June 10, 2007

Munich: Where it's Oktober every month of the year

After our excursion into the wilds of the Englischer Garten – and a much-needed nap – Kevin and I went back out in search of a traditional beer hall to round out our trip. Since we only had one night in München, and since it’s unlikely we’ll have the chance to return, I wanted to go somewhere that would simulate the feel of Oktoberfest, even though it’s the middle of June. So we settled on the Hofbräuhaus, the spot our travel book described as “on the itinerary of just about every visitor to the city, but which is, nonetheless, perfectly genuine.” Hrm.

The Hofbräuhaus, in the heart of the city, can seat up to 4,500 guests at a time and starts serving beer and live music at nine in the morning. It was built in 1897, but it’s been the spot of a beer hall since 1589. It also has the dubious distinction of being the location of the famous “Beer Hall Putsch,” Hitler’s unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Weimar government in 1923. In the middle of a crowded political convention, Hitler jumped onto the stage, fired a few shots into the ceiling, and boldly declared “The National Revolution has broken out. The hall is surrounded.” The hall was not surround, and no one joined Hitler’s call for revolution, that time. Shortly after, he was arrested and spent a year in prison writing Mein Kampf and planning a new, improved revolution. The rest, as they say, ist Geschichte.

When we showed up at the Bräuhaus, at 10 o’clock on a warm June night, things were only slightly less exciting. Dirndl-draped waitresses were floating by with large trays of Maßkrugs balanced precariously over their heads. A 10-piece brass band was leading a crowd of drunken revelers in an energetic polka. The hall pulsed with the energy of thousands of happy, inebriated people. “Ah!” I thought, “Now here’s some traditional Bavarian culture.” But the room was so packed that Kevin and I could hardly find a seat. Finally, I asked a young, sandy-haired guy, in German, if it were possible to share his table. He answered, in very polite German, that he and his father, with whom he was having dinner, would be glad if we’d join them. His father smiled his assent in the middle of a bite of bratwurst. “Awesome,” I thought, “This is just the sort of beer hall neighborliness I heard about. Perhaps we’ll strike up a good conversation.”

Only, I still don’t feel confident enough in my German to converse with native speakers, and of course Kevin doesn’t speak any German at all. And beyond their initial friendliness, the tow-headed youth and his father didn’t seem to be big conversationalists either. They didn’t even speak to each other. So the four of us sat there, in silence, sipping our 10-euro beers and listening to the Oompah band.

And then the anonymous polka medley slipped into a tune more familiar. Kevin started to hum along with it, and I found myself supplying the words, “… take me home… to the place where I be-long …” “It’s John Denver!” said Kevin, in that booming voice he reserves for commenting on the absurd, “The German polka band is playing John Denver!” And we weren’t the only ones who noticed. The father and son also started singing along, huge grins spread across their faces. Once the band reached the chorus the second time, the entire hall erupted: “West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home. Country Roads.” Tanned, tipsy young men hoped up from the surrounding tables and began twirling random women across the dance floor. There are few things so strange, or so wonderful, as hearing a familiar song in foreign place – and having thousands of people share the moment with you.

This little lyric outburst also provided us with the perfect entrée to our quiet neighbors, who turned out to be from Oklahoma. The son, Jordan, is a classics major on exchange in Berlin, and is father, Greg, is a Lexus salesman and was in the middle of his first trip to Europe. Apparently Jordan had remained silent for the same reason I had: his German was competent, but not great; however, in the din of a crowded beer hall, we’d been fooled by one another’s accent. Anyway, once we discovered a common language, we discovered many topics of common interest: Bavarian beer, German castles and museums, American and European cultural differences, and of course, a thorough knowledge of American rock lyrics.

And so the night wore on in conversation and camaraderie. The band filled their set with other classics of a certain era (“Sweet Caroline” was also a big hit), and the tanned young men – now clearly identified as American undergrads by the collegiate names block-printed across their T-Shirts and baseball caps – danced until close. It wasn’t exactly “genuine” Bavarian culture, but I suspect it came close to capturing the genuine feel of Oktoberfest – or as close as an American can come to experiencing it on an average Saturday night in June, in the company of other Americans.

No comments: