I laced the bodice of my Dirndl tightly, bringing my breasts to a state of perfection as they all but burst from my dress. I hadn’t worn my traditional Oktoberfest dress for months and I pondered how insane I was as I covered my delectable breasts with my coat and stepped out into the snow. Through the afternoon the messages had swirled in flurries like the snowflakes: “You are wearing your Dirndl tonight, right?” as we all prepared for the unknown.
I arrived at the beer hall and decompressed as I saw flashes of silver and green, aprons and laces on my girl friends, I wasn’t the only one in a Dirndl.
We stepped into the foyer giggling with anticipation and uncertainty, and followed a sign saying Zum Alten Lagerkeller, to the old beer cellar. Excitement turned to concern as the stairs we were descending narrowed and steepened and we had to bend over to avoid bumping our heads. “Where are you taking us?” I squeaked, as claustrophobia clenched my heart. After an eternity we found a door and entered the Keller. A large, barrel shaped, brick cellar that used to house the beer as it was brewed, but was now filled with long tables and benches. It was completely empty of people.
“Oh my god, how did you find out about this?”
“It was on my list of 100 things to do in Munich.” Of course it was. Jolene’s list had taken us to some magnificent places.
“Be careful, I’ve been told that stark means strong and the beer can be dangerous.”
“Oh it is. Libby said she had two last year and couldn’t go skiing the next day.” We all look a bit confused. Two mass, or litres, of beer was becoming a standard night out for most of us. We were all new to Munich, but we weren’t complete novices.
We shouted PROST and looked each other in the eye as we smashed our beer mugs together and took our first sip of Starkbier. It was horrendous and lethal. We laughed and looked around the empty cellar.
“The tickets said doors open at 5, where is everyone?”
“Who cares? This is fantastic.”
Soon we were uproariously drunk and were dancing on the benches while the newly arrived crowds tasted their first beer. I was hooked. I had fallen head over heels for this sweaty cellar, a haven from the snow. I felt like I was part of a secret, local club.
Throughout the year, most of my Starkbierfest friends drifted back to their home countries, expat contracts over or family commitments calling. I was gutted, but then did what any good Munich expat would do and learnt to ski and made new friends. I booked a couple of tables for the next Starkbierfest and invited everyone I knew. Jessica, Starkbierfest Queen, was born.
Years passed in the blink of an eye, each with similarities and differences. The herding of cats challenge of organising 30 people three months in advance, the claustrophobia of the stairs, and that sweet, sweet moment when the beer and music make love in your soul and you can’t help but get up and dance on the benches. The fun, the love, the drunkenness, the dancing and Sweet Caroline, bah bah bah never change.
When I left Munich, one of the questions I was most commonly asked was “What about Starkbierfest?” Of course I organised tables, I am The Queen after all. I invited my favourite Munich people and brought new friends from Luxembourg. I got that warm fizz of happiness when everyone had arrived and I was halfway through my first beer and I sat back and observed my worlds mixing and friends making new friends. My world was exactly as I wanted it to be.
“Which weekend are you doing Starkbierfest next year?” Ruth, Michael and I strolled around Bolton Abbey in the rain on one of our regular meet-ups.
“I don’t know, tickets haven’t been released yet.”
“You always do it the first weekend of March.”
“Do I? It will be later this time because Easter is later.” I was holding back. I knew I was. Obviously I didn’t want to commit to anything before tickets were released but I also hadn’t told them about the large, hard lump in my right breast.
I announced: “I have something to tell you.” It felt like a confession and my fear was made all too real as Michael’s eyes filled with tears and Ruth went into organiser mode. I hadn’t told many people because I didn’t know how serious it was, but I needed to tell them. I knew I had surgery in my future, I just didn’t know what it would be for.
The next week tickets for Starkbierfest were released and, two weeks later, just as everyone was confirming, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Similar to the upheaval of my move to Luxembourg, one of the frequently asked questions was “What about Starkbierfest?” It was a moving target, my chemo dates and health was changing rapidly, but, by my high level calculations, and with fingers crossed, there was a chance, just a chance, that Starkbierfest would fall exactly between chemo and surgery. I had little to look forward to during those hellish days but I studied my calendar, my white blood cell counts and my recovery after each chemo and I held onto that spark of hope.
