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An American's first (real) Oktoberfest

Hallie Rawlinson
October 1, 2018

Oktoberfest in Munich is the world's largest folk festival. The song-filled beer celebration is a bucket list item for many. DW's Hallie Rawlinson filled us in on her first time attending.

Deutschland Oktoberfest in München
Image: DW/H. Rawlinson

As an American expat in Germany, I'm pretty sure my friends and family at home have conjured an image of me getting up each day, putting on my traditional dirndl and walking past timbered houses, as I munch on a pretzel and skip to work.

But living in Berlin, far away from the south of Germany, I had never worn a dirndl in my life. In fact, I would get some very strange looks walking into the office in the traditional dress of Bavaria.

'Oktoberfest' in America

Sure, I've been to an Oktoberfest before - in Ohio or Florida, where everyone wears either a lederhosen t-shirt, or a "beer maiden" Halloween costume.

Deutschland Oktoberfest in München
The real thing: This "Hendl" or half chicken and potatoe salad meal is the perfect combination of creamy and salty.Image: DW/H. Rawlinson

In fact, Americans love to hold onto the culture of their ancestors, and experience those of others... particularly if their celebrations involve eating and drinking (also see: St. Patrick's Day; Cinco de Mayo).

Since approximately 44 million Americans claim full or partial German ancestry, it seems only natural that a trip to the "real" Oktoberfest in Munich is a bucket list item for many. So when the opportunity showed up to attend my first Oktoberfest after two years of living in Germany, I felt like it was time.

Looking the part

First order of business: secure a dirndl. I was shocked to find that these Alpine-style women's outfits can cost you anywhere from 90 to 900 euros (from $100 to $1,000) - and even more for the designer versions seen on German celebrities. A quality garment floats right around the 200-euro mark.

I found - and fell love with - a dusty rose pink dirndl with a sweet lace apron, or "Schürze," tied with a beautiful pink bow online. A white peasant blouse, flower crown and a velvet choker all purchased at the mall completed my look. I learned that nearly everyone wears their dirndl or lederhosen at the "Wiesn" - as the locals call Oktoberfest - and it really is part of the fun of participating. You don't have to buy the most expensive outfit, but you might feel left out in jeans.

Deutschland Oktoberfest in München
The colors inside the Marstall tent were so vibrant, just like the people.Image: DW/H. Rawlinson

A world party

Just the feeling of putting on the traditional dress got me into the mood to party Bavarian style. As I walked into the festival on the opening day, I saw how many people were genuinely excited about being "German for a day."

What makes Oktoberfest in Munich different from the American versions I had attended was the authentic spirit. Not only are the locals excited to carry on their tradition, but it seemed like they had pride in the fact that people travel from far and wide just to experience it... and boy do they travel.

I met a group in their early 20s from South Korea who came to the festival directly after stepping off the plane, a family with two small children from Pennsylvania, and a man from Peru visiting his German girlfriend.

Deutschland Oktoberfest in München
This sweet couple from Munich have been attending "Wiesn" for 40 years!Image: DW/H. Rawlinson

But some (perhaps the sweetest people) hadn't traveled far at all. I spoke to a couple from Munich who had been attending the festival every year together for 40 years! They even shared their favorite classic festival traditions, like the 150-year-old magic show where an audience member "loses his head" and a carousel that plays classic Bavarian folk tunes. But their best advice for getting an authentic Oktoberfest experience? Squeeze into a table in one of the big beer tents and make some new friends!

Your newest group of friends

It can be notoriously difficult to get a place at a table in one of the beer tents. They're booked up to a year in advance, and you can only be served if you're sitting down at one.

But if you are traveling by yourself or with a partner, I found that you can often spot a table with a little extra space and politely ask to join (Oktoberfest is no place to be shy!). I did just this and ended up making international and Bavarian friends all day long when.

Inside each of the tents, a band plays a special mix of folk songs and German party hits. My table mates and I talked, laughed and even tried to sing along with the songs. I struggled along with my foreign neighbors through the more traditional songs, raising my glass for a "Prost!" when others did (don't forget to make eye contact with everyone present!).

What really struck me as hilarious was when the band struck up a verse of "Country Roads" by John Denver and everyone sang along perfectly. There is just something about everyone singing and drinking together that makes a tent full of thousands feel like a huge group of friends... especially when the song is about a place near home.

So your belly is not just beer

Deutschland Oktoberfest in München
Raising my "Mass" of beer of the "Oans, zwoa, g'suffa!" toast.Image: DW/H. Rawlinson

Once I secured a spot at the table, it seemed like the perfect time to try some of the Bavarian food. I scanned the menu and ordered a "Hendl" (roast half chicken) and "Käsespätzle" (basically German macaroni and cheese) and had a feast. They were both rich, but incredibly delicious, and perfectly washed down by beer.

I found out how important it is to keep a regular meal schedule if you're drinking beer. Oktoberfest beer is brewed specially to be extra strong, and the "Mass" glasses are one whole liter. So take it slow, because you're going to be expected to take another sip each time you hear "Oans, zwoa, g'suffa!" (which happens roughly every 10 minutes to keep you drinking).

Overall, I would definitely recommend going to Oktoberfest if it's on your bucket list. Between the traditions I learned, the international friends I made and the pictures to prove to my friends at home that I do *in fact* live in Germany, it was well worth the trip. Prost!

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