TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
…Over the years I continued to make my cheesy movies. I continued to write and sing songs and put them online. Most of all though, I continued to teach English to Dutch people. In 2012 I decided it was time to put my method of teaching English into words. I wrote a book called Nooit Meer Steenkolenengels which roughly translates to “Never Speak Pidgin English Again”. About half way through the process, I got the crazy idea to illustrate the book myself. I had recently taken to drawing and found, to my surprise, that it relaxed me. So I kept doing it. As with all my projects at the time (and pretty much everything in my life) I had no formal training at drawing and, as a result, had no idea what I was doing in any kind of technical sense. But as the inimitable Robbie Williams once said about his singing talents, “I can’t sing. But it never stopped me from singing.” That’s a sentiment I can get behind.
So I wrote the book in English and then went looking for a publisher. I got a grand total of 13 responses from the big, bad world of book publishing. Eleven publishers ignored me entirely. One publisher replied saying “thanks but no thanks.” And one brave publisher in The Hague, Kemper Conseil Publishing, wanted to give me a shot. There was just one catch…
The book needed to be published in Dutch, not in English.
Their reasoning was straightforward: most Dutch readers want to read books in Dutch, not in English. Even if their English is good, which is quite common in the Netherlands, statistics have always shown that most people prefer to read in their native language. After initially being turned off by the idea, I eventually agreed with the company and translated my own book into Dutch. It was slow and boring work simply because Dutch is my second language. In the end, two editors corrected the translations that I had done and the book was released in June of 2012. My launch party was a grand affair with a DJ and live music and drinks and dancing. I gave a speech in which I talked about the process of writing the book and posted that on the internet as well. I am proud of the book even though it didn’t come close to breaking any sales records in the Netherlands. The fact of the matter is, every year I get royalties totalling enough to buy a nice bottle of champagne. But I wrote the thing, and I found a publisher and my book will forever be out there. Sometimes that’s enough.
A few years later, on a ho-hum Tuesday morning, I got a Facebook message from an English woman named Lynn whom I’d met previously to talk about English teaching in the Netherlands. Lynn’s message was an advertisement by a Dutch company called Omdenken. I had heard of Omdenken years before, from my friend Sanne Paulan who had turned me on to their philosophy. Omdenken is a Dutch word that translates in English to “flip-thinking” and, every year, the company does roughly 500 in-company shows, clinics, and workshops as well as theater tours throughout the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. Omdenken performs its shows for roughly 75,000 audience members per year and has a book that has been in the Dutch Top 60 bestseller list for more than 200 weeks. In fact, every single Omdenken book has become a bestseller.
The basic premise of Omdenken is to take a problem and flip it into a new possibility in such a way that the problem disappears. Sanne had told me about the company’s founder, Berthold Gunster, and I had checked out their stuff online. I immediately knew that their work would speak to me on a deep level. I was so impressed with Gunster’s concept that I promptly stole the idea for his “Ja-Maar Show” and created a show to promote the sales of my own book called “The Nooit Meer Steenkolenengels Show”. Although I didn’t use any of the Omdenken concept in my show, I did steal the marketing approach in order to sell tickets. When I finally met Berthold, it’s one of the first things I told him about myself. Upon telling him, he just titled his head back and laughed. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, is it not?
The advertisement Lynn sent me pointed out that Omdenken was looking for a “social media expert” to do their English language stuff. They wanted a native English speaker and somebody that lived in Utrecht. I matched both of those criteria and, although I was plenty busy with my English teaching and other activities, I decided to drop them a line, explaining that I loved their work and that I shared something in common with the Berthold Gunster: our mutual friend Sanne.
Omdenken’s Social Media Director, Nelleke, wrote back and invited me to come talk. A short while later I found myself sitting at a table in their cozy office on the Old Canal in Utrecht. Interestingly, I wasn’t actually looking for a job. I had my hands full with House of English at the time, and came to the “interview” just because I wanted to meet the quirky minds behind the massive success at Omdenken. In retrospect I suppose not needing a job is an effective way to enter a job interview – it takes the pressure off. We simply spent time talking and getting to know each other. It was really nice. Berthold’s first question to me was one I will never forget because it was a foreshadowing of things to come:
“Hey Dave, how’s your Dutch?” he asked, his eyes smiling.
