Well my friends we have returned from Oktoberfest in Munich and despite a couple of bumps, the trip went well. That couple of days have been too full and I have been unable to post these thoughts until now, that being said I have given them a great deal of reflection.
Of course for most most foreign visitors to Oktoberfest is a chance to drink and enjoy the festive atmosphere, and that is not a bad thing. However, most miss the understanding of Fests such as Oktoberfest in the life of the communities hosting them. Oktoberfest is just one of many that Munich and other German towns observe, which draw their communities together in ways that most Americans do not really comprehend. German festivals draw the local community together in many ways, community groups, clubs, associations, churches and businesses contributed to making the Fest, be it a major event like Oktoberfest or Fests conducted in small communities. Admittedly some American towns and cities have similar events, but with the exception of some major metropolitan centers with diverse and proud ethnic communities, they usually are a singular annual observance.
German cities and towns usually have a good number of these events, which draw their people together throughout the year. In fact they are somewhat linked to seasons, the church calendar, and important crops or products that their town is known for producing. While all are festive each have a different emphasis and different feel. Oktoberfest in Munich is the largess of its type, not just in Germany but the world, but it is not alone, many towns also celebrate their own Oktoberfest which are not clones of the Munich event, instead they reflect the differences in culture and tradition throughout Germany.
The Germans take life and work seriously, but unlike many, if not most of us, they know when business stops and fun, family and community begin. When people leave work they leave work, and even the business culture, in which stores are not open 24 hours or on Sundays provide Germans the opportunity to spend good amounts of time with family, their neighbors and friends as they meet for dinner or drinks at the local Gasthaus or inn on a regular basis. Likewise communities sponsor sports teams, and a wide array of other clubs which draw them together, everything from Rotary, to veterans associations, bands and choirs, hunting and shooting clubs and many more. Many of these groups sponsor events in which the entire community partake.
The concept in all of this is that of Gemütlichkeit, a German word that basically describes a situation of where a cheerful mood, peace of mind and social acceptance are joined with the connotation of being unhurried in a cozy atmosphere. It also is understood in relationship to holidays where public festivities in the form of music, food, and drink help promote a sense of community. In this there is a sense that someone is part of something bigger than themselves where they are connected with being accepted by others while enriching the community.
Unfortunately for many Americans this is not the case. Unless one belongs to an organization such a various types of lodges, local sports fan clubs, or a local pub or bar where “everyone knows you name” there are precious few places one can experience this type of community. Churches like to claim that they are places of fellowship, but in my adult experience I have to say that most churches neither foster community nor are they places where one can go to be accepted. They are often the most cliquish, unfriendly, uninviting, and judgmental places around, and this is across the board. This cliquish and uninviting spirit covered in a veneer of spirituality and forced friendliness knows no denominational or theological boundaries, but I digress….
As I mentioned the Germans have festivals for almost everything. There are Spring, Fall, Summer and Winter festivals, harvest festivals, wine festivals throughout the Rhine, Main and Mosel and Nahe River valleys where wine is produced. I already mentioned Oktoberfest but there are Advent and Christmas markets in almost every city, town or village, Passion plays, celebrations of music, art and culture some of which are tied to the church calendar.
In Bamburg, which is in the north of the state of Bayern (Bavaria) there is a celebration of its large number of very elaborate nativity scenes. In fact it is known as the city of nativity scenes. Some of the displays, of which there are over 30 major ones are changed every week to correspond with the nativity story, from the annunciation until the birth of Jesus, but are extended out to the scene of the first miracle of Jesus where he changed water into wine at the Wedding at Cana, just before Lent.
Speaking of Lent, there are a large number of places where Carnivals, similar to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, known as Fasching are celebrated, which all end on Fat Tuesday. In some cities there are Easter festivals, festivals involving the Patron Saint of the city, or state, and all of these are part of a holiday atmosphere.
The Germans for all of their serious nature and sometimes brusque manner of getting around do know how to draw the line between work and play and in the process build community. Their cities and towns are designed to keep a community connection including the use of excellent public transportation which means that most people don’t have to use up their cars sitting in traffic jams on the way too and from work or to a major event. I like to drive, but if our city had good public transportation I would definitely use it.
Part of this is the difference in culture and how over the years our American culture has become detached from this sort of community. In many ways we have become increasing individualistic through the proliferation of suburbia and all that goes with it, including the abandonment of cities, and small poor rural communities. The fact is we don’t know our neighbors and that leads to a culture that devalues people, destroys community and actually being on more social problems including crime. But again I digress…
This was my first trip to Oktoberfest, and though it was crowded the crowds were relatively well behaved, those who are obviously drunk or out of control are taken out, often to the first aid tent. Likewise, crime is not much a problem, despite the crowds. What is amazing is how many people lose valuables but get them back, either from someone who sees them leave them behind or drop them, but those who turn them in to security.
We experienced that on Wednesday night when the small pouch Judy had containing all of her identification and a debit card was lost. Of course we did everything we were supposed to do, retrace steps, talk with security and go to the lost and found. When I was at the lost and found I was amazed and how much was there, including very expensive looking purses, handbags and backpacks. The people there did not have it. They told me to come back the next day at 1PM Thursday when they opened and assured me that this happens all the time and that most items lost are returned.
On the way back to the hotel Judy was quite upset and my best efforts, as well as those of our friends at comforting her were of little solace. But on the U-Bahn train going back to the hotel, an older German man across from us was most kind, offered to help and did what he could to comfort Judy. That was really neat, and we both appreciated his concern and his offer of help.
With our departure less that 36 hours away, we could take no chances. Immediately on returning to the hotel I cancelled the debit card, which had not been used and contacted the U.S. Consulate in Munich. They too were reassuring, but since we could take no chances we reported her passport as lost and received a new temporary passport to ensure she could return home.
We went back to Oktoberfest after concluding that mission, when to the lost and found and they did have the pouch and nothing was missing. It had been a long 16 hours for both of us, but on finding it the mood lifted considerably. Our friends, who were doing last minute shopping met us at the Munchen Hofbrauhaus tent where we had saved seats. After dinner and a few beers we did a little bit of shopping, a quick bite at a local Gasthaus near the hotel we met our friends at the hotel to drink some of the beer that we had bought out in town.
One of the cool things about this was how we have grown closer to our friends. It will be hard not seeing them everyday, but we are planning other get togethers outside of meeting at Gordon Biersch where we all congregate anyway, but cook outs, dinners and other things where we all contribute. I think what we experience with our friends is much closer to the way that Germans do life in community, and for us that is a good thing.
There is a song that is sung at Oktoberfest as well as at other Fests throughout Germany called Ein Prosit
The band leader will get everyone’s attention and begins to sing as the band plays and everyone joins in standing, swaying to the music holding their beer steins high:
Ein prosit, Ein prosit, gemütlichkeit;
Ein prosit, Ein prosit, gemütlichkeit!
Eins, Zwei, Drei, G’Suffe!
A to at, a toast
To cheer and good times;
A toast, a toast, to cheer and good times!
One, two three! Drink up!
With that in mind I wish you the best weekend, and my wish that we all discover what it is to be in community and experience gemütlichkeit.