“We need costumes, of course we need them,” they all said. Dressing like a normal group of young women wouldn’t cut it – for Oktoberfest we needed to be squeezed into tight-bodiced Dirndls with bright gingham aprons and frilly white blouses that skimped on coverage around the bosoms. My lady friends turned out to be right about the necessity of dressing up, Bavarian-style, to match all the strapping young men in their Lederhosen – the theatre of Oktoberfest, which takes over so much of Munich for a buzzing, otherworldly few days, is as intoxicating as the litres-upon-litres of beer.
My Dirndl was on the traditional side (dark brown, skirt down to my knees) but I still managed to burst out of the top of it.
Still, I think that the original one I had ordered from a confusing German online store would have been more eye-popping. I’ll never know – upon my return to my little apartment in south-east Berlin I had a knock at the door and was delivered the unforunate dress, wrapped up neatly but many days too late. It wasn’t the store’s fault, apparently – the website displayed a warning that at peak times, Dirndl deliveries might be delayed, and this was the most important time of year for lovers of German paraphernalia. Not to worry – the store offered full refunds, 48 Euros that could be put to good use by this particular foreign student. All that was necessary was to return the Dirndl by post.
Torstraße was far from my home, but a place I used to visit a lot – a wide street split by tram lines, and full of small rooms that would come alive at night, packed with interesting people drinking interesting things that they didn’t pay much for, all with the special spark in their eyes because they were in Berlin, the greatest city on Earth, with the extra good fortune to be young at this most excellent time in history. I think on this day I must have been drinking mint tea at St Oberholz, a café where a certain type of young person (with black-rimmed glasses) came to set up their laptop and procrastinate with their magnum opus. I took a detour to a yellow Deutsche Post, my unwanted Dirndl wrapped up in the bag that it was delivered in, with a makeshift label stuck on one side.
Time ticked on infuriatingly while I stood in the line. There were many things about the German postal system that I did not understand. Every post office was also a bank, for example, and parcel notices were sent out in advance, so it was actually possible to arrive too early for your packages. But at least they were open on Saturdays. I was finally called up by a grey-haired matronly Frau at the far end. She took one look at my bundle and said “Das geht nicht.” It doesn’t work like that. “Oh, so how does it work?” I asked. Apparently I needed an official box to send things in. “Danke,” I said and smiled. The woman did not smile.
I found a stack of bright yellow boxes that evidently needed to be assembled. I picked up one which in its squashed state was very long and wide. It appeared to come with drawn instructions but these were worse than useless. There I was, wrestling with a huge flat yellow piece of cardboard almost as big as myself, my face growing redder by the second. I looked around. Nobody was surprised to see this happening – nobody was even looking. It didn’t alleviate my embarrassment. I hid into the most secluded corner I could find and eventually managed to force it into a useful shape, get my squashed-up package inside and stick my label on the top. I lined up again.
I waited for another short eternity. I looked out the windows at the grey, windy street and thought of all the grey, windy streets beyond it, stretching across the sprawling city and into the grey, windy countryside, and eventually to the cold sea. There wasn’t much warmth left in the air and every day brought us all closer to a winter that I was getting afraid of.
I was called up again, to the same woman. She frowned anew but there was a little smirk somewhere on her face. At my expense, of course. My package still wasn’t acceptable – home-made labels were nicht erlaubt. There was some official form among all the other official forms in the place that I needed to fill out. I felt a bit forlorn, with my package still in hand. My eyes suddenly stung. Why was it all so hard? Is this what delayed culture shock felt like? How ridiculous that I needed to bring a friend to the damned post office for moral support! That dreaded thought was showing its face: “This wouldn’t have happened back home!”
I had now spent more than half an hour at the post office, and it had gotten me nowhere. Some kind of resentment at the pointlessness of leaving home that day was surfacing, but I frowned hard to keep that feeling down. In the same way that I always tried to reassure myself that (almost) nobody ever died from the cold in Berlin (surely a lie), I told myself that plenty of ordinary Germans use the post office every day, and none of them have gone insane.
With the correct label finally stuck on the box, I approached my new nemesis again. I kept my eyes on her and tried to look like a person with serious intentions, not some clueless traveller who at this moment, was afflicted by acute homesickness and a malaise brought on by seeing too many stern faces in one room (especially when any resident of Berlin should have been used to the latter by now). She had another question. Where were the pieces of sticky tape that came with the box? I drew a breath, but didn’t know what to say. Fortunately, she could see that I might cry, and relented. Her smirk returned: “Ok, we’d better get your package on its way, hadn’t we?”
I imagined the post office woman sniggering to her colleagues over black coffee and stupidly sweet cakes later that day. I did my best to slam the post office door behind me, zipped my jacket up to my chin and marched down Torstraße for my mint tea.