This past weekend will go down in history as one of my most memorable college experiences. Thanks to a travel break included in my DIS semester (actually one of two), I had the incredible opportunity to attend the world-famous German festival of Oktoberfest. Oktoberfest takes place in Munich, AKA München (MOON-chen), Germany’s third largest city located in the German state of Bavaria. This 200+ year old tradition is considered the world’s largest fair with over 6 million lederhosen- and dirndl-clad people attending each year from around the world. Needless to say, it was an unforgettable highlight of my semester abroad.
On Thursday, I traveled on my own to Munich via an early morning flight from Copenhagen. After a brief layover in Zurich, Switzerland, I landed in the city around 1:00 PM. From there, I took a train from the airport to the city center and checked into a hostel for one night. Since I was alone in the city before my PC friends arrived, I used the time to explore downtown a bit. It happened to be a national holiday too (German Unity Day), so there were a lot of people out and events going on. Although I didn’t have much time to learn street names or landmarks, I got some great pictures of the walking streets, churches, etc., and had a delicious dinner at a local favorite brewery/restaurant called Augustiner-Keller.
It was quite a relief to be in a city that was much more affordable for a change: Germany’s sales tax is “only” 19% instead of 25%, and the price level overall seemed to be lower than Denmark’s. I had wiener schnitzel (a giant fried porkchop), sides of fries and cranberry sauce, and a half-liter beer all for about $22 with tip. Still more expensive than the USA, but that same meal would have cost about $30+ in Denmark.
Anyway, after settling in early because of my 5:00 AM wake-up that morning, I got up early again on Friday so that I could meet a fellow Friar at another hostel down the road. My good friend and fellow BOPer, Pat Benedosso ’15, is studying abroad in Florence this semester. He traveled to Munich via a package deal with an Italian tour company called Florence for Fun, which specializes in weekend trips for study abroad students in Florence. Long story short, Pat and I worked with the company to arrange for me to pay for the hostel portion of the trip only so that he and I could stay in the same place. After the Florence group arrived at the hostel around 10 AM and dropped off their bags, I joined Pat and his small group of Florence friends for a trek to the festival grounds.
We decided to try Hofbräuhaus, one of the breweries with a tent that I later found out is the stomping ground of Americans and Italians. Each tent has a certain character that has developed over the years. Some are more traditional while others are younger and more open to a younger crowd. Hofbräuhaus was unbelievably crowded, but that’s normal around midday. Most people make reservations in advance. Beer is only served to customers seated at the tables, so people without reservations have to grab any empty seats they can find at the unreserved tables. Luck was on our side as the ten of us managed to grab seats at a table where some people had just gotten up to leave. It was a tight squeeze but worth the delicious, fresh, ice-cold Bavarian brew served in a one-liter beer stein. (At €10/$13.50 a pop, it better have been.)
The women who serve the beer have the amazing ability to carry ten steins or more at once. It’s also a cash-only business at Oktoberfest, so for all their hard work these ladies, make quite a profit over the three-week festival. Technically, beer is between €9.50 and €9.75. So, it’s pretty much required that you pay a flat €10 for a beer unless you wish to tip more than that.
After two steins a piece, we were feeling the effects of the beer and decided to take a walk around the grounds to see the games, rides, and food stands. I had a “German hot dog” that was basically a white sausage; much better than the stuff back home. We returned to the hostel before venturing out to get a little dinner. A popular street food item in the region of Bavaria is one half of a rotisserie chicken. For about $10, I got a half chicken, soda, and side of fries——not a bad deal if you ask me. On top of that, I found this delicious meal inside the main train station, so the chicken I ended up having on Saturday at Oktoberfest was even better, if that’s possible.
Saturday started early yet again. At 7:30 AM, I lined up outside the same tent in the hopes of getting a table with the PC students who are studying abroad in Europe this semester and who flew in from half a dozen countries for Oktoberfest. When the doors opened at 9:00 AM, the crowd was a sea of people that forced its way inside. After a few minutes of scrambling, PC united at a table near the back and stayed there for a good 6 hours until we had to leave because the table was reserved. It was great to catch up with people I hadn’t seen since May and hearing about their experiences abroad in other countries. We also threw in a few “Let’s go Friars!” chants to accompany the German drinking songs floating around the room.
After taking some time to recover at the hostel, I ventured out again around 7:00 PM with Pat, his girlfriend Lucy, and their friend Lorena. Our plan was to see the PC group once again at Hofbräu, but coordinating a meeting was difficult since only a few people had WiFi access to our Facebook group and even fewer had a phone plan that worked in Germany. The tent was also closed to people without reservations by that time. So, the four of us grabbed dinner (the chicken I mentioned above), played some carnival games, and even took a ride on a roller coaster.
In a last-ditch effort to enjoy one more round in a tent before leaving Munich in the morning, we found seats in one tent’s beer garden, the outdoor seating that is usually available but not preferred because of the cold weather. Although this was not even close to our original plan, it was probably the highlight of the night. First, we met a few guys from Switzerland who asked us about the USA and how we liked Oktoberfest so far. The language barrier was half the fun. Oh, and one of their slightly inebriated friends kept referring to his beer stein as his “precious” in the voice of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Hilarious.
When they left, a few German guys a bit younger than us came over to the table trying to sell their reservation for the next morning because they too were leaving Munich. Even though we didn’t buy the tickets, they were extremely friendly and quickly joined our table to ask us about where we’re from, tell us about where they’re from, find out what we liked about studying in Europe, etc. One of them, Uri, even taught Pat how to say, “This is my girlfriend. She is very pretty, and I love her,” in German. Pat butchered it at first but had the hang of it by the end of the night.
If there is a German version of hygge, this part of Oktoberfest was it. The outward friendliness and openness of these complete strangers made me realize how valuable it is to leave one’s comfort zone and experience another culture at its core—-not merely in books or movies, but rather in the physical, face-to-face experience of getting to know someone else’s language, traditions, sense of humor, life story, etc., through something as simple as a good conversation with lots of laughter and a good beer or two. Any study abroad program will beat this idea to death BEFORE it happens, but I’m happy to have experienced it firsthand, even more so than I have so far in Denmark.
In just two weeks, I will be heading to Paris and Brussels for my required DIS Study Tour, and I look forward to having a similar experience or two if time permits. Until then, it’s two long weeks of reading, papers, and tests. Thanks for reading, and vi ses!