I finally arrived at the famed hostelry around 1:00 p.m., made my way to the entrance and was almost bowled over by a group of what were certainly Aussie girls in shorts, indulging in high-spirited singing as they were leaving. I entered and found an empty table; unloading my pack, I sat down.
Beasts of Berlin
I must have lost at least seven pounds after my week of tramping, even displaying the beginnings of a tan. I leaned back against the wall, watching people file in and out, basking in the atmosphere and the music, contented and at peace with the world. I ordered a Kassler rippchen, smoked pork hock, and a beer. I noticed seven or eight huge Berliners (judging from their T-shirts) at the next table. They were wading into great plates of Schweinsaxe, roast pigs hock with Leberknoedel sauerkraut and gravy with foaming one-litre krugs of beer. I mentally called them the "Beasts of Berlin".
Looking around, it was hard to imagine the pre-war events that had taken place here: the motley crowd that had gathered to listen to the leader of the recently formed "National Socialist German Workers Party"; an insignificant looking Austrian with a toothbrush moustache, who was trying to inspire a ragged bunch of brown-shirted, ill-fed, embittered and desperately poor people, ravaged by the aftermath of the First World War, smarting under the perceived injustice of the Versailles Treaty. Subject to rampant hyper-inflation and poverty, they were looking to him to give them a lifeline; a fervent desire that this man with his hypnotic oratory could somehow fulfill their hopes and simultaneously resurrect the German nation. I could hear the thunderous cheers when Hitler had finished his rousing speech, and the general air of jubilation.
It was then I was rudely brought back to more contemporary rowdiness as the Australian girls I had bumped into on entering, came bursting back in the famous hall, laughing and singing. As I was the only one sitting at the large, convenient table, I knew they were going to join me. My first impulse was to flee. I felt irritable at their intrusion into my thoughts; and in a place steeped in such history, their brash, irreverent, antipodean high spirits seemed suddenly blasphemous. However, as I prepared to grab my pack, I noticed on closer inspection, that they seemed attractive. Predictably, they joined me at the table, with casual nods and hellos among the giggles. I listened to the chatter without appearing to do so, not feeling particularly inclined to join in. Six girls, even had they been sober, is daunting company for a lone male. I was, though, starved for English conversation; I gradually began to enjoy their lively banter.
I find that young girls' inhibited conversation is a refreshing and often amusing experience. Now this was heightened by that curious Australian uplift of the words at the end of many sentences, almost making a question out of a statement. Finally I determined to say something, however banal, and during a rare lull in the conversation, I interjected. “Er, I suppose you're here for the Octoberfest?” Six pairs of eyes turned on me. “Yeah, that's right,” said a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes, who was seated opposite, farthest away from me, nearest the Berliners. She seemed eager to talk and offered to sit closer, swinging a bare leg over the bench and walking round to sit beside me. This invited a cacophony of wolf whistles and cheers from the "Beasts" who, having finished their meal, had eyes only for the girls.
“F… idiots,” she murmured as she sat down beside me.
“Boys will be boys,” I remarked.
“They haven't been boys since they were in the Hitler Youth,” she shot back. I laughed. I had an inkling this was no ordinary girl, at least not like one that I had ever met before.
“My name's Ingrid,” she said, as she introduced me to all the girls, one of them being her sister, Anna, who had the same beautiful blonde hair and blue eyes, We chatted amiably while the lecherous looks and occasional shouts from the next table eventually caused some of the girls to answer back, a response that didn't seem to fit in with their macho game of girl-baiting. Suddenly, one of their number, a giant with a beer-flushed face and porcine features, swayed up to the table and looking directly at me, unleashed a tirade of what I definitely knew to be abuse, but what to my uneducated ear, may as well have been ancient Greek.
At this point my mind was saying, “He must know we're not Germans”. Meanwhile, I was looking at him blankly, conscious that my mouth was open and wanting to say something, but unable to form anything. He obviously thought that by speaking his own language loudly, like the British do, he could be understood, With his chauvinistic mentality, he thought that I, being the only man at the table, with a wave of my hand or a sharp word, could bring these chattering wenches to heel.
I was still gaping at him, my brain stuck in neutral, when I heard the voice of Ingrid beside me speaking to him angrily in fluent, idiomatic German. To say the man was dumbstruck was an understatement. His mouth hung open, his face flushed an even further shade of red. After being subjected to what seemed like one of Hitler's speeches, he even started to apologise. Having made her point, Ingrid sat down, while the man humbly shambled back to his table; his friends quiet and
embarrassed for him. I turned to her open-mouthed with admiration.
“I knew the language would come in handy sometime,” she said smoothly, as she took a large slug of her beer. It happened that she and Anna had Bavarian parents and spoke the German dialect as easily as English.
