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On the drive to my first Oktoberfest in Munich, I tried to imagine what was coming.

I had visions of billowing white tents on a dewy meadow; men in lederhosen — those leather, knee-length pants that are the ultimate symbol of Bavarian Germany — tipping back beers the size of artillery shells under an autumn sun; and earnest girls in dirndls flitting about with armloads of refills, heads held high with the pride of knowing they are the best barmaids the world has ever seen.

Then I got to Munich and reality dope-slapped me out of my reverie.

Because what Oktoberfest is, it turns out, is a bawdy, beer-themed county fair. The fest grounds are mostly paved and have all the charm of a parking lot. The beer tents aren’t so much tents as industrial-size barns that, after a few hours, start to smell as you would expect a barn to smell. There’s a midway with carnival games and artery-clogging food, and fast-moving rides designed to make it all come back up.

And yet, even with my fantasy squashed like a bug, it was everything it was supposed to be.

There are 14 tents, each its own costume party with thousands of revelers swinging liter-size beers and singing at high volume to the jarring melodies of oompah bands.

For two weeks, battalions of old men with complicated facial hair and younger lads with gelled coiffures share the same sense of style, wearing similar checked shirts and short, leather pants. They belly up to tables beside ladies young and old, all clothed in subtle variations of the same bosom-enhancing dress.

At regular intervals, some young person or another stands atop a table and a tent’s entire attention turns his way as he chugs a liter of high-test beer to the cheers of a thousand new friends.

Teams of dirndl-clad women and lederhosened men zip through the mayhem with baskets of pretzels, overloaded trays of gravy-heavy German food and impossible armloads of foamy lager in ham-size mugs, delivering the hopes and dreams of a million revelers.

The party begins this year on Sept. 21, when the 180th Oktoberfest spurts to life with the tapping of the first keg and delivery of the first beers to the 100,000 or so partiers lucky enough to get seats.

Those unable to get a seat in a tent — a must-have for anyone bent on downing one of the festival’s signature liter beers — aren’t completely out of luck. The fairgrounds will be chock-full of stuff to eat, drink and do.

And there’s more to Oktoberfest than the drinking. On Sept. 22, don’t miss the Costume and Riflemen’s Parade, a bombastic display of Bavarian history, culture and tradition with Clydesdale-drawn wagons, marching bands and riflemen marching through the decorated streets of beautiful Munich.

millham.matthew@stripes.com Twitter: @mattmillham

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