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Ein Prosit!

September 20, 2010

It might as well be a rite of passage for non-Germans living here to visit their first Oktoberfest. To chronicle a first trip to Munich's biggest party, Deutsche Welle sent an Oktoberfest rookie to the 'Wiesn.'

A waitress carries several beers at Oktoberfest
The trick is to let the handles do the workImage: picture alliance / dpa

Nine in the morning isn't the earliest I've ever stood in line for a beer, but I have certainly never waited with such anticipation. I'm standing outside the Hofbraeuhaus beer tent at Oktoberfest in Munich. The city is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the first Oktoberfest, held in 1810 to honor the marriage between Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. But for me, this is my first time on the 'Wiesn,' the local name for Theresienwiese (Therese's Meadow) in honor of Prince Ludwig's bride.

Christian Ude taps the first Oktoberfest keg
As soon as Mayor Ude taps the first keg, the party can beginImage: picture alliance/dpa

I always thought Oktoberfest was just one big beer tent crammed full of people drinking, but that turned out to be completely wrong. There are actually fourteen beer tents, spread out over an area the size of about 60 soccer fields.

Oktoberfest officially kicks off when Munich's mayor, Christian Ude, taps the first keg. Then, the beer halls open their doors, and row after row of wooden benches and tables quickly fill with thirsty visitors.

My table orders a round of beers, and when Nadine, our waitress finally comes with our drinks, I nearly fall off the bench. She's carrying eight one-liter beers in massive glass beer mugs. That's at least 8 kilograms (20 pounds), all without a tray.

"You stack the handles on top of each other," she says when I ask her how she manages to carry all that beer. "Then they support themselves."

A liter of Oktoberfest beer
Beer comes by the liter at OktoberfestImage: DW

Six million liters, one beer at a time

I need two hands to hoist my first Oktoberfest beer, but the strain is well worth it. Not only am I refreshed after a long morning of waiting to get in the beer tents, but I'm doing my part to drink one of the roughly 6 million liters of beer that will be consumed at Oktoberfest during the 17-day celebration.

In the beer tent, it's easy to make friends. The beer facilitates quick camaraderie, and I meet Oktoberfest revelers from all over the world, including Italy, China, Japan, Australia, South Africa, and of course, Germany.

Like many of my fellow international visitors to Oktoberfest, I was lured to the Theresienwiese by the promise of some of Germany's best beer. But I had no idea that the food at Oktoberfest would be so tasty. I was expecting to have a bratwurst here and there to tide me over between brews, but to stop at sausage is to do a serious injustice to the German cuisine available at Oktoberfest.

A schweinshaxe - pork knuckle - is an Oktoberfest specialtyImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

The best food can be found outside the beer tents from small vendors. Among the highlights of the food I sampled were Leberkaessemmel, a Bavarian meat loaf served on a bread roll, Schweinshaxe, a roasted pork knuckle, and Hendl, which is a rotisserie chicken. Take my advice if you plan on having anything to eat at Oktoberfest: grab lots of napkins!

The feeling of the Wiesn

Food, drink, friends - just one thing missing to make Oktoberfest the perfect party: music. Each beer tent has a band playing all day long, and each band has slightly different styles. In the Hofbraeuhaus tent, which is traditionally home to many foreign visitors, classic sing-alongs such as 'Sweet Home Alabama' or 'Take me Home, Country Roads' rotate their way through the set list. But one song played several times an hour in all the tents is only a single line long, repeated twice and sung in German: 'Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit der Gemuetlichkeit.'

Oktoberfest grounds full of people
With thousands of visitors, making friends is no problemImage: DW

I know enough German to understand that the song means they are raising a toast (Ein Prosit) to the Gemuetlichkeit, which normally means something like an intimate, cozy feeling. But at Oktoberfest, Gemuetlichkeit takes on a totally different meaning, and even Germans have a tough time putting their finger on it.

I get answers ranging from 'happiness', and 'tradition' to 'enjoying your beer' and 'being with your friends.' But it took a true Bavarian to sum up the true meaning of Gemuetlichkeit on the Wiesn:

"Gemutlichkeit is just what you feel at Oktoberfest!"

For me, then, Gemuetlichkeit means a glass full of beer, a stomach full of Schweinhaxe, Leberkaessemmel and pretzels, a band cranking out the hits, and a busload of new friends to sing with. This may have been my first Oktoberfest, but you can bet it won't be my last.

Author: Matt Zuvela, Munich
Editor: Andreas Illmer