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Americano! Finding Myself.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

FINDING MYSELF

1.

…I wrote the introduction to this book ten months ago. In it, I posed the following question: have I done everything I need to do to make my journey complete? In other words, have I “found myself” in becoming, and being, a professional foreigner? Have I become comfortable with who I am?

The honest answer is no.

It’s true. Today, as I sit and type these words, on a quiet Sunday evening, my youngest son asleep on the couch and my oldest hanging out with his girl, I am no more comfortable with myself today than I was the day I moved to Europe.

The truth is that I have never “found” myself.

I have never become “comfortable” with myself.

At least not always. Some days I am very at home in my own skin and life is easy as a Sunday morning. Twenty-four hours later I am a basket case of gut-wrenching anxiety. That’s the way the cookie crumbles. I go back and forth between war and peace, with myself and the world around me, on a daily basis. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always been skeptical of those personality tests companies employ in order to deem workers a certain color. One day I’m red, the next day I’m blue, the next day I’m green. I’m never one color for very long. The experts will tell you that we all have one prominent color at the core of our being, but it doesn’t feel that way to me.

So I haven’t found myself and I’m not comfortable with myself. So what? I am okay with it. It’s not a source of unhappiness for me as I’ve come to realize that this is par for the course in my game of life.

Here’s what my never-ending journey as professional foreigner has taught me, after all the trips, all the moves, all the airplanes, all the new schools, all the new friends: when it comes to the endlessly sticky business of our “selves”… there is nothing to find. Nothing to discover.

I am here and this is me.

I am hot and I am cold.

I’m up and I’m down.

East and then West and… that’s all there is to be found.

I will never “find” myself. I will never be completely “comfortable”. All these dizzying runs around the sun have shown me the only truth a professional foreigner, or any honest person, will ever know:

Being “comfortable” is not the end game. Finding “myself “ is not the destination. I accept that a peaceful easy feeling will not be sustainable and that’s a good thing. I won’t try to take the edge off, because that edge is my USP. That struggle, that friction, that hustle, that’s as close to me as I’m ever gonna get. It’s as close to you as you’re ever gonna get. Whatever we may discover, let’s agree on this: take it as it comes, because it only comes once. Or, in the immortal words of the comedian Bill Hicks, when speaking to the so-called meaning of life…

“It’s just a ride.”

So ride it.

Enjoy it.

Cherish it.

Nurture it.

Hate it.

Love it.

But for the love of God, live it.

Having said that, please don’t confuse my lack of comfort, or lack of finding myself, as the same as saying that life has no meaning. I am not one of these nihilist zombies who preaches (before selling you a 600 dollar self-improvement seminar) that “life is empty and meaningless and it’s empty and meaningless that it’s empty and meaningless…”.

No way, dude. Life has meaning. The way I feel about my two sons has meaning. The way I feel about my girlfriend has meaning. My work? My friendships? My family? Chock full of meaning. I also happen to think that the pursuit of meaning during our precious little time on earth is well worth it. It’s a noble quest. All I’m saying is the pursuit, thankfully, does not have to be comfortable

Americano! Omdenken, Part 1.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

OMDENKEN

1.

…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…

Americano! The Almost Funny Man, Part 3

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN

3.

…He gathered us together to begin the workshop. After two days of world class comedy instruction, we finished the weekend by doing what Boom Chicago calls the “student show”. Basically the students and the teacher put on an improv show for invited guests, friends and family. It’s a laid back affair and a good chance to put newfound skills to use.

As we prepared to go on stage that Sunday afternoon, I was cramped in the rafters, waiting to go on. Our teacher, the man I’d met at the bar on Saturday morning, was going on with me for the first scene and the lack of backstage space made it necessary for he and I to position ourselves unnaturally close to each other. Packed in between heavy curtains and a large piece of wooden set decor, our faces just inches from each other, I was nervous as hell. I am always very nervous in those final moments before taking the stage, but I could see that my teacher was cool as a cucumber, taking it all in stride. Just before the curtain raised, I asked him a final question:

“Man, do you like doing shows seven days a week?” I asked, wracked with nervous nausea.

“You know it.” he replied, a cheshire cat grin decorating his face.

And then the curtain rose, and we, the self-proclaimed modern warriors of humor, galliantly strode out, into the arena.

It was a great show and, at the time, the Boom teachers called it “the best student show” they’d ever seen. I have no reason to doubt their assessment.

