If I write about a village pretending to be a city pretending to be a village, I am probably writing about Munich. It has a Marienplatz, a central square featuring a column of the virgin; a gothic revival Rathaus with a colorful Glockenspiel; churches radiating from the central plaza; three-storey, vaulted Bavarian houses every couple of blocks–basically a fairy tale village in proper apparel. But Munich is also home to multinationals in their glass and steel structures that ridicule gravity, like the BMW Welt, the Allianz Arena, Seimens and EADS. So it can’t just be a village.
Going through the diversity of passengers and the extensive list of alphabetized destinations on the arrivals screen at Franz Josef Strauss reeks big city, but ten minutes later, you are driving by farms with rolled carpet-like bales of hay ready to be stored for cattle feed. It’s my third time in Munich but I still can’t figure out whether or not there exists a crazed metropolis lurking somewhere around these parts of Bavaria I would inevitably bump into. Not one U-Bahn station I come out of dispels me into a Shibuya-like rush of trench coats, cellular phones, and utter bitterness. Are people just friendlier and warmer than most German cities I’ve been to? Or is it because October is nigh and Weisn is in the air?
Before diving into the festivities, I and my friends cover most of the Munchen sites in true German fashion–everything is spic, span and just polished, it’s almost an insult to the visitors. There’s this pervasive sense of sterility in each place I visit, I feel like my presence is dirtying the place up. I theorize Oktoberfest is an instituted seventeen days for Bavarians to get impossibly drunk and mess things up, and then the rest of the year, they all go back to being the industrial powerhouse of Western Europe. As a side note, I wonder if insurers pull all their hair out during these two and a half weeks as Germans try to challenge their law-enforced healthcare coverages and their livers at the same time. But as always, my theories are wrong and quite irresponsible.
Oktoberfest actually started as a post wedding celebration for King Ludwig I and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen in 1810. Bavarians discovered they like long parties and sort of added one event on top of another, including horse races, agricultural fairs, and in the early 20th century, performers who entertained red-nosed folks in lederhosen and drindl–traditional clothes made of a checkered top, leather short-jumpers for the males, and a corset-tightened top, a dress and an apron for the females.
We visit a couple of churches and after the third, the romanesque, the gothic and the baroque begin to meld together in a confused barrel of mush in my artistically wanting ignominy.
I begin to question the merits of climbing the stairs of each and every bell tower to be deliberately rewarded with a different view of the same cock-eyed people getting happily clobbered by the Oktoberfestivities.
From a couple of feet up, only the intermittent screams and the echoes of house music can be heard. It drizzles slightly, so I head down a spiral staircase noting the etched greetings and names on the wall that are probably older than the Philippine sovereignty. And then there’s the blue, glass-cube masterpiece called the Herz Jesu Kirche (Church of the Sacred Heart), which I happily label contemporary primarily because I don’t know a lot of adjectives. The walls are doors themselves which open into a nice residential area invoking an air of welcome. Inside are a pipe organ and wooden planks that striate the sides from floor to ceiling, making the box an acoustic haven.
We walk back to the fairgrounds, laughing at a sign tacked to a post with Lionel Richie’s face and the words, “Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” on it. We drool with envy at a Call-a-Bike public bicycle leaning against a wall. Munich’s bike schemes are excellent and are conveniently built into the urban fabric but I can’t help but wonder if they’d be much help to larger, developing cities. Try biking in, say, Jakarta or Bangkok, and you’ll forgive me for feeling Munich is essentially a village.
Theresienwiese is a throbbing ground of wooden rollercoaster rides, Reiberdatschi, pretzels, and crowds upon crowds of the intoxicated Bavarian cross-section–Grandmas, dads, college students, yuppies, everybody. We break into one of the festival tents but could not find seating enough for our group. Most people book tables weeks in advance. We end up drinking coffee at a kitschy valentine-themed tent where the elderly partake of crumpets and Plätzchen. Bianca cries prost! and Tomi, Ily, Cel, Tim, Meg, Ron, and I raise our coffee mugs in unison.
There is no alcohol here, so we head out to a nearby restaurant serving bier, occasionally stepping over a conked out reveler or two. On the rooftop, we fraternize with some folks from Frankfurt, learning from them that locals living around the Oktoberfest fairgrounds are usually on vacation during this heady period of the year. They sublet their apartments to visiting foreigners at exorbitant prices, which in turn pays for their rent for the rest of the year. It sounds a little like Rio and Mardi Gras–part legend, part truth–but it all works out perfectly in the end. They say they are renting a really tiny apartment close by and are more than happy to spend as much, because it pays to be a part of this solid German tradition that has spanned centuries and nations and cultures. Every once in a while, a group of friends breaks into song. And though much of it sounds compromised, it is music to the tipsy ear.
The sky is pinkish, reflecting my friends’ dermal condition after their third mug, and somewhere beyond, maybe a little farther beyond, some folks in Darwin or Saigon are just getting up, drinking soup and praying please god, make the hang over go away. Meanwhile, shall we carry on and have another stein of that utterly wonderful, utterly dangerous, utterly full-bodied Augustinerbräu, pretty bitte?