Sunday, November 9, 2008

You only live once! (Warning: Crazy tales of Intoxication)

We had been in Switzerland a month, though it felt like longer and what with the French and Italian we had encountered along with German and Swiss-German we felt like we had been more places as well. But after a month in this country it was finally time to see more of Europe... and what better place to start than Oktoberfest in Munich? The train ride wasn't too long but we had reserved seats just to be sure. We left early Thursday morning, and boy, could you tell we were on the Oktoberfest train! I felt like the only female in sight, and the few others I noticed departed long before Munich. Two guys are boarded with us, one of them in lederhosen, who were very excited about where we were headed. To celebrate they were drinking schnapps and taking pictures of the guy riding across from them who had fallen asleep, as well as with a slightly befuddled train conductor. I could tell this was going to be interesting.

We arrived in Munich, hit an ATM for our first euros, and hopped on a tram towards our hotel. Another very exciting thing about this trip was that we would be meeting up with friends from back home. They had already been planning this trip and we asked if we could join them. AR and ML had lodging booked already so we decided to stay at the same place. Hotel rates during Oktoberfest are so obscene it's best just not to think about it, but the worst part was they didn't have any double rooms left! So we ended up with two single rooms next door to each other. Together our rooms made up the size of one double room, and the narrow beds were really just separated by a wall. We didn't really think about who took which room, but I later realized that if you took away the wall I was still sleeping on "my" side of the bed! Too funny.

M&A were already in Munich, they had arrived the day before from Greece, they were on a bit of an extended vacation. They had already gone to the fest to look for seats in a beer hall, so we hustled as much as possible to meet up with them. We got a text message that they were in the Paulaner tent at table 15, so that's where we headed. Hmmm, no sign of them. CF called A's cellphone. It was hilarious when they realized they were not in the same Paulaner tent because the brass band in our tent stopped playing while the music continued over the phone. We quickly found them once we were in the right structure. What fun to have company from California, well, actually they live in Oregon now, but still... They were only about half way through their first beer, which is plenty of course because we're talking liters! We toasted being at Oktoberfest together and all shared stories of recent travels. Weisswurst, Knödeln, Sauerkraut and one gigantic Brezel were all ordered and enjoyed while the beer seemed to just flow and flow. The beer hall was quite a sight to see, with the band was on a raised stage in the middle of the hall and hundreds of people crowded into tables like ours all around. The kitchen had dozens, if not hundreds, of chickens roasting. The large massen (the glasses that hold a liter of beer) were carried with ease by the bulking biceps and forearms of the servers (both male and female). Everyone was having a great time, there was singing, a little dancing on the table and we were happy to be with friends. At one point our waiter told CF to put out his hand and he tapped out a little snuff which CF was instructed to snort. He did it without hesitation, no surprise there, but what happened next thought was hilarious. We all did it, each of us later expressing shock and a little bit of dismay. M&A were particularly creeped out by the thought of it and CF just wonders why anyone would ever think that following his example was a good idea.

Usually when we reach a new city we're a bit lost and unfocused and end up dining somewhere not up to our expectations which leads to total and utter crankiness in this duo. A few hours into Munich we were quite satisfied and quite tipsy. CF decided he was done and wanted to go take a nap at the hotel, I got up and started walking out with him. That was when I made the enormous mistake of deciding that I'd actually like to stay and I sent him off to the tram and I tried to get back to M&A. First they didn't want to let me back in the hall. As the day wears on it gets harder and eventually impossible to gain entrance unless you have a table reserved (something that is not easy to achieve unless you've been going for years). To make a long story short, I wandered around a while, eventually got in through the side door but my friends were gone, and then decided to walk the long way back to the hotel since I didn't want to waste money on another tram pass (CF had carried away our double pass, A&M had a group pass so I could have gone with them). Well, remember I had just arrived in Munich and had gone straight to the hall, I had never seen a map. I didn't realize there were actually two ways out of the festival area, I followed the tram tracks but just couldn't seem to make any progress. This was because I was going the completely wrong direction! I stubbornly stuck it out for much longer than was reasonable and eventually the sun was going down and it was starting to rain, I swallowed my pride and caught a 20 euro cab ride home. Oktoberfest seems to ignite a fair bit of traffic! Remember when CF almost lost me at the station while we changed trains on our way to Cologne last year? Hmmm, he always trys to ditch me in Germany! The funny thing is because of the early start at Oktoberfest there was time for all this mayhem to go down and still go out to an 8pm dinner!