For me, that workshop was a turning point. Comedy, not just the watching but also the performance of it, had its lovely hooks in me. Although I never went on to become a professional comedian in the traditional sense, I have ended up making my living on a stage, in a comedic fashion. Bill Hicks is part of the reason. But another part, the biggest part, was my unforgettable teacher for that workshop in Amsterdam. That guy was so brutally honest with me concerning what really mattered about making people laugh and his prophetic words as well as his humbly confident, forever ironic, and optimistically skeptical view of the world has inspired me on and on over the years.

So, you may be thinking, who was my teacher that fine weekend at Boom Chicago in Amsterdam?

His name is Jordan Peele.

As I sit here writing these words in January 2018, Jordan has written and directed the brilliant film Get Out, which the New York Times considers to be the best movie of 2017.

 The best goddamned movie of the year!

Jordan left Amsterdam a short while after teaching us that weekend and has gone on to fame and fortune in America. He first got famous making television in the form of the comedy duo Key & Peele, but his film Get Out, which he wrote and directed, has skyrocketed him into the cultural stratosphere. If you haven’t seen Get Out yet, stream it as soon as you can. I highly doubt you’ll ever find a more entertaining, troubling and truthful depiction of race relations in modern American life.

When I met and worked with Jordan Peele way back in 2002, I wish I could have recognized that he would go on to kick ass in the big leagues. But I didn’t. What I saw was an empathetic, energetic, tirelessly curious, fiercely intelligent, and impossibly funny young man who was kind enough to help a lot of people learn how to be funny.

Over the next several months I tried my hand at stand-up comedy. I did the open mike night at The Comedy Cafe in Amsterdam several times and also formed an improv group called Dreamers Express with four other aspiring comedians. Our group practiced and practiced and then put on a showcase in Amsterdam which combined stand-up and improv. We rented a theater, invited all our friends and had a fantastic night.

It was a true adventure. Standing on a brightly lit stage, mike in hand, armed only with a few jokes and anecdotes, hoping to not get booed off the stage, it’s a humbling experience.

All in all, I did ok. I got a few laughs, but I also got blank stares. I stuck with the open mike nights for a while trying to write and perform jokes. In the meantime I’d also developed a character I called Hansje Dansje, who was a potato farmer with a very heavy Dutch accent who interviewed people in the street. I modelled the character on England’s Dennis Pennis who found fame on the BBC mostly for interviewing celebrities on the red carpet and insulting them in a whole variety of ways. I found Dennis Pennis hilarious particularly because he could insult a celebrity without them really noticing it. They’d become so accustomed to standard questions from interviewers that Pennis could count on his targets sleep walking down the red carpet where he’d zing them with a fresh put down. One of my favorite Dennis Pennis moments was when he said to the actress Demi Moore as she strode down the red carpet, “Demi, if it wasn’t gratuitous and was done considerately, would you ever consider keeping your clothes on in a movie?” Ms. Moore was not amused and marched on, clearly furious.

Over the next several years, I worked more and more on the Hansje Dansje character, eventually filming a pilot for Dutch television with a producer named Michael Pilarczyk. We spent two days interviewing tourists in Amsterdam and filming the process. Hansje’s schtick was to play dumb and try to get tourists to reveal why they’d come to the city. Despite spending a lot of time on the project, and getting some interesting moments on film, the show wasn’t picked up by any broadcasters and it never made it to TV. But that wasn’t for lack of trying. I drove Pilarczyk crazy by calling him at all hours of the day, hoping, pushing, to make something happen. It never did.

Fresh off the failure of bringing Hansje Dansje to Holland’s living rooms, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Over the years, I continued to write short character sketches and filmed them at home. Eventually I discovered iMovie and YouTube and starting chucking these lo-fi creations onto the internet. It would be an understatement to say that my little movies weren’t very good. They were shite, with occasional flashes of potential. The good news, though? They were mine. The quality didn’t matter all that much as I never had pretensions beyond making amateurish stuff. What mattered was that I was creating and was bold or foolish or egotistical enough to put them online. So I kept putting them out there, with no real goal in mind. I just liked making them and the hours I spent conceiving, filming, and editing were very gratifying. I was completely content in the idea that my highly amateurish ideas would never lead to anything.

But I was wrong, in the very best of ways…

 

Americano! The Almost Funny Man, Part 2

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN

2.

