“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou
Trumpets squeal and blare through the flat blue autumn sky above Marienplatz. Tubas honk and burp in between the raucous amusement park rides on Maria Theresien Wiese. Accordions wail and wheeze on every corner of Viktualienmarkt where men dressed in lederhosen, hunting hats and woolen knee stockings are hugging two-liter steins in their portly arms.
Beside them are the bearded cross-dressers wearing wigs of yellow yarn braids, lip-sticked circles on their cheeks, their chest hair prickling out of the plunging necklines of their embroidered dirndls. Women dodge around them, their cleavages climbing to clavicles, doughy breasts heaving out of white lacy blouses, frilly anklets spilling out of hiking boots. Aprons tied around corseted waistlines, petticoats pouffing under gathered skirts, and everyone parading with pretzels the size of life rafts, beers the size of birdbaths, and taut pink or gray sausages the size of airline neck pillows. Yodeling, hollering, swaying and puking, broad oom-pah-pahing.
And over there by that bush, a man in a felt green hat with an enormous feather, his knickers bunched awkwardly, is relieving himself in the shrubbery.
Welcome to Brueghel meets Hieronymus Bosch, only earthier than the first and more surreal than the second.
Willkommen zum Oktoberfest.
Linda, my husband’s German work colleague, and a mother of young children, has asked to sit right next to Randall at his table. This evening is a company dinner in one of the big, tented Oktoberfest halls. Randall has done this sort of dinner more times in his career than he can count. But this time, our family’s tragedy is only weeks into our history. Already he’s having to learn to survive these settings – the loudness that feels violent, the crudeness that makes his back hunch in discomfort, shoulders bent over his thoughts so throbbing, his soul feels as if it has third degree burns.
Because of the din swirling all around, Randall’s sure this will be just another one of those evenings he’ll have to survive and then, offering some excuse – he needs to put more money in the parking meter; a client from Asia is texting with an emergency; he might be having an allergic reaction to the latex seat covers; anything – might have to leave. This time, he sits there as he so often has, shoulder to shoulder with the joking and the jocular, trying to take part although his thoughts are rocketing beyond a galaxy away.
Linda clears her throat. She smiles at Randall. He smiles weakly, gesturing as if to ask, do you need me to scoot over? You need more space? Pretty loud here, huh! You enjoying your drink?
The miming ends as he looks down into the stein filled with mineral water with its slice of lemon bobbing like a planet off-orbit, and Linda, leaning on one elbow, takes a breath audible enough that gets Randall to look up and meet her glance:
“So,” she begins in German, “your children, how are they liking Munich. . .?”
“Thanks for asking,” he says, straining not to yell, although how else will she hear him? “Looks like they’re slowly making friends. . .”
Randall smiles. Linda rearranges her cutlery. She turns her shoulders more directly to him so as to be heard.
“And your children are. . .they are. . . adjusting to. . .their new life?” she asks, her eyebrows raised.
“Oh, I think so, although there are a lot of. . .of challenges,” he answers.
“And you and your wife. . .are you. . .is it. . .can you tell me. . .” she freezes and looks at the napkin she now notices she’s been holding crumpled in her lap. “And you two are. . .I mean. . .after what has. . .you and your family. . .”
Linda stretches and presses her napkin flat across her knees, then lifts it up, laying it like a wrinkled tarp over her plate. Wiping one hand over her eyes, exhaling, she then props the weight of her whole upper body on one arm by planting the heel of her hand on her forehead between her brows. A pause, and her next sentence comes awkwardly, in half-whispers, as she leans closer; “Randall. I’m just trying to ask you about your son.” Her tone thickens, “I am so sorry, Randall. Can you. . . please – I hope this is not hurtful – but can you please tell me about your son?”
A simple question, and you’d think an invisible glass dome has descended – swoosh – on this moment in the far corner of this tent teeming with partiers. At the same overcrowded banquet table where bedlam is the first thing on the menu – only feet from the yodeling accordion player, right next to where the jaded waitress grunts under the pewter tray holding eight beer steins she hoists overhead, inches from where two men (already plastered) swat at her ruffled skirt – amid that whirl of chaos that is so much this world, madness recedes. Suspended at least for an hour, the world and its deafening excesses fade for two work colleagues, who sit side by side, elbow to elbow, talking and wiping tears at Oktoberfest.