München – Urban surfing, Oktoberfest 2009, and the beginning of two months in Eastern Europe

München – Urban surfing, Oktoberfest 2009, and the beginning of two months in Eastern Europe

Munich is one of the few cities in the world where surfers rip waves in a major downtown district.

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The “Eisbach” (“Ice brook” in German) is a man-made river that flows through München’s Englischer Garten park.  Near a bridge on one of München’s less-busy streets there is section where a wave is perpetually being generated.

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The wave is not especially high (only one meter) and the shredding latitude not that wide (approximately 15 meters) but this does not discourage München’s local surfing junkies.

Each time I visited München, first in 2009 and next in 2013, there was a long line of surfers in wetsuits holding their boards and patiently waiting to take their turn.

The unspoken rule is easy to observe.  Each surfer carves back and forth along the wave, doing as many tricks as possible – usually basic rotations, nothing too crazy here on a one meter wave – for 30-60 seconds or until they lose the wave or fall of the board.

The wave pushes the fallen surfer back 10 meters where they swim to the side of the river and climb out to get back in line.  The instant one surfer is down, the next surfer is ready already in and riding the wave – they don’t waste a second of available surf time.

This would not be a good place for a beginner to learn how to surf because the margin for error is not as forgiving as the wide open ocean.  As a surfer is carving back and forth, a failure to turn quickly enough would result in a face plant on the cement side of the river.  Going down too quickly in the water could also have bad consequences because it is only 40 centimeters deep in some parts.

Most of the surfers are above average skill, some well above average, feeling comfortable flying within one meter of the hard cement wall before skillfully using their weight to flip the board the other way.

The surfers in München have been riding this wave since 1972 and surfing competitions have even been held.  There were once efforts to shut the wave down but the surfers rallied and in 2010 a local München statute made the surf spot officially legal.

I arrived in München in 2009 just in time for its September bier festival, deceptively named “Oktoberfest.”

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Oktoberfest has become famous worldwide.  Almost every major city in the world celebrates the 16-day beer festival by offering traditional German beers.

But there is no Oktoberfest like the original, München’s Oktoberfest.  The locals take it very seriously, well, as seriously as you can take a festival which centers around drinking beer.  All of the men dress in traditional Lederhosen and the women, Dirndl.

The “Oktoberfest” festival is set up in the Theresienwiese (field, or meadow, of Therese), a field near the city’s center. As a venue to set Oktoberfest the field is smaller than I had originally imagined it, covering approximately nine city blocks.

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A view from the top of Oktoberfest’s Ferris Wheel gives a great bird’s eye view of the entire festival, beer tents on the left and rides on the right.

One of the best parts of Oktoberfest is that the locals disregard the logistics of the Theresienwiese’s available space requirements. There are always four times as many people as should actually be allowed into the festival grounds, a fact most easily recognized in the beer tents.

In the most popular beer tents not one square centimeter is spared.  People stand shoulder to shoulder – on the hard dirt floor, the stairs, and even the tables – to join the revelry.

Even if you are outside the beer tents the atmosphere is still pretty crazy.

Each beer tent has a band that generates a continuous stream of traditional German drinking songs to encourage the beer to keep flowing.

Oktoberfest is not a cheap ticket, though you aren’t required to pay for an entrance ticket.  When I was there in 2009 a stein (one Liter) of beer cost 9 Euros but the unspoken rule is that you always give your (usually buxom) waitress a 10 Euro bill so she gets a 1 Euro tip for each beer she serves.

 Some servers on a break

The servers, most of them between 30 and 50 years old, make an absolute killing during Oktoberfest.  Some of the best servers at the busiest beer tents can make upwards of 40,000 Euros in tips during the three week bier festival.  $60,000 (which is what 40,000 Euros was equivalent to while I was there) in three weeks just for serving beer aint too shabby.

Like some L.A., Chicago, and New York bartending jobs – where you can make over $100,000 a year in tips working just two nights a week at some of the more “posh” spots – the waiting list to become a server at an Oktoberfest beer tent is 10-20 years long.  You put your time in 10-20 years as a bar back or some other lowly bar employee and maybe, just maybe, you can get that coveted job as a beer waitress when you turn 40.

Financially speaking, my timing (2009) for my trip through Western Europe was terrible.  The dollar was at its lowest and the Euro was at its highest value in the past 10 years.  For every 1 Euro I spent it cost me $1.50, meaning each stein I bought at Oktoberfest was $15, making it one of the few places I’ve been in the world where the beer is more expensive than in Chicago.

My friend Brij from law school

My friend Brij from law school

When I arrived to München in 2009, I stayed with a great local München guy named Nik and was joined by a friend from law school named Brij.

Brij and I in front of Bavarian statue

Brij and I in front of Bavarian statue

Finding Nik through facebook (friend of a friend) was very lucky – hostels in München are booked out months in advance for Oktoberfest and hotels cost somewhere between $400-$800/night.

Nik, Marcus, Brij and I

Nik, Marcus, Brij and I

In addition to giving us couches to crash on, Nik and his friends Armin and Marcus spent three days showing Brij and I the “local” Oktoberfest.

From left to right, blondie, Armin, Nik, Brij, and me

From left to right, blondie, Armin, Nik, Brij, and me

When I’ve met other Germans while traveling, they’ve told me that München has a reputation in Germany as the “hoity toity” city.

The conventional local wisdom regarding Germany’s two most famous cities is that the Germans in Berlin are laid back, down to earth folks, and that the Germans in München have their nose up in the air.

Nik and Armin, the two Münchens I spent most of my time with, soundly disproved this local wisdom.  Nik was an excellent and generous host and Armin even offered to take me on the Auto-Bahn, Germany’s high-speed superhighway.  I politely declined…

Armin (left) and Nik (right)

Armin (left) and Nik (right)

Most of the foreigners – many of them young, drunk, Aussies – that come to Oktoberfest end up spending all their time in the famous Hofbräuhaus haus.

Nik and Armin assured me that this tent was, as we call it, “overrated”, and took Brij and I to some of the more “local” tents that had less tourists and more locals.

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At one of these tents our crew was able to meet up with two fellow Iowa City “David” natives – David B. and David K.

Buch in the foreground and Keitel in the background.  Both very sober.

Buch in the foreground and Keitel in the background.  Both very sober.

Buch still works and lives in Norway and had come down with Keitel to say hello.

The bier isn’t the only good consumable at Oktoberfest.  The food is also right on the mark.  Traditional German sausages, pork, chicken, dumplings and potatoes.

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