I rush through Frankfurt Airport in plenty of time to sit at my overcrowded gate and as I near it, it happens:
I am surrounded by Americans.
My expat ears are tuned to American English in public settings, not because I miss it, but because I know it. I am used to hearing it in small clusters, or in tour groups of 30-40 (sometimes following me around). I am no longer used to being in a group of 100+ members of my own nationality—and here they all are. I have a feeling this flight is going to be noisy.
I can read their book titles (sampling: If God Was a Banker, A Prayer for Owen Meany, Gone Girl). I know the places on their t-shirts. I recognize their signature style of jeans.
And it’s true: they’re loud. On my linking flight from Amsterdam to Frankfurt, the entire airplane was treated to 40 minutes of clear, precise English at maximum—er, his normal—volume by a man I swear I thought was sitting right behind me until I looked and realized he was quite a ways back. He engaged his European seatmate in topics ranging from Buddhism to Switzerland to the dozen museums he just saw in Amsterdam (no, he never made it beyond Amsterdam). If I had sat next to this guy, it occurs to me, I might have pretended that I didn’t know English.
The other day I told someone that going to your home country after a long time away (in my current case, fourteen months) is like getting together with an ex. You’re not sure how it’s going to go, exactly. You might really hit it off! and wonder why you ever parted ways. You might reflect on the bittersweet past, but conclude that you made the right choice. Or you might want to run screaming from the restaurant.
Americans, I must point out, are awesome at airport security. The guy in front of me who had two liters of soda in his carry-on? Not American. The woman with a shopping bag full of salad dressing? Not American. For better or worse, Americans who fly even occasionally are standing in security lines with their shoes off, belts in the trays, and laptops out of the case.
The Americans at my gate, passports tucked under their arms (or, yes, strung on lanyards around their necks) are people of every possible skin hue. When I’m on a flight with mostly Dutch people—it’s visually obvious. There’s still, overall, a cohesive genetic heritage.
More than a few of the Americans are large. Did you know that recently someone told me he wouldn’t have guessed I was American, because I’m thin? (He guessed Spanish, so maybe he wasn’t that astute.) Right or wrong, Europe knows Americans as big. Big houses. Big cars. Bigger.
So I board my big old plane to the US. There’s another man (not the man from my first leg—I check) a few rows back, talking up a storm (“I’m married, you know; my wife, she’s a beautiful lady, like you…”). A boy with an American passport but whose mother clearly has an Eastern European first language sits next to me. In perfect, eager American English, he tells me how to operate my seat’s personal TV. I put on my headphones and take out my knitting (once again, knitting needles clear security no problem). The stewardess who comes around tries German, then French with me before guessing at English.
It’s going to be a long flight to Newark.