O’zapft is’ (the keg has been tapped) at the annual Wiener Wiesn festival, which has taken over a large wedge of Vienna’s Prater from September 26 to October 13, 2019. The Wiener Wiesn promises Austria- slash Oktoberfest-themed fun for the whole family, from a Kinderwiesn of activities for the little kids in the daytime to gigantic beer-hall-tents shaking with Schlager music at night.
And really, you should probably go, if you aren’t me. Make a day of it. Bring your drinkin’ pants.
Kaiserwetter at Wiener Wiesn
Verily we skipped with joy: My husband Alex, our two little girls (aged 3 and 6) and I. It was the kind of September Sunday on which you cannot possibly be unhappy: Sky blue, sun soft, breeze feathery. Now in the Würstelprater, we grinned at the manic whirr and clang, at the colors and lights fantastic, at the nattering crowds, the scent of sugar.
We follow a likely couple in Trachten (traditional dress): The woman is dressed from top to toe in midnight black. But she’s got a headband on of flamingo-pink feathers and plastic roses – which, instead of going over the top of her head, has been pinned flat onto to the back of her sable up-do.
More Dirndln and Lederhosen pass by: floral pink, meadow green, red checkers, blazing turquoise. It’s election day, so I muse unreasonably about their voting habits. I muse even harder as we pass the Prater Alm, which features huge FPÖ beach flags (the far-right party will meet to party there later that evening, though it turns out they won’t have much to celebrate).
And then we’re here! Friendly green-vested security guards wave us through the wide, wooden gate, into a street with wooden Hütte to the left and right. The outdoor tables are packed with beer drinkers; the crowds are chipper and well-dressed and pretty much all white except one East Asian guy who looks happy and a little awed and keeps taking pictures; clearly a tourist. Like him, I am pleasantly out of my element. We smile at each other.
I realize I should be taking more notes, so I wave my darling husband and kids on and whip around, notebook out. Every available surface has the logo of some down-homey Austrian company on it: The main gate is apparently sponsored by Wiesbauer, purveyor of delicious dry sausages. I can tell because gigantic, artificial, branded Wurst have been attached to the gateposts.
There’s a three-man band oompa-ing beside the drinkers. Uncertainly, I scribble “Austro-mariachi”. The main thing, really, is all the gigantic logos: Billa, Merkur, Mautner Markhof…but I can look all that up online. I waggle my pen: “Ratio @2pm: 30% Trachten”. Everyone else is dressed like me: without ambition.
Fun for the whole family
I catch up to the fam, which is peering through the entryway into the first massive beer tent, again sponsored by Wiesbauer. The space would seat hundreds along Heurigenbänke (the pine-and-green-metal picnic tables one finds at Heuriger). Helipad-sized green wreaths are hanging from the ceiling; the central wreath surrounds a whopping great disco ball. A very large and young-looking band is giving it their all on stage, and my kids are clapping and bobbing their heads.
We resolve to move on and tour the whole place before we pick a spot for lunch, but now my girls need to use the restroom. These are plentiful and clean and – in keeping with the general vibe – the signage features scatological puns in dialect: “s’MADL TOPFERL” and “s’BUA T(r)OPFERL”. You see, “Bua” is dialect for “Bub,” or little boy, while “Madl” means “Mädchen,” or little girl. “Topferl” means “potty” and “Tropferl” means little drop, and when boys…never mind.
Back outdoors, we pass Wojnar’s Kaiser Zelt, another cavernous tavern, this time decked out in company colors i.e. titanic blue-and-white streamers. A heteronormative couple of chipmunk mascots stand before the threshold. Do we take a picture? Of course we do, my friends.
It’s then I realize a full 90% of little girls are wearing dirndln, which makes sense since it’s pretty very cute. Sadly, my daughters are in regular clothes and also we have not braided their hair into crowns. I feel a little sorry for them.
We meander past the Billa-sponsored stage, which has a sign over the top noting that today is dedicated to Oberösterreich. I look around for other signs of Upper Austria-ness but can’t find any; so I ask my Upper Austrian husband for input. “I notice a lot the dresses and shirts are red and pink, is that an Upper Austria thing?” I ask him. He rolls his eyes at me. I still don’t know the answer.
Why is everyone else so happy?
I go looking for someone who has something resoundingly positive to say about the Wiener Wiesn, and happen upon two attractive ladies in their late forties – in Trachten, of course – who look like they’re having fun. How are they finding it?
“It’s commercial,” says Isabella of Vienna, dismissively. Oh. “This has nothing to do with Oktoberfest, for me. Nothing to do with the origin of the essence of the Viennese or the feelings of the Viennese.” I’m scribbling fast. She gestures at all the dangling branded flags and the giant logos. “The music was the origin but now there’s nothing cultural anymore.”
Her friend Johanna chimes in: “It’s just marketing.”
“Every Bundesland has its own history and tradition,” says Isabella – but they aren’t to be found here. She cites the Apfelstrudel and Schnitzel being sold in every single beer tent – as well as Weisswurst – as evidence that the organizers have not made an effort to represent the Austrian provinces. I think today’s musical acts are from Upper Austria, I tell her. I also note that everyone seems terribly happy.
She shrugs and goes into a thing about how people will sell anything. “Das ist der Mensch,” she says (“It’s just human”). I wonder if everyone just looks happy because it’s so nice outside.
Ye olde corporate sponsor
Now my family arrives at an area of small stands such as one finds at a Christmas market; these are mostly mono-product booths selling smoothies, booze and regional doodads. The drugstore Bipa has sponsored a stand run by women in Bipa-pink dresses. It’s really jarring to see all these big corporations running ye olde tiny booths.