…Which, it must be said, threw a curve ball into my little life. I decided, after reading, watching, and absorbing everything I could about the life and works of Bill Hicks, to become a comedian. Not that I would quit my work as a teacher, but that I would have a proper go at stand-up comedy. Hicks inspired me to get up on that stage and try to make people laugh.

Turns out, it’s fucking hard. All those comedians that have ever made you laugh, they make it look easy. The jokes just roll off their tongues like stones down a mountain. Little did I know that each and every one of those jokes, no matter from Hicks, Pryor, Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, Beth Stelling, or Louis C.K., was carved and forged, chipped away from the bedrock in near scientific fashion. It is mind bending work.

I attempted to write a few jokes at home, trying to stick to what I knew: being a professional foreigner in a faraway land. Despite the fact that there is plenty of potential material on being an American outside of the United States, I wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire with my joke writing. I decided I needed help. My search for help led me to a great and wonderful place located smack dab in the middle of Amsterdam: Boom Chicago.

Boom Chicago is an improv comedy troupe and theater, the first of its kind in the Netherlands, founded by some relentlessly entrepreneurial and highly funny American comedians from Chicago. The theater is based on the model made famous by Chicago’s legendary Second City improv group. As the story goes, the gentlemen left Chicago, moved to Amsterdam, and proposed the idea of an English speaking improv theater in Amsterdam to the mayor. Apparently the mayor wasn’t feeling their vibe and informed the newly arrived Chicagoans that English speaking comedy wouldn’t work in Amsterdam. According to the Mayor, English speaking comedy was just too foreign.

Luckily for us, the eventual founders of Boom Chicago ignored the mayor’s advice. They pressed on. They built their theater. They became a hit, laying the foundation for improv comedy to get a foothold in Dutch culture. If you’re Dutch and you’ve seen the Llamas on TV – please know that the men and women of Boom Chicago, my fellow professional foreigners here in NL, paved the way.

In addition to being fabulous in every way, the Boom Chicago theater taught comedy workshops! I could go there and learn the ropes. I signed up for their very next “Improv for Beginners” workshop and traveled to Amsterdam with bells on. The workshop was phenomenal. I couldn’t get enough. As soon as I finished the beginners course, I signed up for the advanced course immediately.

Several weeks later, flush with my newfound knowledge of basic improv techniques and still inspired to follow in Bill Hicks’s footsteps as a comedian, I traveled to Boom Chicago’s old theater on Amsterdam’s famous Leidseplein (The theater has now moved to a newer, bigger location in the city). The advanced improv workshop began on Saturday morning and lasted for two days. As always, I arrived early and walked into the narrow bar which fronted the theater. I pulled up a stool next to an interesting looking, young, African-American gentleman who sported thick Run-DMC style spectacles and a New York Yankees cap. As a devout Red Sox fan, the Yankees cap would normally put me off, but this dude was clearly no loutish New Yorker looking for trouble. He looked over as I sat down and we got to talking. Within minutes he made it clear that he was a cast member at Boom and that he’d be teaching the workshop. Exciting! I was alone at the bar with my teacher, a living, breathing, PROFESSIONAL COMEDIAN! What a great opportunity to pick his brain about comedy.

I explained to him that my reason for coming to the workshop was because I wanted to get into stand-up comedy. Boom Chicago being an Improv theater focused on the techniques and execution of improvisation, this wasn’t really the best place to learn stand-up comedy. But it was the only game in town, so here I was. He listened carefully, slowly sipping a cappuccino and taking long, sometimes uncomfortable, pauses before replying to my questions. Finally, after draining his cappuccino and fixing his steely gaze upon me, he turned and said:

“workshops are fine, man. But there’s only one place to learn stand-up” he offered matter of factly.

“Where is that?” I asked.

“On stage, bro” he replied knowingly.

Our little talk marched on. I told him of my love for Bill Hicks. He agreed. We talked about Richard Pryor and Woody Allen and George Carlin. We talked about his work at Boom Chicago, and how he felt about being a New Yorker in Amsterdam. We shared a belly laugh about our mutual fascination for Dutch “coffeeshop” culture. As the other workshop students slowly began to dribble in from the street, he left me with a profound thought that I remember vividly, to this very day, both for its reflection of the absolute truth and of his own personal bravery:

“Dave” he said, pushing his thick glasses back onto his nose, “if you really wanna make people laugh, there’s only one thing to talk about up there on stage. You gotta talk about your own vulnerablity. You gotta tell people about your own scariest shit, man. The stuff that makes you feel weakest about yourself. That’s it. Anything else is just noise” he said, pushing himself away from the bar and standing up…

Americano! The Almost Funny Man, Part 1.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN

1.

