What's this you see to the left? This my friend, is a liter. It comes in liters. Yes, you're getting one. That's what you do at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. Rule of thumb: keep your wits about you in any country that sells its beer in the same amount that it sells its gasoline.
At a party, I had a German living far from Germany describe Munich's Oktoberfest pretty succinctly:
“Before the first beer, you think this is all kind of stupid, but you have one anyway. After the first beer, it's actually not that bad, and maybe you'd like another. After the second, you join in the singing, because, why not? After the third, the people around you are your best friends ever in your life, and by the fourth you're standing on the tables, kicking over glasses and plates while you dance.”
The set up is fairly simple. They start with engineering a line of big “tents” a couple weeks beforehand. Because this is the Germans doing the engineering, these “tents” are wooden two-story affairs with electricity, gas for the fully equipped kitchens with massive lines of rotisseries, and plumbing for pissoirs the lengths of school buses. Each tent has a bandstand and lines of benches and tables. At the benches and tables sit friends, families, and strangers sharing huge heaps of meat and potatoes, pretzels, silly hats, and of course, one-liter mugs of beer. The women wear outfits that would make a teenage boy drown in his own drool, and the men wear outfits that make them look like oversized extras in The Hobbit.
Outside the tents is a full-blown carnival, complete with games, rides, stores, ferris wheels, roller coasters, and the most brilliant kids game ever to throw at a crowd of hundreds of thousands of drunks: bumper cars. I think if anything ever drives me to alcoholism, it's probably going to be a readily available place with bumper cars driven by other drunkards. Genius.
My friend Zach flew out to meet me for this and a trip up to Amsterdam. It was his first time out of the country. We took on the place as a double act, the fast-talking, wisecracking, skinny guy from Seattle with the appetite of a horse, showing off a chock-full passport without really thinking about how easily it could be stolen, and the fast-talking, wisecracking, goateed guy from Atlanta with stories from working in CNN, belting the Miami Dolphins fight song.
On the way to the Oktoberfest parade I told Zach about a few things that were different here than they were from home. Even the things that originally came from the US were a little bit different.
“For example, another thing you'd like,” I said as we rode an escalator up from the U-Bahn, “If you go into McDonalds here, you can order beer.”
He cocked his head to one side.
“Germany intrigues me, and I'd like to subscribe to its newsletter,” he said. “I think it has some good ideas.”
Now here's the kicker to all this. I'm not a big drinker. I don't even really like the taste of most beer. But if we were out in the town and there was a lull in the action, or we ended up outside a museum that had been shut down (this happened at least twice), we both knew exactly where to head to redeem the day. Back to the fairgrounds. Thank God we both eventually made it back to our hotel each night. It wasn't always our fault that we did.
Then if that wasn't enough, we caught a night train to Amsterdam. What we found there was a lot of beautiful canals, very skinny houses leaning at odd angles because of disintegrating pilings, more bicycles than several countries I could name combined, and some very, very stoned tourists. As Robin Williams says, these are the people that eat kitty litter and say “that's real crunchy!”
Drugs in Amsterdam are sort of like the Statue of Liberty in New York. The tourists all flock to it and the locals either never have or don't make nearly as big a deal of it. After all, there's plenty of other things happening in town. Our list included two of the musts: the Van Gogh museum (no mention of his ear anywhere), and the house of Anne Frank (quotes from the book placed on the walls right where they hit effect to the bone). There's a huge English speaking expat community. All the pubs within in a three block radius of the central train station advertise “English breakfast.” Irish Pubs are all over the world, but here they're more common than mailboxes. And Zach and I ended up at an American improv comedy show by a bunch of Chicago expats showcasing the differences between the Netherlands and the USA. Finding the Dutch in Amsterdam takes effort.
The Red Light district is probably not the place to start. This is where the window shopping takes place. Yes some of the girls are pretty, but if you so much as touch your camera in the district, both you and it will be thrown into the canal. It's hilarious to see how many hundreds of guys come to this street from all over the world only to walk up and down it and pretend they're not looking at anything. All part of being raised something other than Amsterdam Dutch, I guess. What I still want to know is with all this sex, drugs, (and rock and roll) legal or generally accepted there, what do local teenagers do to rebel? We may never know.
Check out this entry's Photos.