In Munich, the Oktoberfest is just like Christmas. Same time every year, same crowds, same outfits. If you happen to forget the date, it hits you when you come up the escalator at Marienplatz in the center of town and find yourself suddenly surrounded by tourists.
“What the…oh yes, it’s that time of year again!”
Except the past two years have been different. In 2020 and 2021, it was canceled because of corona. The city would have preferred to cancel it again because the virus is still around, but it was not legally possible.
We decided early that we weren’t going. It’s every year – unless there’s a pandemic, that is. Besides, I was scheduled to be out of town. Missing out on the revelry and burnt almonds had one great advantage: I wouldn’t have to try to squeeze into my traditional Oktoberfest Dirndl. For the uninitiated, the Dirndl or a version thereof is a modernized take on a traditional dress you wear to the Oktoberfest alongside Lederhosen. It’s so tight that I personally believe it’s a symbolic tribute to Bavaria’s enduring love of sausage because that’s exactly how you feel when you wear one.
Landing at the Munich airport after returning from vacation, I met four guys from L.A. in the train station. They were standing on the platform staring at the train tickets they had just purchased, wondering what to do with them. I offered to help and congratulated them heartily, as they had just overcome the most difficult hurdle when visiting Munich: figuring out how to buy a train ticket into town and which one to buy. I boarded the train with them and struck up a conversation.
While relishing the opportunity to give Oktoberfest advice gleaned from years of visits, I was horrified by the realization that one of my favorite attractions might not even be around anymore: the flea circus. Before you start howling in disbelief at the thought that something like that should actually exist, rest assured: it’s a real thing.
No, it does not refer to the straw mattress in great-grandpa’s old barn.
And why would the flea circus not be around? Because its owner and operator has to feed the fleas on his arm every day. I am not kidding. If you go to the flea circus, he will explain how he trains them using light and heat and takes them out of a drawer once a day to feed on his blood. If you look closely, you’ll see tiny red marks on his arm, like from an army of minuscule vampires. I figure since the Oktoberfest was called off the last two years, he must have been feeding these little critters for nothing. Or maybe he set his last batch of seasoned acrobats free and found new ones. They take six months to train, he says.
It’s worth going just to see a guy who willingly lets fleas feed on his blood every day. Think about that the next time your boss gives you a stupid job to do and you’re tempted to feel sorry for yourself – even for a fleating moment (heh-heh).
On the news, they showed the crowds on the Oktoberfest grounds, visibly much sparser this year. Apart from the COVID scare, the fact that it rained non-stop during the whole two weeks didn’t help much. There was actual space between bodies, a luxury you don’t have in a normal year. Usually if your feet start to hurt, all you need do is lift them up: the crush of the crowd will carry you.
But sure enough, the crowded conditions – especially inside the beer tents – caused the official corona numbers to quadruple. Since only PCR tests were being reported, not the rapid ones, the true number of cases was surely higher. But the intensive care stations did not get overloaded, nor did the hospitals fill up, so the situation remained manageable.
To save energy, outside seating areas were not permitted to use heaters. That was the only visible impact of the war in Ukraine. And since the weather was so cold and rainy, nobody sat outside.
Despite fewer visitors, it was reassuring to see that the usual shenanigans were still taking place. Several men were caught filming under women’s Dirndls. Some people felt obligated to test the strength of the legendary extra-strong Oktoberfest beer. Unfortunately, during this test phase one of the participants accidentally swallowed an entire chicken wing. Another fellow ingested a cigarette lighter.
Too bad it wasn’t the same guy; he could have made chicken nuggets in his stomach. At least they needed no anesthesia upon arriving to the hospital since they were already stone drunk. It makes the flea feeding ritual sound somehow tame.
Title photo by Brenda Arnold