…The beautiful thing about finally making those gut wrenching, life changing decisions is that they are most often followed by a sanguine period of delicious, if fleeting, peace. Once I knew I’d be sticking to my guns and staying in perpetual motion, I sunk my teeth into all manner of activity, both professionally and personally.

Before we proceed though, allow me to clarify something. By deciding to stay in Europe and follow my dream to be a professional foreigner, I was in no way rejecting my American heritage. To say that I couldn’t go “home” again did not mean that I could never live in the USA again. All it meant was that I could never return to the warm bath of my childhood in New Hampshire. That safety and security was gone, as it is for us all. Perhaps I will someday move back to America. I don’t know. I sure as shit would never renounce my American citizenship and that, in itself, says enough.

Knowing I’d be in Holland for the foreseeable future, I threw myself into my teaching at House of English, the business I’d created. I knew I’d need to continue working hard to pursue every single lead that presented itself. And I did. There were few stones I left unturned while doing the perma-search for new business. I had to. Every small business owner who works in the “knowledge economy” or sells some kind of service has to. At some point I developed a thicker skin in terms of rejection, and adapted a bit of innocent shamelessness when it came to hustling the next course. The financial crisis had taught me a valuable lesson: this ground is always gonna be shaky so I gotta stay hungry.

Teaching English wasn’t the only thing keeping me going, though. On vacation in 2002 I was on vacation in Spain with my then wife Natascha and a group of English friends. One fine warm and sunny day, sipping sangria by the pool, I noticed that one of the Englishmen in our group, Mark, was reading a book called American Scream, The Bill Hicks Story. On the cover was a angst-ridden looking man, with a Marlboro Red dangling John Wayne style out of his mouth. My interest piqued, I asked Mark who Bill Hicks was.

“You don’t know Bill Hicks?!” Mark asked, incredulous.

“Uhm, no. I don’t. Who is he?” I answered.

“Mate, he’s one of the best comedians to ever come out of America. You’re American, you should know.” Mark shot back.

Right.

Mark had a point. As an American, I would like to believe that I have my finger on the pulse of America’s better pop culture offerings, so I should have known. But I had never heard of Bill Hicks.

There are a couple of reasons why. First, Hicks’s rise to comedy fame in the United States was arduous at best. Why? Because he exposed and screamed about America’s innate ability to, at all times, exhibit hypocrisy, mediocrity, and mindless groupthink when it comes to politics, religion, sexuality, drugs, art, and the neverending chase of money, money, money.

In short, Hicks’s comedy was a little dark.

As a result, he didn’t go from three months of comedy clubs, straight to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and then on to the Comedy Hall of Fame. Far from it. For most of the 1980s, the decade in which he really came of age, Bill Hicks worked a tireless schedule by playing gigs at every podunk, piss of shit comedy club from Dandruff, New Mexico to Possom Pouch, Arkansas. Meaning, of course, that a teenage kid like me was never going to hear about him, much less see him live. I loved comedy, but I was too young for comedy clubs. In the 1980s I was watching Eddie Murphy’s Delirious and listening to the shock-jock work of Andrew Dice Clay. If a comedian wasn’t in the movies, or selling out arenas, kids like me weren’t hearing his work. By the time I turned 18 and left home for college, Hicks was just starting to get big.

And then he got banned from David Letterman’s TV show.

Between the years of 1989 and 1993, I basically watched Letterman every night. We all did. He was the funniest show on late night TV and he had the best bands. If there was ever going to be a chance for me to be turned on to the comedy of Bill Hicks, it would be on Late Night with David Letterman. Hicks had indeed been on Letterman’s show many times since having debuted in 1984, but at that time I was still too young to stay up and watch the show on a regular basis. My habitual viewing didn’t start until I was out of my parental home. Hicks did his infamous bit on the show in 1993, but Letterman and the show’s producer Bob Morton cut the act because…well, who knows for sure? Either way, they got spooked and pulled Hicks off their show.

So I never saw him on American television.

In the meantime, Hicks had done what so many edgy American artists have done throughout history – he went to Europe. In Hicks’s case – the United Kingdom. Hicks was big in England which comes as no surprise to me. First, the Brits know from funny, and second, they’re more accepting of an ‘in-your-face’, ‘no-holds-barred’, screaming comedian. This could be because they’re inherently more tolerant of free speech issues but it could also could be that Hicks’s comedy didn’t rip British culture to smithereens. His comedy ripped American culture to smithereens and the British public is always mad for a wee bit of that.

