Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hinterlands Festivals - a guide to doing Euro metalfests more than an hour from a major airport

So right about now, winter is winding down, holiday bills are mostly paid off, and with NEDF on a one-year hiatus and NEMHF reaching new lows even for that long-humbled festival, some people may be thinking, "well, do I maybe take a pass on MDF this year and hit Party.San, Summer Breeze, or Extreme Obscene? Could I make that work?" Maybe others were planning a Wacken trip and are having second thoughts about the $200 ticket, Ill Nino and Motley Crue on the bill, and the news feeds from the organizers having to do with seemingly everything but metal, and thinking about other festivals as long as they're going to sink the money on flights. Maybe some people, like I was last year, are confident in their ability to handle a camp-in festival and are looking around at other options. Some of them may even have digested the Wacken guide and think that, well, this should suffice for about everywhere.

It doesn't. Wacken is unique in several respects among Euro metalfests, and hence I'm writing this separate guide for other festivals.


This guide is intended for the international audience, whose entree into the world of Euro festivals comes generally through one of two avenues: going to Wacken, or going to another festival in the company of locals who have been there before. In the second case, there is nothing to worry about, because your friends will know everything relevant in this guide and keep you out of trouble to the best of their abilities. In the first case, though, several salient points need to be mentioned that may escape the international traveler whose festival experience, to date, has begun and ended on a train siding in Itzehoe.

I) Wacken is uniquely enormous. At 70,000 festivalgoers, it is the largest metalfest of any kind in Germany and one of the largest music festivals of any type on the continent. Most metalfests are not that big; With Full Force outside of Leipzig, the next closest contender, is barely more than half as large, and after than there are a bunch like Summer Breeze, Rock Hard, and Party.San in the 10K-20K range. Smaller festivals may not have the problems of Wacken, but they also have less in the way of services.

II) Wacken is uniquely international. At other festivals, you have contingents from other parts of Europe and a sprinkling from around the world, but most of the attendees are going to be nationals if not locals from the state the festival is held in. More information is going to be in local-language only, because the assumption is that translating into English (the de facto international language in Europe currently) is not necessary.

III) Wacken is uniquely accessible. Less than an hour by bus and train from one of Germany's major air hubs, it is wicked simple, if you know what you are doing, to go from Hamburg to the W:O:A. The challenges involved to get to other festivals are, almost uniformly, much more difficult and will remain tricky even with experience.

Wacken is easy to get to because of its proximity to Hamburg. Fly there, and you're golden. The rest of Germany, not so much, and preconceptions about the efficacy of the German rail network and the speed of German highways may contribute to the problem faced by international arrivees trying to navigate their way to a festival site that is often out in the boonies.

Germany is well-served by airports, but you need to fly into the right one for reasons that will become clearer in the sections on road and rail transit. It is a mistake to look at a map of Germany, decide that it's about the size and shape of Illinois + Indiana and has autobahns that you can drive at 100mph on and trains that go everywhere, and just fly in to Frankfurt because that's close enough. If you're going to be going to a festival in the south, like Summer Breeze, fly in to Munich. If you're going to be hitting a festival in the northwest, Dusseldorf is probably the best. Hamburg for Wacken and the north coast, Frankfurt for the central belt, and Berlin for anything at all in the former East Germany. Prague is a possibility as well for festivals in Thuringia and Saxony; check train fares in combination with your airline prices to be sure. Crossing the German/Czech border in a rental car is not advised (depending on your rental terms, the car can be subject to police confiscation), so if you're going to drive, you'll need to fly in to the country of your festival destination.

I go by rail to festivals, because then I don't have to worry about a car getting stuck in the mud or accidentally getting its windshield broken by someone's beer bottle, and also because it doesn't make financial sense. However, because the rail tickets don't scale down to zero at group rates, there is going to be some break point where, if you go in a large enough group, it's going to be cheaper to go by car. Remember to include gas in your estimates; European cars as a fleet are somewhat more efficient than American ones, but you're going to be burning a fair bit if you have to do significant highway travel, either at speed or sitting in a Stau.

