Monday, September 29, 2008

The first travels...Oktoberfest 2008

Well, I'm on the train now on the way back to Brussels from Munich where I had a great weekend! Before heading to Germany, I had a meeting in the office with my new Coke team in Brussels. It was great to meet everybody and have a brief introduction to the office before I officially start next week. Based on the meeting, the work that I will be doing does not seem to be very different than what I've done in Atlanta. I felt like I was able to contribute right away and I think they are looking forward to having someone on the team who has worked in the headquarters location. The team that I'm working with seem to be very nice. After the meeting, they asked me to join them for dinner because they were going out to celebrate the end of the 2007 audit, so I definitely lucked into arriving on the right date! The dinner was at a really nice, small Italian restaurant called Di Bimmi (I think that's right at least) in a neighborhood called Woluwe. Since most of Brussels is populated by French speakers, all of the wait staff spoke French. However, all of the team that I work with are native Flemish speakers. I was amazed at how well they could converse with the wait staff in French, talk amongst themselves in Flemish and then involve me in the conversations in English. It was very nice to get to have a social outing with my co-workers before we start officially working together in the next few weeks.

On Friday morning, I left my apartment around 5:45 to catch my 7:00 train to Munich via Frankfurt. My train was very uneventful traveling through the countryside of Belgium and Germany. I look forward to exploring some of the less well-known cities that we traveled through like Liege, Cologne, and Aachen. I arrived in Munich around 2:00 and found my hotel directly across the street from the station when I walked out. A partner in Frankfurt, who is originally from Chicago and is friends with some of my friends who just returned from three years in Belgium/Germany, made most of my arrangements for the weekend. I guess it is a multi-year tradition for him to go to Oktoberfest, so he makes all of these arrangements way in advance and then figures that he'll find people to join him for the festivities. I'm definitely very lucky to have some good connections! The hotel was really nice. Once I got settled in, I decided to spend the afternoon walking to the glockenspiel and marienplatz. The glockenspiel is basically a big cuckoo clock in a building on Munich's main square.

My main goal for Friday afternoon, though, was to obtain lederhosen so that I could truly get into the spirit of Oktoberfest. I had been told that there was no requirement to wear the traditional Bavarian outfit during the festivities, but when you are just walking through the street you see about 10% of the people wearing either lederhosen (guys) or a dirndl dress (girls). When I went into the department store to see what was available, I was still a little unsure what, if anything I was going to buy. However, when I got to the lederhosen section, it was a madhouse. Everybody was in there tearing through the racks, looking for an outfit. I figured that if all these people were looking for the same thing that when I went to the Oktoberfest festivities, I wouldn't want to be left out! The traditional lederhosen outfit is a pair of leather shorts, capri pants, or long pants with suspenders over a long button-down shirt. The shirts can either be white pullover shirts with four or five buttons or a colored check print, normally in blue or red. To complete the outfit, you can get some heather-colored socks that you pull up to your calf or knees and a leather vest. It took some time to find what I needed because not only have I never purchased leather pants before (surprise, surprise, huh?) but everything was in German and their sizes are different than ours. The whole outfit was definitely not cheap, but I figured that if this was a once in a lifetime experience that I'd like to do it right and I now have a Halloween costume as long as my outfit doesn't shrink! For your reference, the dirndl dress is a knee-length dress with lots of patterns, a fitted bodice, and white ruffled shirt underneath.

After my lederhosen procurement run, I headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner with some E&Y friends. The partner who arranged my hotel also reserved three tables (for 8-10 people per table) at the Lowenbrau brewery where they were having a big post-Oktoberfest dinner and party. It was only about five blocks from my hotel so I walked up there and arrived shortly before 7:00. In total, there were probably 75-100 tables setup in this large hall with a stage on one end and a balcony that looked to be somewhat of a VIP section. There was also a band playing throughout the night. I guess my impression was that most of these bands would basically play oom-pah music all night long, but it wasn't like that. They certainly played a number of traditional Bavarian songs, but they also played a lot of modern music. One of their favorite songs to play was Country Road by John Denver. That is apparently the American national anthem in Munich. And about every other song, they play this toasting song where everyone stands up on their bench (or table depending on how full the benches are) and everyone sings along. I still don't know exactly what I was singing, but after hearing it one or two times, you figure out what you are supposed to do. It was definitely a lot of fun and a good way to get introduced to Oktoberfest. During the night at the table next to us, a few hours into the night, five or six guys were standing on their bench singing and toasting when suddenly the bench snapped in half and they all tumbled to the floor.

