Sunday, October 07, 2012

Oktoberfest: a simple tale of beer, blondes and boobs

If there is one group of workers I don't envy - and there are many to choose from - it would be employees of the Munich department of public works, around about now. 

For the last two weeks they've had the no-doubt thankless task of each day flushing the Bavarian capital's streets of a variety of man-made and man-evacuated detritus, including the obvious, as tides of inebriated visitors have poured through the city.

For just over a fortnight every year, Munich pulses. Six million visitors trebling its population, and all with more or less the same thing on their mind. There's no need to dress it up in with cultural importance or sociological depth. This city hums with people for the most rudimentary of reasons - to drain large, jugfulls of beer, and devour a variety of dead animals accompanied by some form of simple carbohydrate.

If this was the UK the press would be apoplectic with indignation, citing another shameful episode of "BINGE-DRINK BRITAIN" and the social and moral decay associated with it. But for Munich, Oktoberfest is a festival, a party, and as much a part of city life as Carnival is to Rio de Janeiro or Mardis Gras is to New Orleans. Likewise it attracts tourists - beer tourists - from bemused Japanese confronted by small mountains of cooked meat, to tree trunk-necked Englishmen, beering themselves into aggressive stupors (oxymoronic, quite deliberately).

There are also plenty of families joining in the lagery fun. A clink of glasses and a shout of "prost!" and Vater, Mutter und die Kinder raising a Maß to nature's goodness, just as fresh supplies arrive.

Impressively, these supplies are invariably delivered by just the single pair of hands of an impossibly proportioned waitress, spilling over the top of her traditional dirndl dress, looking like she's also carrying both Fairbrass brothers from Right Said Fred down there. 

If, by the way, that comes across as a leering, lascivious comment, then mea culpa: it was a female friend who - before any other observation - warned me in advance of my arrival in Munich that I could expect to see an awful lot of bosom and blonde hair. I wasn't disappointed (speaking from the point of view of expectation, of course).

The dirndl isn't, by the way, a fancy dress affectation: it is worn around Munich like a Bavarian Mao Suit. And very pretty they look too. Equally creditable, though slightly questionable in this day and age, is the ubiquity of lederhosen amongst male visitors to Oktoberfest, worn over a blue or red checked shirt. 

Young and old, skinny and, well, Bavarian - they're all wearing it. Designed to aid hard work in the fields, they are worn around these parts, so to speak, because they allow freedom of movement and durability while toiling. And for maximum worker efficiency out in the fields, lederhosen have a buttoned flap at the front. For access, obviously. 

Oktoberfest lends itself readily to cultural stereotype. Germans have a reputation for being, shall we just say, forthright. Pour litre after litre of lager into the males of the species, and boorishness surfaces with all the subtlety of a German death metal band.

Which means that, to the sober, Munich's streets on any given afternoon or evening, or even the following morning, are an unruly cavalcade of slurred singing, punctuated occasionally by the unmistakeable noise of curried wurst being wretched all over the pavement.

It would be grossly unfair, though, to attribute this only to the locals. There is no shortage of nationalities, also dressing up for the occasion, all swigging away on beer. However, and I apologise for straying into stereotype once more, the most committed are the locals, who somehow manage to get to the bierhallen by 7am to bag themselves a table. 

Yes, this is the same methodology that secures sunbeds around the Mediterranean each summer. The only difference between Munich in late September and Majorca in mid-August is that while the sunbed and its towel will not be touched further during the day, the trestle tables and benches claimed at the crack of dawn in the name of fatherland will remain occupied for the remainder of the day.

Such dedication is admirable, but it does mean that by mid-afternoon Munich is 'flowing'. Sozzled carcasses - "Bierleichen" - slump everywhere, giving tables that, first thing, had a row of upright participants, the appearance of an old man's mouth with teeth missing.

All that lager has to go somewhere, too. It's perfectly natural and biological normal. That's until people find inventive and not so discreet ways to take care of breached bladders, such as the gentlemen we saw entertaining gridlocked traffic by urinating from the central reservation of a main road, much to the horror of a family in a Peugeot in closest proximity, to the ignorance of the police barely 100 metres away, and to the semi-amusement of a group of American seniors who had clearly seen Oktoberfest's earthier excesses before.

Oktoberfest is the perfect example of something relatively innocent getting drunkenly out of hand. Despite giving the impression of a peasant festivity around since time immemorial, it actually goes back only as far as the early 19th century.

On October 12, 1810, the William and Kate of their day - Crown Prince Ludwig (who became King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen - got hitched, prompting the good burghers of Munich to hold a right royal knees-up. And a horse race, as you do.

Everyone had such a good time that they decided to do it all again the following year, throwing in an agricultural show for good measure. By the end of the decade, the festival had grown dramatically, adding in a few rudimentary fairground rides.

If only they'd stopped there. Today, there are a mass of wild rides which seemingly contradict the basics of a beer festival, but back in the early 19th century, the laws of centrifugal force were only just being understood.

Beer in those early years was also consumed in relatively genteel quantities, served from small stands.

But as these grew in number, a more organised, German-scale of delivery came about and, in 1896, the first beer halls were constructed by the major breweries.

And thus we have the Oktoberfest of today, generating around 1.1 billion Euros for the Munich economy, due in part to the eight million litres of beer that will be consumed along with, conversely, 245,000 litres of tea and coffee, as well as the 119 cows, half a million chickens and 120,000 pairs of sausages that will be served up over the two weeks. Do the maths there and you'll notice that not an awful lot of food is being eaten in proportion to the staggering amounts of beer...

Now I've finally sampled Oktoberfest for myself, after many years of talking about it, I can reassure the binge-drinking Brits who spend their weekend evenings staggering up and down Essex high streets, that they really have got nothing on Der Münchner. On the other hand, it is a mostly good-natured event, even the conspicuous public drunkeness.

That said, with an amusing malapropism the organisers describe Oktoberfest as "a romping place" for pickpockets who take advantage of individuals already relieved of their senses by relieving them of wallets, cameras and other valuables, although judging by the 4000 items that turned up in Oktoberfest lost property last year (including 260 pairs of glasses, 200 mobile phones, wedding rings, and even 500 crutches), much misfortune is inevitably self-inflicted.

Munich during Oktoberfest is a sight to behold. For the other 50 weeks of the year this city - Germany's third largest - resembles a large, quaint Bavarian village. Come the end of September it turns into something resembling an Asian tsunami - with houses, cars and other fixtures swept along streets in a deluge of seawater replaced by a flood of people in varying states of wear and tear. All, however, share the same interest - drinking, enjoying drinking, celebrating drinking.

It really is that straight forward.