Weekend With Okfesters
I want to say this straight away; my experience may not be able to be shared by everyone, especially if you’re really shy. Talking to people is a magical thing that can lead to the coolest experiences. Now that that obvious statement is over with, let me share most of my weekend with you.
I’ve never been to a Big Bear Oktoberfest, let alone any other Oktoberfest before so I didn’t really know what I should be expecting. I was only picturing a lot of drunk people, lots of beer (hence the drunk people), German food, dancing, lederhosen, barmaid dress, and more drinking. Admittedly, that is mostly of what was there, which was most likely why most people were participating in all the silly dances and contests, but there was something bringing everyone together other than just being drunk. I aimed to live it and find out what it is.
Without having any alcohol yet Carrie (one of my roommates) and I arrived in the city of Big Bear Lake around 11:25. The festival itself opened at 12 and went until midnight on Saturday (but we didn’t stay that long) so first we first went to see Big Bear Lake. According to the maps on our phone, the body of water was fairly large, a good place for all manner of water sports, however, when we were driving by though about half of it was bone dry and the half on the other side of the road was so low itty-bitty “hills” under the water became new islands.
We spent a little time by the water’s edge taking pictures (being our girly selves) before getting back in Carrie’s car to join the ticket lines. I planned ahead a bit more, bought the Über Burgermeister Pack ticket which included admission for both Saturday and Sunday, a one-liter souvenir stein, a German meal ticket, four beer tickets (each ticket filled the one-liter stein half-way), and party beads (which had three beer stein shaped shot glasses).
That ticket also saved me from standing in the normal line as well. While Carrie waited in the slightly longer line for people who had not previously purchased their tickets online. I went straight to the VIP line, to what I thought was the back, but after chatting to a couple of middle-aged couples a couple of guys and I were laughingly told (mostly) that the back of the line was over on the other side… awkward. That made much more sense, and it really didn’t bother me at all, the line was still really short. The two guys that came with me back to the end started talking to each other more and louder while we all waited for the doors to open. Since I have been practicing to get out of my shell and actually talk to people, I kinda just jumped into their conversation. They are both part of the military and lived near where I do most of my work (small world, how funny) for the BLM. I’m so glad that I just started talking to them because they were super friendly and fun and the four of us ended up hanging out all day.
The doors opened and the VIPs were let in first. Originally the stein they gave me was white with a blue diamond checkerboard design and the logo for the event, but I’m a difficult person and I asked if I could get a glass one instead. The workers at the ticket booth did have them right behind where they were standing, and I said I would pay whatever the difference was in price, but the people at the ticket stand said that they weren’t sure and that I should go ask Bonnie at the souvenir booth. I thanked them and set out to find this Bonnie person (a name that I’d hear repeated throughout the weekend). While I did find the souvenir booth Bonnie wasn’t there, but another older woman was in her place. She was just lovely; I asked if I could exchange my stein for a different one, she just looked at me, smiled and said “of course” (like duh, go ahead). Then I asked if I could have a glass one, “yes”, and when I picked one out, I asked how much extra it would be, and she said, “just take it”. So, that was awesome.
The gingers (both of the guys I had met in line were red heads with freckles (and accidently wore basically the same outfit)), Jacob and Tom and I walked inside the main building, immediately getting in line to have our first glass of German beer. My first choice was Warsteiner Oktoberfest. Even though I am not as much a fan of beer as others in that setting you have to try it, and what do you know, they all tasted pretty damn good. Each time I went to fill up my stein (half-way of course, sparingly using my tickets) the bartenders poured more than my share, while the foam finished filling up the glass I only had to be a bit patient to drink up the ¾ full stein. Ein Prosit!
The three of us went back to the front gate to find that Carrie was finally inside the festival. We doubled back into the convention hall to get a beer with her, found and saved a few seats next to some super nice ladies (everyone was über friendly there), and then went back outside to visit the Avenue of Booths aka Budenstrasse. On Sunday I would talk individually with a bunch of the shop owners, but Saturday was more for wandering as a group of four and getting a ‘taste’ of the atmosphere. There were stalls for clothing, makers of candles, organic soaps, jams, honey, teas, jerky (which had a raffle drawing every two hours), wooden bear statues, personalized engravings, and just, so much more. In the back area, the less permanent booths stood near the outdoor stage. Alongside a magician (who taught me a wine cork trick), a face painting booth (where Carrie got an eagle painted on her cheek), and various faire snacks, there was even a mechanical bull; which I did not ride on (there was no way I’d ride it, especially since I was wearing dresses on both days).
