The newest thing at this year’s Oktoberfest was not at the Oktoberfest.
The Oktoberfest or Wiesn was on hold for three years, which for Bavarians was almost as bad as canceling Christmas. Restaurant and brewery owners quickly filled the gap—and their cash registers—by creating an open-air Oktoberfest-like atmosphere in restaurants in the center of the city. Now they have become an extension of the real thing: servers wear the usual Bavarian garb, tables are decorated with hops and straw wreaths, and they serve the same food that you would get at the Wiesn: chicken, duck, sausages, and Obatzda, a Bavarian cheese spread. They also have Brotzeitbretter or “snack boards” with cheese, radishes, and pretzels.
If you still don’t believe me when I say the Oktoberfest isn’t just for tourists, you have clearly never tried to reserve a table there. The official website says openly that it is virtually impossible to get a reservation on a Friday or Saturday night—or even for lunch. But most beer tents are required to leave large sections unreserved for the hapless tourist who didn’t realize that “folk” festival means lots of folks, to the tune of six million over the course of two weeks.
Only entire tables can be reserved and you must pay in advance. A mandatory amount of food and drink must be ordered together with the reservation, usually half a chicken and two liters of beer. You can also sign up for the “reservation alarm” to be instantly notified when a table becomes available.
If Bavaria ever seceded from Germany, a visit to the Oktoberfest would serve as an excellent (if demanding) citizenship test, since it combines eating large amounts of meat with large amounts of bureaucracy. The beer would be the final hurdle. The amount alone is enough to vanquish many people. A standard Mass or stein of beer is a whole liter. Even worse, many tourists don’t realize that Oktoberfest beer also has a higher alcohol content, perhaps a way to keep the number of foreigners to a minimum—or at the very least, keep them on the floor out of sight.
Young Bavarians start practicing early. An eighth-grade classmate of my daughter’s once managed to convince a group of Japanese tourists to give him the rest of their beer vouchers after he noticed that after one beer they had already had enough. The classmate and his friends suffered from no such inhibitions and paid the price with hangovers the next day on a hiking field trip at school.
American tourists are shocked to discover that you have to pay for your water in German restaurants. More precisely, you must order and pay for mineral water and if you’re not careful, it will be carbonated, which is not to everyone’s taste. This contrasts sharply to the ever-present pitchers of ice water that are automatically placed on tables in American restaurants. Now this is changing—for the first time, they have free water coolers available everywhere on the fairgrounds. Perhaps this is a smart preventive cooling measure for women squeezed into tight dirndls and men boxed into lederhosen, especially since after a record heat wave this summer, the heat returned in time for the Oktoberfest.
But the Oktoberfest is not just about beer. Half of the fairgrounds consists of rides. If you’re American and some of them look familiar, that’s probably because roller coasters made in Germany are all over the world. One of these is the Millenium Force, designed by a German, Werner Stengel, which thrills and terrorizes its visitors in the Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio.
How about the “Ride to Hell”? (Fahrt zur Hölle)? It may sound like your daily commute to the office on the beltway during rush hour, but it’s actually a kind of ghost train. Unfortunately, this ride had a minor accident on the first weekend of the Oktoberfest—cursed by its name, perhaps? Nomen ist omen, after all.
The Krinoline reminds me of a similar old-fashioned ride I enjoyed as a kid. When I say “old fashioned,” I’m not kidding: this ride, the oldest one at the Oktoberfest, debuted in 1924. Four men were required to operate it manually until it was electrified in 1936.
But the best tent at the Oktoberfest is also the least known. It doesn’t have beer or brass bands and it only holds 40 people. No food or drink is served and the performers are so small that you literally need a magnifying glass to see them. This is Europe’s only flea circus. No matter who I tell about this attraction, not one person has been to see it. Nor do they believe me when I tell them that there are real live fleas doing tricks (and you don’t believe me either, do you?). I once had an old friend visit whom I had promised to take to see this. I was brimming with excitement about taking him there and couldn’t wait to see his reaction. But unfortunately, after a stint in a tent, I was also brimming with beer and was too tipsy to find it.
To this day, he thinks I made it up.
I think that’s one of the reasons I have yet to officially take up German citizenship. Despite my intimate knowledge of both German and the Oktoberfest, I will probably never be able to hold my liquor like a Bavarian.