So the long, horrible, terrible, and again, very long winter is nearly here Southern Germany. In accordance with ancient tradition, fest season is upon us. But the term "fest" and the huge varieties of fests are a little confusing to the auslander. I'll attempt to explain.
Most Americans have heard of Oktoberfest - that giant beer festival that takes place yearly in Munich (confusingly in September). But what we tend to know of Oktoberfest is giant mugs of beer and lederhosen, the iconic leather pants.
Truth is, Oktoberfest, while a huge draw for international tourists, is actually a fairly specific regional party. It originates from a wedding celebration for King Ludwig I in 1810 and has morphed into the world's largest fair with 6 million participants annually.
But Oktoberfest is far from the only fest in Deutschland. Fact is, despite their reputation as a humorless and efficiently boring lot, Germans love to party. As a result from April to October, there are numerous fests held in every city and village throughout the country. (Not to mention the Christmas markets or the Karnival celebrations that take place in February - subjects for another post.) You don't have to travel to Munich in September to have a good time - in fact, many Germans avoid Oktoberfest, because it's seen as an event for foreign tourists.
Truth is, a fest can be something as small as a few dozen people on benches at a local platzdrinking beer and eating wurst, or it can be thousands of people dancing on benches in unison at the Stuttgarter Frühlingsfest which happens to be the world's largest Spring beer festival. For the purpose of this post, I'll concern myself with that particular fest, because it was the first we ever experienced.
We'd only been in Germany a couple months, and while I'd heard about the famous German beer fests, I have no idea what I was expecting, but whatever it was, my preconceived notions were blown away upon entering the Wasen.
For starters, I knew it was a beer festival, but I didn't realize it was also basically a carnival. Midway games and spinning rides that seem designed to separate beer from the enthusiastic consumers dominated the scene. Aside from the hordes of young people wearingtrachten - the traditional Bavarian dress of lederhosen and dirndl - it at first glance it could pass for an American state fair. Except instead of cotton candy and fried twinkies there's chili mandeln(sweet, spicy almonds) and mandelbrot (gingerbread) and yes, plenty of wurst.
As we wandered through the midway, we happened upon a rustic-looking faux village area, the centerpiece of which was a rotating bar. Seriously, a circular bar that spins, albeit quite slowly, allowing passengers to slowly survey the strange scene in front of them. This area is called the Almhuttendorf, or roughly, "Alpine Village and contains Disneyequse huts selling smoked salmon, traditional sweets, lederhosen, and incongruously, caipharinas. A band - no, that's generous - a solitary man sings traditional schmaltzy fest songs (schlager) with recorded back-up, but occasionally breaks out into the biggest German fest hit ever - "Country Roads". Yes, that "Country Roads." Also "Sweet Home Alabama" is a huge fest hit. Germans love those songs, I mean, truly adore them. I still don't have any idea why.
So imagine yourself rotating slowly, surrounded by people in Lederhosen and Dirndls, with fairground concessions and vomit-inducing rides in the background, watching Germans genuinely go absolutely nuts over a guy with a mic singing "Country Roads." My husband turned to me and quoted Hunter S. Thomspon's classic line about the Circus Circus casino from "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas",
"...what the whole hep world would be doing every Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This was the Sixth Reich."
I have to be honest, it was bewildering, slightly terrifying, super confusing, and yet totally fun.
At that time I didn't realize we'd only sampled a tiny bit of what the Wasen had to offer. Namely, the beer tents themselves, the centerpiece of the whole bizarre experience. I'll write about that more next time, as both the Stuttgarter Volksfest and the Munich Oktoberfest are almost upon us! Are your lederhosen ready?