Day 53 – The King of Bilbania 

Word of the day

Chartreuse

A pale colour between yellow and green, named after the French liqueur (and David Hirtz’s favourite alcoholic beverage) Chartreuse


Blog roll

The internet has agreed that there are approximately 2 million new blog posts written every day. Ridiculous. Let’s assume they’re all written in English, averaging 500 words each (totally made up number): that’s a billion words a day.

Since I never read more than a few thousand blog words in a day, some of which are my own, I am unqualified to judge the calibre of the blogging masses. I imagine every blog has at least one dedicated and delighted reader (its creator), but considering the amount of dross in the media, penned by people who are paid to write words, I can’t help but compare this high volume of blog output to the notorious ‘long drop’ toilets at Glastonbury. While many festival-goers drop something useful, namely toilet paper, into the gruesome cesspits and occasionally something really valuable is dropped, like a beloved piece of jewellery, they’re mostly just big piles of shit.

glasto-long drop

As 21st centurions we are lucky to have the knowledge and understanding of humanity accessible online, but with so much ‘content’ and so little time (even when travelling) we need to be more selective than ever about what we choose to read.

Whether you think my blog roll is full of crap or that I’m churning out nuggets of a different colour, my intention has always been to post only when I have something to say, rather than just blogging for the sake of it.


Bilbao

After a disappointing 24 hours in the Basque Country’s most populous city, with just a few hours of daylight remaining before an early morning departure, I had already decided not to write about Bilbao as I had nothing much to say.

Yes, the Guggenheim museum is an architectural masterpiece and there were a couple of decent Picassos knocking about elsewhere, but I’m no art critic and, after an extremely underwhelming hostel experience, I chose not to threaten anyone’s time or good mood with a negative post.

Guggenheim

Then an Albanian man called Vissi offered me a satsuma and it all changed.


Albania 

Before we get to Vissi I need to sketch out my first day in Bilbao’s Pil Pil Hostel, starting with its 12 bed, men-only dorm. When empty, the room had the aesthetic of a psychiatric ward. When full, it developed the fetid stench of a post-match locker room.

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Its inhabitants seemed to be suffering from a variety of ailments: snifflers and sneezers gave way to loud snorers and sleep-talkers as the lights eventually went off – there was no way I was getting my 8 hours and I hardly slept at all.

During a silent breakfast the following morning the assembled zombies munched on cereal and avoided eye contact. I realised how lucky I had been in Biarritz and San Sebastián, internally declaring my hostelling love affair to be over. Cause of death: sleep deprivation and smelly feet. RIP, which is what I hoped to be doing in my private Airbnb bedroom in Madrid.

With a couple of drunk guys talking and slamming locker doors at 2am the noise was really bothering me and one group of lads in particular was getting on my tits. Ever-present in the hostel, cooking and talking loudly in a language I couldn’t pinpoint, they came across as brash and mildly obnoxious. This hostile assessment was all about my lack of sleep and nothing to do with them.

Until mid-afternoon I stayed in the communal area reading, dreading my second night in the battery farm and wishing these lads would be quiet. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and, as I sat there minding my own business, one of them smiled and offered me a satsuma.

I gratefully accepted, ate it (and another two), exchanged names with Vissi then remembered I had a couple of beers in the fridge as we embarked on a silent game of bilingual Chinese Whispers using Google Translate. One of my opening gambits was intended as a mildly humorous compliment:

“You’re a good cook – that pork you made yesterday looked tastier than my pot noodle”

Whether it was the choice of words or the technology, this rapidly escalated into what I thought was a decision to cook together later that day.

I told Vissi I was going out but would be back in time for food, depending on when he wanted to eat. That message clearly didn’t get across as intended, he asked if I was hungry (answer: yes) and suggested that we go to the supermarket together.

I held the basket and Vissi led the charge, navigating the aisles instinctively. The first of our three arguments came at the checkout: he insisted on paying but I ripped away his banknote, replacing it with my own in the hand of the perplexed cashier. Fifteen love.

The second disagreement regarded who would carry the shopping. Vissi demanded that I give the bag to him, I initially declined, but he insisted and I gave way. Fifteen all.

This scene unfolded entirely through body language with smiles, frowns, head-shakes and finger-points serving our communicative purposes.

It wasn’t until we got back to the hostel and Vissi had carefully prepared the meal that I realised what was going on: he had already eaten lunch and was cooking just for me. What an absolute dreamboat.

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Vissi wasn’t travelling alone and desperate to make friends – he was staying in the hostel with his cousin Gazmend. He was just being nice.

Our third dispute was over the washing up. This time I refused to back down. While the argument battle ended 2-1 in my favour it was a Pyhhric victory as Vissi had already won the war.