After seeing the outside the four of us went back in to listen to the band who had come all the way from a city outside of Frankfurt, Germany. This past weekend (October 15th and 16th) and the next (October 22nd and 23rd) the 11 person group Aalbachtal Express did/will do a fantastic job of entertaining everyone in attendance. They played a bunch of German dances including a couple waltzes and of course a few polkas. What I found extremely surprising was how many people, of all ages, got together and danced each time “The Chicken Dance” and every other ridiculous song were being played. The festival itself was apparently filled to capacity on that Saturday and it seemed like more people wanted to get in on the dancing while they could whether or not they were standing on the designated ‘dance floor’ in front of the stage or not. People were still dancing everywhere, even in the lines for food and drinks. Of course I had to get involved in the dancing, as much as possible, even when I had no clue what I was doing. Luckily, one of the guys, Jacob, knew one of German polka dance steps so he was gracious enough to take me for a spin around the floor. Even though I’m not much of a fan of the line dances, they were still enjoyable to do because there were so many people who would just join in, even though the dance itself was simple and funny looking (at least to me).
The festival also had its fair share of contests; the two that I watched/participated in were the stein holding contest and log sawing. I did a much worse job on Saturday because I was too focused on the 5 pound, one-liter glass stein filled with water weighing down my arm. We had to keep it square in front of our bodies with a completely straight arm. The first time I was happy that, at least, I wasn’t the first one out. Staying up for about one minute and 45 seconds, I even outlasted a couple of the men. When I opted to retry on Sunday I lasted a bit over 2 minutes and 20 seconds, ending up in 3rd place. Each time the female workers in costume (Rotarians) gave me, and everyone else involved, a Jagermeister plastic shot glass for participating. Sunday must have gone much better because I wasn’t focused on the task, instead I was just gently dancing (bopping back and forth) with the woman next to me. The other contest, log sawing, also went much better on Sunday. I blame the failure that partly on not being a lumberjack, partly on Carrie and I going first (not knowing how to saw correctly), and being under the influence of alcohol. It had already been three to four hours since the festival started and I’d had two large beers already (hint: I’m a small person with low tolerance). We were the absolute worst… and I’m not exaggerating. It took us one and a half minutes to finish sawing our piece, the longest time throughout all the weekends so far. This great glory was celebrated and presented to the entire room when the Rotarians gave us our log stub with 1:30 written on it and our consolation prize, a pair of lovely plastic beads with a rubber chicken pendent, just to show how much we suck. Huzzah! Jacob (the dancing ginger guy) and I were planning to sign up for the Hansel and Gretel log sawing contest (to redeem myself), but by the time I remembered all the spots were already filled. Sunday was again when I was able to try again while competing with Thomas, one of the German band members. We were actually in first for a while with 22 seconds, but we ended up getting second instead. Still, it went much better than the day before.
After about five to six hours of drinking with only light snacks in my stomach (yes, I know, that that’s not smart) we all decided to use the German meal tickets. There were different choices, but at Oktoberfest we had to eat as close to tradition German as possible. The plate, therefore, consisted of a thick German bratwurst on a bun, optional German mustard, potatoes and sauerkraut. Annually made and a special by one of the founders’ friends from Germany. Delicious!
As an aside: though I don’t remember as much from Saturday, I did connect with and exchange numbers with some of the band members and both of the guys we spent the day with. The band members invited us to party with them after the festival was over for the night, but since we (mostly I) had gone on for over seven hours Carrie and I agreed it was enough and she drove us back home as the sober driver.
Sunday’s time span was only noon to 17:30, much shorter than the day before, but still, plenty of time. Since I drove alone I knew that I was only going to use my last beer ticket (I had one extra from the day before) and go home early. After getting inside, and using my ticket I wandered around the avenue of booths for a while, chatting more with the shop owners I’d met the day before. The jam man who I promised to buy some jam from the day before (and followed through on that promise btw) was super friendly and welcoming when I came by to just say hi. The company, Good Courage Ranch, has some ridiculously good stuff, most of which has jalapeño. The kinds I bought for myself were White Chocolate Raspberry, Strawberry Jalapeño, and Fireball. If I had tried the straight jalapeño flavor I probably would’ve gotten that instead of the white chocolate, just cause it was a ‘three for’ deal and on Sunday I found out that the jalapeño was not hot like I was afraid of, just sweet with a slight kick. Oh well, whatever, it’s all yummy anyway.
