.
“Darf ich Sie fotografieren?” “May I take your picture?”
He smiles up at me. “Mein Deutsch ist nicht gut,“ he says. My German is not good.
“English?” I ask.
“Yes!” he responds.
What?! Why is this Bavarian man speaking to me in English?
“Where are you from?”
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 lifts fleas out of a drawer, each restrained by an ultra-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 this wire around its tiny waist without crushing it to death.
The first flea pulls a tiny wagon in a circle. “This is the equivalent of 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.
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 those ultra-thin copper wires again. But then the lady taps her tweezers on the table, picks up a flea—still wired to its carriage—and holds it briefly between her thumb and forefinger to jar it into action.
She puts it back on the table and taps her tweezers once more. Sure enough, they all start pulling their tiny carriages.
I look at my friend to see how she’s enjoying it.
“What do you think?”
“It’s hilarious,” she says, without taking her eyes off the fleas.
Next up: three fleas attached to miniature umbrellas. They twirl around in place.
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—actually, I think it is aquarium gravel—and sure enough, some land in the goal.
This blows the fake Bavarian in the beer tent right out of the water.
The highlight of the day behind us, we leave the tent and encounter a wagon, but this one is drawn by a something somewhat bigger than a flea, namely a Clydesdale horse. Even though beer is piped underground into the tents, breweries still cart barrels to the fairgrounds with horse-drawn wagons for show as a throwback to the early days of the Oktoberfest. These magnificent draught horses, draped in the colors of the brewery, often stand around on the fairgrounds with their master and are a popular subject of photos with tourists.
Time to go. We board the Goetheplatz U-Bahn train, jostling for space with people carrying plastic flowers and stuffed animals they won at the shooting gallery. Kids hold strings with shiny aluminum helium balloons decorated with Disney characters, unicorns, or teddy bears.
The later it is, the drunker they get. People stand on wobbly legs on 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, offering them to fellow passengers. But it’s the Oktoberfest! No matter how loud or boisterous the revelers, nobody cares. It’s all in good (hic) fun.
I didn’t win any plastic flowers, but my quest to tell the world about what may be the world’s last flea circus scored a victory.
In just two weeks, the huge fairgrounds will once again be deserted. Tourists will be replaced by scores of workers who 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.