The great myth of Germany is that everyone zooms along at a hundred and twenty on the autobahn without a care in the world. The reality is that in the West and especially around cities, you run into a lot of congestion and speed zones, and in areas that are not backed up (the Stau referenced earlier is the general vernacular for traffic jam, but they tend to extend for miles), it is really fucking hard to drive at 100 miles per hour for a sustained period of time. The car that you are likely to get is going to usually have difficulties keeping the mandatory minimum speed (outside of urban areas) of 145kph (about 85 mph), especially with three or four metalheads and their gear loading it down. If you've got confidence in your lead foot and your high-speed skills, it works financially, you've got someone in the group capable of following a map and calling out exits (at 85mph minimum cruising speed, there are no snap exits on the autobahn; all are announced several km in advance, and the added lane for the offramp is usually about 1km long to allow adequate braking distance), and you are ok with the nuances of German road signs, go for it.

IIa) German road signs and other conventions.
There are better references for this elsewhere; this is essential survival information. First, if you see a little white sign with a yellow diamond on it as you come up to an intersection, you have the right of way, so you don't need to slow down and check for crossing traffic. If you DON'T see that little sign, though, definitely do slow down and check for crossing traffic, because they are not stopping for you and the last thing you need is to get siderammed by a giant Mercedes Laster doing 50.
Second, most stoplights will have a phase where they will go from red to red+yellow, before going on to green. This is your cue to put the car in gear and get ready to get moving, because the driver behind you is going to get pissed if you don't go at the exact moment the light turns green. F1 motor racing is a big sport in Germany, and between the autobahns and the racing starts at traffic stops, a large portion of the populace is being encouraged to think of themselves as Michael Schumacher, however constrained by the fact that they are driving a Renault Megane. Be aware that the placid old man/woman behind or next to you is going to drive like a maniac at the nearest opportunity, and is expecting you to do likewise.
Third, and reassuringly, in Europe, as in practically everywhere that is not its own island nation, people drive on the right like normal.

IIb) You and the traffic police.
Germany does not have much in the way of highway patrol, because, as you might expect, catching speeders in a nation that drives like fighter pilots outside of city limits and builds engines and autoframes to match is kind of a fool's errand. However, the resourceful, technically inclined, and not-nearly-as-afraid-of-surveillance-society-as-the-US Germans have implemented another system, based around the "Blitzer", a snappy and only vaguely threatening nickname for the automated speed camera. Blitzers are deployed on the autobahns wherever there is a speed zone (going through cities, lanes will often be restricted to 120/100/70kph going from inside to outside), and in concealed mobile emplacements along non-autobahn roads wherever the local police have gotten a complaint about too many speeders, or where they think might be a fruitful location to catch some traffic ticket fodder. Blitzer reports are a regular feature of German radio, but if you don't speak German or are instead pounding the Dismember back catalog rather than whatever crap neurock station is the least bad, you're not going to get them, so your chances of getting caught by a speed camera at some point are higher. You're probably not going to be in-country long enough for the ticket to catch up with you, but the rental car company will pass the ticket on to you, and if you don't pay it or if the offense is severe enough, you could end up losing your right to operate in Germany.
The other danger, besides speed cams, comes from the fact that you're a carfull of metalheads going to a place that a lot of other carfulls of metalheads are going to, and you may encounter a customs roadblock. This is particularly common at Wacken, less so as you go down the chain sizewise, and not overly pleasant. The Zollamt in Germany is a division of the federal police, and they will make it hard on you if they find contraband, most saliently but not limited to drugs, weapons, and NS materials. If you absolutely have to bring your own weed, a carving knife to hack up meat for barbecue, or a pile of CDs to hand out that you think might make an impatient and overworked police officer suspicious, it's probably easiest to send one guy with this stuff by rail, as the chance of getting "kontrolliert" is significantly smaller.

