Recently, my friend Sarah told me about her work visit to Amsterdam. As part of the conference she attended, fake Dutch pirates brought out trays of raw herring. She said the herring smelt rotten. It’s tradition to eat this herring whole, they told her. Just pinch your nose, tip your head back, and drop the fish down. Now, these fake pirates were swashbucklers, but not savages. They’d also prepared shots for afterwards, and put out buckets on the floor for people to throw up in. Yes, you read that right—to throw up in. Sarah, not wanting to look like a total stick in the mud, pinched her nose, tipped her head, and dropped the fish down. She didn’t throw up, but said several other people did.
When I asked why she did it, she said, “You know, when in Rome …”
“WHEN IN ROME?!?! Are all people in Rome extremely gullible? Is common sense outlawed there?” I asked.
Now, I do not believe it is an ancient seafaring Dutch tradition to eat a rotting fish. I think it’s something event organisers and historians and other such charlatans have made up, to have a bit of a laugh at the expense of gullible tourists. These people now watch every night from the back, their noses pinched, cackling with delight at what silly foreign people will do for a supposedly Authentic Experience™.
Which leads me to Oktoberfest. Can you see where this is going?
Oktoberfest is, in many ways, the raw herring of German “traditions.” It smells bad. It’s highly likely to make you throw up. The prices are rotten. The people telling you it has got a rich cultural history are the ones trying to sell you that rich cultural history in the form of € 10 litres of beer. Of course, in my first years here, I didn’t know this. I thought Oktoberfest was the pinnacle of Germanness. A rite of passage, like your first holiday at the Baltic Sea, or getting a Steueridentifikationsnummer. So, every September, I’d get all excited and bug my newly acquired German friends to take me to Oktoberfest. Maybe you did too, when you first moved here. Silly, silly us. My friends never took me to it. Instead, they’d look down at me, like I was some simple, naïve child showing them a crude drawing of a horse I’d made in red crayon. If they did bother to answer, they’d say something like, “Not if you paid me,” or, “Like I need an excuse to dress funny and drink beer. Ever heard of the weekend?”
You see, foreign friend, while Oktoberfest is revered internationally as the quintessential German experience, domestically, it’s seen as the quintessential tourist experience. Bavarians can go—if they’ve got nothing better to do. Being Bavarian, they’ve no positive reputation to lose. But not you. Your standards must be higher if you hope to complete your Ausbildung in Deutschsein. So this step is a pretty easy one, really. You have to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. Specifically, you have to do nothing between mid-September and early October. In Munich. In a Zelt.
The rest of the world has it wrong. The true German Oktoberfest tradition isn’t attending it, it’s avoiding it.
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