“What did you say?” I asked, full of admiration.
“Oh,” she said nonchalantly, “just that they started it, by whistling and staring at us, and that if he didn't stop bothering us and minding his own business, I'd ram what's left of that schweinsaxe up his arse!”
They were not like British girls in their confidence and brashness, at least it seemed to me at the time. With hindsight, it is not the nationalities that are so different. It's the people who are willing to travel and work abroad who do not resemble their less intrepid brethren. The men were doughty drinkers, which surprised me, as their looks, figures and general well-educated observations seemed to preclude much association with the "demon drink".
“All Aussies drink,” declared Ingrid, with a forced belch that brought disapproving Teutonic stares, “except for the poofters.”
Neither were the Aussies ignorant of the history of the drinking hall in which we were situated. Having studied European History, Ingrid reminded me that the Hofbrauhaus was only one of a number of Munich drinking halls used by Hitler for his meetings, the Bürgerbräu keller being another, where in the early twenties, he fired a pistol into the air.
A magic combination
After another beer, it was decided they would take me back to the campground, have a nap, and prepare for the night at the Bier-fest. We made our way out: chatting, laughing and with much singing of "Waltzing Mathilda", along with "The Pub With No Beer" and "The Wild Colonial Boy", among others. None of this seemed to cause the ordinary citizens of Munich more than a lifted eyebrow or a smile. They had, of course, seen it all before during the Octoberfest fortnight, and accepted it as indulgent parents would, to a child's birthday party. I remember at that time, thinking how much fun it was to strike up such a relationship with girls from another country after only three hours. It was as though it was the most natural thing in the world. It is due to the magic combination succesfully employed by the 18-30 holiday company, a fun environment, youth, and plenty of booze.
After exhausting our repertoire of songs, we caught a bus. As we approached the campground, I could see the throng of merrymakers going to and from the fest. The campground was a revelation to me. It was humming with a life that transmitted itself beyond its confines, threatening to spread out and consume the immediate area with the raw power contained within – the sheer vitality and exuberance of unfettered youth.
The appearance of the campsite was similar to a rock festival: garbage bins full to overflowing with empty beer bottles and soda cans; the aimless meanderings; the desultory conversations; a hint of unwashed bodies together with an illicit sweetness in the air; bras and panties fluttering coquettishly beside T-shirts and underpants on improvised washing lines. And the people, drawn from other lands as iron filings to a magnet, most of whom, apart from a few Germans, Austrians, Dutch, Americans and Italians, were Aussies, Kiwis or Brits, striking up cautious, friendly relationships, disguised as mild antagonism to each other's culture, or their cricket and rugby teams. One had only to be here for ten minutes to be influenced by the vibes of several hundred like-minded souls gathered in one place, and to be aware of what a force for good or evil can be created by even unfocused thought power. The collective force exuded here though, unlike the Nazi meetings of the 20s, 30s and 40s, was definitely one of benign hedonism.
After a few hours sleep in the girls' tent, we were refreshed and ready for more. We set off following the crowd. I had read of the Octoberfest and its prodigious sales of beer, chickens and roast ox, and of the tents, but I had not prepared myself for that first sight – an immense stretch of the largest tents imaginable. I guessed that one would be at least the size of an average football pitch. The smell of beer and food was almost palpable in the air, music came from various sideshows and rides, but it was the noise and actions of the people that held the captivating essence of the scene, while stereotypes of the nationalities abounded: yellow Japanese adorned with cameras; fat, red-faced Bavarians in their lederhosen; Aussies with broad-brimmed hats, corks dangling down; a crowd of pale, drunken Scots singing "Flower of Scotland", and lifting their kilts at young, giggling frauleins and jungvrouws. As the vibes of the campground carried an air of laid-back hedonism, here it had turned into one of hell-bent-for-pleasure-lets-get-drunk-as-a-skunk ethos. Crude, but it was after all the fest's raison'd'etre.
Six beer tents represented the main Munich brewers. The first call was to the "Hofbrau" tent, which was by this time fairly jumping, with roars of “AUS-SIES”, and the answering roar, “KI-WIS.” The girls led me to the Aussie contingent; we sat down at an almost vacant table. I gazed around in awe at the vastness of everything. Even the waitresses were vast. They were dressed in the traditional Dirndl skirts and puffed sleeve blouses, some carrying eight to ten litre-krugs without undue strain, while gliding over the improvised wooden floor like galleons in full sail. It is worth the effort, as some of them can earn £200 a day in tips at today's rates.