So Mark the Englishman, who loved Hicks, let me borrow the book. Once I dove into those pages, while baking there in the Spanish sun, I was a goner. I went way down the Hicks rabbit hole. That kind of thing happens to me. If I love a book, or a musician, or a movie, or a comedian, and their work really grips me, I can do little else. It’s obsessive, there’s no other way to put it.

And I was smitten with the work of Bill Hicks…

Americano! Going Solo, Part 2

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

GOING SOLO

2.

…If there is anything I learned from this first trip down to the spooky crossroads, the answer to that question is a resounding “NO!”

No. I. Can. Never. Go. Home. Again.

Ever.

And neither can you.

But why not, you ask? What is wrong with going back to your hometown and starting over again?

As far as I can see, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it. Nothing at all. But to ask the question in such a way, to frame it in terms of wrong or right is to miss the point entirely. While I was wallowing away, sputtering and paranoid, knee deep in my own personal crisis, on my knees at the crossroads and looking for a way out, I lay awake one entire night, sweating lightly and staring a hole into my ceiling, until, just as the sun wearily began to peak in and the birdies started singing, it finally dawned on me:

I can’t go home because I have no home.

I never had a home. And I will never have a home. Home, as a concept, as a philosophy, as a belief system, is, for a professional foreigner like me, an illusion.

Melodramatic, I know. And before you write me off as a miserably depressed guy, please just hear me out. When I was at my darkest moment, down there with my demons speaking softly to me, in the wee hours of the night, wide awake, the realization that I don’t have a home was not a sad and pathetic discovery.

On the contrary, my discovery was a liberation.

As the legend goes, bluesman Robert Johnson went down to the crossroads and made a deal with the Devil. Or he made a deal with the Lord. Either way, his soul was at stake and he fell to his knees to negotiate a way out of whatever mess he was in. Now, just like Robert Johnson and every single one of you dear readers, I was doing the same and it could have either been my Devil or my Lord that whispered some unforgettably precious words to me that night:

“David…there is no such thing as home…”

I am not a religious man, and I tend to believe the artist Keb’Mo when he sings, “I went down to the crossroads and there ain’t no devil down there…” But, on my grandmother’s grave, I swear… somebody was speaking to me that night. I could hear him, or her:

“David…there’s no such thing as home…”

When my mother and father flew with me on an airplane, just eight short days after my birth, and brought me to a new, faraway place, our new family home, they set my burgeoning life into perpetual motion. Of course, none of us knew it at the time but my life, my identity, would never, could never, will never, be fixed to one place. My wheels will forever be spinning, spinning, spinning, to the next stop on down the line.

In other words, I would be at home everywhere and, at the very same time, at home nowhere.

I would understand if you found this to be sad. I get it, I really do. Dave, the poor guy, is a guest at every single party. Crazy thing is, I don’t feel like a guest. I feel like I am at home pretty much anywhere. Put me in a tight spot and I will make friends. Force me to take a new job and I will succeed. Drop me in the middle of the goddamned Milky Way galaxy far, far away and I will keep on keeping on. Somehow, for me, this life of perpetual motion just works.

So I’d heard voices or seen visions. I’m not sure what happened that night, but I will never forget it. Either way, I woke up the next morning, my sheets soaked through with sweat, but knowing in every fibre of my being, one thing:

I wasn’t going anywhere.

I was gonna stay in Holland and ride this thing out. I knew, more than ever, that there was nowhere to run. I hunkered down and stayed put.

Logistically speaking, there were issues. I’d need to cut costs and find new clients. The fat cat days seemed to be behind me and I’d need to adapt to a new reality. But my teaching business would have to stay afloat. I’d make sure of it.

Sadly, there was serious collateral damage. In what I can only describe as the greatest failure in my life, amidst all the turmoil and revelations, my marriage of 15 years failed. We just didn’t make it. We gave it the old college try by going to therapy and everything. To no avail. Our ships had sailed too far from each other and the bridge could no longer be gapped. We were over and it hurt in a way that simple words can do no justice. On occasion, it still does.

And yet, despite it all – the pain, the demons, the insecurity – I did not run. I stayed.

Holland, and Europe, and the rest of the big, beautiful world, had become my home base now, no matter what. I was a professional foreigner and the world, corny as it may sound, was my only home…

Americano! Going Solo, Part 1.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

GOING SOLO

1.

