September 4, 2008

oktoberfest in the family way

Inside OktoberfestI hung tightly to my husband as we entered the tent, petrified that if I loosened my grip I would lose him in the motley crowd. And so I was happy to follow where he led, too overcome with the smells and sounds of the party to navigate anywhere myself. But what I really wanted was for us to turn right around and head out.

The grand tent was filled to capacity with wooden tables, glorious ceilings and chandeliers and oh-so-many beer drinkers. The throngs of revelers pushed us so quickly towards the center of the building that I could no longer see the exit. All around us, people laughed and sang, raising large mugs high in the air. As we scuttled past, those seated would tip their glasses and exclaim, “Prost!” in our direction, seemingly wishing us both cheers and encouragement to find our own place to sit. But instead of priming me to party, the smell of their body odor and stale Maß beer became more than I could bear. I fought back nausea and tried to remain close to my husband. A waitress brushed by me, with liters of beer looped around her, sloshing some on my arm.

“I need to get me one of those!” my husband yelled over his shoulder at me, nodding approvingly at the waitress and her ability to part the crowd like the Red Sea. I knew that he meant he wanted some beer, but I would have greatly preferred her ability to cut so easily through the mob.

At some time in their lives, everyone should experience Munich’s Oktoberfest. It is a historic tradition of celebration. A great place to try some of Germany’s finest beers. And of course, it is the party to end all parties, attracting visitors from all over the world.

But at that moment, I strongly believed that visiting Oktoberfest only a few days after finding out I was pregnant might have been the worst idea ever.

Our tickets had been purchased, our hotel booked – no small feat for Munich at the end of September. And the trip was a dream come true for my husband. Though I wasn’t quite as excited, I have to admit I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to fully partake in all the event had to offer. I had planned to party like a rock star and now would be unable to have even a glass of beer. But there was no helping it. I figured, “How bad could it be?” and decided that there was no need to cancel on baby’s account. I could watch my husband have a good time. In fact, it might be better this way. I could keep my wits about me and make sure that no one ended up “in the bag” – the tent-like gurney contraption that the German Red Cross used to deal with the dangerously intoxicated attendees. But the little life inside my belly, fiddling with my hormones and senses, hadn’t been briefed on my brilliant plan.

Between the unruly crowd, the obscene quantities of alcohol, and the traditional Bavarian sausages, I felt queasy as soon as we arrived on die Wiesen. And our attempts to find unreserved seats in the beer tents only heightened that feeling. There was no way I could stay inside. I told my husband that we needed to leave at once. And lucky for him, he immediately started fighting the multitudes in the opposite direction to get us out.

Once outside, my husband gave me his best doggy look and said, “Maybe we can sit out here.” The outside of the tent had decks built around it with communal tables for those who were unable to get inside. Gulping in a few breaths of the clean night air, I was all too happy to oblige him.

As we walked towards the tables, a group of Italians immediately moved over to allow us to join them. They were all laughing and having a good time, happy to let us join their fun. And when the waitress arrived a few minutes later, they ordered the table some beer. My polite refusal garnered strange looks and more than a few gentle protests from our new friends. “You must have at least one! How can you come to Oktoberfest and have not even one beer?”

“Thank you, but I can’t. I’m pregnant, errr, schwanger.”

“Schwanger?” they asked with confusion and then briefly conferred among themselves. “Ahhh, incinto! You mean you have bambino, yes?” I nodded in assent.

They turned to the waitress and instead ordered me an alcohol-free liter of Maß. Perhaps not the cola I would have preferred but lovely all the same. At least now I could say I had tried a beer!

When our waitress returned with no less than thirteen full glass liter mugs adorning her arms – including my alcohol-free one – the Italians took no time in toasting to my and my baby’s health. As the evening progressed, I found that I was having a grand time, even without the help of alcohol. Conversation flowed over the full glasses all around me but I understood that those beers weren’t necessary to experience the real Oktoberfest. I had been right all along – being here was better sober.

I was able to see the glorious tradition of a festival centuries old. The true warmth of Bavarian hospitality as the citizens opened their city to thousands of partygoers. The beauty and workmanship of those astounding beer tents. And of course, the camaraderie and friendship that could grow out of simple luck and proximity. It was an amazing thing to behold. The experience couldn’t have been any fuller.

As I rubbed my belly, listening to the laughter surrounding me, I raised my glass of alcohol-free Maß and tenderly whispered down to the baby inside me, “Prost.”