On a sunny day in Munich at this year's Oktoberfest, Evelyn Strick was doing what she always does this time of year: sitting with family and friends soaking it all in. King-sized golden beers, steaming hot plates of rotisserie meat and potatoes and Bavarian waitresses fighting their way through wobbly lederhosen-clad men were among the many sights and sounds on display.
A native of Munich who completed an internship in New Orleans last year, Strick knows Oktoberfest. Her family has been coming to the nearly 200-year-old festival almost since it started as a royal marriage between Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. As Strick's 80-year-old grandfather and her stoic father helped explain between slugs of brew, it's a celebration of who they are as natives of the Bavarian region of Germany. Since her stint in the Crescent City was not in February or March, Strick couldn't say for sure how the international juggernaut that is Oktoberfest stacks up against New Orleans' Mardi Gras.
Debates between MÜnchners and New Orleanians over which event is better could go on forever given each town's local pride. On the one hand, you have two cities that throw massive annual parties copied by others around the globe and a tortured relationship with the influx of tourists to the events. On the other hand, there are sticking points like who drinks more and who has better music. In the end, Oktoberfest and Mardi Gras are two unique cultural events worth talking about and celebrating.
The first thing Michael Pertuit noticed on the opening day of this year's Oktoberfest was that he should have planned better. 'We waited for about two hours before we even got into a tent," says the 29-year-old hardware design engineer from Lakeview who was in Germany on business. A seat at a table inside one of the 14 grandiose beer tents " a requirement to get served food and drink " is often hard to come by. Reservations paid with deposits start as early as February and, given the Germans' affinity for planning, it's not exactly like bringing a couple of folding chairs to a neutral ground a few hours before Mardi Gras parades start. Reserving even the most trivial of things, say movie tickets with exact seat assignments for a movie on a Tuesday, is not uncommon in Germany.
However, Pertuit wasn't deterred by the crowds fighting to get into the Hofbräuhaus tent, which for a festival total reached approximately 6.2 million attendees over two and half weeks this year. 'I started to instinctively maneuver myself towards the front of the crowd, mainly due to the many years of maneuvering to get to a float," he says. After what Pertuit described as a stampede when the doors opened at around 11:30 a.m., the celebration was officially under way. 'When the head brew master of the Hofbräuhaus tapped the first keg, to say that the crowd went insane is an understatement. You could feel the energy. I had never been exposed to anything like that in my life."
Overall, the festival resembles a big outdoor fair with rollercoaster rides, games to win token prizes and booths that sell assorted sweets. In the center of it all are the massive beer tents provided by a select few breweries of Munich. It's inside these tents where thousands of people link arms and sway back and forth drinking and singing to the sounds of oompah music.
Then there is the beer itself. Served in the famously large glasses that hold a full liter, or a Maß, as a serving is most commonly referred to, it is a seasonally brewed medium-body lager made individually by each brewery for the festival. With a beer purity law dating back to 1516 that dictates what the 1,300 or so breweries in the country can and can't put in their brew, you can be sure that the Germans take their beer as seriously as the French take their wine. What's more, during Oktoberfest the beer is noticeably stronger even by German standards.
'Some of the people go to Oktoberfest not knowing anything," says German brewmaster Henryk 'Heiner" Orlik, who operates his own brewery in Covington, La.'They go too fast, and 4 or 5 litres and they're gone."
The potent seasonal beer didn't seem to slow consumption down at this year's fest. 'I think the MÜnchners definitely drink more," says Pertuit. 'That's what people are there for. New Orleanians drink a ton during Mardi Gras, but there is still the family side of the parades where people aren't drinking." As reported by Der Spiegel, a leading German news magazine, a total of 6.7 million liters of beer were drunk during Oktoberfest with an all-time high for per-day beer consumption. The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau couldn't provide any concrete numbers to compare alcohol consumption during Mardi Gras, but Orlik says that from his days as an apprentice in the breweries in Munich and his knowledge of the local beer industry, it's no comparison. 'There's probably more beer drank during the Oktoberfest than New Orleans consumes the whole year," he laughs.
When it comes to music, however, Pertuit says it's no contest. 'There's no better sound than a good marching band jamming during a parade," he says. 'Besides, I think I heard the German song/toast 'Ein Prosit" about 500 times." In other words, we all love the chicken dance (ironically rumored to not get much if any airtime in Munich), but it is safe to say that Professor Longhair's 'Mardi in New Orleans" and the rest of the Carnival anthems won't be dethroned by oompah bands any time soon.