We agreed on an early start in the morning, it was the German reunification holiday, getting seats would not be easy. We decided to get to the Wiesn well before the doors opened at 10am... or so we thought that's what we were doing. I'm pretty sure you had to be there around 8am, and perhaps the doors opened around 9, by the time we arrived the halls were filled to maximum capacity and we stood outside in the crowds wondering what to try next. Of course this was when the pouring rain began and our little band of soggy "late" comers tried to stick it out for a while but eventually decided to cut our losses and try a beer hall elsewhere in Munich. We scored a table in Augustiner's hall, had some beers and a great lunch. I had venison, which was hearty and tasty and also added another point to my Omnivore's One Hundred score. The hall filled up, the line backed up outside, we were pleased with our decision to hit this place up when we did! We dried out, warmed up and everyone was happy again. The rain had pretty much stopped so we wandered Munich for a bit and somehow came to the conclusion that we should try our luck back at Oktoberfest, hoping to catch a break between the afternoon and evening crowds somehow.

The crowds were huge, there was an amazing amount of people watching opportunities. Some of the best was watching the amusement park rides, I just can't imagine those are a good idea with a belly full of beer! It is slightly easier to find seats in the beer gardens surrounding the halls, you just lose out on a bit of the atmosphere and have much less protection from the elements. When we saw an empty table we decided to make the most of it and have some dessert... an a beer. The sweets were delicious, but damn it was cold. AR was freezing and the cold beverage didn't help. He fell behind the rest of us and when a waiter came to collect our empties he decided to give the straggler a hard time and pounded the empty massen on the table while A chugged as best he could. I tried not to laugh. And A, I'm sorry for telling the story! It was too cold to sit still so we came up with the idea to see how many different gardens we could have a beer in. We moved on to a nearby garden and were looking for seats when I felt the increasingly unfamiliar feeling of warmth start seeping into my blood. Space heaters over head! My eyes went to the people at the table next to me at the moment, there was room for us if they were willing to accept us. The guys I had pegged to share some elbow room with shrugged and I corralled my shivering friends. Our frozen fingers had a hard time holding up the number "four" to show the waiter how many beers to bring. Our table mates laughed a little. But this is Oktoberfest, it wasn't long before we were all chatting and that was how I met David, Phillip, Phil and Chris. All about twenty years old, from a town near Frankfurt, and here they were enjoying their first Oktoberfest as well. New found friends and delicious heating? We settled in for the night.

The conversations had at that table were great. They taught us how to toast properly and shared their thoughts on American politics. The Germans were extremely pro-Obama ever since he spoke in Berlin back in July. "McCain is an asshole!" one of them exclaimed to my surprised and they all cheered and clinked glasses and laughed. I think there was a bit of beer talking. Speaking of beer, this is where the evening becomes fuzzy. M and I took a couple of trips to the ladies room (after being lost alone in Munich the day before I was determined to not be alone for the rest of my time there), the shock of the cold as soon as we left the proximity of our heated haven was incredible, but the wait was amazingly never bad at the restroom. Oktoberfest is clearly dominated by men, and the women who participate are appreciated, and respected, for the most part. We were flirted with in many different languages throughout the night. I was shocked to hear my name being shouted at one point and laughed when it turned out to be Chris from our table who had wandered off for a while. And on another trip back from the restroom, when my brain was particularly foggy, M grabbed my arm and leaned in and said, "You only live once." And she pulled. Later I would piece together that she had somehow tagged along with someone into the tent. We were in! But our husbands were not. Oh dear. We stayed a while, boldly joining someone's table and standing on the benches with them, beers were somehow put in our hands, we tried to sing along with the songs being played. It was almost too crazy to accept it was actually happening, "I've lost my head and it's all because M only lives once!" I thought. Eventually I wimped out and dragged the party queen back outside into the cold with me and we rejoined our guys. I think I was a bit relieved to have the group reunited, and I celebrated with a little more beer. Which is just about where my clear recollection of the night ends!

