Oktoberfest: The Interview. Finding “Gemütlichkeit.”

Oktoberfest, in spirit, officially starts on Saturday. We’re big fans of all things Germany at TrekSimple, but we realized we knew nothing about Oktoberfest, and suspected that many of you could also use a tutorial. So we called on Jeff, our old schoolmate and Oktoberfest expert. Not only was Jeff a fabulous interviewee, but now we’ve got the bug. Thank you, Jeff! We’ll see you in Munich.

Jeff is a lifelong Floridian. He has been married to his wife Sara for 13 years and has two little boys, ages 7 and 4. He owns a 3D printing company as well as an automotive photography business. He enjoys getting on a plane and going somewhere new. Over the years he has visited Europe 5 times and has traveled to England, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. When it comes to traveling, Germany is his go-to destination. He has been to Oktoberfest in Munich three times and is a wealth of knowledge when it come to visiting Munich and navigating the huge festival.

Let’s start with some history. How and why did you start going to Oktoberfest (why not, eh?). And how many times have you been? 

I have been to Oktoberfest in Munich three times. The first time was in 2008, then again in 2009, and I went again last year in 2019. When I was a junior in high school I became friends with a German exchange student named Christian. He taught me “useful German phrases” in class and in return I taught him how to drive a car. We’ve remained close friends and have kept in contact over the years. He has come to visit several times and I have been over there to see him four times. He came to my wedding in Key West, FL and I went to his wedding in Aying, Bavaria. Vastly different experiences and so much fun. I ended up singing a song in German with the band at his wedding, but that’s a story for another time. Anyways, he ended up marrying a girl from Bavaria and her family lived just outside of Munich. It wasn’t long before I got the phone call telling me to come to Munich to go to Oktoberfest with them. There wasn’t much convincing involved. 

It’s usually about a year or so ahead of time. I watch the flights to see when they get cheap. Fortunately, with my situation, I get to stay with friends so that saves time and a lot of money trying to find somewhere to stay. If you’re planning on going make sure you do start early. More than six million people visit Oktoberfest so you may find yourself staying farther outside of town than you would like and that makes for a long train ride home after a long day of drinking, singing, and dancing. 

When I went the first two times it was my wife and I. The last time I went by myself. The atmosphere is really family friendly though. There are kids in the large tents and you can see the parents sneaking them a sip from their Maß (1 liter beer glass) of beer from time to time. It can get rowdy later in the evening so they will usually clear out before the beer really kicks in. 

Jeff, Sara, and their Maß

If you don’t do Oktoberfest in Munich, do you have another favorite town? Is it blasphemy to even say that?

No blasphemy whatsoever. I really enjoyed going to Nürnberg. The city is beautiful and the food was amazing! We were there during the Altstadtfest (old town festival) and it was a lot of fun. The castle tour was really interesting and there is lots of history surrounding the city. The Nürnberger Rostbratwurst are a must and are delicious. Also the beer, don’t forget the beer. Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a close second. 

What is your travel progression? That is, do you make a week, two weeks out of your trip, and where do you like to go?

I believe with any trip to Europe one week is mandatory due to travel time, jet lag, cost, etc. Two weeks is better. My wife and I always try to visit several countries while we are there if possible. We have visited England, France, Germany, Austria, France, Switzerland, and Italy over two trips. I think we agree that Germany and Switzerland were our favourites. The nice thing about Europe is the train system. There are connections pretty much everywhere and the high speed trains made it very convenient to go from country to country. Me personally though, I like to drive. The German countryside is gorgeous. I got a crash course in European driving from my friend Christian. It’s pretty similar to driving in the US except for the rules about yielding (I almost ran over a lady on a bike because apparently they always have the right of way) and the roundabouts. Once you get your bearings it is the absolute best way to travel. The German Autobahn is an experience in itself. Yes, you get to drive fast at times. I think my top speed was around 130mph. What was really impressive is the way everyone follows the driving laws. No lingering in the left lane and absolutely no passing to the right. All large trucks have to stay in the far right lane. If only it were like this in the US. 

How many days are needed at the festival itself? We’ve heard even the most hearty livers tap out around day 3.

It all depends on what you are trying to get out of it. Oktoberfest itself, or Wiesn as the locals call it, is a huge carnival. There are rides, games, activities, and lots of food. I would suggest taking the first day to just walk around. There is so much to see. People watching is pretty amazing. You will see some of the locals wearing their Tracht (traditional Bavarian clothing) and they are intricate and beautiful. Their beards can be an artform alone. 

Oktoberfest…a huge carnival. Who knew?

Here’s your first Protip: When you’re walking around you’ll see these large angels with crossbows on top of pilings. Their arrows are pointing to the bathrooms. You’re welcome. 

