I’ve always been proud of my Irish roots. My birth name is Toomey, apparently the rough equivalent to “Smith” in Ireland given all the businesses with Toomey in their names. Everyone knows that Irish people are just plain fun; they jig to Irish folk songs, they live in huge castles with moats, they power back hearty Irish ales on an hourly basis, and they write catchy limericks. Besides, Bono’s Irish—and so are Oscar Wilde and Pierce Brosnan! And don’t even get me started on St. Patrick’s Day. What’s not to love about being Irish, I ask you?
But I’ve never had quite the same amount of enthusiasm for my German roots. Maybe it has something to do with the constant emphasis on my “fine German build” growing up (read: big-boned and sturdy, with “child-bearing” hips). Even though my family’s German roots are much more distant than our Irish roots, it became my mission to blame every genetic problem on Deutschland, while Ireland basked in the glory of my scant few genetic blessings. My pasty white skin and red blotchy face? Damn you, Germany! My statuesque height of 5'10"? Thank you very much, Mother Ireland.
That’s precisely why I decided it was time to see what a real Oktoberfest was all about. I knew nothing about Oktoberfest or Germany. I’d foolishly passed on the opportunity to go to the granddaddy of all Oktoberfests in Munich when I lived in London. I had no idea what was supposed to happen, other than drinking German beer and stuffing my face with sausages.
But as I walked along the San Francisco Bay toward the Oktoberfest celebration, I vowed to open my mind to Germany and her many pleasures and let myself experience Oktoberfest to its fullest. This, of course, meant that I would allow myself to get insanely drunk on a smorgasbord of German beers while dancing polkas on top of a table. I took note of the many slender-hipped people running alongside the water in lieu of tossing back German delights at Oktoberfest. I felt a little sad for them, running when they could be indulging in fermented barley beverages and tasty sausages. They must be Irish, I thought. The poor bastards. I made a mental note of my first experience of being happier to be German than Irish.
Inside, I met up with friends and immediately saw that I was not properly dressed—I wasn’t wearing lederhosen or an oversized Lowenbrau hat, nor did I bring my own glass beer stein. Scheisse! To make up for this, I decided to purchase a beaded beer mug necklace for the low price of $1.50. It didn’t have the same panache as, say, a big festive hat, but I learned later in the evening that it was a great way to meet people and get free drinks from strangers by saying, “Hey, why don’t you buy me a beer??!” and motioning for them to poor some of their beer into one of the mini-mugs on my necklace.
I got my first beer (a luscious Franziskaner) and decided it was time for a sausage. I chose a polish sausage, loaded it up with sauerkraut and mustard, and sat down at one of the long tables with my friends. So this was it—this was Oktoberfest. Eating and drinking with friends. Not bad, not bad at all. I had no idea that this was only the tip of the Oktoberfest iceberg. The night was young.
We decided to head to the California Highway State Patrol booth, where they were giving free breathalyzer tests. I blew a .08, which means that I was right at the California legal limit for being able to operate a vehicle—after only a beer and a half! I was a disgrace to both my German and Irish ancestors! I rushed to the beer line to refill and make my people proud.
And that’s where things start to get a little fuzzy.
In between refills of Spaten Oktoberfest, Spaten Pilsner, and Franziskaner, there was dancing—a lot of dancing. First it was traditional Bavarian dancing, followed by me trying to interview the traditional Bavarian dancers after my third beer (bad idea). I have a faint memory of being an early starter of some sort of German conga line involving kicking and clapping. Then there was the Chicken Dance. And John Denver’s “Country Roads” and Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby”—over and over again. I had no idea these were traditional German drinking songs, but I didn’t care. It was Oktoberfest! And I was German! And even though I’d vowed never to do the Chicken Dance again after my 3,334th wedding, there I was, Chicken Dancing with all the gusto my drunken limbs could summon. Look at me, everyone! I’m Gerrrrrmannnnn!
After my feet grew weary and my vision turned blurry, I got into a cab to go home. My ride included a pit-stop for pizza—because everyone knows how much we Germans love our pizza—followed shortly by a quick annihilation of some Pumpkin Surprise at home. The next morning, I disappointed my people again by calling in sick to work. (In my defense, I’d like to clarify for our German and Irish readers that this episode was not as a result of drinking, but more from the vast array of foods I consumed over the evening. So I’m not a complete disgrace.)
As I reflected on my first Oktoberfest experience, I realized that even though it was just eating, drinking, and dancing, there was something more to it. The Germans—excuse me, we Germans—call it gemutlichkeit, which has no exact translation but means something along the lines of a cozy, friendly environment where you can enjoy yourself. One person described it as abandoning all your burdens in order to have fun. What a fantastic idea! How had I lived my entire life without knowing about such a brilliant concept? I tried to remember why I’d bitch-slapped my inner German for so many years, but all I could think about was what a great time I’d had—and I’d been doing the same thing I do pretty much every time I get together with friends (to an admittedly lesser degree), only this time it was under the guise of gemutlichkeit, which somehow made it more fun. Hmmm. Maybe the Germans are onto something with this gemutlichkeit idea.
I’ve packed away my beer mug necklace until St. Patrick’s Day—it would be a shame to let those mugs go unfilled on such an important holiday just because it’s not German, especially now that I’m embracing all areas of my ancestry. Who knows? Maybe I’ll discover my forgotten Mexican heritage in time for Cinco de Mayo.
The author engages in a modified rendition of the Chicken Dance at Oktoberfest.
Photo courtesy of J. Readio.