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What my family taught me about Oktoberfest

staff note

Oktoberfest is not generally considered a wholesome activity; the word probably calls busty women in braids and binge drinking to mind. For me, though, it's the time of year I feel closest to my family and to my community. It's like Christmas, Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July are wrapped together into a pretzel knot that I can only eat once a year.

Every fall break I've been at Duke, I've flown across the country to volunteer at an Oktoberfest celebration in my hometown of San Diego. Deeply involved in their local German American Club for decades, my grandparents were always two of the driving forces behind the festivities; my Opa led a team of men who managed the electrical and mechanical requirements for the event and my Oma directed the pastry booth and all of the fest's vendors. As soon as I could walk, they brought me along. I learned the German drinking chants far before I would actually understand what they meant, and sauerkraut remains a comfort food for me to this day — but only if it's cooked warm — the way I remember from when I was little. 

Although I would just tag along with my dad to the event as a kid, I became more actively involved as I got older. I began working with my Oma at the pastry stand, but through the years I have also sold pretzels and wurst. Wearing a heavy dirndl in the heat and squeezing myself into its corset top, I interact with hundreds of people over the course of a 10-hour day of work. It's always a long weekend — I'm currently writing this editor's note sick and half-asleep in the air back to RDU — but it's always more than worth it. With divorced parents, Oktoberfest is the only holiday I regularly spend with my dad's side of the family. It's an excuse for us to get together, and a way for us to connect with our grandparents' roots. Even more, it's a way for us to share a few days of festivities, and some killer apple strudel, with the community we love.

That's why it was so sad for me not to have been in California last fall break; it was the first San Diego Oktoberfest I'd missed as long as I could remember. Also, I knew it would be my Oma's last. Planning the event as usual as long as her leukemia would allow her, she wasn't well enough to attend the festival itself. She passed away that October. Although it broke my heart to be away from home for the month of her passing, I was at the only other place she'd have preferred me to be: the real Munich Oktoberfest. I began studying German freshman year of college to be closer to her and her heritage and I studied abroad in Berlin last fall. As her prognosis became increasingly clear over the course of the semester, I sent my dad more and more photos of my daily life in Germany to share with her. In some sense, I was exactly where she wanted me to be; I was learning invaluable lessons and making lifelong friends in the place she was living when she was my age. Seeing photos of me and one of my best friends at the Hofbräuhaus tent in Munich, she must have known that my years with her at the German Club taught me a lot more than how to sell a few pretzels.

I knew that this fall break would be difficult the moment I heard of her passing last year. Until this weekend, it was hard for me to actually wrap my mind around her being gone; no matter how much I rationalized it, the back of my mind still expected her to be at the pastry booth just as she'd always been. When I came to volunteer and saw that she wasn't there, I almost wanted to leave. I didn't think the event could possibly be the same without her. Just as I became overwhelmed with sadness, I noticed my Oma's best friend, Olga, was there. She came and gave me a huge warm hug and, suddenly, everything was alright. She was smiling, I was smiling, loud polka music was playing and our obnoxiously-delicious black forest cake was flying off of the shelves. Oktoberfest was Oktoberfest, and it was finally time to celebrate. 

While my family was sorrowful that my Oma couldn't be there with us, I know that we all felt her presence. Family and friends were all there and, more importantly, we were all there together. As always, Oktoberfest was an excuse for us to take a break from our busy lives to focus on each other. It doesn't matter which wurst you get or which beer you try at the festival, but only who you share them with. I always leave Oktoberfest weekend feeling closer to my family and thankful to my grandparents for helping us learn to celebrate those most important to us.

Jessica Williams is a Trinity senior and Recess media production editor. 


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