Oktoberfest, before and after several steins of beer. All photos by author.
As I stood on an empty street corner in Munich, rain soaking my traditional Bavarian dress and having just been ghosted by a man I’d met at a place called Vomit Mountain, I was left with two options.I could feel ashamed of poor decisions that led me here and call it a night. I had trusted this stranger who convinced me to hang out at his place in the middle of nowhere, only to later admit that it wasn’t even his house before he ran away into the night. Or I could pay the 30-euro ($43) Uber ride and head to the club.
I chose the club. And in doing so, I think I embraced the true spirit of Oktoberfest.Though I didn’t know too much about the annual 16-day event—a massive beer festival and carnival that takes place in Munich—the things I did know didn’t exactly thrill me, especially at age 32: Lots of straight drunk (mostly white) dudes. Young people being sloppy. Massive crowds. Long lines. Overpriced food and drinks. Costumes.Nonetheless, as my two-month fellowship in Germany came to a close, I pitched my editors on sending me to Oktoberfest. I thought it had the potential to be a funny fish-out-of-water story, not unlike the time attended a Nickelback concert or joined a psychedelic commune. Plus, I was curious to see a more conservative part of the country, having been mostly living in a Berlin bubble of beautiful weirdos.The VICE Germany editors, based in Berlin, were happy to send me, though they didn’t exactly give ringing endorsements. “I avoid it with all the strength in my body,” one said. Another noted, “I absolutely hate it.”Before I went, I had to prep.
According to the city of Munich, Oktoberfest started as a wedding celebration between Crown Prince (later King) Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen on October 12, 1810. It repeated the next year, and by 1896 the first beer tents and halls debuted. Today, Oktoberfest, locally called the Wiesn, is the biggest beer festival in the world, with more than 7 million people in attendance each year. (Munich’s population is about 1.5 million.) There are 14 big tents run by six breweries, which can seat a total of more than 100,000 guests. You need a seat to order beer.
Visitors typically wear traditional clothing, which means lederhosen (knee-length brown leather shorts) for men and dresses called dirndls for women, which are paired with a blouse and an apron.My first task was to get a dirndl.When I showed up at a shop that specializes in dirndls, one of the sales associates took one look at me and advised me that the sale racks were outside. Ouch, my very own Pretty Woman moment—except she was right. The higher-end dirndls there cost up to 600 euros ($880). Even the discount ones, at around 130 euros ($190), were out of my price range. Nonetheless, I tried several of them on.
Because they’re corseted on top, dirndls can be pretty flattering. They suck your tummy in and push your boobs out. My favourite selection, a blue number, made me look like a (brown) Snow White.But I wasn’t willing to spend the equivalent of my monthly rent in Berlin on a one-time thing, so I headed to some fast fashion shops. After trying on some truly hideous dirndls, including one that seemed to be made from a pink garbage bag, I settled on a maroon dirndl that set me back 60 euros ($90). I paired it with my own long-sleeved blouse to make it extra dowdy. When I sent my boyfriend a photo, he said it made me look like I had a “hard day of labour ahead of me.”
Before heading to the grounds, I got some advice from a couple of locals. One, who wasn’t a fan of Oktoberfest, described it as “fucked up, crazy, and sometimes a little bit beautiful.”“If you are a man, watch out for people who want to punch you for no reason. If you’re a woman, watch out for people who want to touch you and your body,” he warned me. “It's getting worse in the evening and worst for women who wear dirndl with big cleavages.”
Arrival and warnings
He let me know that if you tie the knot of your apron to the left it means you’re single, whereas the right means you’re taken. (I tied mine in the middle.)
He also told me to watch out for “Kotzhügel” (Vomit Mountain), a slope on the west side of the grounds where people “vomit and fuck.”I felt myself bracing as I saw big groups of young men in their lederhosen. There were distinct spring break/frat party/what I imagine St. Patrick’s Day in hell is like vibes.After an embarrassing subway ride on which surprisingly few people were in costume, I grabbed a road beer for courage. I passed by some Volkswagen police vans blasting music, a man making his own techno beats in a horse mask, and a guy dressed up as Chucky, the killer doll from Child’s Play.
