It’s that time of year again. The leaves are changing color, discarded cups of pumpkin spice lattes litter the streets, and the air is as crisp as a pour of Hofbrauhaus. Grab your nearest pair of lederhosen because it’s finally time for Oktoberfest!
As someone who spent four years living in Germany, Oktoberfest is an event I know well. My family and I attended the festival every year we lived there, and it’s every bit as magical as you’d expect.
The first thing that hits you when you step foot into a German Oktoberfest is the scent of roast chicken, suckling pork, sausage, and cheese noodles. It’s hard not to salivate upon arrival. Waitresses in authentic dirndl dresses pass around bier steins overflowing with brews from some of Munich’s finest breweries to jolly festival-goers who are ready to eat, drink, and be merry. Everyone feels welcome, even an American like me. And the sense of community bonding neighbors and kind strangers over delicious food and a few pours is an experience unlike any I’ve had since.
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So, when I got the chance to attend a local Oktoberfest here in California, I jumped at the opportunity to get a warm reminder of my former home. What I experienced instead was more like the Beetlejuice of Oktoberfest, Winona Ryder not included.
Apparently there was a theme to this festival, and it wasn’t exactly German Oktoberfest.
A local Bavarian-themed venue outside Los Angeles dating from the 1960s hosts the oldest Oktoberfest in the area. I visit their shopping center whenever I feel nostalgic for Kinder Eggs and Bitburger beer. But I’d never attended their famed Oktoberfest. So one year I decided to go with a few friends who had also lived in Germany, and cure my craving for a taste of Bavaria.
The first thing I noticed when I entered the festival tent was how dark and eerie it was, like the entrance to a haunted house. It looked like we were set to run through a maze filled with clowns from IT, not get a belly full of beer and brats. The staff was dressed in tattered, dark clothing, reminiscent of a drunk Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, stumbling across his ship. Apparently there was a theme to this festival, and it wasn’t exactly German Oktoberfest. It was kind of more Gothtoberfest.
Still, a girl’s gotta eat, and these folks were clearly making an effort to create an experience. Of sorts. So I waited in line only to face a choice of stale pretzels and brats that were much more Oscar Mayer than Bavaria. Also there was a taco stand because this is California, and taco stands are kind of our thing, German festival or not.
Determined to enjoy the night no matter what, I moved on to the beer line. Not only were there no jolly beer steins, they were serving Bud Light in red solo cups. No clinking our huge mugs of beer amongst festival-goers for us! Oh well. I gulped down my Bud anyway, hoping after a few beers it would all start looking more like Germany.
What was happening? Where was the lighthearted yodeling? Were we at a Rammstein concert?
Just as we sat at our picnic table, ready to chow down, the waitstaff jumped on the tabletops and started to do a dance that was more Chippendales than Oktoberfest. It was entertaining, for sure… but also confusing.
Then a band assembled at the front of the tent (does it feel like I’m recounting the weird dream I had last night?) and before we knew what was happening, we were smack in the middle of a head-banging, moshpit-like dancing metal show. What was happening? Where was the lighthearted yodeling? Were we at a Rammstein concert? I swore I’d never return to an Oktoberfest on American soil again.
But maybe I was being too harsh on this Californian version. Now that the season has rolled around again, I can’t help but feel a longing for a cool stein of beer and some cheesy noodles with a side of freshly roasted pig. I hear it’s getting better. They’re serving up roast chicken this year. And I’m starting to think, scary theme or no, I’d show up in a Corpse Bride costume and party with the ghouls and goblins if I could get my hands on some homemade bratwurst and a frothy glass of Hofbrauhaus.
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