This is part of BootsnAll’s 30 Days of Indie Travel project, a daily blogging challenge with a prompt for every day in November 2011. Check out the prompt at the bottom of this post to find out how you can participate!
Purely by accident, my 2005 trip to Germany coincided with the start of Oktoberfest. The husband and I had planned our route according not to the German holiday schedule, but to our own vacation wish list. That, plus the fact that the husband had a free room in Berlin at the beginning and end of our trip thanks to a trade show he was attending meant that we’d be spending Oktoberfest in Germany – but not in the festival’s famous birthplace of Munich. We’d be in Berlin.
For a moment, we considered re-configuring our trip so that we’d be closer to Munich for the big party, but as anyone who has tried to book a last minute room in Munich during Oktoberfest knows, those are either hard to come by or extremely costly. Not being big party animals anyway, we decided to stick to the original plan and see how the Berliners celebrated Oktoberfest.
“Lena just invited us to an Oktoberfest party,” the husband said one afternoon at our hotel, after talking to one of the staffers he’d befriended. “She said it’s in her neighborhood, and she’s going with her boyfriend and mother. I said yes.”
“That makes planning easy,” I said. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we liked Lena and it meant we didn’t have to hunt down a place to celebrate or risk ending up at an expensive and disappointing bar.
On the first night of Oktoberfest, then, we followed Lena and her boyfriend and mother into a big tent in the middle of an otherwise quiet residential neighborhood in what used to be East Berlin. I say “otherwise quiet” because the tent was almost visibly thumping as we walked up. Once inside, the roar was as constant as the smoke that hung in the air. There were rows upon rows of picnic-style tables, a few places along the perimeter set up as bars dispensing enormous glasses of beer, and a stage at one side where a band was producing the bulk of the noise.
We got our first round of beer and joined a group at a half-filled table. I’d grown so accustomed to Germans speaking English better than I do that I was surprised to find that the couple seated next to me, Heidi and Tomi, only spoke a few words of English. Lena translated as they explained that they’d grown up in East Berlin, where the second language taught in schools wasn’t English but Russian. With Lena’s help, more beer, and a lot of hand gestures, we managed to communicate fairly well – I think.
I remember almost nothing of the band playing in the tent that night. I like to imagine that they were dressed in lederhosen, but my one photograph of the tent’s interior reveals that to be untrue. I like to think they were playing oompah music, but that photograph also shows no sign of an accordion or tuba. In reality, I think they were a basic cover band, playing songs to entertain a boistrous crowd, which made the din forgettable. Forgettable, that is, except for one song.
In the midst of conversation, as we yelled over the band and Lena translated for our companions’ halting English, the song changed and the entire crowd changed with it. People leaped onto benches and tables, linking arms and swaying/dancing, and singing along in perfect English to a song I’ve known my whole life and have never once associated with Germany. Even Heidi and Tomi knew most of the lyrics, singing at the top of their lungs.
The song behind this sudden show of unity in an Oktoberfest tent in Berlin? “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
The crowd in the tent knew the tune by heart, humming through parts of the verses they weren’t sure of but belting out the chorus with gusto each and every time. The husband and I looked at each other across the table, bewildered and laughing, but we stood on our benches and sang along just the same. It wasn’t until the song was over that we were able to get Lena to explain. This John Denver classic, as it turns out, is something of an Oktoberfest anthem, played in Munich in every tent multiple times a day, and every celebrant knows it well.
“I’ll have to tell my mother – she grew up in West Virginia,” the husband casually remarked.
The group at our table gasped in delighted surprise. “The West Virginia?” they asked. He nodded. His mother was instantly a “mountain momma,” and he was a rockstar for having that kind of lineage.
I still have no idea why a song about West Virginia by an American folk singer would be an Oktoberfest classic in Germany, but ever since that trip I can’t hear the song without being transported back to a smoky Oktoberfest tent in the former East Berlin, dancing on a bench with Lena, Heidi, and Tomi.
For further evidence of the popularity of this song at Oktoberfest, here are just a few of the videos I found on YouTube:
As an aside, I told this story at a BootsnAll meeting not long ago, when we were sharing travel tales. Since that meeting, our fearless leader Sean Keener has adopted it as a sort of “indie travel” rallying cry. He routinely ends meetings by saying, “Country roads, everyone!” and the song was played daily during our annual planning retreat in September. In other words, if you see Sean out in the world and you want to make him break into a huge grin (and possibly even a song), all you have to do is say, “Country roads!” Please report back to let me know how that goes.
30 Days of Indie Travel Project: How to Participate
We’re inviting bloggers from around the world (that means you, too!) to join us in a daily blogging effort designed to reflect on how our travel experiences over the last year – or whenever – have shaped us and our view of the world. Bloggers can follow the prompts as strictly or loosely as they like, interpreting them in various ways and responding via text, photos or video posted on their own blogs.
We’ll share some of our favorites via Twitter and Facebook throughout November, as well as a round-up article at the end of the month, so if you’re playing along make sure to let us know – use the #indie30 hashtag on Twitter, and link to the 30 Days of Indie Travel page in your post so we’ll be able to find it.
Find out all of the 30 Days of Indie Travel blogging prompts so far – it’s never too late to join in the fun!
Prompt #3: Music
Music and travel memories often go hand in hand. A song can inspire our explorations, or it can take us back to a specific place and time. Tell us about your travel playlist and what it means to you.