We cooked another delicious meal as a three for dinner and communicated later that night in the universal language of Oktoberfest. I was sceptical at first but no one in Bilbao gave una mierda that it was November, the German four piece band absolutely smashed it and we had a brilliant night.

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Bilbania

I learnt a few things in the day I hung out with Vissi.

The first is cheesy but worth saying: whether it’s a pizza slice in Biarritz or a satsuma in Bilbao, small acts of kindness open doors and start friendships.

Vissi’s kindness and generosity were palpable in every movement he made, from the way he interacted with the supermarket checkout lady to sharing his last bit of pork chop at the dinner table. While language helps us to communicate, I learnt from Vissi that you can be a great lad without saying a word.

In an effort to bridge a language gap as wide as the Grand Canyon I also learnt a couple of Albanian words, namely faleminderit (thank you) and, of course, gëzuar (cheers).

I learnt that avocados, a brunch staple in New York and London, clearly haven’t made it to Albania yet, as Vissi and Gazmend prodded the creamy, chartreuse flesh with a mixture of curiosity and disgust.

The final, and by far most entertaining, thing that I learnt was that Vissi cannot do the YMCA. We were a few beers down and my one-handed directions clearly weren’t helping but it was so funny and endearing, the three of us watched it repeatedly that night and it gets better every time.

Despite all the beautiful holiday destinations in the world, for me it is nearly always the people you meet, rather than just the places themselves, that make experiences memorable. For that reason I will always remember Bilbao as Bilbania, and Vissi as its King.


Next stop: Madrid

What is The Gump Method

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Tricky Day Twenty – Oktoberfest Part II

Word of the Day: Oktoberfessionals – professional Oktoberfest revellers


In only my third year at the wiesn I cannot claim to be anything close to professional, but there are some things I have learned. Firstly, there are many different ways to approach Oktoberfest; I’m personally familiar with three main options:

Option 1 is to turn up at 6am, queue to get into one of the unreserved seating tents, get twatted, be sick and (if you win) go home in Munich’s answer to an air ambulance:

IMG-2348Most popular with Brits and antipodeans I flirted with this approach in my first year and quickly moved on.

Option 2 is to reserve a table in one of the tents 7-12 months in advance. This is expensive and only permits a few hours of uninterrupted boozing: the more popular tents typically have three sessions a day and kick people out after each one.

Option 3: turn up mid-afternoon, warm up with a few beers on an outdoor bench before working your way inside for optimal late evening positioning when it gets really fun.

Option 3 is preferred by many locals, and is much easier if you are from Munich. I am lucky enough to know some Oktoberfest professionals (Oktoberfessionals?) meaning a relatively easy route into Schutzen, apparently  the “most Munich” of the tents. Cool kids, wealthy Bavarians and the occasional appearance from Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Oktoberfessional may not be a sufficiently grandiose term to describe David and Fincki: covering two generations they are genuine living legends of the wiesn.

Fincki and I have managed to become friends over 5 years despite him speaking no English and me speaking no German, united by our love of beer gardens and Oktoberfest. He likes to comment on my facebook posts with “du narrischer” which roughly translates to “wanker” but is a word of Fincki’s own invention (there are many). Fincki (apparently ordering one beer in the photo below) has been Oktoberfesting since before I was born and is an Option 2 man, but most likely for all three sessions.

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David has spent so much time at Oktoberfest that his hair looks like the frothy part of a beer; his wiesn stamina is unparalleled. The festival lasts between 16-18 days depending on the year and from my research with the locals, 4-6 proper visits is about par. This year I did 4 consecutive days with David, which was heavy going for me, but he had also been on 7 of the previous 12 days. ‘Magic 11’ has been his number for the last three years.

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The only way to survive and still enjoy this level of drinking intensity is to respect the rules of the wiesn:

Rule 1: keep eating. My first day at Oktoberfest in 2012 ended with me asleep on the pavement in the foetal position outside my apartment, not knowing how I’d got there. This year, while still fully intoxicated every day, I managed to remember everything, stay out late and not embarrass myself too much, mainly thanks to food. Chicken or pork on arrival, another meal after 3-4 mass (litres) and a snack later on.

Rule 2: trust the beer. On days 3 and 4 this year I sat opposite David and we couldn’t see a route to having a good time. Please, no more. But we drank our beer like good little Bavarian boys, drank some more, and had 2 brilliant days at the festival.

Rule 3: don’t get carried away. Many of you will have seen Pieter the baby white tiger who spent most of Oktoberfest on my shoulder making friends. Pieter is my actual son and was delivered by stork for €16. Five years earlier, after falling in love with two identical twins from Dresden (hi Marie and Anne Sophie) I bought them matching white tigers (obvs). I then got really carried away and bought a whole family of white tigers. It was a lot of fun and fortunately my card maxed out before I was able to acquire the giant one, but the wiesn is expensive enough as it is and spending many, many unnecessary euros on cuddly toys makes the hangover feel so much worse the next day.