The girls were right into the spirit of the thing, shouting along with their compatriots. I could hardly holler with the Aussies, and wasn't brave enough to yell “ENG-LAND,” so I compromised by shouting “YORK-SHIRE,” at the risk of offending any Lancastrians in earshot. From time to time the Bavarian oompah band would give a lively rendition of Bavarian tunes interjected with the Hofbrauhaus song. Everyone linked arms and joined in: "In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus – oans, zwoa, g’suffa!" There was also the short one-liner: “Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, G’gemütlichkeit,” repeated at half-hourly intervals, terminating in the universal clashing together of the weighty krugs.
As Ingrid and I allowed ourselves to be captured by this licensed anarchy, we warmed to each other even more. Apart from her looks, it was easy to forget you were with a female, and one who was hoping to become a lecturer in history. She was a natural comic, and made witty and earthy "Aussiecisms", making me laugh out loud. After another beer, we stood on tables, shouted like fairground barkers and generally acted like two-year olds on crack cocaine; in fact, similar to the rest of the surrounding Antipodean set of under thirties. br/>Such infantile behaviour can become wearingly moronic. I was relieved when Ingrid asked if I wanted to go to another tent. The rest of the girls, several of whom were now in the act of being chatted up by slavering compatriots, expressed no desire to follow. I was more than willing to escort her, so we departed unsteadily, leaving the rest of the girls with their respective beaus and the alcoholic hordes of Aussies and Kiwis still trying to out-shout each other. We walked slowly, talking and laughing, high on the alcohol and the vibrations of noise, distant shrieks and tumult that surrounded us.
I grabbed her hand to lead her to a T-shirt stall, where we looked at the different printed designs; she explained what she could of some obscure Bavarian words. There was one printed in English that I particularly liked. "Preuss (Prussian) is nice, Bayer(Bavaria) is higher." I noticed after a while that I was still holding her hand, and while looking at her, squeezed it. She smiled and squeezed back, re-assuringly. We continued on hand-in-hand to the next huge tent that had the famous legend LÖWENBRÄU above its entrance. Ingrid was suddenly quiet now, as if in deep thought. I was wary of saying anything for fear of breaking the spell we both seemed to be under. I sensed she would soon say something. She finally spoke, “Jesus, I could piss like a stallion.” We entered the tent laughing and happy with each other, like two old friends meeting after a long time parted.
In the days that followed, Ingrid and I were content to be in each other's company, only visiting the fest twice more, agreeing that more than three times is simply covering old ground. The first time is invariably the best, subsequent visits start to pale by comparison. “Only morons go every night,” she declared vehemently, a sentiment I could only agree with as we clung to each other in her sleeping bag one night.
A fond, brief spell
I look back with fondness at that brief spell. It was that period of sexual freedom bequeathed to us by the 60s generation and the pill, before the restrictions imposed on society by that dreaded disease that would so cruelly strike at Ingrid's "'poofters": before anyone knew, or at least talked about such topics as air pollution and de-forestation; rivers and seas full of chemicals; when no one knew what an ozone layer was, much less a hole that could be caused in it; before anyone had ever heard of Margaret Thatcher. Oh happy days!
I was now becalmed in a carefree ocean; a mood that could not be allowed to continue. I had to set sail, to see what lay beyond. The next day I told Ingrid it was time for me to go. “I want to reach Spain before the season ends completely", I said. She looked at me with those piercing, ice-blue eyes, which could change from a pleasant summer sky to forked lightning in a split second; I pitied future students or colleagues who would incur her wrath.
“I wish I could go with you,” she replied. “You're so lucky living in Europe, with all this…..” she waved her arm about, “this culture and history.” We in Europe often take for granted the history that lies on our doorstep. I remember Ingrid's look of wonder when I told her that the 12th century castle used by Sir Walter Scott as background for his famous novel, Ivanhoe, was a fifteen-minute walk from my house; that the nave of the nearby church pre-dated it by about four centuries!
We were in the middle of Munich's Englischer Garten; a peaceful haven from the frenetic Oktoberfest. We strolling hand-in hand, chatting and laughing; what young people do the world over. We were hardly cognisant we were in a city that 40 years previously, had been the crucible for the melding of an evil that had attempted to dominate the world, now lazing in a post-war prosperity enabling the young from different lands to meet up in harmony and peace.
On that final day, with Ingrid trudging alongside, I made my way to the bus stop. There was nothing left to say; all had been wrung out and squeezed dry. We had packed everything into the last two days with visits to all the sights. Now, only a sad farewell remained. As I clambered aboard the bus and sat down, I looked out through the window at her. She smiled; a thin and bleak smile that tore at my heart. The engine roared into life. I raised my hand in a wave. She held her right hand above her head in reply, and blew a kiss with her left. I turned away as the tears began to prick at my eyes; I felt an aching sadness. I never saw her again.