Oktoberfest Etiquette

By Charles Hawley:

Walking completely sober into a jammed Oktoberfest beer tent in the late afternoon is a startling experience.

The air is thick with cigarette smoke and sweat, the floor is sticky with spilled beer, the noise is almost intolerable and the expression of asinine joy on thousands of faces is distinctly unsettling. It feels like a kegger at the psycho ward.

Indeed, what with the full-throated singing, the awkward dance moves executed by Lederhosen-wearing natives and the slurred, half-yelled conversations, it seems as though the straight jacket-wielding medics are but an Oom-Pah-Pah away.

Yet there is order amongst the seeming chaos. And understanding it can make the Oktoberfest experience that much more enjoyable.

The souvenir postcards depicting busty, dirndl-clad waitresses holding impossible numbers of frothing liters of beer with a cheery smile plastered on their faces make it seem as though they are having just as much fun as their patrons.

Don’t be fooled. Many of them are not servers by trade, having taken two weeks of vacation from their day jobs to earn a couple of thousand euros during the two-week event. And by the time evening arrives, moods tend to darken.

To make their lives easier — and to ensure a steady supply of golden delicious — keep in mind that you will only be served if you are at a table. While it may at first appear that finding a spot among the sea of drunken revelers is an impossible task, remember that if you were allowed into the tent, there are seats available. Simply look around until you find a bit of available bench space (think picnic tables) and ask if you can join those already there. The answer is almost sure to be yes.

Once you are seated, the waiter or waitress likely won’t be far behind. Each server is responsible for only a few tables, meaning that service tends to be quick. Still, an early, generous tip ensures that your glass will never remain empty for long — a ten spot for a group of four earns you a new best friend.

For a normal tip, just round the bill up a Euro or two — 15 percent is considered extravagantly munificent.

Ordering your beer is a snap. Each tent only offers one brand, and most tents only serve Oktoberfest Helles, a tasty lager brewed especially for the two-week festival. The only size available in most tents is a liter, known as a Mass in Bavaria.

The word Stein, oft thought by Americans to mean “beer mug,” will simply confuse Germans. Stein actually means rock.

But be careful — Oktoberfest brew is a bit stronger than most lagers and it has the potential to cut your evening short if you don’t pace yourself, particularly if you plan on making a day of it. Non-alcoholic drinks are, of course, also available.

Food menus inside the tents are a much more bewildering affair. All manner of Bavarian specialties are on offer, most of them written in Bavarian dialect, making it difficult even for Germans to navigate. English menus are available, but the translations are often shocking at best, unless “liver cheese” sounds appealing.

There are, however, a couple of standbys. Classic Oktoberfest grub is the roasted half chicken, which is served with nothing other than a hand wipe to clean up after you have devoured it. Anything pig related (particularly Schweinebraten or Spanferkel) is bound to be delicious. For vegetarians, Käsespätzle (or Kässpatzn in Bavarian), noodles covered in melted cheese and fried onions, is a good option.

Menus vary from tent to tent; look at what your neighbors are having if you’re confused.

The slightly dopey geniality, which dominates that atmosphere inside the beer tents, has a name: Gemütlichkeit. The word is almost impossible to translate into English, but it’s a kind of homey comfort akin to sipping a hot toddy with a group of friends in front of a roaring fire in a ski lodge.

Even if you are slightly intimidated by all the Lederhosen and Dirndls, remember that almost all Munich locals own such garb just for Oktoberfest. They are also most likely an Allianz insurance saleswoman or a Siemens engineer fluent in English — and they are there for a good time. Before long, lines between different groups begin to blur.

Still, buying rounds for your new friends is, at 8.60 euros per beer, an expensive prospect and most Germans prefer to pay for their own as they go.

A word of warning: The music at Oktoberfest is appallingly bad. If the deafening brass bands would stick to traditional Bavarian favorites, it would be tolerable, but the forays into 1980s hits and ABBA remixes can be jarring. Still, sooner or later the temptation to join those bouncing in their seats or even standing on the benches for a gigantic sing-a-long becomes impossible to resist.

Once you do start dancing, however, stay off the tables and stay out of the way of the servers, otherwise you might get in trouble. Also, don’t expect your table-mates to break into traditional Bavarian jigs; most of the dancing is of the drunken, freelance variety.

Last call comes mercifully early at Oktoberfest, particularly if you’ve made a day of it. By the time 10:30pm rolls around, few of the thousands inside the tent are sober, and some can hardly walk. Still, the bouncers see to it that the Gemütlichkeit comes to a rapid end. Tents are completely cleared by 11:30 and stragglers are not treated particularly kindly.

Furthermore, should you be tempted to bring your mug along with you as a souvenir, don’t. Given the rash of thefts in recent years, tent security is liable to pat you down on the way out and, if they find anything, you might find your night ending at the police station. A better route is to buy a souvenir mug at one of the numerous stands inside the tents.

As drugs in Germany are subject to be sold by pharmacies only, they don’t sell aspirin. You’ll have to bring your own.

*****

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