Saturday, October 13, 2012

Ethiopia: Oktoberfest at the Hilton

The Hilton Hotel’s Oktoberfest is one of the premier events of the Addis Ababa social calendar, so when the date for 2012 was announced there was a certain buzz around the Embassy.  The event was highlighted in the Embassy’s internal newsletter, and I had pinned the announcement to my bulletin board to remind myself to buy a ticket.

The day after I had posted the announcement on my cork board, my colleague Jobie noticed it.

“Hey, man,” he told me, “my driver is going to pick up tickets this afternoon for the people in my office.”  “Want him to grab you one?”

Since I was planning to attend anyway, this was a no-brainer.  I accepted Jobie’s offer and gave him 500 birr (about $28).

“I owe you 5 birr,” he joked.  The ticket only cost 495, but the 5 birr was negligible.

The following morning, Jobie was back.

“Here’s your ticket,” he said.  “Oh, and by the way,” he added, “we couldn't reserve tables, so you are on your own to find a seat.”

“on your own…

Call me overly sensitive, but this last bit did not sit well with me.  Even if it was not possible to reserve tables, I had no doubt that Jobie and his friends still planned to sit together.  Being fairly new at the Embassy, I had not developed any strong friendships with him or his colleagues, and I understand and appreciate why I was excluded.  I just didn’t care for the method.  It was as if he had said, “Here’s your ticket, and this completes our transaction.  Don’t bother trying to sit with us.”

I am fully capable of having a good time on my own, however, so after my moment of sulking, I got over it.  I was going to go without a crew and meet new people and enjoy myself.

When the big day arrived, I noticed that my ticket did not indicate the starting time.  I set out walking and after about 45 minutes, I reached the Hilton.  It was 6:30 when I arrived, and there was a substantial queue of people waiting for the doors to open.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one unclear about the start time.

I took my place in line, directly behind a young Ethiopian woman.

“I guess the doors don’t open until 7,” I remarked.

“I hope you’re right,” the young lady answered.  “It’s cold out here.”

We started talking, and it turned out that she was alone as well.

She had on a sleeveless black dress, but I could offer her nothing to block the chill since I myself had only a short-sleeved shirt.

Her name was Sara, and she spoke excellent English.  A few years ago, she had spent a year in Saudi Arabia working for Shell Oil.  While there, she lived and worked on a compound, mostly with Americans and other foreigners.  This helped her to hone her English, as well as her self-taught Arabic.  She enjoyed both her job and her American colleagues.  (The Yanks apparently produced bootleg spirits that would really put hair on your chest.)  Life wasn’t all fun and games, though.  Sara hated the heat in Saudi Arabia, and she faced religious persecution.  She would meet with other Christians in secret for Bible study, and more than once they were raided.  Thankfully, they weren’t subjected to prison or the lash.  Instead, they had to pay.  It wasn’t clear to me if Sara was talking about legitimate fines or bribes, but she indicated that the payments were pretty hefty.  In any case, she had no desire to ever return to the Kingdom.

Now days, Sara was selling cosmetics to make ends meet.

I shared some stories as well, and as we were talking, guess who should arrive.  It was Jobie and about eight other people, and they were right behind me in line.  Jobie was decked out in lederhosen.

I got an enthusiastic welcome.

“Chris, what’s happenin’!?” Jobie asked me.

We shook hands, and he introduced me to his wife.  And then after our brief exchange, I turned around and continued talking to Sara.  It was an obvious and awkward snub, but I was supposed to be on my own now wasn’t I?  (Remember earlier when I said that I had gotten over being excluded… well, maybe that wasn’t entirely true.)

For ten or fifteen minutes more, I talked to Sara with my colleagues behind us.  Then the doors finally opened.

The celebration was taking place in a tent set-up on the back parking lot.  Sara and I presented our tickets and each received a voucher for one beer.

“Which company are you with?” a man in a suit inquired.

“None,” I replied.  “I’m a tourist.”

When they heard this news, two young Ethiopian ladies wearing flashy red Bavaria-inspired beer-girl dresses stepped forward.

“Tonight,” they announced, “you will be a guest of Meta Brewery!”

“Follow us,” they instructed.

The Meta tables were on the far side of the tent, so we weaved through row upon row of wooden tables and benches.  Three rows from my table, we passed by a stretch of tables reserved for the U.S. Embassy.  Interesting, indeed.  Maybe Jobie wasn’t aware of any reserved tables, but there they were.

