The Rambling American: The Curse of Subjectivity

Oktoberfest is often shunned by Germans as a kitschy, tourist-only event, but in the final installment of The Rambling American, Locke McKenzie finds himself embracing the Bavarian tradition.

Noch ein Maß bitte,” I say, ordering another drink.

A few minutes later, our dirndl-clad waitress is back with a liter of golden, shining beer. It’s October 4, which means that it’s the last day of the three-week-long Oktoberfest in Munich. Though my American friends and I didn’t make it to the actual celebration this year (terrorist threats, etc.), we’ve managed to spend the last two days hunched inside of the embarrassingly kitschy Hofbräuhaus restaurant in downtown Hamburg, pretending it’s the real thing.

“Why would I go to Oktoberfest?” is the response I normally get from Northern Germans (or any German from outside of Bavaria) when I mention my interest in going. Full of sausage stands, Ferris wheels, and screaming children, the German Volksfest is a state fair-type tradition that many Germans and I dislike. The event is probably best described as “drunk people and bad music,” yet somehow Oktoberfest still manages to hold my interest.

Before coming to Europe, I had a very specific image of what to expect from this continent. I wanted old buildings, horse-drawn carriages, and big museums full of Renaissance art. Moving to Vienna’s Baroque inner city, that was exactly what I got.

Travel shows about Europe are meant to perpetuate the same depiction to Americans. In an episode about Bruges, Belgium, Rick Steves paints a picture of a romantically preserved medieval city. The recurring images of cobblestone streets, old buildings, fine chocolate, and narrow canals create the illusion that somehow Europe never moved beyond the 19th century.

Compare Mr. Steves’s video to Samantha Brown’s depiction of Barcelona. Although some of the traditions may be different, the underlying emphasis on an antiquated Europe dominates. The images are reminiscent of Cinderella’s Castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

My feelings towards Oktoberfest undoubtedly stem from these nostalgic fantasies. From the moment I heard about the beer tents and people dressed in traditional Bavarian outfits singing on top of tables, I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of. I know now that it isn’t the real Germany, but it was one of the first things that made the country interesting to me. When I got to Hamburg I realized the truth: not only does Bavarian culture only exist in Bavaria, but it is frowned upon in the rest of the country.

Although the sixteen German states are legally bound into a federation, culturally there may as well be oceans dividing them. Along with the former East, Bavaria is one of the most shunned regions of Germany. The Bavarians have their own political party (very conservative), their own heavy accent (they are very proud of it), and a country way of life. No matter how open-minded my German friends are, Bavaria is a place they often have difficulty understanding. Perhaps we could compare this to the difference between the American South and the “Yankees.”

Having lived in Northern Germany for more than two years now, I have slowly noticed these biases developing in me. As an expatriate, I believe it’s a typical way of thinking. We want so badly to adapt to the surrounding culture that we willingly throw away certain interests and opinions to feel assimilated. I remember once hearing a story about an immigrant to America who began chewing gum, a habit he disliked, because it seemed American. Knowing the typical German response to Bavaria, this is exactly what I did with Munich. I shunned it.

So, how did I suddenly end up in a beer hall on Sunday actively promoting Oktoberfest?

While in Bavaria this summer, I re-experienced the specific brand of countryside hospitality, Gemütlichkeit, that I had dismissed as cliché. Eat rich food, drink fine beer, and make sure to invite everyone else to do it with you. I was there two times in two cities with two groups of people, and the Bavarians’ welcoming disposition overwhelmed me. It is their standout feature, and as true as any stereotype can be. Returning to the North I had a fresh understanding of why I liked Bavaria and was ready to re-embrace it.

Through our somewhat overemphasized American excitement, we began to engage in a form of passive diplomacy. Before our plans to go to Munich fell through, my American friends and I were determined that our German friends come too. Going to the beer hall on Sunday, we called them again. They weren’t thrilled about the idea, but they came. They didn’t find Bavarian culture interesting, but they were forced to contemplate why others who didn’t grow up with the same prejudices and biases would.

In this case, our American clichés had their time and place. Every role and stereotype does. While in the United States, I often rail against the Bavarian stereotype to promote a more complete German identity. In Germany, embracing my American instincts is often better for everybody’s international understanding. It’s admittedly hard to do; one stands out when one just wants to blend in, but it’s a part of my role here as an expatriate.

Unfortunately, none of my German friends are any more excited about Bavaria than they were before our Sunday excursion. I guess promoting social awareness isn’t as easy as writing an article or inviting people to a brewery. I can try, but in reality, I went to that brewery to get drunk, and I write these articles for me.

Locke McKenzie runs a language company in Munich, Germany. When not expounding on the finer points of communication, he tends to drink and write about it at Reinheitsgebot-Renewed.