The Last Flea Circus

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I went to Oktoberfest and did not have a beer. Nope, not one biermadchen’s tear of frothy brew, a sacrilege for which I will surely rot in some Faustian teetotler’s hell. But I saw something I never thought I would see, ever. Watch the video.

I think of Faust because listening to the car radio earlier I heard a Bavarian radio station announce that it would hold a Goethe marathon, 8 hours straight of readings from the German poet. ZZZZ.

Back to my beerless Oktoberfest. It is not that I didn’t want to join the thousands of stumbling, bleary-eyed imbibers who swayed and yodeled the night away in one of the beer tents. The fact is, I simply could not get in. There were so many people here that the doors were shut. It would take hours to nudge my way within striking distance of a stein of frothy brewsky.

A bit of advice: Never go to Oktoberfest on a Saturday night which also happens to be a German national holiday. Several years ago I was here on a weekday night and hopped from beerhall to beerhall sampling the gemutlicheit of each. Gemutlicheit is a Bavarian expression for good vibes.

Tonight, however, no way. I would have to settle for the role of sober observer.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. I witnessed something here that I never in my life believed I would see. But, more on that later.

Oktoberfest takes place in Bavaria, a place that still snacks on sausages, where men still wear lederhosen and apple-faced women don their dirndls. There are still good witches and bad witches in the Black Forest…I am told on highest authority. Bavarians don’t take themselves as seriously as northern Germans. In fact some Bavarian friends claim Italy as their southernmost province.

Sometimes it is hard to maintain your balance as swaying, swinging mobs of the inebriated plough through the crowd. In the US or Britain, such a party would degenerate into a brawl. This is Bavaria, however. Here, mostly what you find are mildly obnoxious drunks.

It would take a great deal of alcohol to induce me to be strapped into one of the thrill rides on Oktoberfest’s Midway. It is a great place to watch people subject themselves to gravity defying tortures: spinning in human Cuisinarts, twirling in harnesses like the test tubes of mad scientists. For someone like me, who feels faint on ferris wheels,
it is fun, in a twisted sort of way, to watch other people subject themselves to this.

But, I was craving a beer. We had decided that we would blow this place, settle ourselves into a good Munich restaurant and enjoy a brew and a meal in peace.

As I left the midway a sign grabbed my attention. I had to read it twice as it was in German. I never believed there was such a thing. I had heard about it and read about it, but I had never seen one and had never known anyone who had. I bought a ticket. It cost 5 Marks.

I was led into a tiny amphitheater and took my place back row center. Actually, even there, I was only about ten feet from the stage.

The scene was set to look like the village in a tiny European train set. It had tiny houses, a soccer field and a little stage. The stage was white so we could see the actors.

 

I had always thought that the flea circus was sort of an urban legend and I still find it a bit difficult to believe. Are there magnets under the table? Are there tiny wires attached to performers? I choose to believe.

The ringmaster says that fleas live for about a year. It takes 6 months for them to mature enough to become trained and 3 months to train. For the next 3 months, they perform.

Then they die.

The fleas are not trained with tiny whips, however. They respond to reward: sound, heat and feeding: a little cajoling and a little time on the trainer’s arm.

We watch the fleas play soccer. They pitch what looks to be pieces of styrofoam, 30 times their weight, into a tiny net. Magic maven Ricky Jay, in his book “Jay’s Journal of Anomalies : Conjurers, Cheats, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters, Imposters, Pretenders, Side-Show Showmen, Armless Calligraphers, Mechanical Marvels, Popular Entertainments” says that the objects were treated with a noxious liquid so the fleas were anxious to toss them.

Then there was the chariot race. Pulling the chariot, said the ringmaster, was equivalent to a human pulling a locomotive. For all we know, the Pyramids could have been built employing trained fleas. Afterward, we got the opportunity to meet the actors…through a magnifying glass.

I left Oktoberfest for the more civil ambience of Munich proper, to a restaurant called Spatenhaus across from the opera house. Years ago I saw a performance of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti there, performed topless. Hey, its Bavaria.

I settled in for a stein of Lowenbrau Trimphator Doppel Bock. I heard the CEO of Fosters, the Aussie brewer, describe a good beer as “angel’s crying on your tongue.” This dark, creamy brew was more than a good beer. I am sure it would inspire angels to do the unthinkable.

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