Constantine Makris, a spry fourth-generation Ethiopian of Armenian-Greek descent, says “You have to drink vodka if you want to sit at this table”.
He and his relatives, three sable-haired women smoking thin cigars who sell jewellery and other products, are enjoying Ethiopia’s 16th annual Oktoberfest at the Hilton Hotel, on Menelik II Avenue in Addis Abeba. They are attending the festival for at least the fifth time.
“It’s a party in Addis,” he says with a smile and a shrug, pointing out that the city can get a bit dull at times. He tries to take as many opportunities as he can to enjoy himself.
Oktoberfest was started over 200 years ago in Munich – a city in what was then the German kingdom of Bavaria – to celebrate the marriage of King Ludwig I and Princess Therese. It has since become the world’s largest fair and is still celebrated in Munich for sixteen days every year, from late September to October, with several million litres of beer being consumed.
This local version of the festival is not for those with a modest income. The ticket price is a hefty 545 Br. Included in the price are a single beer and cold, stale soft pretzels. Attendees who wish to have an additional beer have to dish out 50 Br or 150 Br, for 0.3 and one litre glasses, respectively. The tables, accompanied by long benches and covered with chequered plastic covers and massive beer towers, are spread over a parking lot covered by a giant white tent leaking rainwater inside. The majority are privately reserved by companies or embassies. Posters from event sponsors, such as the German airline Lufthansa, adorn the walls, lit up by white fluorescent lights.
A brass orchestra, equipped with a trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn and drums, can be heard playing in the background. The seven German musicians look as though they have just stepped in from the Bavarian countryside, fully decked out in lederhosen and suspenders.
“Get enough beer and then we’ll start partying,” one of them advises over the microphone.
Young Ethiopian women dressed in traditional green, pink and yellow German dirndl peasant outfits with aprons, short skirts and towering high heels greet guests at the door.
At least half of them are foreigners, though most live in Addis. They are dining on bratwurst and other traditional German foods, and drinking Ethiopian beer. The mood is jubilant, though the night is still young and the attendees are not getting too wild yet.
The Hilton Oktoberfest is an elite event attended by locals and foreigners from all over the world – a manifestation of the Ethiopian capital’s increasingly cosmopolitan nature. Most of those in attendance use the occasion to socialise and meet new people.
A middle aged woman with short silver hair sits at one of the tables. Elise Jensen is an American aid worker with USAID who has lived in Ethiopia for a year, but is still eager to expand her horizons. The Oktoberfest event, which Jensen heard about via a work e-mail, provided the perfect opportunity.
“This seemed like a great event to meet a lot of people,” especially locals, she says.
Keith Hummel, another aid worker, is sitting with Jensen. He is newer to the country, having arrived just two months ago.
“The Ethiopians have been very welcoming,” he says. He loves the country, though notes with a wry smile that “They could do something about the rain.”
Yoo Hyunwoo, a young South Korean diplomat who has been stationed in Ethiopia for two months, was also drawn to the event in the hope of making some buddies in Addis.
“In the last two months I haven’t had the chance to meet many people,” he says in halting English.
Two Norwegians sitting at another table are in Ethiopia by mistake. They originally planned to go to Nairobi, Kenya, but their plans were changed after the recent mass shooting at the Westgate Mall. They were rerouted to Ethiopia, but Addis came to them as a pleasant surprise.
“I’m actually very surprised at how nice it is here,” Ahmed says. “I had no idea.”
“It’s lovely here,” his wife Tina agrees, complimenting the city for being safe and peaceful.
The festival was celebrated on Friday and Saturday nights, and included a brunch on Sunday.
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