“My Dutch is really good Berthold” I answered, a bit more precocious than I normally would be.
He didn’t follow up my answer with another question, or try to test me in any way. He seemed to just make a mental note of my answer and our conversation carried on. An hour later, we were done. They sent me back out into the bright daylight, promising to call as soon as they knew what they wanted to do. I rode my bike back to my apartment on the Gansstraat in Utrecht, inspired by our talk, but free of expectations.
An hour later, my phone rang. It was Berthold. He offered me the social media job. But there was more. He asked me to meet him at Cafe de Poort later that same afternoon to discuss another idea he had. He wouldn’t give away any details, but just told me to meet him later. This was mysterious and more than a little exciting.
At 3:00 pm, the very same day, I walked the short distance from my apartment to the cafe and found him sitting at a booth, alone. The cafe, as with most quality Dutch cafes, was bustling with afternoon revellers. I joined him at the booth.
As I sat down he reached out and gave me a firm handshake, offering me a drink. I ordered sparkling mineral water. He was drinking a Diet Coke. Never one to mince words when important business is at hand, he cut to the chase:
“Dave, we want you to do our English social media, you know that already. But I have another offer…we also want you to become an Omdenken Trainer…” he said, his words trailing off but his eyes fixed on me. I didn’t know exactly what the job of Omdenken Trainer entailed but, given the success of the company, I knew it’d be huge.
I was speechless.
That very morning, when I had woken up, I wasn’t looking for a job. I was content in my life as an English teacher, blogger, and occasional musician. And now I was being offered not one, but two jobs. It was all rather dizzying.
“Wow, Berthold…” I finally offered, several seconds later. “That sounds big” I added, unsure of my footing. “I think I’d like to order something a little stronger from the bar now” I asked, to which he just smiled and called the waiter over. He ordered a red wine and I had my favorite Belgian beer, a Duvel.
Simply put, I wasn’t sure how we’d arrived at this junction. Berthold explained to me that his partner Annemargreet, the business director at the company, had checked out my stuff online before the interview. She’d found my tiny YouTube channel, with the lo-fi sketch comedy films, the love songs, and the speech I gave at my book launch. It was that speech that most closely resembled the work I’d be doing as an Omdenken trainer, and it impressed her. She promptly gave Berthold the heads up and he checked out my stuff too. Amateur or not, my online work struck a chord with them. As fate would have it, they had recently gotten rid of a trainer after a long separation and needed a new one. They hadn’t actively started looking for a new trainer yet, and here I was falling into their laps. The timing was beyond serendipitous.
Part of the attraction to Omdenken is that the company has been doing very well the past several years. Everybody loves a winner, am I right? The word Omdenken, and our shows, books, and merchandise, have quietly become part of the national conversation here in the Netherlands. Everybody it seems has, at the very least, heard of the term Omdenken.
As I mentioned before, Annemargreet and Berthold have a simple job title for the second job they offered me that fateful day: Omdenken Trainer. In this case the word “trainer” doesn’t really cut the mustard. In reality, the job is more a combination of Master of Ceremonies, facilitator, comedian, actor, and teacher, all rolled into one. To do the job well requires an ability to both memorize and deliver scripted text as well as the agility to improvise comedically. At this point in my life, I can honestly say there is no other job on the Planet Earth better suited to my own skills set than the job of trainer at Omdenken. We fit like a glove. My work at Omdenken, doing shows all over the world, is the very definition of my dream job.
Despite being a little flabbergasted when Berthold and Annemargreet first offered me the two jobs, I took them anyway. How many times do we get a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Well, as the saying goes, we get the opportunity exactly once. I wasn’t gonna pass this one up. It won’t come as a surprise to you, but actually taking the job was the easy part. As it turned out, I sucked at the social media job mainly because computers fill me with anxiety so my results were decidedly average. I got fired from that one after 8 months. But I took to the the trainer job very well. Still, getting on stage in front of a living, breathing audience, that’s a continuous challenge. As Jordan Peele taught me at Boom Chicago, there is only one way to really learn: on stage, and the beauty of Omdenken is that I have a steady stream of shows as a way to properly master the art of comedy and theater. It’s a pretty cool job, if I do say so myself, and I hope to continue doing it until they put me in the ground and throw dirt on my box…