The children’s are is a small grove between a stand of old trees, covered in sweet-smelling hay that we throw on each other. It’s a pleasant, sun-shiney accretion of stereotypes, each of which has a corporate sponsor: Ribbons above by the Kronen Zeitung, Hütte by WienWein, Veuve Clicquot (really?), and the tourist region of Schladming-Dachstein, which also has a cable car gondola for kids to play in. At a long low table (Ströck), a few adorable toddlers in white paper chef hats are patting lumps of dough with the doting assistance of their parents. An armful of hay hits one baking-parent in the back and little bits drift all over the raw buns, but no one cares because the perpetrator is cute.
Trial by lunch
Lunch. The Gösser beer tent is fully Gösser-green and white; pretzels the size of steering wheels are hung from the wreaths in the rafters. It is full and noisy with the universal sound of people boozing. We order two Maß of beer (the only available size) and order meals from laminated menus that have little logos next to different items, i.e. Ströck makes the pretzels and Mautner Markhof makes the mustard.
Another band is in full swing up on the central stage, and the place is positively reverberating with the sounds of singing and stomping and swaying to the beat. There are people standing on tables. My kids, looking a little overwhelmed, climb under ours. A pretty teen girl and her friend – dirndls bright pink and green – are taking selfies at the next table at a rate of approximately five per minute. I feel lonely. Everyone except us is having a fantastic time.
Our tremendous beers arrive along with our food, and I start drinking rather quickly. The food is atrocious. My children share an okay schnitzel. I have mushy penne in oversalted spicy tomato sauce and a sad clump of pre-shredded cheese. Alex has a tiny portion of Szegedenir Krautfleisch. As recommended, he has ordered a knödel to accompany it. This is the worst dish: It is very small, dense, grey, and wet.
We are decreasingly happy. The kids are whining mindlessly. My husband is telling them to sit up straight but without conviction; his unhappiness feels accusatory. Why I have I brought us here. It’s loud.
Everyone else is having a fantastic time. A new group takes the stage: “Who here is from Upper Austriaaaa?” they yell.
“YUUUUURRRR!” holler back several dozen people with joy, fists and giant beers raised, feet stamping on the floor, their voices ratcheting off the walls. A new tune kicks off, and couples are dancing in the aisles. I take a long drink of my beer, which is really helping.
I turn to my three year old: “So how do you find it in here?”
I can’t hear her answer. “What?” I repeat. Still can’t hear her. “LOUDER,” I say.
She stamps her foot. “I SAID IT’S TERRIFYING,” she screams. “Now lemme alone.”
Am I the Grinch?
Up on stage, the band leader has linked arms with the singer and is back on the mic: “Everybody go leeeft,” he commands. “And riiiight.” Remarkable numbers of people follow his instructions, linking arms on their benches to sway. Soon dozens of tables are in motion, and the voices of the people rise in unison, like affable vikings in Valhalla.
The bill arrives and is a hilarious 72 euros and 40 cents, before tip. My husband starts laughing. “This is a sad place,” he says, drinking more beer. I agree.
But all around us, the sound wasn’t sad. Why, this sound sounded merry.
“TIKKA TAKKA TIKKA TAKKA OY OY OY!” says the man onstage, and pretty much the whole place does a shot. A shot would probably make all of this much more fun, but it’s 3pm on a Sunday and I’m with my children. In my notebook I write: “What came first the culture or the drinking”.
About 10 rows down from us, a table full of men wear matching shirts that read: “Ob und zua…do san ma zua.” (“Once in a while, we get plastered”…but it’s a rhyming pun in German). I head over there with my notebook and pick out two guys who are conversing, which seems like a promising indicator of sobriety. They are affable and chatty, part of an eight-man Stammtisch (regular drinking crew) and they come every year. Every year! They’ve been at the festival all day every day since it opened on Friday. They come in the morning “and stay until it closes,” my new acquaintance Thomas says.
“We like it,” says Thomas. “The Gesamteffekt (overall effect) suits us. It’s just about all of us being together.”
I mention that it’s election day, and I wonder if… “I don’t come here to talk about politics,” says Sandro. Okay.
It’s just about being together
Behind us, their friends are now standing, fist-pumping and singing to the stage. It is safe to say they are having the time of their lives. One of their gang, a blond babyface, has clearly had quite a bit to drink and is now interested in our proceedings. He sits down at our table and makes occasional sounds, which I strive to ignore. It’s loud enough without him.
But what’s so cool about the Wiener Wiesn? I ask. Why here? Why this?
“We are here to drink beer and to meet nice people,” says Sandro, finally. “And that is all.”
I thank them for their time. Blond guy now has an empty krug in hand and is tapping out a rhythm with it on the bench and on the table, bench, table, bench, table…in time with the rousing woompa-woompa from the stage. He laughs.
As my family and I hustle out of the tent and back into a day like they’ll have in heaven (it was so nice out) – smuggling the rest of my giant beer – the sound of Helene Fischer’s “Atemlos durch die Nacht” rose behind us. The crowd went absolutely ballistic.
And then I realized. Maybe the Wiener Wiesn (sponsored by Gösser, Wiesbauer, Wojnak, Billa, Merkur, Mautner Markhof and more) isn’t really about authenticity or quality or delicious food at a reasonable price. Because there they were – singing! The tall and the small.The lack of good taste hadn’t stopped them at all.
I turned to Alex: “Are we just being total snobs?”
“Oh for sure,” he agreed. He thought for a second. “But dude it was €4.50 for one knödel. Did you see that f***ing knödel?“