After your first day of walking around, take a peek inside one of the large tents. The first time I walked into one I had a moment of clarity. It was simply amazing and I wanted to experience it. So this is the part where I cannot be of great help because every time I have gone it has been with locals and they always get reservations for the tent. You can try to get some when they first offer them. Having a table at Oktoberfest is a bit like getting season tickets for football. You start at the least desirable spots and, as the years go on, you get preferential treatment as far as moving towards the middle of the tent where the band and excitement is. You can just walk in and try to find a seat, but get there early because they go fast. Luckily, every single person in there is having the time of their life and they are more than happy to let you use any empty seats if they’re available. 

Oktoberfest “tent.”

To answer the question about how many days at Oktoberfest, I would say one day walking around, one day in one of the large tents and, depending on how you’re feeling, a second day would probably be enough unless you take a day off and then come back. I think I drank 5 liters (14 normal beers) and if I wasn’t dancing and singing most of the time I would have been in really, really bad shape. 

What do you bring to the festival? What’s in your man bag? Do you need a man bag? And what do you wear?

You should have a good amount of cash on you. Some places take cards, but it is much easier to just use cash. I always bring a backpack when I travel. I really try to travel light. I keep a photocopy of my passport in it and my camera. It also allows me to put anything I purchase in it so I don’t have to carry it around. 

I go all in when I go to Oktoberfest. I have my own personal Tracht. The first time I went I bought Lederhosen, a traditional shirt, long socks, and a Bavarian hat. All of that along with my blond hair and if you didn’t hear me talk you’d think I was a local. Ladies will wear a Dirndl which is a traditional Bavarian dress. They are all very different, colorful, and really beautiful. The women of Munich take pride in the way they dress for Oktoberfest and I can only imagine how much some of the dresses cost. 

Even the horses wear Tracht.

How do you logistically attack the Wiesn (i.e., arrival time, tent order or choosing a tent, schedule of events, etc.)?

If you’re going to a big tent get there early. The tents open at 10am and the music and beer stops at 10:30pm so it’s not an all-night party. They usually play traditional music throughout the day and later in the evening is when the bands break out the party songs. You will hear everything from Thunderstruck by AC/DC to Country Roads by John Denver. Sidenote, they absolutely love American music and know the words to pretty much everything. 

Protip #2: Do yourself a favor and learn some of the Oktoberfest songs the best you can. Even if you don’t understand what you’re saying you’ll be able to join in with 10,000 of your new closest friends and not feel left out when they’re singing Fliegerlied and doing all of the motions to it. Google it, you’ll see what I mean. 

There are 17 large tents and 21 small tents at the Wiesn. Some will sound familiar and some not so much. The popular ones are tents like Hofbräu, Hacker-Pschorr and Schottenhamel. Getting into those without a reservation can be tough. They reach capacity pretty early. Even if you don’t get into a large tent all of them have great music and are a lot of fun. 

Schottenhamel “tent”

If you could describe the festival…the atmosphere, the feel…what is it like? We don’t really get Oktoberfest. Is it like a state fair, but with beer? Or a medieval faire? Is there jousting?

The energy in the tent just feels warm, happy, and together. There’s nothing like it. You really have to be there and experience it to understand. 10,000 people experiencing the same thing is really something unique.

Germans have a saying called “Gemütlichkeit” which doesn’t have a direct translation in English. Nearest I figure it’s more of a feeling than anything else. When you’re in a large tent and the music is playing, the beer is flowing, everyone has their arms around each other singing there is this feeling in the air. The energy in the tent just feels warm, happy, and together. There’s nothing like it. You really have to be there and experience it to understand. 10,000 people experiencing the same thing is really something unique. I’ve met people from all over the world at Oktoberfest and by the end of the night there is a friendship or bond I suppose that you never would have had anywhere else. We met a gentleman the first time we went that was probably 75 years old. His name was Oswald. He was sitting by himself. We started talking to him, through Christian of course, and we found out that his wife had recently passed away. He told us that instead of sitting at home by himself he wanted to come to the Wiesn and enjoy some Gemütlichkeit for a few hours. We ended up drinking and singing with him the rest of the night. I’m pretty sure he had a night to remember. 

Gemütlichkeit feelings

Is there any important etiquette we should know (securing a table; how to order, how to tie your dirndle, etc.)?

As far as etiquette goes being polite and not the “obnoxious American” goes a long way. Yes, we have a reputation and from what I saw a few times it is warranted. Danke, Bitte, and Servus are a few phrases that will get you a long way. When you Prost (cheers) a beer, always make eye contact. Ladies tie their Dirndl according to their relationship status. Right side is married, left is single, middle means none of your business, and rear is widow or child. I’m not sure how much they actually keep to that, but that’s the tradition. 

Yes, it’s hard to choose a favorite of anything, but do it anyway. What’s your go-to Oktoberfest beer, or style. And what are some foods you can’t leave without trying?

