Wednesday, September 28, 2005


Nearly 195 years ago the citizens of Munich gathered in front of the city gates to celebrate the nuptuals of Crown Prinz Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxon-Hildburgshausen. The event was marked with horse races, feast and drink. It became the very first Oktoberfest. Today, the Munich Oktoberfest (so named, because it traditionally begins on the third weekend in September and ends the first Sunday in October) is boasted (at least by M√ľnchener) to be the largest festival in the world.

Some seven days ago, I went to the Oktoberfest sponsored by Portland's German American Society. It was tellingly held in the club's headquarters in the old Altenheim (a retirement home that used to be run by the society) on Division. Excepting four or five early college aged students, who must have been there as part of their language program, I was the youngest person by a good twenty years. In fact, some of the guests looked like they might have been in attendance at the original celebration. I suppose that adds to the air of authenticity. Besides, age in no way kept anyone from having a good time, but that wasn't until later.

When we first walked in, I have to say that I was not exactly feeling the love. We were seated at a table with a group of geriatric strangers who did not seem too impressed with our addition to their little group. My initial thought was along the lines of "I really hope my mom does not want to stay long. Let's just choke down some sausage and get the hell out of here."

But then, another pair of new people were seated across from us, and people actually started to talk. After a drink or two, even the original squatters at the table were amiable. I think the ice was broken when what looked like the patriarch of their group was looking for butter, and I shared ours with him. After that, he kept calling me dear and winking at me. Our friendship cemented, he marked each new song by turning to our side of the table to say "I used to dance to that!" By the time the Schunkeln started, everyone was feeling friendly, which just goes to show that my natural instincts for how welcome I am are pretty much crap.

The event was held in a room that I thought must have been the dining hall when the Altenheim was still in operation. My mother, who worked there when she first came to the U.S. in the 60's quickly informed me, however, that it was not. At any rate, the room had long, low bench tables redolent (that was for you, Jen) of a public elementary school cafeteria, but instead of hair nets, polyester and large facial moles, the lunch ladies wore Dirndl dresses. In fact, many people were dressed in Trachten.

One of the things that has always fascinated me about Trachten is how many there are. (To see what I mean, go to, click on an area of any of the maps that come up, then pick one of the "Tafel" links, which will take you to pictures of costumes for that region.) To put it in perspective, it's like Portland having a different traditional dress from Hood River.

Although it is probably a betrayal of my Germanic origins, I must confess to amusement at how silly some of the costumes look. The Dirndls are not really that bad. Some of them are actually quite pretty. It's the menswear that often leaves me scratching my head. There was, for example, one gentleman at Oldtoberfest, who was wearing a cap that had what looked like a shaving brush mounted on top of it. Another wore a well used pair of Lederhosen, very short socks and what looked like leg warmers. I can only think that the showing of skin between the top of his anklets and the bottom of his calf tubes was meant originally meant to be provocative, like an advertisement for an Alpine peep show.

But it wasn't only the Trachten that were authentic. There menu consisted of real German Wurst (not just some glorified American hot dog) and beer. The band from Munich by way of Mt. Angel's Oktoberfest and there was plenty of schunkeln. One of our non-German newcomer neighbors was delighted by schunkeln and kept consulting us on the schunkelability of various songs played by the band. I think it took him a while to realize that people mostly just do the linking arms and swaying thing to slow waltzes. Especially in a room of old people, where someone could get hurt by trying to swing back and forth too wildly.

That is not to say that the geezers aren't aren't a hearty lot. Frankly, I was amazed as I watched some of them totter out onto the dance floor. There were people who looked like they had a hard time walking, who suddenly transformed into light-footed 20 year olds when they started dancing. It really was a treat to watch, especially because it reminded me of my Oma, who loved to dance.

One of my favorite memories is of her standing in the living room of her apartment, wearing an apron and humming a folk song while she did a little dance. Suddenly, this old woman who had leg problems that had caused her to walk stiffly for as long as I could remember lost 50 years and I could see the 19 year old who loved to dance. This is how it was with these people too. It gives some poignancy to my neighbor's wistful outcries of "I used to dance to that!"

Of course, they weren't all frail. There was one older, but obviously healthy couple, who were incredible dancers. They looked like they could have done it professionally. Who knows, maybe they did. They guy had some tricky, fancy footwork, but the woman was obviously well schooled in her Strictly Ballroom - "Where the man goes, the lady must follow."

Now one person who didn't ascribe to the Strictly Ballroom aesthetic was the wife of the man who had too much to drink and tried numerous times to climb on top of the table at which they were seated. She ascribed to the aesthetic of alternately looking embarassed while trying to pull him down and pretending not to know him. Ultimately, though, I think she (along with the rest of their table mates) was just amused by his antics.

Really, the whole event was pretty fun. Usually, I find plenty of mockable things about Bavarian oompah music. I'm not going to lie and say they that I didn't find anything to amuse me (the old people formed a conga line, for Pete's sake!), but I can say that any amusement I felt was not cruel in spirit. It was a good time, and I am glad that I went. I would even go again.


Jen said...

Yay! Thank you for the Oktoberfest write-up. What is schunkeln? Is it a kind of dance? I am glad that you went, and even more glad that you had a good time after you let yourself relax into it a little bit. Did you dance? Did you ever take folk-dancing lessons or anything like that when you were a kid? Did you have a dirndl of your own? I'm loving these german-heritage posts, by the way. (Not that it matters, but I thought you should know).

PS: Your wikipedia Trachten link is broken (I think one to many http:'s)

Jen said...

I forgot to say a BIG thank you for finally clearing up the "why is Oktoberfest in September" quandry.

Sonya said...

I love your stories! I can just see it all happening in my minds eye right now. You have a gift for storytelling.

Martina said...

Jen (Sonya, keep scrolling :-)) -
You're welcome! I'm sure you've seen "schunkeln" and just don't know it. It's that thing Germans do, where everybody on one side of a long table links arms and starts swaying back and forth to the music. It's tends to go hand in hand with beer and slow waltzes. It's very cheesy, but kinda fun, if you're willing to let your inner dork out.

As for your other questions: No, I never took folk dancing lessons (though that might be kinda fun), I just know how to waltz and polka a little. It is not, by the way, a wise to assume that I do either well. You've seen me dance. I thinkt hat says it's all. :-)

re: Dirndles - Don't have one now, but had a few as a kid. I'll have to see if I can dig out some pictures for you. I know there's on in the hall of me wearing one at about 3, though.

Thanks for the info on the link. I'm having link issues lately. For some reason, blogger does not like the link code. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Sonya -
Thanks! Your comments help me feel less freaked out about other people reading my stuff. All of this is an exercise in "if people read things that I don't put much effort into and say nice things, then maybe I something I really do put effort into could be publishable." That is my goal one day. I'm just too much of a weenie to submit anything! (This is, of course, why I admire you and what you do so much!)

Martina said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Martina said...

P.s. Jen - Looking it up cleared up the quandry for me too. I never got that (or knew how it started). I always assumed it went back to some kind of fall harvest festival. If we go, you guys should come with us next year. It will be my chance to join the geezers in their conga line (because I'm such a conga line kind of person). Tee hee. :-) I'll have to think up some more Germanic stuff to post. It's not like I don't have a fairly ready store of info.