The Deutsche Bahn is a marvelous system of interconnected national, international, and local train links that covers every corner of Germany. It is also a maze of disorientingly variant ticket schedules that can have a significant effect on how much you pay to get to point B, depending on whether you start at point A or point C and how many hours you are willing to spend in transit to get the job done.

As an example, consider that Bad Berka, the site of the Party.San festival, is only slightly farther from Munich than it is from Berlin. Nevertheless, the train connections from Munich take almost twice as long and are almost twice as expensive. This is, to put it mildly, rather dumb, and a consequence of a fifty-year-long bit of 'rather dumbness' known to history as the Cold War. Bad Berka is in Thuringia, which was part of the GDR, and Munich is in Bavaria, which has been part of the Federal Republic of Germany for as long as it's existed. There used to be a heavily defended national border between these two states, which are now part of the same country, and the motivation of keeping their citizens from running away kind of discouraged the East German government from building direct rail links to West Germany. Nevertheless, it's possible; I met a guy at Party.San last year who came up from Munich for about what it cost me to come down from Berlin, but he had to spend seven hours using local rail connections and buses to make the same connection that I did in three hours and change with exactly one change of trains.

On the rails in the hinterlands, some basic German, or good attention to herd behavior, is necessary. Announcements will seldom if ever be made in English, so get acquainted with what station you're going to need to get off at, or be sure that you're in the same car with other festival travelers so you can get off when they do. For this reason, I'd advise anyone not fluent in German or travelling with someone who is to buy a return ticket; it's something additional to keep track of, and will require you to get to the rail station at a specific time for departure, but saves you from having to buy a ticket in the podunk city closest to the festival, where the worker in the ticket office may not have perfect or complete command of English (or occasionally may be a confusingly-labeled machine), rather than in the metropolitan center you flew into. I can go one-way-all-the-way from Hamburg to Berlin to Bad Berka to Dresden, but non-German speakers probably should not be so confident in their ability to navigate the DB.

As mentioned above, smaller festivals will have less in the way of services than bigger ones. You'll have latrines, still, but there will be fewer of them and in fewer locations. Cash points will be in the neighboring town or village, and you'll be responsible for keeping any electronic devices working (and not stolen) yourself. Those of us who can remember a time before lock trucks, onsite ATMs, and internet cafes at Wacken will not be inconvenienced; those who go to a small festival expecting such amenities will be in for a shock.

When the festival grounds are not open, you are generally expected to shift for yourself when it comes to food. This is the one thing I goofed on at Party.San last year: not having sufficient provisions for the day-and-a-half I spent on site before the infield opened. Hit up a supermarket either on the way in or on a shuttle bus run once you get to the festival, and pick up enough food and beer to suit, and enough water or other non-booze beverages to keep from getting dehydrated if the weather makes this a factor. The beerwagon was also not open on the first day, which was a bit of a bummer, but something to keep in mind for the future.

It's also worth going back and reading up on the Pfand-system at Party.San this past year, as something like that is likely to be employed at other small festivals to cut down on cleanup costs. Few festivals can afford to have the scads of durable cups badged that Wacken does, so more will use a chip system, as confusing as it can be at the start, to incentivize people to hand their cups back rather than chucking them on the ground.

There is practically no tent crime and very little pickpocketing at smaller festivals of the size that you're likely to be going to, but there is also next to nothing in the way of perimeter security. Kids or hobos will come out from the surrounding area to vulture up any recyclables (in Germany, nearly everything has a bottle deposit on it between 10 and 25 Eurocents), so if you leave your tent flap open and expensive stuff lying around in plain view, it is your fault if it gets nicked. The smaller attendance also fosters a feeling of community; at a larger festival, you could sit down randomly in the beer garden and never share a table with the same people twice, but at a smaller fest, you're going to see and interact with the same people over and over again. This cuts down on dickish behavior to a certain degree because, like in a small town, everyone knows everyone else.

