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Culture

A Toast to Oktoberfest

The world's largest folk festival ended this weekend in Germany. The annual Oktoberfest in Munich attracted over six million people and was, as usual, a great party full of dancing, rides, and of course beer.

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From Sept. 18 to Oct. 3, Munich revolves around beer

It's hard to describe Oktoberfest to those who have never been there. Part party, festival and carnival with singalongs, costumes, rides and games, the ultimate beer bash is something you just have to experience, says DW-RADIO's Allison Frost, who spoke with several visitors during Oktoberfest's last weekend.

A toast to Gemütlichkeit

Wiesn Besucher heben ihre Maßkrüge, Münchener Oktoberfest 2003

Visitors lift their Maß, one-liter mugs of beer, during the Oktoberfest

After spending less than an hour in one of the festival's enormous beer tents, it's hard to get the refrain of one of the beer drinker's favorite songs out of your head. "A toast, a toast to Gemütlichkeit." It's an homage to that uniquely German word for the feeling of sociability, hospitality and that relaxed sense of belonging that defies translation. In Munich, Bavaria's capital and the home to Oktoberfest, Gemütlichkeit is written big -- almost as big as the one-liter mugs that are passed around full of beer.

The jovial good spirit that exudes from the packed beer tents and the experience of locking arms and swaying along with hundreds of other strangers is what keeps drawing back visitors. This year there were over six million.

For Wolf Wilberg, who comes to the "Wiesn," as the locals call it, every year, there's just one way to sum up the Oktoberfest experience: home. The retired teacher hails originally from Berlin, but has been a "Bavarian at heart" for years.

"This is about being among people which share our attitudes towards life. Which means, we are proud of our traditions and we welcome guests from all over the world," he says.

Bildgalerie Oktoberfest 2004 Bild 6

Traditional brass bands are an integral part of the Oktoberfest tradition

"When you come here, people will say, Hocke die heir, which means come here and have a seat. And it is less than a minute before you are in an intimate talk and you know your neighbor and you share or do not share his opinions. If you are completely different you at least share the same beer and the same pretzel and that's that," Wilberg says of the down-home nature of Oktoberfest.

Jan Schöbel, a Munich native, has just returned from studying abroad in Portland, Oregon. He says he's glad to be back in town for the big event: "I like the beer. When I was a little bit younger, I liked the rides." But the main reason he likes Oktoberfest is "to sit together in a beer tent or in the beer garden if the weather is nice, have fun with friends and meet foreign people."

When you've had too much to drink

Of course the focus is really on the beer. That's what the festival is all about. And as to be expected, people tend to drink to excess. The brochures and tourist information don't mention that, but it's a given.

Sometimes the situation gets a bit out of hand or worse. Minor struggles and fist fights with heavy glass beer mugs breaking are not that uncommon, but usually they are quickly suppressed. Police and medical officials are always on hand to make sure things don't get out of control.

Last year the city adopted a two-pronged approach to respond to reports of sexual assault. It set up a centrally located security point, staffed by women and open everyday from 6:00 at night to 1:00 in the morning. It also launched a campaign called "A safe Oktoberfest for girls and women" to discourage sexual harassment.

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View of Munich's Oktoberfest with the St. Paul's Cathedral in the background

Do the darker sides of the festival deter visitors or dampen their mood? Not really, says Wolf Wilberg. "I'm glad that the police have this under control. There are always people who do not know where the limits are. But it is more the fun and spirit of friendship and companionship, and people feel that the atmosphere is more important than heavy drinking."

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