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I am convinced God created autumn with me in mind, and my husband is convinced God made bratwurst with him in mind.
So it made more than a little sense for us to climb into our car last weekend and drive toward Northeast Georgia’s mountains with our windows rolled down, two pumpkin spice lattes in hand and dreaming of the endless sausages, sauerkraut and suds offered by Helen’s famous Oktoberfest.
I can already hear your protests: “But it’s September.”
Normally, I’d sympathize. An eponymous celebration arguably should take place in the correct month, but when touting a celebration as the “longest Oktoberfest in the world,” it only makes sense to extend the event past the proper parameters.
But regardless of the day on the calendar, I was downright giddy to wind my way through the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Chattahoochee River occasionally peeping through green vistas tinged with hues of scarlet and saffron. I’m a Midwesterner, born and bred, so anything more sloping than an ant hill impresses me, but I’d dare anyone to deny the beauty of the drive to the small Bavarian-themed community.
And about that:
I’d been to Helen once before, albeit in summertime, so I was prepared for the disparate character of a community that looked more like something you’d find in the Alps than the Appalachians. Everything about this town, from the gingerbread-esque storefronts to the cobblestones streets to the lederhosen vendors, oozes oompah — as in oompah music — perhaps better known as polka.
In fact, it is the sound of the accordion that greeted us as we pull onto Edelweiss Strasse, where the Helen Festhalle is located. As my husband and I walked toward the festival’s epicenter, I regaled him with the town’s history, which I had gathered hours early when doing a bit of prep work for this assignment.
“This area used to be home to the Cherokees,” I said. “And there are burial mounds just a bit south of here. Of course, the natives were displaced, partly because of the Gold Rush that happened in this region in the early 1900s.”
My husband tried to look interested, but I, too, could smell brats and beer. I knew his focus was wavering.
“OK, so we’ll just skip ahead to the weird Alpine part,” I said, in a desperate attempt to fit it all in. “In the 1960s, I guess the town was lagging a bit, so a bunch of business folk decided to make everything Bavarian. It was a ploy to draw people to the community, and it worked. I mean, we wouldn’t be here now if it weren’t for that marketing trick.”
“Well, I’d be here,” my husband said, “because I’m hungry. Do you think they’ll have schnitzel?”
Within minutes, we had our answer. We’d gotten our entrance passes (free on Sundays), and while shouts of “tiki-taka, tiki-taka, oi, oi, OI!” drowned out our conversation, we managed to make our way to one of the many food stands.
We each ordered heaping plates of German goodness. I personally chose the German potato salad and cheddarwurst, because, well, cheese. My husband ordered sauerkraut and two sausages: the Hungarian bratwurst and a weisswurst. We both got beer, choosing to sip (OK, gulp) on frothy beverages appropriately named German Oktoberfest.
Our server dished us each a pretzel roll. And when I got perhaps a wee bit too excited that each plate came with a pickle, the man behind a counter dished me up another, free of charge.
We weaved our way through seemingly endless rows of tables and finagled our way to the front of the halle, where we munched on the food while watching an enthusiastic band called the Alpenlaenders do everything expected at an Oktoberfest. They yodeled. They played the accordion. They even did this fascinating thing where they played these long horns like were featured in the Ricola commercials years ago.
While the Alpenlaenders polkaed their hearts out, couples twirled around the dance floor, almost all of them costumed with something Bavarian. Suspenders, bundhosen and dindl dresses were the uniform of the day.
For a solid two hours, my husband and I sat, mesmerized not just by the food and the drink and the dancing. Rather, it was the enthusiasm for the festival that enchanted us.
Everybody was smiling. Folks clinked their steins, danced their jigs, bellowed the drinking chants and took pictures in the ridiculously fun human-sized cuckoo clock where your head served as the little birdie emerging from open doors when the hour struck.
Was it kitschy? Absolutely.
But we felt quite wilkommen indeed, and we’ve already made plans to wrangle friends and make a return visit, because, as has been pointed out, it’s not even Oktober yet. I can only imagine how much better the beer will taste then.
Bekah Sandy is a guest columnist for The Times. She can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.