In amidst all this stuff, it really helps to know the local language, or to quickly become festival buddies with someone who does, because while you'll be able to get prices at the supermarkets and order a beer at the beer wagon just fine, nobody wants to be eating cold Maggi ravioli out of a can because they couldn't read the setup instructions on a grill set, or the one guy staring blankly while the rest of the bar cracks up at some untranslatable joke. It's definitely possible to do hinterland festivals without knowing the language (well, as long as you have this guide at hand!), but it's more fun to be able to participate in the local festival culture too, in addition to watching the bands.

As noted above, it will be more difficult to get to an ATM. However, at smaller festivals stuff tends to be cheaper as well, so you don't need to go down the cash machine so often. If you watch yourself, you should be able to eat and drink all weekend on less than 200e, leaving any other funds for merch.

See the original Wacken guide for the basics; you will need all this stuff to do hinterland festivals as well. At Party.San, because the camping sites are in a sheep pasture on a hill rather than a cow pasture that tends to turn into a bog, there is less of an issue with wet ground, but you still need to be prepared for rain, and you still need boots.

If, like me, you're able to get sufficient time off to do multiple festivals, your needs increase; you need to have as many dropcloths as festivals, for instance, because if it rains, you're going to want to throw out the rained-on one. You'll also need to find a laundromat to wash your clothes during any layover in urban Germany; this is a challenge on its own for the uninitiated that is probably better handled elsewhere.

Definitely bring a P-38-type can opener and a camping spork. These will add practically nothing to your pack, and prevent you from having to eat bizarre internal German foods like I did. A can's useless unless you can get it open, and if you're skint and can't afford raw ingredients, these little things will make that Maggi ravioli ration accessible and a little more palatable. On a related note, leave room in or on (if you're using a frame pack, which is the smart way) your pack for food as well as merch, in case you need to carry it in on the initial trip in to the campsite. (If you like the idea of eating whatever you can find that doesn't require a can opener or any other preparation using just your bare hands, then, by all means, feel free to ditch the weight.)

As music gets more extreme, it gets more political. This is a simple fact; there are lots of non-political death metal and black metal bands and crust-punk bands, but the further you get out to the margins, the more likely it is that a given band is going to be politically radical, either to the left or to the right, and that their supporters are going to be also politicized. If you go to a festival that has a lot of black metal bands, don't be surprised if you run into extreme rightists, and if you go to a festival that has a lot of grind or crust on the bill, don't be shocked if you run into a bunch of anarcho-socialists.

This being said, it is probably not a smart idea to get into political discussions with random people. Europe operates on a different political continuum from the United States, where different things are taken for granted (say, that ensuring access to health care or health insurance is a proper sphere of action for government) and things that Americans across the political spectrum take for granted (say, an armed citizenry or fairly absolute freedom of speech) are outright rejected. This is a tricky minefield to navigate at any time, but especially so when you're half drunk, trying to communicate across first-language borders, and a stranger in a strange land. As an American in Europe, you will never be entirely able to get away from political stuff, but never start a political discussion or fight if you can help it. Yield points if people press you; there's no real point in saving face, and if someone is seriously giving you aggro about this, they're probably completely gassed and are going to forget it soon enough.

As indicated several times before, a basic familiarity with the local language is invaluable. If all you have is this guide, though, here are some expressions to get you out of trouble, or to keep whatever trouble you got yourself into from getting worse.

I) Police
If someone yells "HALT!", or "HALTEN SIE!" (HALtin zee), or especially any combination of these with "POLIZEI!" (polleTSAI) around you, it means STOP, and you should STOP, and look around for the police officer who is doing the yelling, and make sure that they are not yelling at you. German police are not quite as often armed as American police are, and they are not trigger happy in general, but they still take a dim view of people they think are trying to evade arrest. If you happen to get stopped, the officer is probably going to ask for your identification with "Ausweis bitte" (OWSveiss bitta) or, if you're driving and you get pulled over or stopped at a customs roadblock, "Fahrausweis bitte" (FARowsveiss bitta). Hand the officer your passport, or in the second case your passport and your driver's license. US driver's licenses are not valid identification in the EU, so you should have your passport in an easily accessible pocket rather than stuffed in your pack. Most police, even in the East, have a pretty decent command of English, and will try to get whatever business they have with you done in English from that point on, on the assumption that as an American you're not going to be able to speak German.