Saturday morning, I woke up, got breakfast and I had planned to meet August and Michelle at the Schottenhamel tent at 10:30 because we had been told that if we weren't in the tent before 12:00 that the lines would be very long. The way Oktoberfest tents work is that you reserve a table for 8-10 people. There are some days where it is not as busy and the tents are basically general admission. However, Saturday was probably the biggest day at Oktoberfest. Most of the tables on Saturday were reserved, but it appeared that there were a number in the center of the tent that were general admission. It does not cost anything to get into the tent, but you have to have a ticket to sit at one of the reserved tables and a ticket is basically a voucher for two drinks and a meal. Oktoberfest is situated on the Thereseinweisse fairgrounds and it is very similar to the North Carolina state fair (think midway games, roller coasters, agricultural exhibits, etc.) and then tacked onto all of that are 12-16 gigantic tents where people eat, drink, and dance to Bavarian-inspired music all day. Each tent is basically sponsored by a family and serves a specific brand of beer. Several of the tents are sponsored by beer manufacturers (so there is a Lowenbrau tent, a Hofbrau tent, and a Spaten tent). Our tent (Schottenhamel) was sponsored by a family that doesn't have a brand of beer, so they served Spaten. To open Oktoberfest, the mayor of Munich always leads a procession to the Schottenhamel tent and they tap the first keg there. No one is allowed to serve at any of the tents until that is done. Each tent has its own personality in terms of the age of the people in the tent and how rowdy they can be. I don't know all of the different personalities, but I was told that our people like Schottenhamel because it has a good mix of party atmosphere, but is a little more relaxed than some of the others. It's hard to show the size of these tents, but if our dinner on Friday had 75-100 tables, this tent probably had somewhere between 400-600 tables. It was probably as long as a football field and maybe twenty yards wider.

I arrived at the Schottenhamel tent around 10:30 on Saturday expecting to find August and Michelle in order to figure out how to get into our tent. There were thousands of people already milling about and it was a madhouse around the tents. I circled the tent 3 or 4 times, but never saw them. Surrounding the tent, they have probably another 100-200 picnic tables setup for people to use, which were already full. I could also hear loud singing from inside the tent, so I got a little nervous that I had missed out. It was difficult to figure out where we were supposed to go to get in. After looking for them for 30 minutes I decided that I should just try to get in the building through the line that seemed to be moving. After waiting there for 10 minutes, I finally spotted August and Michelle. We got back in the line and after 15 minutes, we got to the door and apparently all that we needed to do was to tell them the name on our table reservation. The guy at the door had no list, so we could have probably told him we were at the Willy Wonka table and he would have let us in.

We found our contact (Aaron Krabill, a senior manager in Detroit - I think he recently returned to the US from Munich) and he showed us to our table. There were two E&Y tables where he was sitting. We had a lot of expat EY people sitting at our tables and there were also a lot of "friends of EY" who were sitting with us so it was hard to keep everyone straight. Basically from 11am to 11pm we sat at the tables, ate food, drank beer, talked to each other, stood on the benches and sang the toasting song (same one as on Friday night), watched some of the craziness going on in other parts of the tent, and generally just had a good time. It was an amazing sight to witness. The worst part was that there were no restrictions on smoking, so although there was not much smoking in our group, the tent was filled with it, so you couldn't really escape it. I was stunned at how many children were there (and how young some of them were that were drinking)! I saw one child who was probably no more than 12 months old. There were a lot of children in the 7-11 year old range and I definitely saw several pre-teens with full beers in their hands. This is such an integral part of their culture!

It was cool to meet so many people from the US who are in the same situation as us and to share our experiences. Toward the end of the night, our area started milling more with local Germans so it was interesting interacting with them. They did initiate some political discussions, but I was impressed at how civil the conversation stayed despite differing viewpoints and the large quantities of beer consumed to that point. The tents shut down promptly at 11.

This morning I woke up and it looked to be a pretty gray day so I took my time getting ready. Around 11:30, the sun started coming out, so I headed down to the Theresienwiese fairgrounds to take some more pictures. Surprisingly, the boardwalks and walkways were packed again on a Sunday morning! However, the tents were much more subdued and you could actually walk right into any of them, so I did that just to check out some of the other ones. When I arrived, all of the tents had horse drawn carriages filled with beer kegs sitting outside their tent, so that was sort of neat to see and then there was a procession of bands representing each tent that started around noon. I don't know what the purpose or significance was, but it was interesting.

After getting some lunch at a carnival stand (I figured I had to get a sausage since I was in Germany), I headed back toward the center of town and walked through two big cathedrals - St. Paul's and Frauenkirche, which is the cathedral where Pope Benedict preached (I guess that's not the right term for a Catholic church, but that is the best I can come up with!) in the late 70s/early 80s.

All in all it was a great weekend. I'm really glad that I was able to get the full Oktoberfest experience. It is always interesting to experience an event that gives you the essence of a country. I'd say it's sort of like being in Washington, DC for 4th of July or attending the Last Night of the Proms in London. I also really enjoyed getting to know more of my fellow EY expats. It is amazing that no matter how different we are, there is a strong bond when we have the EY expat connection. I hope that we get more opportunities to get to know these folks. I know August and Michelle were saying that the people they started the global exchange program with were initially gung-ho about keeping in touch, but then it basically fizzled. One of my goals is to make sure that doesn't happen with our class or the people that we meet along the way. --- Kirk