The next morning I woke up in my silly single bedroom barely remembering how the heck I had even gotten back there. I picked up my camera and looked at the last photo taken. Suddenly I remembered seeing CF taking my picture, and I remembered wondering why he had moved to the next table over. Well, it turns out that it was I who had moved. I had decided to make even more new friends, the young ones were falling asleep at our original table, and I had joined a group of guys who today I could not tell you where they were from or what language they spoke. I couldn't even tell you what they looked like if I hadn't seen their photo on my camera, with me blowing kisses at CF in the middle. Oh my.

Eventually we all rallied and made it out the door. Mercifully, since I couldn't stomach the thought of beer, we decided to see more of Munich and not try to fight for seats on the last Saturday of the Fest. We saw Nymphenburg Castle, had some lunch, and wandered through Munich's fantastic outdoor market. One booth had intriguing bottles of schnapps of different kinds, each one displaying a picture of whatever fruit or plant gave the liquor its essence. CF fixated on one bottle, it had a picture of a bear. "Woah, what is it?" He said, like we would know. He was obviously curious but started to walk away. Then he asked if we could go back, he picked it up again, talked himself out of buying it again and then walked away dismayed, "I'm going to regret not buying that bear liquor for the rest of my life." Were more ridiculous words ever spoken? "Then go get it!" I instructed and realized that A and M were both saying the same thing with me. And so, the bottle was purchased and was carried for the rest of the day. We huddled into a stand selling some tasty cappuccinos and cookies and then took a little subway ride out to the huge and beautiful English Gardens. We had a lovely stroll through the park. At one point the sun was starting to set and the autumn colors were lit gorgeously and a group of ducks had somehow decided to march single file over to the stream and go for a single file swim. So cute! We were all very happy to have covered some great ground in Munich. And now, what to do for our last night? No one could even pretend that they thought we could get in to a beer hall, but we decided to go back over there and check out the food stands that we had mostly been ignoring since arriving.

We ended up having a great meal patched together at different stands. I enjoyed some of my favorite tastes from traveling last year: frites with mayo and apple slices dipped in batter and fried. We all agreed that Oktoberfest was an amazing event. It could never happen like this in the US. Everyone would be drinking out of tiny plastic cups, there would be fights and yet also police force everywhere. I'm not saying that craziness wasn't the overarching impression here, but it somehow was all happening without much of anyone getting hurt and/or angry. A&M's flight home to the States was quite early the next morning so we headed back to the hotel. CF and I had a great time with them in Munich, we hadn't traveled with them before and we definitely found them to be kindred travel spirits. We said our goodbyes that night, by the time we woke up in the morning they were gone.

We packed up our suitcase and headed to the train station. We wanted to do something with our last couple of hours in Munich but didn't want to have to return to the hotel so we left our stuff in a locker. CF was torn between returning to the Wiesn for one last shot at a moment in the halls or going back to the market we had seen the day before. I said I thought I had done Oktoberfest right (in large part due to Ms. M) and didn't need to go back but I was up for anything. Would you believe he actually picked the market? And would you believe we actually didn't think about the fact that it would probably be closed? We wandered a bit more through Old Town Munich and realized it just might be time to visit the Hofbräuhaus. It's packed with tourists, it's what Sudwerk could have been like before the booted everything German from their menu, but everyone knows it and we had been told it was worth seeing. We went in the door around 11 and sat right down at a table. The room smelled like stale beer and the guys at the table across from us had maybe been there all night, one of them was still asleep. We decided to move further into the restaurant and the crowd quickly filled in around us. We were joined by a mixed group of Germans and Americans, one of the German guys had been an exchange student with one of the Americans (also, one of the Germans confirmed my suspicion about the "bear liquor" that CF was cradling in his backpack with a disgusted face after being shown the bottle). There was a band playing songs herd at the tents, spirits were high, I wondered if the waitresses were relieved that Oktoberfest was coming to an end. Our meal was actually very tasty and one of the cheapest we had in Munich. I got into the setting enough to even have part of another beer (my first since Friday). CF had a great time and stated that this experience was great closure to his time here. And when I let him finish my beer he said it now could not be more complete. That sounds like our cue to go get on a train!

The train was absolutely packed, thank goodness we had those seats reserved. People looked tired, a long weekend in Munich had worn us all out. At one point during the ride home a man came down the aisle selling Heineken, the gruff looking German across from me looked and laughed a little, like the mere sight of it hurt him. Further down the car there were English speakers watching little movies taken on digital cameras and the familiar sounds of Oktoberfest filled the air one last time.

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