As chemo drew to a close, my oncologist recommended getting away, a change of scenery and something to look forward to. My parents and I planned a trip to Italy. Instead of going to chemo on Friday, we would fly to Italy to celebrate with red wine and pizza. We had gone back and forth on plans as I wanted to come back a bit earlier for some alone time, I hadn’t been alone for months by this stage and my independent soul was struggling. I looked at flights and mine would be via Munich…on the day of the Starkbierfest reservation…that I had just announced to my friends I was too ill to attend…but…what if…maybe… I booked a two day stopover in Munich…I would just see how I went.
My parents and I had a sweet, peaceful time in Italy and then I left them. It was two weeks since my last chemo and two weeks before my surgery. I was stone bald and my weak skin ached as it struggled to hold me together, but I so desperately wanted to be normal again for a moment. I put on my long, red wig and the only dress I could fit into that showed off my boobs…for what I expected to be the last time, and I took the lift down into the cellar, too scared to risk my fragile body on the stairs.
The lift doors opened and there it was, the barrel ceilings and sticky smell of beer, and there they were, my friends who came to be with me. And I talked about things other than cancer, it was a joy. But then the drunkenness began, the dancing and singing got wilder. I couldn’t do it. My beer glass was too heavy to hold and I flinched as everyone twirled and stomped around me. As the others slid into their beer haze, I slipped back to Dagmara’s apartment and fell asleep with a smile on my face. It was the most stupid and the best thing that I had done during treatment.
I knew that this year’s Starkbierfest would be a significant one for me, a return to society if you like. It would be the first time I had seen most of these friends since I was sick. I had friends coming from the UK and Luxembourg. I was in the process of returning to work, to “normal” life. And I would have to decide how to present my body post mastectomy.
Let’s face it, my boobs had been conversation starters at beer fests long before I had breast cancer, so the absence of them would be obvious. I don’t have a prosthesis. I do have padding that can go in a bralette that I wear now, but I’ve only worn it once. I tried so hard to get comfortable with only having one breast that I’ve become almost militant about not wearing padding. This came to a head two months ago when I tried on dresses that I wore pre-mastectomy. I ended up curled on my bed, weeping and contemplating the reconstructive surgery that I had previously disregarded. I had a real crisis when I realised that I was considering surgery to look good in clothes, when I could just wear padding…but padding felt like cheating…but why was extreme, unnecessary surgery acceptable but padding was not? Who the fuck am I and do I owe it to anyone to always present as a uni? I want women to have proud role models and see that presenting half flat is healthy and true, but I feel so normal when I wear that padding. Isn’t it true to do what’s comfortable? Why can’t I mix and match? Who am I letting down? Who am I trying to prove myself to? Why is surgery a reasonable solution but padding is not? I was in turmoil. I turned to my sisters in our One Breasted Beauties support group and was overwhelmed. They validated my concerns, reminded me that we all modify our appearance through clothes/makeup/push up bras/hair dye, sweetly called me a role model in this community, and I realised that I can do whatever the fuck I want to. There is no right or wrong way of living or presenting post unilateral mastectomy and decisions don’t have to be final. Liberation.
So on the night of 7 March 2020 I placed a discreet amount of padding in my bralette and let Ruth tighten the laces on my Dirndl, while I held my blouse higher than I have in eight years. I put my coat over the Dirndl and met my friends in the foyer. I oohed over their red and lacy outfits and aprons and more over the sexy Lederhosen the boys were wearing and we set off for an epic party.
We sent the first timers down the claustrophobic stairs, laughing at their uncertainty and stepped into the barrel shaped cellar to shout PROST and dance like hooligans.
“How the bloody hell are you?” Shouted Michael over the throbbing music.
“I think I’m going to cry.”
“RUTH!!!” She turned and saw my tears about to spill and held me tight.
“I’m dancing. This time last year I couldn’t dance. I was too weak to dance. I was so sick and so scared.”
“Oh babe, don’t look at where you were, look at how far you’ve come.” More tears spilled.
We were on the cusp of Coronavirus, Italy was in lockdown and we knew it was coming to the rest of Europe. We had been reading the travel warnings and news diligently for weeks. “What about Starkbierfest?” had been on everyone’s FAQ list. People were staying away because they had colds and didn’t want to create panic or infect others, some didn’t come because they were afraid, some of us came to thumb our noses at this disease that we thought was overhyped. It turns out we were wrong. Lockdown happened five days later in Luxembourg, but we didn’t know that then, we danced and hugged and loved and drank as though our worlds depended on it. In retrospect we should have been more circumspect, but the authorities were playing it cool, and let’s face it, as you descend into that sweet, sweet place where beer and music make love, you don’t worry about the hangover.