Sara and I were the first people at our Meta table, so we sat on the end.  There were thick pretzels stacked on wooden stands on the table, but unfortunately (for me anyway), no mustard.

Once we were seated, a different beer girl came to take our drink order.

“Would you like to try our kellerbier?”

“That means ‘cellar beer’,” she explained.

Beer was available by the glass or in a 3-liter tower.

Before I committed to either, I requested a sample.  The beer girl returned with glasses about a third of the way full for Sara and me.

After a few minutes, two other couples joined our table.  The two guys were field reps for Boeing, and their wives had accompanied them on assignment.  One field rep was in Ethiopia for a few months as part of the roll-out of the 787 Dreamliner, and the other was the permanent rep whose assignment will range from 4 to 7 years.  Ethiopian Airlines, by the way, operates an all-Boeing fleet and was the third airline in the world to get the Dreamliner (after All-Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines).

Besides Team Boeing, Sara and I were flanked by groups from the Germany Embassy, the Czech Embassy, Hilton Hotel management, and the UK Embassy.  As I was looking around, I also noticed a man wearing a lusekofte (a Norwegian sweater) a few rows over.  Sure enough, he was part of the Norwegian Embassy delegation.  The Russians were near the Norwegians.

Sara and I enjoyed the kellerbier samples enough that we used our free-beer vouchers to get full glasses.  The Boeing guys, meanwhile, started with the 3-liter tower.  One of the ladies in the Boeing group didn’t drink alcohol, however, so she asked the beer girl for a bottle of water.

“We don’t serve water,” was the surprising response.

There were several breweries and beverage suppliers with stations at the event, so the teetotaler set out to try her luck beyond the Meta realm.  Her quest was eventually fruitful, but it probably took her 20 or 30 minutes.  The take-away lesson: you don’t come to Oktoberfest to drink water!

Once everyone was seated, the program started.

The emcee welcomed the VIPs, and then started acknowledging the different groups in attendance.  The first group he announced was the U.S. Embassy, and my colleagues barely made a sound.  This was somewhat embarrassing since all the embassies and companies announced afterward, many of them with much fewer people, made a much bigger racket.  The last group announced was the German Embassy, and everyone roared out for them – and rightly so since it was their night.

Then the oompah band, which had been flown in from Germany, led us in the first of many rounds of “Ein Prosit”.

The program was short and sweet.  Then it was time for the feast.

With such a massive group of people descending on the buffet, there was a major log jam.  It was definitely worth the struggle, though.

Like the band, the food had been flown in from Germany.  There were sausages, various salads, pickles, red cabbage, white cabbage, potatoes, a roast-pork carving station, roast chicken, sliced meats and cheeses, some fish nuggets (which seemed out of place to me), breads, and several other items.

My plate looked ridiculously overloaded, but this was par for the course.  Nearly everyone had a mile-high portion.

I’m no expert on German cuisine, but the food tasted great to me.  And the beer was tasting better and better.

Sara turned out to be a light-weight, and in the end, she couldn’t even finish her sampler beer.  She ended up giving me the beer she got with her voucher.

She had driven to the party in her family’s car, and her brother called her several times to check on her.  I think he wanted to use the car too.  She hit the dessert table with me and then decided to head home.

Before she left, we exchanged cell phone numbers.  I still have the policy of exchanging numbers with anyone who asks, but this was the first number I plan to use.

It was only 9 PM when Sara left, and the party was just getting started.

After dinner, the drinking continued, and the emcee opened up the floor for dancing.  The first song was Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden”.  It’s hard to believe, but that was about as modern as the music got.

Meanwhile, the Meta beer girls (and the St. George beer girls and the Castel beer girls and the Harar beer girls) started passing out swag.  I only got a straw hat with a Meta beer patch sewn on it, but there were also branded t-shirts, polo shirts, beer steins, baseball hats, wallets, and bottle openers.

It wasn’t until after dinner that the fifth member of Team Boeing showed up.  He was the team leader, I think, and he was Japanese American.  This guy was a real one-man party.  He was singing, dancing, jumping around, striking poses from Saturday Night Fever, and when he started drinking he got even more wild.  We were dying laughing.  A lot of people from other tables came over to see this guy – to shake his hand or to snap a photo.  At one point, two guys came over and started grinding on him.  It was like the stunt from Jackass where the two party boys start gyrating against someone who doesn’t expect it (like someone waiting at a bus stop, for example).  These guys were trying to be cool and funny, but it backfired.  The Boeing guy took the bait and started acting crazier than ever.  When he started mock-humping a hat, the two party boys evacuated.

