A Wisconsinite Visits the Berg

When I found out that the Bergkirchweih was coming to a Berg near me, I knew I had to check it out. Photo: Keels Mad

Did you know that nearly half of the population of Wisconsin, a state in the northern Midwest region of the U.S. and nicknamed America’s Dairyland, is of German heritage? I know, I know. Europeans laugh at us Americans listing off the percentages of different European countries of our ancestors. Have it your way! But as you laugh, you might as well know some facts.

Throughout the 1800s, German immigrants were drawn to Wisconsin by its rich farmlands and very similar climate to Germany. By the 20th-century, Germans were by far the largest minority group in the area. All over the state, German communities thrived, where schools, churches, businesses, and local newspapers operated exclusively using the mother tongue until as recently as the 1950s. Wisconsin even developed its own varied German dialects!

I come from a larger city, as Wisconsin cities go, with a population of around 70,000. Last summer I worked briefly as the receptionist in a small chiropractic clinic in a very small town about 40 minutes away from my own. Going there was like stepping into another dimension. As the patients began to trickle in, each one of them with a German surname, I immediately noticed a pattern: I could barely understand any of them through their thick local accents! These people were all lifelong residents of the small town, going back generations into forever. Much to my amusement, one of them asked me if I was “from, like, another country,” and another asked me if I was British!

This is all to illustrate that to some degree, possibly a much greater degree than you may have realized, the impact of “being something-percent European” in America can actually be quite significant, far-reaching, and felt even now in the 21st century, linguistically, culturally, and otherwise.

Coming from Wisconsin, I could have easily experienced a German beer festival before moving to Germany. From the annual German Fest in Milwaukee, to the Volksfest in Waupun, to the perhaps dozens of Oktoberfests held all around the state every autumn, there was no shortage of opportunity. I might actually have a vague memory of attending one as a child, but I’m not sure attending a festival known predominately for alcohol-consumption while still in diapers really counts! So when I found out that the Bergkirchweih was coming to a Berg near me, I knew I had to check it out.

I have to say without doubt that my favorite part of the last couple of weeks was on the opening Thursday of the festival, when I had forgotten what was going on. I stepped out of my apartment that afternoon, blinking my eyes against the blinding sunlight, and saw streams of dirndl- and lederhosen-clad youth, day-drinking determinedly as they made their way steadily north. It was as though they were on a great mission, perhaps a pilgrimage to a holy temple, a shrine to the god of beer. For those few moments before I realized what I was looking at, it was gloriously surreal!

That dogged determination to drink jovially together against all odds was again especially apparent on the thoroughly rain-soaked days Erlangen saw during the festival. Huddling under a sheet of plastic at a crowded picnic table as mud creeps in under one’s feet could be someone’s idea of a nightmare. Not at the Berg, where the rain serves to only deepen the sense of community spirit abundant at the festival. After all, any group of people becomes more united when they have a common enemy!

I sipped my first Berg beer while enjoying the band Overdrive. One highly-spirited, perhaps highly-intoxicated man danced furiously from tabletop to tabletop, throwing all his energy into making sure everyone else was enjoying the music, and life itself, as much as he was. When the band started singing Dylan’s “Knockin‘ on Heaven’s Door” and the crowd joined in, I thought of all the other places around the world I’ve seen other crowds sing along to the same song, from Wisconsin, to Khao San Road in Bangkok, to a bar in some back alley of Lima. It’s a song so universal that even folks who don’t know the language can sing it together. It’s a universality that really shows the spirit of community that a festival like the Berg is all about.

Keels Mad