The other occasion you're likely to interact with German officialdom is on the train, if you go by rail or subway at any point. Definitely on the train, and maybe on the subway, you are going to get "kontrolliert" by a ticket-taker who will mumble something like "Fahrkarte bitte" (FARkarta bitta). Since you should have a validated ticket, show it to him/her and you'll be golden. It is important in this regard to validate your subway/streetcar ticket after you get on; because of the way German urban public transit systems are set up, it's not really possible to have turnstiles to check that people paid on every streetcorner. You buy your ticket from a machine at the stop or in the train car, and then usually get it stamped in a box in the car. You'll see other passengers doing this, and be sure to do it as well, because if you get "controlled" on the subway and don't have a validated ticket, you can be hit with a spot fine of 40 to 50 euros, which is fucking expensive and completely not worth it.

II) Some dude giving you aggro
You're going to be at a metalfest, which is a place where a lot of people who don't know each other spend all day packed in close together getting colossally drunk. It doesn't happen a lot, but in such conditions, tempers can easily flare and people may give you aggro for reasons you can't understand, in a language you don't understand either.

I don't have a guide to common drunk complaints, but if someone is yelling at you in a threatening tone and you can't understand them, it may help to calm them down by saying something like "Sorry, mann, versteh' dich nicht, kannst auf Englisch?" (SOrri mon, ferSHTAY dish nisht, konnst owf ENNglish) [Sorry, man, I don't understand you, can you say that in English?] If they want to fight you no matter what, you're probably screwed, but it's equally likely that they'll be able to calm down and explain what the deal is in broken Germanic English, or that someone around will be less drunk and able to interpret in order to defuse the situation if necessary. This phrase is also a good standard response when someone at the festival just talks at you in German; in this and any other case where you use it, it's good practice to immediately follow up with the phrase in English, in case you're actually being jabbered at in Danish or Czech or Italian or something.

III) Ticket buying and train stuff
If possible, as noted above, buy a return ticket in your flight hub, where the DB clerk at the desk is significantly more likely to speak significantly better English. If you lose your return half, though, or decide that you are likely to lose or destroy any return half, or aren't going to be able to get back to the train station exactly on the mark on the Sunday, you are probably going to have to buy a ticket in the hinterland.

If you can, but a ticket in a ticket office going back to your intended destination. This usually will allow you to speak to a human person and get a ticket en bloc. Try to use English first, but if they look back at you confused, try "Einmal nach [city here] bitte?" (AYNmal nock [city here] bitta?) [One to [city here] please?]. This will be usually be followed up with some phrase including the word "Rueckfahrt", which sounds like "rickfaart" a lot of the time and should be noticeable. Most common is probably going to be "Mit oder ohne Rueckfahrt?" (mitt oda OWNa rickFAART) [One way or return?]; the proper response is "Ohne Rueckfahrt bitte" (OWNa rickFAART bitta) (One-way, please) unless you have the intention of coming back....and since you're outbound, that's going to be a no.

When talking to official people, or non-metalhead Germans who are not kids on the train, your get-out-of-jail phrase changes to "Entschuldigen Sie, koennen Sie das bitte auf English?" (ennSHULDYgen zee, kernen zee das bitta owf ENNglish). German has politeness levels, and if you speak the language, you will probably notice other metalheads not observing them, but you're a foreigner and don't have that luxury.