Later, I passed by a white guy who saw some Black women and screamed “Black girls!” My stomach tightened.
First up, was an 8-euro ($12) Ferris wheel ride to get an overview of the grounds. In line, I quickly made friends with a group of young people. One of them, a Brit, knocked backwards into me screaming “my balls!” because his friends had kicked him in the nuts. Once we got to the top, the drunk Brit with the sore testicles began yelling “Guten tag” in a faux German accent and calling the friend who had kicked him a “fucking alcoholic four-eyed prick!” I was relieved that I hadn’t worn my glasses.From the top, I could see the massive white beer tents, which looked more like warehouses, and various rides lit up with neon lights, a steady stream of people walking along the wide path in the middle. But I wanted off the ride. I needed to get drunker if I was going to survive.
Once we got down, myself and one of the guys from the Ferris wheel set off to find a beer tent. I could tell he was hammered because his eyes were bloodshot and every two to three minutes he asked me the same sequence of questions: How long have you been in Europe? Do you like it here? What do you think of Oktoberfest?After getting flatly rejected while trying to find seats in one of the more popular tents, we headed to a tent called Lowenbrau. This time we found some people willing to share space at their outdoor table. I wanted to order the pig’s knuckle but it cost 20 euros ($30) so I settled on sausages and potato salad, along with my first stein (a full litre!) of beer.One of the women at the table, a Polish bartender who lives in Munich, told me she hates working during Oktoberfest.“The people drink too much alcohol. They’re too drunk, really drunk,” she said. She noted that these drunks don’t particularly tip well.Stephan Bock, a 19-year-old local who is studying engineering, told me he paid 600 euros on his lederhosen and vest. Despite spending that much, he said Oktoberfest is “nothing special if you live in Munich.”
“It’s every year the same. You only see how the prices go higher and higher.”He advised me to go into a tent to get the full experience. But when I asked what more there is to do, his answer was “sit and drink,” which we were already doing.During our conversation, Bock seemed surprised when I told him I was enjoying living in Berlin.
“I think it’s really ugly,” he said. “It’s dirty… Everybody is trying to sell you drugs.”His comments were echoed by several people over the course of the evening, making me wonder if there was some sort of rivalry between the two cities. Conversely, none of the Berliners I knew had any interest in Oktoberfest—and many seemed to hold it in outright contempt.Later, I struck up a conversation with Bernhard, a 58-year-old lifelong Bavarian and mountaineer. When I told him I was Canadian, he showed me a Haida-inspired tattoo on his arm. But when I asked if he knew anything about Haida people he said not really, he just thought it looked cool. He would probably vote for Justin Trudeau.
He observed that tourists visiting don’t drink the way Bavarians do and in particular “Canadians and Australians mix liquor with weed” with poor results. I grimaced at being lumped in with Aussies.Back in the day, Bernhard said women in the Haufbrau tent (now known as the sloppy tourist tent) used to take off their underwear and throw them towards the ceiling.“They make a striptease,” he said. “You could see the pussy.” But he said that stopped because it was “too much trouble.”“Drunk men cannot tell the difference between fun and a sexual offer,” he added. He worded it in a clumsy way, but I feel like he was trying to throw shade at the men, not the women.
I headed to the bathroom and discovered that the toilets were shockingly clean (Germans really have nailed public washroom cleanliness). As I came out, I got kicked out of the area, because it was already 10:30 p.m. and the tent was closed.I was a little concerned that I hadn’t made it inside a tent yet, but I reasoned that I still had a full day on Friday.
Rather than go home, I went to a bar with the American who kept asking me the same shit over and over. There, I stripped several layers in a booth and danced.