Later the crazy Boeing guy stood on a bench and started shouting, “U! S! A!   U! S! A!   U! S! A!”

He was not only crazy as a loon, but also patriotic.

By now, everyone was up and moving around.  I went over to talk to my colleagues at the U.S. Embassy table.

“I think you made the right choice not to sit here,” my friend Connie told me.  “I see these people every day at work; I don’t need to see them after hours as well.”

Another colleague was of the same opinion.  “You certainly didn't miss anything,” he told me.

All across the tent, there were towers of beer rising up from the tables like chimneys.  If you had a glass in hand, you were never far from a top-off.  To further hydrate the crowd, shot-girls also started working the floor.  They were doing a brisk business selling schnapps and vodka.

After I had talked with my fellow Americans for a while, I migrated back toward my original table.  I chilled a bit longer with the Boeing crowd, and then the group started to fragment again.

At this point, a drunken Brit named William entered the scene.

“How’s it going, mate?” he asked me.

Everything was fine, and I admitted as much.

Then we started talking about what each of us was doing in Ethiopia.  He was working at the UK Embassy in a military capacity.

When I told him that I was at the U.S. Embassy, he had another question:  “Is this your first time abroad?”

“Actually, I’ve been out for ten years,” I replied.

William was visibly surprised.

“No offense intended, mate,” he fumbled, “but most Americans don’t travel.”

His point was valid, but his question had also been a touch condescending.

We got along fine, though, and had several laughs and one or three shots.

I met another of William’s colleagues, Niles, and they were both the “I’d-tell-you-what-I-do-for-a-living-but-then-I’d-have-to-kill-you” kind of people.

“I’m sure you understand,” they told me.

“I have the opposite problem,” I countered.  “I’ll gladly tell you the details of my job, but then you’d probably want to kill yourself.”

This was a joke, of course, and they appreciated it.

As the conversation was moving along, something else crossed William’s mind.

“Say, if you’re American,” he asked me, “how come you don’t speak with an American accent?”

“I thought I did,” I told him.

“No, you don’t,” he insisted.

Maybe he was right that my accent has become watered down.  It reminded me of when I had checked out of my hotel in Washington and was about to go to the airport to catch my flight to Ethiopia.  The doorman at the hotel called me a taxi, and we were chatting as I waited.  “So, are you flying back to your home country now?” he asked me.

My time with the Brits had been good fun, and they invited me to come to an after-party at Club H2O.  Having never been there before, I was intrigued.  At the same time, I realized that I was in no shape for more partying, and I declined.

They understood, and we agreed to meet up some other time for drinks.  We didn’t exchange contact details, though, so if we do meet up, it will likely be by chance.  The same goes for the Boeing delegation.  We all talked about meeting again but never got around to swapping digits.

At around 1 AM, the band capped off the night with a lively rendition of Nena’s “99 Luftballons”.  And simultaneously, all decorum left the building.  People were spilling drinks; a conga line precariously perched on a row of benches collapsed and left a dozen people hugging the floor (still laughing, of course!); young men were popping the balloons used to decorate the tent; and many people looked like zombies.  There were red eyes, stained clothes, and matted hair.  (But enough about me, ha ha!)  All around the tent, you could hear the sound of breaking glass.

But before the band packed it up for good, the emcee had one more trick up his sleeve.  He called the German Defense Attaché to the stage, and the attaché closed down the party with a Sinatra song.  Quite possibly it was “My Way” but I can’t swear to it.

As he was singing, the Hilton waiters scurried around the tent clearing tables and stacking benches.  The party was officially over.

I was prepared to walk home, but one of my colleagues kindly offered me a ride.

Fifteen minutes later, as I came waltzing in through my gate, my night guard was keen to hear about the happenings of the night.  We talk most evenings for a bit, but the play-by-play from Oktoberfest took an hour and a half.  Since he is required to stay awake until 7 AM and has very little with which to occupy his time, my guard was hanging on every word of my story.

When I headed to bed at 3 AM, I was well and truly exhausted, but I had no complaints.

I had alienated a few colleagues perhaps, but overall, it had been a choice night.


Anonymous said...

Great story Chris! I'd love to sit at your table anytime!! Best, Nancy (now in Lima!)

Jim Atwell said...

Chris, I truly enjoy reading your chronicles. Keep them coming. Uncle Jimmy

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your stories Chris, I was really entertain reading about your Oktoberfest. Greetings from Oslo! Eunice :)

Anonymous said...

I have read a few of your adventures, and have found all of them worth reading. This one was particularly fun. Keith