Monday, 14 November 2011

The Peaceful Oktoberfesters

by David Hewson

photo credit: Muenchen Kotzt

Hi all, I'm writing this from Germany, where I'm doing an internship at the moment.

One of the most natural, and enjoyable, things to do when travelling is to just stop, look around, and realize that you're in a foreign country. Sometimes the differences are subtle. But in the case of the Munich Oktoberfest, which I was able to visit this year, they're about as subtle as a frying pan to the jaw.

I grew up in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, which has its own Oktoberfest - the world's second-largest, after Munich. But it just can't compare to number 1. Here's why:

1. The sheer scale of the proceeedings: 6.9 MILLION people visited the Munich Oktoberfest this year (still less than the 1981 record of 7.1 million).
2. Beer is consumed exclusively in 1L glasses.
3. There are a bunch of roller coasters and other stomach-turning attractions...right next to the beer tents. Where people have just been drinking 1L glasses of beer. You might think that would be a bad combination, but the people of Munich seem to disagree.

Of course, when 6.9 million people put their efforts towards drinking beer in 1L intervals, there are bound to be consequences. Starting in the late afternoon, you start to see people who have had far too much to drink scattered around outside the tents, resting, recovering, and um...taking care of business. It's not a pretty scene. If you're up for it, click here to get a sense of the mayhem.

Despite all the drunkenness, I couldn't help but think: where's the belligerency? Yes, wherever you looked, there were people in lederhosen and dirndls dropping like flies. But in the 4 days I was there I saw evidence of only one fight - a guy outside a beer tent had a bloody nose and was being restrained by bouncers. That was it. I remember thinking: in Canada, you just couldn't get this many drunken people together, and have so few problems.

Why is this?

One theory is that there is a special spirit to Oktoberfest, one of Gemütlichkeit or togetherness, that sets a friendly tone the proceedings. There might be something to that, but since Oktoberfest I've travelled to many other parts of Germany and found the same lack of belligerency, so that can't explain it completely.

A second explanation is that different types of alcohol lead to different types of drunk – an idea that the show "How I Met Your Mother“ had some fun with recently. As the theory goes, the Oktoberfesters – and Germans in general – tend to drink beer, so they are therefore friendlier.

Maybe there's something to that too. I have a friend whose mother has banned Jack Daniels whiskey from her house, after seeing generations of men in her family become a different kind of angry drunk after they've been drinking it.

A third theory has to do with alcohol policy, where Canada and Germany vary enormously. In Germany, the rules around alcohol are much more relaxed than Canadians are used to. Here are some differences:

- Germans can buy alcohol at grocery stores during the day, and when the stores are closed they can go to the convenience stores at gas stations. You can buy alcohol at any hour of the day.

- There is no set closing time for drinking establishments, although there are some local bylaws, and by 6am the staff usually kick you out because they want to clean up and go home.

- There's also a two-tier drinking age (16 years old for anything less than 13% alcohol, 18 years old for anything more concentrated) designed to encourage young people to start with beer and wine instead of hard liquor, which is easier to sneak around with but also increases the risks of alcohol poisoning. The argument is that this openness towards alcohol leads to Germans, on the whole, developing a more mature relationship with the substance than the more repressed Canadians.

Of course, policy questions like these are the sorts of things that we CSSDP members like to consider. What kind of relationship with drugs is best? What kind of legislation – laws, taxes, social programs, etc – is the right mix?

But here's the tricky part: since policies tend to vary on a country-by-country basis, when we compare different policies, we are also comparing between countries and the cultures that go with them. It's hard to tease the two apart. And that makes things complicated.

At the end of the day, I don't know why Oktoberfest was as (relatively) peaceful as it was. What I do know is this: when it comes to drugs, each culture is unique.

Germany has a long and storied history with alcohol, including the beer purity laws of 1516 and festivals like Oktoberfest – which began when a Bavarian Crown Prince invited everyone to come drink beer with him to celebrate his wedding. Fond memories for the people of Munich, indeed.

Canada has its own narrative, including the whiskey that was used in the fur trades, to Al Capone bootlegging Canadian Club into Chicago, to Bob and Doug McKenzie's stubby bottles. Untwisting the tangled threads of history, culture and drugs is no easy thing to do.


Karsten said...

Interesting blog.. the differences are stark but I am wondering if you have any insights between German drinking culture and that found in Québec. Like in Germany, the drinking age is lower and you can purchase alcohol in local dépanneurs and even in grocery stores (kind of like in the States, but I guess the States have a really high legal drinking age).

Dave, I think you spent some time in Montréal working on co-op in the past and that's why I'm wondering. Anyway, I don't know where my comment was headed but given the relative differences within Canada itself, I imagine it would be difficult to implement some of what you observed here in Canada.

Last question, I guess, is that I find it really interesting to see these reflections on drug use and policy. I guess a big focus of SSDP is education -- but how do you guys go further? If it wasn't knowing you personally Dave, I would probably never have stumbled across this at all. Do you guys take it to legislature etc? Just hoping to learn a little more :)

David H. said...

Thanks for commenting Carsten.

The differences between the provinces in drinking age and alcohol availability are definitely interesting food for thought (Ontario/Quebec probably being two with very different policies). At one of our conferences, a researcher on the subject(name eluding me right now) suggested something along the lines of the Depanneur model encouraging more people to drink beer and wine instead of hard alcohol - hopefully reducing the risk of alcohol poisoning, which is much more difficult to get from beer/wine due to their lower alcohol content.

Other researchers have looked at populations of Americans going to McGill University in Montreal (legal drinking age 18) and comparable populations of American students studying at home in the US (legal drinking age 21), finding no evidence that those Americans who were in the society with the lower drinking age were more likely to have abuse or other problems. (Again, I wish I had the links to back this up, but I just couldn't find them. Ugh.)

Point is, alcohol is a drug too, and just because it's legal doesn't mean that we shouldn't debate our policies around it. There's probably lots of ways we could do things better!

As for what CSSDP does: while a big part of what we do is education and outreach (for example, and raising awareness about harm reduction, etc), we are also politically involved, by:
- organizing/joining political rallies, for example Overdose Awareness Day
- disseminating petitions
- writing position papers on legislation, for example reforms to medical marijuana policy
- directly lobbying politicians on drug-related issues.

For more info, check out this link:

Anonymous said...

I am a German exchange student in Canada right now and I really liked reading through your blog, your theories are very interesting. I especially agree with the first one. Although I still see Canadians as more respectful and peaceful towards each other, I cant imagine that there are truly less fights/problems in Germany. Maybe it's just that you have to be in the right spot at the right time or because the München Oktoberberfest has a lot of international visitors too. Also your blog reminds me when I first visited the Oktoberfest in Kitchener last year. I must say I was very disappointed as I was expecting the real Oktoberfest (the roller coasters, dancing and singing on bancs and of course the good beer ;) ). I found this had a big influence on the atmosphere, but I still had a good time. I wish you an amazing time in Germany, enjoy it! :)

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