On any train to and from the festival, seats are going to be at a premium. Don't put your crap on them, and if there's an empty space next to you, someone is going to ask you to sit on it, usually with "Entschuldigung, ist hier noch frei?" (ennSHULDYgung, iss heer nock fry?) [excuse me, is this seat free?], which may get contracted as far down as "Hier noch frei, oder?" (Heer nock fry, oda?) [Nobody's sitting here, is there?]. You can use either of these to ask for a seat yourself, or "Entschudigen Sie, ist hier noch frei?" (ennSHULDYgen zee, isst heer nock fry?) if you're talking to a "civilian" older than about 18.

At this point, some people may be having second thoughts about traipsing into the hinterlands, intimidated by the cost and difficulty of the transit system, overwhelmed by the survival German, unsure of their ability to find and access eatable food in a German country supermarket, and leaning towards just paying over the odds to do the festival-on-a-plate experience offered by Wacken, or not going over at all. This is ok: these are the people who would get on the wrong train and wind up in France or Austria or something before they realized they'd gone wrong, spend five minutes pondering out loud in English about how to operate an ATM rather than pushing the button with the UK flag next to it to select the English language option and end up coshed or knifed by some Turk with a neck tattoo, or get into a drunken political argument and have to spend half the festival getting the evil eye from rightists and leftists alike and glares from the bar staff when they try to get a beer; in short, people unequal to the challenge of what is, in comparison to what our soldiers go through on an average day in the hellholes that the last decade has gotten them stuck in, or on the civilian front something like Forbidden Railway, is really not that tough of an adventure.

It is, though, very rewarding, and the difficulty factor is probably exaggerated by the guide; this has to cover every worst-case scenario, and while any of the trouble points brought up here could happen, it is not likely that any of them will. If you can read a train schedule, read a map, keep to a budget, and keep a few basic phrases in memory, going to any hinterland festival will not be a problem. Small fests are often funner and cheaper than large ones, and the process of getting there will get you good stories over and above the bands and company encountered at the actual festival.

Anyone else with experience or questions is welcome to fire in; this is just my accounting of things, informed by five festival seasons' worth of traveling, but also potentially colored by the fact that I haven't done this as a stranger in a strange land with no language proficiency. I speak German well enough to be occasionally mistaken for a German national while in-country, and lived in Dresden, including bumming about on various transit systems, for the better part of a year, so I really don't have the experience of attempting to navigate the DB in English-only mode.

Party.San is not quit-your-job-good this year, but it's pretty damn good, and this festival is the one that this guide was developed around, and probably the one it applies most to. It's also the biggest-extremest metalfest in Germany, with heavier bands than any other festival in the 10K+ class and a larger, more diverse, attendee population than smaller, often indoor or off-season festivals like NRW Deathfest or Mountains of Death. It's also, if you know what you're doing, surprisingly affordable.

Assuming you're flying from Boston (to the extent that anyone reads this, they are usually from New England or in rare cases already in Europe, as far as I can determine), a round-trip to Berlin on Icelandic is going to run you less than a thousand dollars (flights for the festival not actually bookable right now, wait a couple months, or until they fix their website), with a round-trip train ticket to Bad Berka another 80 to 100 euros ($120 to $160, depending on exchange rates) on top of that. This is about what you'll spend for gas if you drive that distance, so keep that in mind if you're traveling with multiple people. Sunk costs are going to be your ticket (about 40 euros or between $60 and $70, includes camping) and your passport, which, as noted in the Wacken guide, you really ought to get on ASAP, because the State Department can be kind of pokey.

At the festival, your food budget probably won't go much above 25euro per day; beers are 2 euro apiece with a 1 euro deposit you will pay up front and get back at some point, so do your own math on how much you're likely to swill down. You're also going to have some minor expenses for airport-to-train subway/bus connections, but all told, it's likely that you'll be able to do this trip on less than $1300 per person. It's definitely cheaper than Wacken, and depending on how you do your accommodations in Baltimore, might even be cheaper than MDF. And if you can do it, you get to see amazing heavy bands, one after the other, under the open sky with good beer and good company, and you'll reckon it cheap even at the price.

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