So what is your best day ever?
Honestly, it’s a loaded question, isn’t it? It all depends on your audience. If it’s your child, “It’s the day you were born, Sweetheart!” If it’s your girlfriend, “It was the time I first laid eyes on you!” To your mates, it’s the day your sports team won a championship, which for me is once in my adult life so it could actually qualify (in case you are curious).
While I was out enjoying the final official Saturday evening of summer drinking beers on Antwerpen’s spectacular Grote Markt, I was reminded that the day marked the anniversary of a very special moment in my life. The guy who reminded me would know because he was there on that day when a particular catch phrase spun out of my mouth repeatedly like a hip record lyric from a Tomorrowland DJ. Sitting there basking in the warm, cloudless (yes, cloudless!) Belgian evening with the array of street lights and glow of the cathedral tower reflecting in our beer glasses, he repeated that catchphrase in his German accent. “One year ago,” he said, “was the Best Day Ever!”
Most people have a few Best Day Evers (or is the plural Best Days Ever?). My recent hike with my daughter ranks as my Best Day Ever in the hiking category. Or is it this hike? But the day that I had one year ago defies me to find a day that stands out as more memorable, completely unexpected, fulfilling to my travel dreams, immersing into beer culture, and linked to a feeling of friendship and camaraderie than Saturday, September 18, 2015.
That day? Opening day of München Oktoberfest…
To borrow from Fellowship of the Ring, or borrow from Borromir as it were, one does not simply walk into Oktoberfest. The preparation began in February of that year. Having already lived in Belgium for almost four years at that point, Oktoberfest was still sitting there at the top of my to-do list. What had been a near lifelong dream was rusting away in my mind due to my own misconceptions. Researching it left me with the impression that it was a logistical nightmare. I imagined struggling to find accommodations, waiting in long lines, paying too much money, and competing for every inch of space with thousands of rude tourists. I read negative comments online about the high price of the beer and how the spirit of Oktoberfest had stooped to the lowest levels of commercialism. But in February 2015, I decided to ignore these lingering doubts. After 181 Oktoberfests, the organizers surely knew what the hell they are doing. Life is too short and it was time to get some friends on board. Within days, we had a group of five, and it was a done deal. Flight tickets were purchased and an Airbnb was reserved by the end of February. Piece of cake. So with transportation and a place to stay out of the way, that left the question of how to enjoy the celebration of beer at the Oktoberfest.
For those unfamiliar, Oktoberfest has six large beer tents each serving a particular brand: Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, and Augustiner Bräu. To actually get inside the tents where the party is, get a seat at a table, and be served beer, you must have a reservation. But generally it is expected to reserve in large parties (i.e. 10 or more). Also the reservations are normally covering a small time range (e.g. 2 hours). Even if we could reserve in a smaller group, by April, it was not possible to make online reservations anymore for our dates. However, outside each tent are large seating areas where beer is also served albeit without the same atmosphere. So we had several months to come to peace with having our Oktoberfest outside the tents.
But perhaps it is good to mention that the real preparation began much earlier than February 2015.
Mathias. That was the name assigned to me in my first year of German language class in high school. The year was 1987 and the place Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. For the next three years, I learned the complexities of the three articles die, der, and das. At the time, Germany was an exotic place. Still split into East and West. When we weren’t learning vocabulary and grammar, the teacher would show slides of his travels. The ones of München, the Bavarian maypole, and Oktoberfest wormed their way deep into the recesses of my soul, lying dormant for years waiting for life to provide the catalyst. That life-changing chemical reaction burned like a blue flame exactly 43 years, 3 months, and 11 days into my life at a particular moment.
Standing in front of the Theresianweise, the expansive neighborhood of the Oktoberfest, wide-eyed like a 10 year old at Disneyland.
There before me lay the world’s largest beer festival. In blue capital letters on a white background, like the colors of the Bavarian flag, the words “Willkommen Zum Oktoberfest” beckoned us like the antithesis to Dante’s Abandon all hope line. If there was anything that would greet us on the other side of the entrance gate, it was hope. And beer.
I took a deep breath to fill my lungs with the leather aroma of my lederhosen, adjusted my feathered hat, rolled up the sleeves of my red-checkered shirt, said a silent thanks to my former German teacher and entered the hallowed gates of the 182nd Oktoberfest. That moment of sentimentality was quickly absorbed by the sheer magnitude of the Oktoberfest spectacle. There were carnival rides, huge vast colorful tents, kiosks with layers of heart-shaped cookies, and souvenir stands with steins and buttons. The smell of various grilled meats lingered in the air while giant pretzels hung from hooks in every direction. It was a complete Bavarian paradise. Thousands of people moved about, some dressed in very expensive colorful lederhosen and dirndls. Others like me, were wearing a more modest costume. In fact, I quickly noticed a large percentage of men seemed to be wearing the same red-checkered shirt and style lederhosen. I cursed the shop owner who helped me pick out my outfit for not being more creative.