Later, I got into a debate about drug policy and abortion with a guy who kept hitting on me; he left. Then I chatted with a couple of young Germans who said they wished they had weed but they were too scared to pick up any in Munich because of how harsh police are there. I’ve been told that cops in Bavaria treat even minor possession as a big deal, in contrast to Berlin. It made me a bit homesick for Canada.I got back to my hotel around 4 a.m.
The next day, I got down to the grounds but I was too hungover to go inside so I sat outside on a sidewalk nursing a beer for about half an hour as a man nearby made occasional kissing noises at me.
It was hot and crowded outside—so crowded that someone burnt my hand with a cigarette. I met a friend who’s been staying in Munich and we wandered into one of the beer tents, sitting next to a group of guys from Switzerland. I ask them why they like Oktoberfest, and all three gave some variation of “because I love beer.”When I pressed them about some of the perceived downsides, like the crowds, prices, and reputation for being gross, one of them, Basile Krieg, 42, replied, “Why is it disgusting? You can drink beer, you can eat some chicken.” I sensed that I wasn’t going to get much more insight out of these fellas. But their enthusiasm was kind of infectious. I stood up on a table and sang “Ein Prosit” (the drinking song) with them, downed my stein, and began contemplating catching a later flight back to Berlin.
That’s when I met Cedric, 29, a Parisian who told me he’s originally from Cameroon. It was his first Oktoberfest. Cedric, who previously lived in Berlin, said it was “charming to be colliding” with Munich’s “hardcore conservatism.”Cedric was one of the few Black people I saw at Oktoberfest and I asked him if it made him nervous to walk into a festival full of thousands of hammered white folks.“After a while it doesn’t really get to you,” he said. “You get a lot more of the attraction and interest and intrigue.”
Cedric encouraged me to stay and experience a Friday night at Oktoberfest. I was enjoying hanging out with him and frankly was getting drunk so I started asking people I hardly know if I could crash at their apartment for the night. Unsurprisingly, no one wanted to host a drunk Canadian.But then I saw a 6 a.m. flight to Berlin and decided I didn’t actually need a place to sleep. I would simply party until 4 a.m. again and head straight to the airport!This was the turning point for me. I realized that although Oktoberfest represented a lot of things I dislike, the key to getting through it is surrendering mentally. Yes, there are crowds, yes, you might get burned by a cigarette by drunk people, but once you realize there’s no shortcut to avoid that, you have to suck it up and have a good time. If you put in a bit of effort, and get drunk enough, there are some interesting conversations to be had. Having said that, I probably wouldn’t do it again.
Skipping my flight
I spent the next chunk of the night in a traditional tent in the old Weisn, eating schnitzel and watching German folk dances. Before I left, I visited Vomit Mountain, where I saw five cops try to lift up a grown man who was barfing and then give up and let him lay back down on the grass. People were making out everywhere.
I looked a little to the left of barfing guy, and locked eyes with the aforementioned man who eventually ghosted me. I told him I wanted to go to a club called Milchbar. He said he was down, but that it didn’t open for another hour so we should chill at his place in the meantime. I really should have googled it, because I realized later he was lying. Instead I followed him into a quiet but affluent suburb made up of impressive houses.As we were leaving he told me, “Make sure you have everything” in a slightly paranoid tone. As we walked back out to the street, I asked him if he even lived in that house. That’s when he admitted he’d gotten the keys from a friend who rented a room there. As we were about to grab an Uber, he said, “I forgot my cash” and told me he would be right back. He ran off into the rainy night and never showed up again. I headed to the club solo.In the end, I got to the airport and passed out before going through security. I woke up just in time to make my flight. In a way, it would have been very Oktoberfest of me to miss it.A week later, on my last weekend in Germany, a friend and I managed to get into Berghain, a notoriously exclusive techno club in Berlin. After my Oktoberfest adventures, it felt like a palette cleanser. I didn’t drink a single beer.Follow Manisha on Twitter