A frequent flier's views on flying and travel

The Tower of Babble

One of my habits when I travel is that I do not like to be easily ‘pegged’ as an American. I am not the least bit ashamed about being a Yank, I am actually proud of it, but I would rather not be too obvious. So every time the opportunity comes up, I like to play the “I’m not your typical American” game.

This is a story about a 12 hour trip on SwissAir from Shanghai to Zurich, where I had some fun with the flight attendants by talking to them in 3 different languages, and keeping them puzzled for the whole flight. When you read stories and blogs about in-flight entertainment on these long flights, just remember that sometimes it is also possible to create your own entertainment.

For this flight I was flying alone, and in Business Class. As I boarded the plane in Shanghai, I instinctively said “good morning” in German to the FA by the jetway. After all, it was a SwissAir flight. She replied in German, and asked me if I knew where my seat was. Keeping it in German, I told her I knew where my seat was, and thanked her.

While I was getting settled, a different FA was coming down the aisle with a cart of newspapers and magazines. I heard her talking in French to the couple seated across the aisle from me. So when she turned to face me, I asked her in French for a copy of Paris-Match. They did not have that on board, so I settled for an issue of Le-Monde.

Not much else happened before takeoff, except that the German speaking FA came by to pick up my water glass and asked me what I would like to drink after takeoff. Cognac of course is the same in every language, so that was easy.

Not too long after takeoff I read the menu so I would be ready for the first meal service. Once I had made my choice, I put the menu away in the seat pocket and waited for the FA’s. It was the German one again, and without needing to pull out the menu I told her in German what I would like for the appetizer (lachs) and for lunch (dorsch).

There was a third FA that I also saw in the Business cabin during the flight. He was apparently the only male FA on board, and was very (very) English. His primary duty in Business seemed to be handling the frequent requests from the American husband and wife seated 2 rows in front of me. During the flight (it was a 12 hr trip) he and I did talk a few times, and I made some simple requests of him, such as asking for a copy of The Economist. I deliberately slowed down my English when talking with him, and added odd pauses in mid-sentence, like I was searching for the right word.

OK, so the flight goes on and on and on. I slept a bit, ate two meals and a snack, had a few drinks, nibbled on some chocolates, read some magazines, saw a movie (or two), watched the world pass underneath on the in-flight camera, and gazed out the window. I just did all the usual things you always do at 39,000 ft to pass the time. And I kept up the practice of speaking to each of the three primary FA’s in their three different languages.

Full Disclosure; I have done this on other flights, and it’s just a way to pass time…

Now the flight is nearing an end. We have about 30 minutes to go, the final meal and drink service has been completed, and the FA’s are starting to get the cabin organized. Since the flight was not very full, this was done quickly and early.

And that’s when it finally happened. The French speaking FA came over to my seat, apologized for asking, but said (in French) that she and the other FA’s were wondering what country I was from. I remember leaning back, not quite laughing, but with a big smile on my face. The situation turned out better than I could have imagined.

She said that she knew that I was not “French” because my words were sometimes wrong. She thought that I was a Canadian, and that actually makes sense, since I most often speak French in Quebec, and there are several Canadian French phrases that I use that are obviously not European French.

The English FA was a bit further off target. My pauses and my deliberately slow speaking in English must have really confused him. She told me that he thought I was from Norway, which I thought was crazy funny. But Norwegians do tend to be rather tall and thin, and I do fit that profile.

But the best of all was the FA who I spoke to only in German. Now I know that my German is weak. I really have just enough basic language skill for hotels, restaurants, flying, and driving. And it is way beyond my capability to have a long conversation or to conduct a business meeting in German. She had obviously detected that, because she told the French speaking FA that my German was not very good, my accent was unusual, and that she thought I was from Luxembourg.

Luxembourg? What a riot. Heck, I have never even been to Luxembourg! {Update 2019 – I have finally made it to Luxembourg}

Right, so to settle all this I asked the French speaking FA to hand me my briefcase. I opened it up, and handed her my dark blue US passport. She shrieked. She literally shrieked in laughter and ran with my passport over to the other FA’s.

I could hear them all laughing in the galley. A minute or so goes by, and all three of them came back to my seat with my passport and a small tray piled high with those really nice SwissAir chocolates… All mine!!! (Yeah, I asked, and they also let me keep the mini-tray with the nice Swiss logo stamped on it)

Two days later I was flying on from Zurich to London, again in Business on SwissAir. As I boarded the flight, I wished the FA “good morning” in German. I remember that this FA paused, she blinked, and she came right back with “Do you know where your seat is Sir?” in English.

Well, that just proves that you can’t fool all the people all the time.

The whole point of this story is to remind you to always learn at least a few words in the local tongue wherever you go. It really goes a long way in helping to make travel easier, fun, and a hell of a lot more enjoyable.

PS: Although I will never meet any of those 3 FA’s again, Xie-Xie, Danke, Merci, and Thank-You for a great and memorable flight.

6 comments on “The Tower of Babble

  1. Pretraveller
    February 8, 2014

    Thanks for sharing your story. It is great that you were able to confuse them and it sounds like a fun way to pass the time on a long flight!


    • jlroehr
      February 9, 2014

      Probably the most important thing you can do when traveling is to try to learn at least the most basic phrases in every language. It opens so many doors for wonderful experiences.


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This entry was posted on February 7, 2014 by in Passenger thoughts and tagged , , , , , .
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