The owner, Mr. Best (no joke), told me that they’d been coming to Oktoberfest here for a couple years, and that when Hans (the creator of the Big Bear Oktoberfest) invited them he was super lucky to randomly get one of the permanent booths that Hans himself built 30+ years ago. Most of the shop owners have similar stories; they are new small businesses that are just starting to expand online and to different areas. Some had been selling at this particular festival for around four or five years, and for a few it was there first year ever. Since I did go alone, I did talk to as many people as I felt even slightly comfortable with, telling them about my online blog and asking them if it was alright if a wrote about them. Everyone was so obliging, answering all my questions and even asking me about my life and what I do. It was lovely that they pretended to care (haha).
A couple stalls over from the jam booth was the jerky family, literally, the people selling the jerky and having the raffles for the jerky were a family of four; dad, mom, daughter, and son. It was there second year, and they were about to launch the new website for Big Bear Jerky. On Sunday they had three drawings and twice they called out one of my numbers, but I either didn’t realize he was redrawing the tickets from the day before or for the last one, I was distracted talking to new acquaintances over a few booths and smelling candles and just missed it. The man, and really his entire family was so generous though because they just gifted me a free bag, saying it was “a one time special for archaeologist, marine scientist, writers”. I had such a huge smile on my red blushing face, and could only hide it while thanking them for their generosity.
Of course there were many other stalls with people willing to share their stories: the bear statues, which were all made by one lady who lives down the street named Syndy (Bearly Livin’), leggings, scarves, and bags by Jane (Jane’s Fab Fashions), and the Mountain Witch Tea Company which is created and run by one woman who became interested in tea making when she started writing about it for her Master’s degree. She didn’t end up finishing the thesis, but she started the company and she told me that after the new shop opens on Big Bear Boulevard in a couple weeks (the 30th and 31st of Oct. 2016) that she hopes to have more time to actually finish the final part of her degree.
Going back inside at various times, I mostly spent time beside the stage, either chilling with the band while they had their breaks or talking to the Rotarians between the dances they led and contests they announced. After I danced a polka with a regular visitor of the festival in some traditional lederhosen I started talking to an elderly man who, before the women’s part stein holding contest started was bragging about how his wife was still the undisputed champion after 40 years (the festival is only on it’s 46th year) after holding the 5 pound stein for over 7 minutes. Also carrying around 105 pounds of steins while walking. The man also shared that about 35 years ago there was a woman who held the stein straight in front of her for 18 minutes. I just though, ‘Holy f-! That’s amazing!’ and then he said that woman was *drum roll* him in a dress and wig. I loved that even more. It wasn’t until later that I found out that I was talking to Hans Kelso himself, the founder of the event. Him and his wife are both so sweet, when I went out to dinner with them and the band (not actually part of the festival, I was just randomly invited) they didn’t even let me tip the waiters.
While talking/interviewing different workers at the festival I learned that they all do get paid, it is only minimum wage but for everyone that I talked to it was there second job “the fun job” or their first job ever with a few of youngest people I talked to being 18 years old, most have either grown up in the area or moved nearby for various reasons, for the Rotarians the dresses are provided if you don’t have your own, and a seamstress will adjust the sizing if necessary. Everyone, even a ticket seller who spent most of the workday in a coat closet sized room, said they enjoyed being there and that it was still fun watching the party.
One woman I talked to for a while has been working there for 16 years and she told me so much about the history. Hans and Bonnie moved from Germany about 50 years ago, and probably after a few years of planning and missing their home festival decided to put on their own. Of course it started small, in fact, it was only a single tent. Years passed and it continued to grow. The community center where it is now annually head was built by Hans himself in the shape of a giant tent to keep the spirit of the original, plus it has great acoustics. Eventually the couple retired from running the event and passed it to their daughter instead, but they still go every day of each weekend.
It really is lovely that there are traditions that continue to grow and attract so many people from all over. Yesterday I even met another old couple (the woman was the one bopping with me during the stein holding contest) who has almost been coming since the beginning even though they live in Fresno, with her almost 90 year old mother; a woman who did her own jig for almost every song (she really shook it). I’m grateful that I was able to meet and make friends with people from different countries of the world and just the nicest people in general. This is what happens after learning to embrace life and experiences. It’s crazy and scary, but just talking to people opens up so many amazing opportunities.