There are so many different beers and beer styles in Germany. I tried as many as I could while I was there. Weißbier, Kellerbier, Kölsch, Starkbier, Helles, Dunkel, and Märzenbier are just a few. My favorite, if I had to pick one it would be Dunkelweizen which is a dark wheat beer. This is the beer that fueled my wedding singer stint at Christian’s wedding, but that’s a story for another time. 

The Bavarian wedding singer

As far as food goes there are too many to list. The dumplings they make are amazing! Schweinshaxe, Sauerbraten, Rehbraten, Kaiserschmarrn, Lebkuchen, all of the different types of Wurst, I could go on and on. The thing about their cooking is that everything tastes so fresh. The way they approach their food is very different from the US. You can just taste it, as weird as that sounds. Don’t take my word for it, go over and find out for yourself. I’ll give a quick shoutout to my favorite German restaurant in Florida called the Ambry. It’s in Fort Lauderdale and the food there is amazing. The best I’ve found outside of Germany.  

What is your favorite swag and/or souvenirs/gifts? What do you bring home to mom? What do you buy for yourself or your family?

As far as souvenirs go I have a lot of beer glasses and steins. I also bring home Christmas ornaments for myself and my family. From Oktoberfest, I will bring home some of the gingerbread hearts that they make. They are about 6-8 inches wide and you wear them around your neck. They all have different sayings on them and apparently they last forever because I still have mine from 2008 and it looks the same as the day I bought it. 

Let’s talk about money. We know Germany is a big cash culture, so we assume you need a lot of cash on hand. And tipping isn’t very common, but does it occur at Oktoberfest? And, if you don’t mind saying, how much cash would you expect to take out of the ATM for one day, to fully food and beer one person?

I usually keep a couple hundred Euros on me when I’m out and about. You never know when you’ll need it and I don’t want to be stranded without any cash on me. Also, you may find yourself really wanting to buy something and they don’t take cards. Tipping at restaurants is very different than in the US. They get a higher wage in Germany so you don’t have to tip 15% like here. If the server goes above and beyond then you will give a little extra. I usually tip a little higher than expected just so they have a good experience with an American. At Oktoberfest I always tip the servers well. When you see them pushing through the tent carrying 12 beers at one time you just have to. They work hard all night making sure everyone is having a good time and they deserve every Euro they get. I would definitely bring at least 200 Euros to Oktoberfest. Bring more if you’re planning on buying souvenirs. 

Have you had any unforgettable experiences with locals?

One thing that I can say is that I have never had a bad experience with the locals in Germany. They are friendly and are very willing to help you with anything that you may need. Of the four times that I have gone, I have only met one person that did not speak any English. He was the parking lot attendant at the bottom of the Zugspitze. Fortunately I have friends that live in Munich so that gives me a different experience than most. I get to live with them while I’m there and I actually have a network of friends that I have made through Christian that are in Munich as well as Köln. So when I visit I get to spend time with my “German friends” and pick up where we left off that last time I visited them or they visited me. Personally, I just think they like watching me sing at Oktoberfest. When I visited last time I got to meet Christian’s kids which was so much fun. They spoke as much English as I spoke German so we understood each other pretty well. They know me as Uncle Jeff, the guy that knows how to say “Das Krokodil macht große Kaka” which means “the alligator makes big poops”. Don’t ask, it’s a long story. 

How does one not get embarrassingly drunk, or is that not even an option?

There are drunk people at Oktoberfest. Most of them are singing and dancing so you don’t notice. You will see people getting too drunk and obnoxious and they are carried out. It’s a place to drink and have fun, not get wasted and cause a scene. 

Protip #3: Start your day in the big tent drinking Radler which is half beer, half lemon-lime soda. It will get you primed for the whole day and not end your day before it even gets started. Also, eat. You’ll get caught up with everything going on and forget to put something in your stomach. They have half chickens, pretzels, and all sorts of other delicious foods to keep you leveled out. 

Are you doing anything to celebrate this year? 

Of course! I will don my Lederhosen and drink some Oktoberfest beer. I will probably Skype with my German friends and celebrate with them 5,000 miles apart. It’s unfortunate that it is cancelled this year, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have some Gemütlichkeit at home with your family. Prost!!!

What are we missing?

One last thing. This is the song that they sing every 20 minutes or so in the tents. Learn it because you’re going to need to know it. 

German:

Ein Prosit, ein Prosit 
Der Gemütlichkeit 
Ein Prosit, ein Prosit 
Der Gemütlichkeit. 
OANS! ZWOA! DREI! G’SUFFA!

English:

A toast, a toast
To cheer and good times
A toast, a toast
To cheer and good times.
ONE! TWO! THREE! DRINK!

Jeff and Christian. Prost!

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