As for costumes, revelers have a lot more choices dressing up for Carnival than Oktoberfest. Whereas the wide array of Mardi Gras costumes are an homage to city's eclectic history and self-mocking humor, the lederhosen for the men and the dirndl for the women at Oktoberfest, which for the most part vary only in color, are more of a literal continuation of past tradition. At around 300 euros, or $420, for a set of lederhosen, dressing up at Oktoberfest can be much more of a commitment, at least financially.
Leather pants and cultural pride aside, the record numbers from this year's Oktoberfest bring up issues that many in New Orleans can relate to. Oktoberfest has swelled in size over the years, and the more tourists who come to the event, the less enthusiastic locals are about attending. 'I actually prefer the smaller folkfests that you can find all over Bavaria going on at the same time," says Orlik, who never made it inside the gates of the fest even when he worked as a brewery apprentice in Munich. 'Those are much more similar to what we have in New Orleans at the Gretna Fest and at the Deutsches Haus, where it's smaller, more civilized, and it's not all about getting drunk."
For Strick and her family, however, Oktoberfest's popularity is only a validation of their tradition. 'What I like the most about Oktoberfest is that no matter where you are from or how old you are, you can meet lots of different people from different countries and party all together in peace," she says. 'The chance is pretty high that you dance on a beer bench next to a guy from Australia and clink glasses with someone from Japan or Italy."
Strick admits that the stereotype for Oktoberfest is of a big 'beer fest," but she argues that it's much more than that for locals. 'I can't really explain it, but for MÜnchners it's simply a tradition like Thanksgiving or Christmas. And the food is great, too," she says. 'So even if you are not in a big party mood, you can sit in one of these beer gardens or beer tents and eat something good, walk around and leave whenever you've had enough."
Numbers from the official economic-impact study in 2000 suggest Oktoberfest is still strongly supported by locals, with 72 percent of the 6-million-plus crowd coming from Bavaria, and 15 percent coming from outside the country.
New Orleans can certainly identify with the dilemma of the locals' and the tourists' version of Mardi Gras, even though the previous two post-Katrina Mardi Gras' have been more about unity and recovery than anything else.
'We all know that what frustrates locals the most is that to everyone else Mardi Gras is only Bourbon Street with women bearing their breasts," says Mary Beth Romig of New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau (NOMCVB). 'We wish the family side was told a little bit louder,"
So while Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Oktoberfest in Munich have similar dynamics when it comes to playing host to two of the world's most famous parties, smaller versions of each celebration also appear in the opposing cities.
For example, the celebration of Oktoberfest in New Orleans at places like the Gretna Fest and the Deutsches Haus has grown recently because of the cultural connection that exists. 'It's the heritage of New Orleans back when the German farmers used to bring food to the French Market in the 1800s and you had the German Coast," Orlik says. 'So many people come up to me and tell me that they had German relatives in Louisiana."
Additionally, there is Fasching in Munich, the city's version of Carnival that can be found throughout Germany and the rest of Europe, where the holiday first spread from its religious founding before it came to New Orleans with the French.
In the end, there's plenty to celebrate in both cities.
'Mardi Gras will always be better because that's where my heart is," says Pertuit, who recently moved to Dallas for work. 'It's a part of me. I grew up with Mardi Gras and can remember the anticipation while being at school all day of the going to the parade that night. I can remember being in high school and hanging out in front of Puglia's and Moby Dick's in Metairie thinking I was cool. I can remember the first time I went down to Bourbon Street Mardi Gras morning with my friends, and that turned into a yearly tradition."
Strick's memories of Oktoberfest as a kid have the same tone of nostalgia. 'I must have been 6 years old. My granddad, my cousin and I went to the Oktoberfest," she says. 'I got chocolate fruits and cotton candy and felt like I was in a magic world with all the lights and the music and then the best thing ever happened " I was allowed to go into a Schiffschaukel (family ride that swings back and forth like a boat). The tickling in my stomach, I loved it so much, I wanted to do it again and again."
So even though the Oktoberfest has come to a close in Munich and is in its last week in New Orleans at the Deutsches Haus, Mardi Gras comes extra early this year with Fat Tuesday on Feb. 5. Then it will be New Orleans' turn to show the world how it's done.
Sam Winston, a frequent contributor to Gambit, is currently living in Hamburg, Germany. You can read more about being a 'New Orleanian Abroad" at blogofneworleans.com.
- Evelyn Strick celebrates Oktoberfest.