I don’t recall how we settled on the Hofbräu tent. There are bits of memory that are still fuzzy. But everyone that visits München visits the Hofbräuhaus beer hall, so probably we chose the beer we felt best represented München.
Or it was just the closest…
Arriving at the tent, we were confronted with two options. Stand in line hoping to get inside or take a seat at an outdoor table. A security woman tried to discourage people from waiting in line by warning that beer is not allowed to be served to people without reservations inside the tent. We took this as our cue to take our choice of tables, which fatefully was adjacent to an exit door through which waitresses and security guards would come out and take their smoking breaks.
I think it was around noon when they finally broke the tap and started serving beer. The atmosphere outside the tent was buzzing. Cheers erupted when the first waitresses started bringing several liters of beer to each table. The 12 euros per liter seemed expensive, but when you consider that the equivalent is 4 euro per 33cl, it is not really that much different than a typical Belgian beer in a Belgian pub. Our mouths were watering and you could cut the anticipation with a knife. Table after table were being served. It did not take long to admire the arms and fingers of these serving women, which must be like steel cables. One of them finally appeared at our table and set down several beers with a wet clunk at the end of our table. Each liter was served in a glass stein made of dimpled glass and passed down the line until eventually the line ended with me. There glowing golden with foam sparkling in the sun sat my first Hofbrau. We were on top of the world as we raised our glasses and acknowledged to each other that the moment had arrived. But that wasn’t even close to the best of it…
Just behind our table was a door. I have only one picture of it but in a few words, it was a door. Like the door you wouldn’t choose on a game show because it was too ordinary. The relationship I had with this door got off to a rocky start. When it opened wide, it meant a couple waitresses or a security guard would come out and irritate me with cigarette smoke. And this would also momentarily tease us with a peak inside. You could just make out the sound of the oompah band and see bits of the decorations. Just on the other side of a wall adjacent to this door was the main entrance, and once in a while you’d see security open the doors to let in a few people who had been waiting in line. The entire time those people had been waiting, we were drinking, laughing, and meeting the people around us. I couldn’t help thinking what a waste of time to wait in that line. But every time that door opened, our curiosity tormented us. But not enough to get in line.
We started making more daring approaches to the door every time it opened, like a rebellious house cat waiting to scurry thru it’s owner’s legs when they come home from work. But all of our episodes were lamely snuffed out by a strict security guard and our eagerness to follow the rules. Each time, we’d return our attention to our beers and the outside fun.
But we had a secret weapon, which I will simply call Tom. Tom is the one guy of our beer drinking clique that actually has to look at his social calendar when we are planning a New Beer Night. Tom could charm Kim Jong-un out of a nuclear weapon. I don’t remember the exact time that Tom flicked off the safety switch and went full-Tom. I am guessing it was around 4 in the afternoon when anyone coming out of that door walked right into Tropical Storm Tom. I assumed that Tom would talk his way in and we’d be left outside to admire his bravado. But as I was pushing the tinge of jealousy to the back of my mind, a slap on my shoulder and the sound of my name caught my attention. I looked over at Tom, who was grinning like an emoji. Meanwhile the manipulated security guard looked at me and twitched his head quickly to his right. It took a couple seconds to register and as I rose, the hands of my friends pushed me towards the door, and before I could realize it, the door closed behind me and I was staring into paradise….
A Walk Through Heaven
For the first couple seconds, the sheer vastness under the tent filled me with awe. Then the soundwaves of several thousand jovial conversations filled that space with a cacophony that vibrated in the ears. The oompah band was playing a traditional beer drinking song and those who weren’t chatting were up on the tables singing. Colorful dirndls swirled around the edges of my vision like a kaleidoscope. Men, bare from the knees down in their lederhosen, danced arm over shoulder on the tables, sometimes drinking beer from their shoes. The younger crowd seemed to populate the center while the older folk stayed to the outer areas. The smell of roasted chicken came from every corner. Waitresses were carrying large quantities of beer thru masses of people with impossible precision. I walked completely around the outer aisle soaking it all in. Maybe it took about 15 minutes. I was filled with euphoria. I made it. I soaked it in for as long as I could until I was reminded of the absence of my friends. Rather than hang around even longer, I rejoined the party outside and knew I owed Tom big time.
