What Vietnam and Ronald Reagan can teach us about pilots abroad…

I’m spending the night in Frankfurt as I’m headed back to the US tomorrow. I decided to stay near the airport to try out the new Hilton, though mein Vater and I decided to go into the city for the afternoon.

We took the train from the airport to the main train station, and it was an ordinary ride. And by “ordinary ride” I mean I was asked for directions by Americans, and then they commented how good my English is.

It literally happens every single time I take a train in Germany. I’m not sure if I just look trustworthy or if my glasses make me look smart (in which case they were the best investment ever — who needs a kollege diplomer?), but it’s a bit ironic since I’m probably the most directionally challenged person on earth. The conversation happened the same way it always does:

“Exxxxcuuuuuussssseeeeee meeeeeeee…. dooooo youuuuuu speaaaaakkkkk Englishhhhhh?”
“Doooo youuuuu knowwww if thissss trainnnn goesssss tooooo theeee Hawpt-banhoffffff?”
“Yes, it does, it’s just a couple of stops.”
“Thankkkk youuuu verrrrry muchhh, yourrr Englishhhh is excellentttt.”
“Thanks. I learned it in the US… which is also where I grew up… and have lived my whole life.”

That usually leads to a bit of embarrassment and a few laughs on both sides.

Anyway, that’s not the point of this post. So my dad and I sat down at a nice German restaurant for dinner (nice German restaurant=they give you the whole animal) which had ample outdoor seating. It was a stunning night and the menu looked great, though interestingly not a single patron in the restaurant was speaking German. So generally it’s not a good sign when there are no locals in the restaurants, but then again my dad is from Frankfurt and was thrilled with the choice, so I wasn’t about to suggest we go elsewhere.


I love to observe people, and after observing these guys for a couple of minutes I was convinced they were pilots for a US airline. From their age to their salt-and-pepper hair (well, what was left of it) to their mustaches to their New Balance tennis shoes to their demeanor, I was positive.

So I told my dad…

Me: Don’t turn around right now, but I bet you those two guys seated there are pilots for a US airline.
Mein Vater: Benny, zis is ridikulous, zhere is no vay you kann know zhis.
Me: No, I guarantee it.
Mein Vater: Vell how vuld ve vind out?
Me: If they start talking about Ronald Reagan or Vietnam in the next 10 minutes will you believe me?
Mein Vater: Vhat?!
Me: Just listen…

So we didn’t intentionally eavesdrop, they were just really loud. So it took seven minutes for them to start talking about Vietnam.

What the hell am I talking about, you ask? I’d say at least once every few trips I randomly end up at a restaurant with a US airline crew. The pilots are especially easy to identify, because for whatever reason they’re always either talking about Ronald Reagan or Vietnam. It’s true. I swear. Every. Single. Time.

Try it sometime…

Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled programming tomorrow from the land of soft beds, high speed wifi, and breakfasts that consist of things other than pastries and pretzels (which, to be clear, makes me really, really sad).

Filed Under: Travel
  1. Haha great post, Benny – love it! My best experience being asked directions was when I was in Washington DC and was asked by an American for directions to the White House, literally just round the corner from it (to the extent I could just turn round and point!). I was also told on a Greyhound bus in New Hampshire that I spoke really good English! (I’m from the UK :-P)

  2. Each time you’ve written how your dad speaks, as I read it, I find myself chuckling and envisioning Edward “Eddie” Kessler, Nucky Thompson’s assistant/butler on Boardwalk Empire.

    Too funny.

  3. Most, if not all, USAF, Navy and Marine Vietnam era pilots, like myself, would be retired by now! Considering U.S. involvement in the “war” ended over 50 years ago in August, 1973, these pilots would have been tweens or younger during our foray in Southeast Asia. Maybe these active pilots discuss their dads’ involvement.

  4. Nice post!!!

    I have the reverse problem in that I try to avoid flying lufthansa because the crew insist on speaking to me in german.

    They will offer me a glass of wine, in german. I will say in english “yes please”.

    They will offer me a glass of water, in german. I will say “yes please, could we speak english please”.

    They will ask about my meal choice in german. I will say “konen wir bitte englisch zu sprechen” which I *think* means can we speak english please.

    All the while they speak to the guy either side of me in english.

    Anyone have any advice? My german is limited to “can we speak english please”, and frankly the conversation gets tired very quickly.

  5. Well you guys were in the most “authentic” part of FRA ( or what used to be FRA before the war) , The Roemer. That is as touristy as it gets in “MainHattan”. LOL

    Have a safe trip !

  6. @srptraveller. You are probably named like Karl-Heinz Koehler or similar. They read the manifest and assume you are German.

    But they should politely excuse themselves and speak English, unless they can’t speak the language. If that is the case, they should refer you to a different attendant who speaks English. Not doing so is very rude imho.

  7. @Rich A.: I will assume that 50 years is a typo, as 2013 – 1973 = 40.

    Reagan, of course, is (relatively) much more recent.

    @Jorge: I don’t think srptraveller means that they continue to speak in German even after being asked to speak in English; rather, it’s different occasions/attendants. One would have to be particularly dense to not get it after the second time.

  8. @WW

    I’d imagine he does but that Ben’s translating for the benefit of the readership with a few… accoutrements

  9. Its so easy to eavesdrop on Anericans abroad. We just talk really loudly, which in the US usually gets drowned out by all of the other people talking. But abroad we just stick out above all of the other people speaking just loud enough for their companions to hear them. It always cracks me up, especially because it took me ages to realize it and lower my own voice.

  10. So, one time I was hitchhiking from FRA to Tubingen. I am far from a competent speaker of German, but can make limited small talk. After about 20 minutes the driver asks me “Bis du Deutch?” and I reply “Nein, Americaner” to which he replies “Ich auch, so let’s talk English!”

  11. Unless things have changed greatly since my year at a German university, I would recommend allowing no one in your party to speak a word English until you have the menu. Many restaurants had a tourist menu in English and a much better menu in German. One word of English got you the tourist menu.

  12. @ Holly — You didn’t miss it at all. I was there and will write more about it with the “official” trip report, which is coming shortly. šŸ™‚

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