Carried away

really carried away

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Rule 4: jagermeister is the best medicine. Whenever I was feeling really queasy I delved into the lederhosen for one of the many smuggled-in mini jagermeister bottles, downed it and carried on. The healing power of this stuff may not have been scientifically proven but, trust me, it works.

Rule 5: go with the flow. This is not another beer-related comment – many of the memorable moments at Oktoberfest are totally unexpected and just evolve if you are willing to talk to anyone and end up anywhere. A conversation with a couple of old ladies who it turned out had worked with David’s dad 40 years earlier; drinking with ruddy-cheeked Bavarian men with huge moustaches; after-parties and selfie-stick photos with people we had met that day.

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With classical German precision, the wiesn is perfectly designed to ensure that everyone gets a good amount of drunk, makes friends and has an amazing time. If you hadn’t yet got the idea, I like Oktoberfest a lot. I will keep going back year after year and would recommend it to everyone.

Thanks to all my brilliant Munich friends for making me feel so welcome yet again, and a special shout out to Lukas who moved into his girlfriend’s apartment for a whole 5 days to give me my own place to stay – amazing ❤

And don’t forget Rule 6: detox. I am writing this a few days after my return and have now recovered from the shakes, have stopped waking up in cold sweats and have not had a sip of alcohol. David always does a dry month after Oktoberfest. Fincki does not.


NEXT STOP:  HOME (THEN PARIS) 

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More Oktoberfest here: Day Eighteen – Oktoberfest Part I

What is The Gump Method

Day Eighteen – Oktoberfest Part I

Word of the day: Teutonic – characteristic of or relating to the German people

Cocktail of the day: Gin and Teutonic – gin, tonic and bitte lemon 


There is a consistent theme in my approach to travel: do everything as late as possible without it becoming stressful. This applies to booking flights, packing bags and choosing how fine to cut it for an airport arrival. It often annoys other people but I like it.

Weddings and special occasions aside I’m not the kind of person who would arrange a long weekend 9 months in advance, and yet for this year’s Oktoberfest (also known as the wiesn) I booked my flights in January, proudly informing my slightly bemused Munich friends, most of whom were still recovering from their 2016 festival hangovers.

So why did I make an exception for this funny-looking event with its lederhosen and dirndls? Because it is a special occasion. For me, Oktoberfest is an almost perfect combination of features which, independently, might seem a bit strange or awkward but when mixed together under a massive tent in Munich create magic.

Honed for over 200 years the festival has maintained its Bavarian traditions and adopted some new ones. The music is a prime example: each tent has a live band playing a ridiculous mix of songs that could only work at the wiesn. There are traditional German oompah oompah songs focused mainly around drinking beer, catchy German language favourites known as ‘wiesn hits’ including belters like Schatzi schenk mir ein photo (Baby send me a photo) and then seemingly random pop songs from all eras that have become Oktoberfest classics – Sweet Caroline, the Macarena, Sex on Fire, The Cheeky Girls.

Yep, the Cheeky Girls. Based on this playlist excerpt it could be a cheese festival but the thing that unites these tunes is they are great for a singalong. I bloody love a singalong and I’m not the only one: everyone sings and dances along from their perch on one of the long benches and it is brilliant. The atmosphere in the huge Oktoberfest tents towards the end of a night is as good as any club or concert: packed and rowdy but always friendly.

Packed wiesn

Everyone there wants the same things: it’s all about drinking, dancing, making friends and having fun. Four of my favourite things, which is probably why I keep going back 🙂

This sweaty excerpt from my Instagram story (@odjuns) doesn’t do it justice but gives you the general idea. Cinematography takes a back seat after 5 or 6 litres of Bavarian beer.


Most tall blonde men called Oliver wearing lederhosen at Oktoberfest are very German. People in Munich often assume I am a local but, like many before me, I am a tourist who had to learn the hard way to truly understand The Reason For The Wiesn (I came up with this as a name for the next wiesn hit but don’t have any other lyrics or a tune yet).

I first visited Munich for Oktoberfest in 2012; sat in the Käfer tent beer garden with my Australian Teutonophile mate (hi Bobby) I looked around and started to wonder why I had just spent over €200 on my entry level lederhosen and calf warmers (this was the only photo of me fully kitted out that year, because beer).

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Bearded old men, families with young children, tourists, chicken and pretzels. After all the hype I looked at Bobby and said “this isn’t quite what I was expecting.” His response was as Australian as it was Bavarian: “Don’t worry OJ, just drink your beer and wait for the magic to happen.”

I did what I was told and it worked. The weekend was more fun than almost any other before or since; I had to be dragged away (literally) on the Sunday when I refused to leave for the airport. Two days into Oktoberfest 2017 the magic is most definitely happening again.