Surprised looks welcomed me when I returned to our table. Nobody seemed to understand that I missed my pals. We came here together and we were going to spend our time together. I told the guys how it was like on the inside. You could see the vicarious joy in their eyes and the sense of gratefulness just to be a part of the experience. Already I was coining the phrase Best Day Ever, but it was unknowingly premature. Even at a point where I couldn’t smile any bigger or laugh any harder, the best was still yet to come.
Now that one of us had tasted the inside, you could see the hunger in everyone’s eyes. It was time for a little teamwork.
The opportunity came when two waitresses came out for a smoke together. As they were about to go back inside, Tom maneuvered himself between them to form a chain dance. It seemed a work of genius as the security guards were distracted, so I clung to the hips of the waitress in the back and joined in. Next thing I know, the door is shutting behind me again. I took a couple steps and found myself face to face with another security guard. Expecting to be grabbed by the collar and thrown outside like a peasant, he asked me where I was from. I used my token answer of Philadelphia hoping not to come across as an arrogant American. To my good fortune, he had been there and enjoyed the city. Using this window of bonding, I mentioned that I had three mates sitting outside who would like to come in. He made a clicking sound with this mouth, thought for a few seconds, and told me to go back outside and look for his signal. When I looked up to tell Tom, Tom had already disappeared into the giant party.
I went back outside, again arriving to looks of What are you doing? surprise. But those looks changed to No Way! excitement when I told them the news. Thankfully the security guard didn’t delay his promise too long. We lingered around the door as he smoked his cigarette trying not to get the attention of other people. After stuffing his cigarette into the ash can, he opened the door and as nonchalantly as we could, we followed him in and quickly shut the door. One text message to Tom and a few minutes later, all five of us were standing in the main foyer of the tent, hugging, high-fiving, and slapping each other on the backs. Although waitresses are technically not allowed to serve beer to people without reservations, good karma and common sense ruled the day and we were brought five delicious Hofbräus. We took a drink from our beers and started to sing Ein Prosit, ein Prosit, Gemütlichkeit! At that moment, we realized we were inside the tent for as long as we wanted and the words Best Day Ever began to finally ring true.
What happened after we got into the tent will forever be weaved into the now 183-year history of Oktoberfest. In a place like that, you become friends with everyone. Faces become familiar that you’ll never see again. Everybody talks about where they are from. You catch a name or two, but they quickly drift away. You find an empty bench and it becomes yours. You sing and dance with the people across from you. And then move on. There were groups of college classmates, parents and teens, older couples, people of all races and nationalities. When we finally left the tent around 8:30pm, the sky was dark and I realized that the day went by in the blink of an eye. The new acquaintances just left behind were now scattered amongst thousands of people ultimately continuing their journeys or heading back to their countries.
The Next Day
The next morning, the three Germans went home. Tom and I were hanging around an extra day. It didn’t seem possible that we could manage to duplicate the success of the previous day. We went back to the Oktoberfest not expecting anything more than just to walk around and see the rest of the festival because we had spent the entire Saturday at the Hofbrau tent. But we soon realized that the carnival side of the festival was not as fulfilling as we had hoped. Somewhere deep inside our hungover bodies, we found the energy to approach the Löwenbrau tent. Groaning at the sight of all the lines around the entrances, we detoured down the back side of the tent where we saw a group of people smoking and a security guard holding a door. We had a moment of inspiration and blended in with the smokers just as they started to walk back in. The guard apparently did not take a head count nor did he notice us and within two minutes of arriving at the Löwenbrau tent, we were inside. We immediately cozied up to a waitress who agreed to serve us and spent the next couple hours partying again. Meanwhile long lines of people waited at each entrance.
Later that evening we managed to also enter the Paulaner tent through a bathroom connecting with the outside, again allowing us to bypass the lines. Another beer and a bit more partying and we were ready to call it a trip.
I don’t know if we really did anything impressive, but three tents without a reservation? Hey, I’m pretty proud of that. The experience of it will make this Oktoberfest probably unsurpassable if I ever return another year. It was five guys having a good time, without any expectation of more than simply being there, even if it was only outside the tents. Being with those guys and being able to experience one of my dreams with them already made it one of the best days ever. But when you factor in the unexpected and the fact that the unexpected happened because of friendship, I don’t mind repeating myself again one year later. That was the Best Day Ever!