There were five of us in the pristine rental car speeding down the autobahn from Darmstadt to Munich for Oktorberfest: a German, two Russians and two Brits, sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, doesn’t it? The punchline is only four of us made it back by car, can you guess who got lost?
How Not to Do Oktoberfest
Our Oktoberfest adventure was an impulsive decision, and one of the most un-German trips any of us could make where planning was concerned. This also included the German whose sister loaned us her apartment for the weekend at last minute’s notice.
Friday night we secured our rental car to drive across Germany, so unfamiliar that Matt, the other Brit in
the party, kept pressing the unlock button in the laboratory car park in front of the wrong car for 10 minutes. It took a while to notice that the vehicle three cars away flashed up like a Christmas tree.
Everything seemed to go to plan after that, setting off at 6am and raced along the autobahn with its liberal speed limit until we reached Munich by 10am. We dropped off our gear and parked the car safely at Hans’s sister’s apartment, whose inquisitive gaze and twenty questions probed into whether our spontaneity was one for a rebel-like show or actually out of sheer irresponsibility.
“Do you have a space in a tent?” she asked, as we navigated through the crowds funelling along Munich’s streets towards the world famous funfair of beer.
Soon I’d learn the hard way that one does not simply just walk into Oktoberfest and expect a seat in a tent with a gigantic beer. The proper procedure is to reserve a space in one of the famous tents months in advance, and seats go fast. Look up any Oktoberfest guide for newbies and you’ll find information that instructs you on which are the best and most entertaining tents. At this point in time, even getting into a less desirable tent at this point would be considered extremely lucky.
My to all of you reading: If you go to Oktoberfest, don’t be like us, be German and plan!
The closer we got, the denser the crowd, and as people swarmed through the streets of Munich I found keeping track of our group while sober was hard enough through the throngs of Italians, Japanese in lederhosen and other nationalities speaking every other language except German.
“Has anyone ever got lost in Oktoberfest?” I thought aloud, imagining that one misstep in the crowd and I’d have no way of finding my friends (I did not own a cellphone at the time, much to everyone’s annoyance) and would be left stuck in a city I had never been in before, and despite having lived in Frankfurt for almost a year my German was a joke. Hans’s sister just laughed at me, both for my observation and – would have laughed more had I said it in German.
“That’s an urban legend!” she said, shortly before leaving us at the site of the gate.
Although, from experience, I’ve learned legends often take root from something in real life.
We strolled into the muddy site into a carnival of Bavarian kitsch and beer where flashing lights, beer-themed rides and heart-shaped gingerbreads hung from quaint stalls as tourists in stumbled about drunk and it wasn’t even noon yet.
It’s time to introduce our small Fellowship of the Beer, there was myself, a 21 year old British-Hungarian masters student at the time, our local German Hans, my fellow Brit Matt, who still hadn’t lost his strong regional accent after 10 years in Germany and the two Russians, Sergei, the mastermind behind our trip, and Dmitri*, a visiting scientist from Moscow who was only working at our lab for the month.
It was only 11am, yet we were here for beer. And while you could probably fill a lake with the stuff on tap in the various tents, we were not having much luck getting any. Most queues rivalled Berghain’s infamous line, and people had just as much luck getting in as wannabe clubbers in Berlin, being turned away at the doors for being as unprepared as us. We prided ourselves too much to queue, even though it’s a very British pastime, but then we found an Oktoberfest loophole – the food tent.
Among the exclusive and cordoned off beer halls, the food tent allowed you in for beer on the condition you dine there. And no prolonged leisurely “wait for your food to go down” liberties, the moment you cleaned your plate and paid up, you would be kindly kicked. This posed the challenge of trying to down as many Maß, a litre of beer, as possible before you finished your pair of wurst, sausages.
Women in low-cut white shirts, billowing skirts strapped up in aprons skillfully balanced about 15 pitchers of giant beers of Maß on their ample breasts, boasting more strength than some bodybuilders as they gracefully placed down gigantic beers on the table that would make any Hobbit jump up and down with glee. People in the tent broke out in song, drunkenly slurring Oktoberfest tunes in bad German, clunking beers with strangers on the next table trying to get as drunk as possible, before getting kicked out to allow the next beer seekers disguised as hungry customers to barge over to the wooden benches.
Dining well and being expelled ourselves into the cold harsh reality of being an Oktoberfest outcast, we opted for plan B to get our Oktoberfest experience.
Hedonism in Hofbrauhaus
We followed the rest of the disorganised rejects back into Munich centre, watching people fall into the pond by the steps of the two spired Frauenkirche, failing to figure out how to go up an escalator in the underpass in the correct way, the centre was more crowded than the site itself.
We piled into the famous and historic Hofbräuhaus, which was certainly no beer tent, but with its dark wooden beams and long benches, it captured the spirit of seasonal Bavaria, and more importantly it served the famous Oktoberfest beer.
The pitchers of Maß continued to flow liberally to our table and we could continue to drink through the hours with no fear of being expelled, setting up camp on our well-guarded bench. Our neighbours changed as day flew into evening and then late night, from a group of engineers from Berlin, kicked out for doing a striptease while dancing on the tables, to older, distinguished French gentleman who complained at getting sausage instead chicken and a group of handsome Italians, where still to this day I regret never following up with the hot geologist from Naples who scribbled his contact details on a napkin before leaving.
As the beers took their toll at 3am, even we realised it was time to leave.
“Where the hell is Dimitri!” Sergei exclaimed. Looking around as if he had just woken up from a dream.
Among the slurred background noise and the smell of hops and leftover sausages to the sound of a depressed tuba ready for bed, we realised our company was one short.
None of us had seen Russian friend since midnight, and it took three hours to realise this. He was still at the table when the French men were complaining about the food they ordered. Dimitri had muttered something about a toilet and never came back.
Sergei checked the bathroom to make Dimitri hadn’t picked a porcelain bed for the night, but no sign.
“Uh, let’s go,” he said in the end, downing the final dregs of what was perhaps his 8th Maß “It’s his fault, he shouldn’t have walked off.”
“Are you sure he’s going to be alright? He left his cell phone and all his stuff at the flat. He doesn’t speak German or know where he’s staying.”
Sergei shrugged, “He’s from Moscow and has lots of money on him. He did his military service in Siberia, he’ll be fine.”
The Story of the Missing Russian
The rental car plodded along back up the autobahn. Sitting in silence, we wondered whether we left Dimitri behind in Munich among the revellers. Was he dead in a ditch somewhere? Was he living it up with some joyous Americans with connections in some exclusive beer tent? We simply didn’t know.
“I’m going to try to call the lab,” Sergei said, pulling out his cellphone. “Maybe he contacted someone there.”
Dimitri was already back in Darmstadt.
“He can’t remember what happened after he left our table. All he remember is walking the city and realising he’s not in Moscow,” he said, placing his phone back in his pocket. “It also took an angry taxi driver to tell him he wasn’t in Darmstadt. He got on a train, didn’t buy a ticket, planned to throw money at the inspector as he doesn’t German, instead he passed out and somehow got back to Darmstadt for free.”
Even years after Oktoberfest, Dimitri still can’t remember what happened in those missing hours. I’ll always remember that Oktoberfest – the one in which we lost a Russian.
*All names changed to preserve dignity.
Cover photo by Cat Burston