“Complete crap!” the blotchy-faced man shouted, offering me a cigarette. He was very animated. It was maybe the most energy his lungs had pumped out in a while. Complete crap!” he said again, in case I might have mistaken his stance on the smoking ban the first time. The translation of his colourful German expression doesn’t quite capture the passion in his yellow eyes. But there was a rueful glance in them too.
Bavaria is a fairly conservative place, and it’s safe to say that some Bavarians at this year’s Oktoberfest have not taken to the new rule well. Smoking is still allowed outside and in the beer gardens, but not in any of the tents, and there are no smoking rooms.
What many see as the natural association between cigarettes and beer is one thing, but at the Oktoberfest, many think of cigars and cigarillos as part of the custom too. After all, the Oktoberfest is all about excessive indulgence. You fill yourself with alcohol, sugar, and animal grease: tobacco is just another poison to be added to the list.
Unpopular, but effective
The smoking ban was actually not meant to happen this year. The ban on smoking in all public buildings, no exceptions, came into force in Bavaria at the beginning of August, following a referendum in July, but then an amnesty was granted for the Oktoberfest until next year. Then beer tent landlords decided to forego the amnesty and try out the ban this year anyway, to see if it worked.
And it has more or less worked.
“The smoking ban is being enforced very effectively,” Munich chief of police Wilhelm Schmidbauer announced proudly in the first week.
It is certainly true that you don’t see any smokers inside. The revellers have tended to police each other, and if a smoker proves stubborn, security escorts him firmly to the door. The smokers might be grumbling, but they are obedient.
For my blotchy-faced friend, this obedience itself was despicable.
“That’s what’s wrong with Germany!” he said, “We’re always bowing down to everything! As soon as someone makes a new rule. Look at the French – the EU tells Sarkozy to stop getting rid of the Roma, but does he listen? No! He just does what he wants.”
I decided to leave before we strayed into murkier territory.
It would be a mistake to think that the referendum has killed Bavaria’s libertarian streak – a random sample of Oktoberfest-goers uncovers similarly vehement voices.
“For 200 years no-one cared, and now all of a sudden we have to ban it. And we just do what we’re told. It’s worse than communist East Germany,” one woman told me angrily, while her husband stood by, morosely sucking on a cigarillo. “Only 30 percent of people voted, you know. The smokers weren’t properly informed and didn’t even realize what was happening.”
Ahmed, a security guard outside the Löwenbräu tent, had little sympathy. “It’s their own fault,” he said. “They should have voted when they had the chance. Now they’re all complaining when there’s nothing they can do.”
Ahmed was also not particularly convinced that the ban was really being respected.
“It’s alright at the moment, because the weather is good and the tent is not that full. But if it starts raining, and we have to shut the doors because it’s overcrowded inside, and then people come outside to smoke and want to get back in. Then there’ll be trouble.”
In practice, security often ignores the odd smoker, particularly if it is getting later in the evening and no-one is complaining.
Who’s to blame for the ban?
All this is the fault of Sebastian Frankenberger, a 29-year-old who started the citizen’s initiative that led to the Bavarian referendum and therefore the ban. If it hadn’t been for him, Bavaria may well have settled on a compromise, like Germany’s other states have, allowing smoking in small bars or designated rooms. Frankenberger, with his boyish face and long, blow-dried heavy metal hair, has become, in Bavaria, the instant personification of what many see as society’s tendency towards more restrictive regulations.
He has already received plenty of death-threats, and in a slightly inflammatory experiment, Bavaria’s state TV channel Bayerischer Rundfunk decided to film Frankenberger walk through the Oktoberfest. The results were quite shocking. As he walked through the crowd, armed with pepper-spray, a number of lederhosen-clad men flung abuse in his direction, swearing and thrusting middle-fingers in his face.
But then, there were also plenty who congratulated him, and in the Oktoberfest there is as much approval, or at least indifference, as there is red-faced abuse. Many smokers are quite happy to step outside for the sake of clearer air in the tents, and many Oktoberfest regulars note with approval the absence of a dense fog mingling with the ceiling decorations. But it is, everyone agrees, a big change.
Ben Knight ([email protected])
Munich’s Oktoberfest runs from September 18 until October 4 this year. A special historical area offering old carousels, special beer and other attractions will open one day earlier for the 200th anniversary celebrations.