Yes it’s here again, the big beer swilling revel which actually takes place mostly in September. Perhaps they named it after the hangover, which is usually felt for the entire rest of October and often well into November too.
The Octoberfest is not the only beer festival in Germany, (in fact they happen in almost every sizeable town in Bavaria and right through the summer), but it is by far the biggest and best known. These days nearly the whole world has heard of Oktoberfest and, what’s more, they want to get involved. At the last count there were over 2000 Oktoberfests all around the world, transforming the ‘Wiesn’ (means field, but widely used to refer to the Oktoberfest in Munich. Pronounced ‘V-sin’) culture from something that was essentially Bavarian and parochial into an international event and world-wide celebration of all things German.
Meanwhile, back on Theresienwiese (Therese’s meadow) where it all began, the original festival is still flourishing. More and more visitors are recorded almost every year. And despite grumbles about rising beer prices and the flood of drunk foreign tourists, it’s still the locals that make up by far the bulk of these visitors. Over 70 % from Bavaria and well over 50% from Munich and its immediate surrounds.
Of those that are from abroad, most still come from the anglosphere, most of all from the USA. Germany and Munich has strong ties – old and new – with the States. Huge numbers of Americans have German heritage and many American servicemen were based in Southern Germany throughout the cold war and right up to recent times. Many ex-servicemen are still in the Bavarian capital, unable to pull themselves away from the Gemütlich (translates something like ‘cosy and pleasant’ and is often used in reference to Munich. They even sing it at Oktoberfest ‘Gemütlichkeit’) life of Munich, its lush parks and sweet beers.
Bavaria’s close neighbours, the Swiss and Italians, are also to be seen in large numbers, making the trek over the Alps for a bit of wholesome fun. Many of these are also ‘Germanic’ culturally. German speakers make up the majority of the Swiss population and there are large numbers of German speakers and communities in the Tyrol (Northern Italy). The second weekend of Octoberfest is known popularly as ‘Italian weekend’ as it traditionally has the most Italian tourists.
The very first Oktoberfest was organised to celebrate the marriage of Princess Therese and Prince Ludwig in 1810. The whole city was invited to come and celebrate and even then, the size of the revelries was unprecedented. A large field just outside the city was full with tents, amusements and beverages. The whole thing proved so popular that they decided to do it again the next year, and then again the following year and then again and again. In fact it has happened almost every year since that day.
It’s an oft remarked upon phenomena in Munich that there tends to be a flourish of new borns in the month of June; yes you counted right: 9 months after the fest. There’s something about the combination of all day and night partying, litre-servings of extra strong beer, and figure-hugging medieval garb that seems to impact the demographic patterns of the Bavarian state capital. Elsewhere in Germany, September is nearly always the month with the most new-borns. A fact that statisticians put down to increased amounts of coupling around the Christmas holidays.
It’s such an international affair these days that the answer is almost everything. It’s easy to stumble onto a table and find everyone speaking French or Spanish as well as lots of Russian and other Slavic speakers. Asian languages are also increasingly to be heard at the festival as the number of Chinese, Japanese and Korean visitors keeps growing.
You also should be able to catch some of the real Oktoberfest language, Bavarian, if you keep your ears open. This dialect of German is what would have been by far the predominant lingo at the original Oktoberfest, but even 200 odd years later it is a remarkably common sound. It says a lot about the strength and pride of the Bavarian culture that many young people still learn this local tongue. Germany in general is a very regional country. Regional competition is fierce and many of the country’s dialects are in remarkably good health, considering their demise elsewhere in Europe (Take the UK, for example, which despite its rich variety of accents has nearly no dialects left in regular use. The vast majority became extinct in the twentieth century).
Well there surely are safer things you can do with your free time that spending 11 hours in a crowded tent getting drunk, surrounded by very substantially built men and women in a similar, if not greater, state of inebriation. When you see figures weighing in at well over 100 kg fixed in a drunken scowl, stumbling towards you erratically, you might be forgiven for screaming and running away. However, given the potential for disaster, the whole show tends to be remarkably well behaved. Mostly these burly Bavarian types are gentle giants, not as eager for a fight as many, and usually liable to do little more than brush past you and stagger for the metro.
Get yourself ready for an Oktoberfest near you. Your first, free German lesson is just a few clicks away.
Language learner, teacher and contributing author to the Rosetta Stone magazine
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