I was going to continue my trend of writing on utterly boring subjects by sharing my recent episode with German bed slats, but then…
I had an adventure.
Beth, one of the other two teaching assistants in Bingen without whom I would frankly be kind of lonely and miserable, and I decided last week that it would behoove us to get the heck out of Bingen for a couple of days, but instead of heading to somewhere sensible like Frankfurt or Cologne, we unanimously agreed that Bavaria would be a far better choice. Oberammergau, specifically. More specific yet, to see the Oberammergau Passion Play.
This may seem a bit extreme, taking a last-minute trip across the country to see one more retelling of the story I’ve heard most in my life, but let me clarify: this is not the “crucify him. crucify him.” version that we’re subjected to every Easter Vigil. No no, a far cry from it. For one, it’s in German (“kreuzige ihn. kreuzige ihn.”). For two, it’s a fully-orchestrated, five-hour-long event that features half of Oberammergau’s 4,000 residents and verges unabashedly on the epic with Greek-myth-style choruses between scenes. Five thousand people flock to each of the year’s one hundred performances (that’s half a million people per year (I just did math!)), and oh, it’s performed only once every ten years, and has been since 1634.
More than a century before the good ol’ US of A was even a twinkle in our founding fathers’ eyes, this play made its debut, as a promise to God that if Oberammergau was spared from the bubonic plague, they would perform it every ten years. The town survived, and as it happens, so did the play.
That’s the story of the play. Now for the story of the teaching assistants.
Beth and I finalized our plans on Friday, which basically boiled down to: Take night train. Buy tickets. See play. Take night train back. Pretty solid plans, except, oh, the website advertised that only twenty tickets remained for Saturday, the second-to-last production of the decade. Twenty? Out of five thousand? (Or, for a more dramatic statistic: Twenty out of 2010’s half million?) Spurred on mostly by a feeling that if this were a movie, we’d get tickets, we decided to give it a go.
I’ll spare you the details of the sleepless 9-hour journey to Bavaria (although, I must say, there is nothing like seeing the sun rise over an Alpine lake), and skip to the rolling into Oberammergau at 8 in the morning bit. We were in line for tickets by 8:30; roughly twenty people were in front of us. We were too close and too delirious to give up now; maybe the people in front of us were just jokin’ around about wanting tickets.
So we stood. And stood. And the line got longer. And longer. And our conversation dwindled mostly to lines that began with “Well, it would be worse if…” and “Beeeeth, what are we doing?” Hawkers came and sold their wares, shortening the line, giving us hope. Hawkers’ ticket prices sounded more and more reasonable (300 euro per ticket? Why yes!) A worker came out and, in the true spirit of the Passion, mumbled loudly about how these tickets have been on sale for two years, so what are these idiots doing trying to buy them the day of the almost-last-show, which sent a pang of longing for American customer service through my heart (but German customer service deserves its own post some other day, I think).
Three hours later, the ticket counter opened. A murmur went through the crowd. A rumor of thirty tickets, rather than twenty. A murmur went through the crowd. The line grew shorter, person by person. A murmur… never mind. Beth and I reached the ticket counter, to find…
the last two tickets of the decade.
Okay, okay, there were four tickets, but because I’m on a roll with the italics this post and I want to keep a good thing going,
the last two tickets of the decade.
The play was impressively executed and, I think, worth it – this is about as “once in a lifetime” as you can get, and the idea of participating in something so steeped in tradition gives me chills. You wouldn’t have thought so had you seen me doze off a couple of times during the first part, but hey, I hadn’t slept in a long time.
Speaking of which, the play was divided into two parts, in between which came a brief three-hour intermission. I’ll pause here to let you double take. So yes, for three hours, the entire crowd was loosed upon the hapless village of Oberammergau to wreak havoc in its souvenir shops (I have to admit, I almost fell prey to their sirenic calls when I spotted an apron with dancing Bavarians embroidered along the hem – it’s so kitschy! it’s so kitchen-y! it’s so me!).
Don’t worry, didn’t buy it. I couldn’t really justify having a backpack full of ridiculous souvenirs while watching the Passion, even if the town was counting on their temple being, well, turned into a marketplace.
The play finished, and so began the return trip, which, in short, consisted of a train, a night bus (just like Harry Potter, kids), a barely-missed connection, despair at the realization that spending the night in podunk train stations might be our lot for the night, a bank-account-draining taxi ride, relief that I didn’t buy that apron after all, and Leberkäse at 3:30 in the morning. And still, a feeling that all this was justified persisted.
We got into Munich in the wee hours to be greeted by a different sort of pilgrimage. Oktoberfest was wrapping up this weekend, and, while I am a bit disappointed I wasn’t able to go, I think I saw enough of the sad, sick dregs of it to be okay with it. Every train station we stopped at housed a couple of drunk Lederhosen-clad twenty-something-year-olds, teetering precariously and threatening to wet themselves at any moment, asking us for a light or to order their train ticket because they were too far gone to push the buttons. This was nothing compared to the Munich train station. Reeking of beer and smothered in be-Lederhosen’d and be-Dirndle’d revellers passed out in every feasible nook and cranny, it was weirdly, eerily apocalyptic. The only survivors are wearing short pants and suspenders, and are going to have monster hangovers in the morning.
Anyway, I’m happy to report that Beth and I made it back to Bingen at 10 the next morning, exhausted and jubilant and running on fumes and a bag of gummi bears.
That’s a great thing about travelling: you always make it home again, which is, I’m happy to report, how Bingen felt in that moment.