I tried to escape the Oktoberfest. I failed.
For the second time, the Oktoberfest has been canceled due to corona. But Munich refuses to skip the occasion and is celebrating in restaurants anyway. And Berlin, which knows no greater joy than poking fun at Bavaria, is nevertheless full of Lederhosen and Dirndl-sporting Oktoberfest fans.
Any self-respecting Dirndl, the corset-style traditional dress, is very tight-fitting. Mine is no exception. But since there is no Oktoberfest this year, it is no matter that I’ve gained a few corona kilos. After all, I’ve got a whole year to shed them.
Lucky for me I was already in Berlin when we were invited to an Oktoberfest celebration in the Capitol Hilton there.
“Oh yes, everyone wears Tracht,” our hostess informs us proudly, which means a Dirndl for women and Lederhosen for men.
Whew! Luckily my Dirndl was at home safely tucked away in my wardrobe. No danger of having to try to wedge my pandemic paunch into it. The mere thought of it made me instinctively suck in my stomach.
But just as quickly I relaxed and exhaled. Again, I’ve got an entire year.
Sure enough, we arrive to discover that we are the only Bavarians present (I’m an honorary Bavarian, thank you). We are also the only ones not wearing Tracht.
We proceed to dine in a most non-Oktoberfesty way. For the real deal, giant wooden platters of spicy cheese spread, red radishes, raw red onions, cold cuts and sausages are brought by strapping, gruff waitresses and placed onto overturned, liter-sized beer steins in the middle of a long, wooden dining table. This is served with pretzels so big they could double as frisbees.
Here in Berlin, delicate versions of these appetizers are served on fine china by an overly polite waiter. What fun is that?
In Munich, they make a big show on opening day of tapping the first keg. The mayor — decked out appropriately, of course — wields a special wooden hammer for this purpose. Sweating under TV camera lights as all of Munich watches, he ceremoniously whacks the peg three times and proclaims “O’zapt is!’” meaning “It’s been tapped,” a phrase that pretty much loses all of its Bavarian charm in the translation.
If the mayor needs more than three strikes of the hammer to tap the keg, it’s scandalous. I’d love to know how many hours he spends practicing during the weeks beforehand. His basement is surely filled with empty kegs peppered with holes.
This is the official launch of the event. Only when the mayor has tapped this first keg do things get rolling.
Watching the mayor wielding a wooden hammer in his Lederhosen and muslin shirt, I want to believe that this dates back to a medieval tradition. I can’t help it, I’m American; I come from a place where “century homes” are festooned with specially made wooden plaques indicating the year they were built, carefully written in calligraphy to make sure you understand that “this building is OLD, dammit!”. But sadly, this keg-whacking tradition was only created after WWII as a marketing ploy. We Americans aren’t the only ones who know how to spin things.
How do they do this in Berlin? They do tap a keg, but without TV cameras, hype or braggadocio. It drives home how tapping a keg in itself is, well, unspectacular. He takes an unspecified number of feeble, unenthusiastic swings and although I can’t see what is happening, people suddenly start applauding. He did it — but says nothing.
I can’t help myself. I shout out “O’zapt is’”!
But nobody so much as bats an eye. Proving once again that these are all non-Bavarians. Unlike me.
It feels like being at a wedding where the priest asks, “Do you take this man to be your lawful wedded husband?” and the woman doesn’t answer. Your whole being is urging her to say something, say something!
We are then served beer, although it comes in small mugs, the kind they use in Bavaria to serve things like chocolate milk.
But no matter. It’s all a great excuse to get dressed up and have a party. Non-Christians celebrate Christmas, after all, and who among us knows the origins of Halloween? People just want to get dressed up, eat and have a good time together. Count me in.