…At the age of 32, I left the secure confines of gainful employment and all it entails, and set sail on my own. I knew I loved teaching and that I was good at it, but running my own business? I don’t think anybody can really know beforehand if they can succeed at running their own shop. I certainly didn’t. I had a hunch obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t have tried. But to know for sure? Forget about it. Anybody who says they know for sure is a big fat liar.

I started slowly, picking up just enough clients to keep the wolves at bay. I knew word-of-mouth was going to be my modus operandi. Advertising seemed futile and expensive and where would I even start? If I could plug into the network of people I’d met over the years and get the word out that I had put out my shingle, the phone would have to start ringing, wouldn’t it?

Not exactly.

It didn’t take long to figure out that my phone wasn’t going to ring without me doing anything to make it ring. I was going to need to pick up the phone myself and call people which, if you’ve ever done it, is a scary thing. I never believed in cold calling, especially in my business, so that wasn’t going to happen. Becoming someone’s private teacher, or coach, depends on trust and, if I was going to be able to help people, they would have to feel at ease making mistakes in front of me. It sounds simple but it’s hard to achieve. I had serious doubts about achieving that kind of trust in a cold call. I tried it over a period of time, after having done a sales course on cold calling, but I sold exactly nothing. Cold calling was out.

I needed referrals. Recommendations. Hook-ups. Somebody who told somebody who then told anybody that I was good and could help them. So I picked up the phone and reached out to people I knew. People who wanted to improve their English because they worked internationally, or knew someone else who worked internationally. It was a slow process. Not really tedious, just very slow burn. Make a call. Re-connect on the phone. Ask about their English needs. Meet for coffee. Present them with my solution to their problem and hope to close the deal.

It was hard, but I wasn’t half bad. I quickly realized that I did indeed enjoy the process of selling, which was something I’d never done before. Being a decent salesman was a necessary evil too because nobody was gonna give me any students. I was going to need to earn every single one of them.

And I did.

My little business grew. Eventually I landed a big fish in the form of an American biotech company with its European base in the Netherlands. I also hooked up with a major energy company here in Holland which kept me busy for several years. By the age of 36 I was a married man, a business owner, a home owner, and the father of two bustling baby boys. My life as a professional foreigner was going swimmingly. Of course, any life as an entrepreneur is filled with intermittent bits of anxiety and crippling “what-ifs”, especially for a guy like me, but things were going well. We paid our rent. We fed the kids. We went on vacation and put presents under the Christmas tree. It was, as the saying goes, the good life.

And then came 2008.

For reasons well beyond my capacity to understand, the bankers of Wall Street got a little ahead of themselves and the shit hit the fan. I will never comprehend how an entire global economy can just “crash”, but crash like a motherfucker it did. What does that even mean, crash? I had no idea. Clearly though, the financial markets were not healthy and honest, hard working people were losing their retirement funds. I was left trying to figure out how it was gonna get me too.

At first, my teaching business seemed to escape most of the devastation I was reading about every day. I still had my clients. I still had bookings several months into the future. So far, no panic.

Sure enough though, all hell started to break loose, one tiny, infintesimal drip at a time. Big international companies were feeling the heat. Shareholders were nervous. Costs were being cut. And, in the course of one utterly depressing month, the global financial crisis of 2008 finally reached my doorstep. Pretty much overnight, I lost my two biggest clients. Not because they were unhappy with my services. On the contrary. They were very happy with me. But, as everybody knows, when money gets tight, education and training are the first to go. My English courses were considered by management to be “non-essential investments”. It didn’t even matter if it was fair or unfair. It was just business, man. I had a few months left on the courses I was currently teaching but things were looking bleak.

No matter who you are, we all face an old-fashioned crisis at one time or another. If you live long enough, it’s going to happen. This was mine. Ours, actually. There were little mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay. As with any good crisis though, it’s not really the crisis itself but how you handle it. All philosophical bullshit aside, the best I could do was look inward and question the life I’d carved out as a professional foreigner, especially now that I was a small business owner with no safety net.

As I gazed into the proverbial navel, worried and afraid, I found myself at my own personal crossroads. This was it. I was 38, my livelihood was in jeopardy, my kids were still very young and compeletely dependant, my marriage was beginning to show signs of strain, and I couldn’t ignore any of that.

In my darker moments, when the Devil was clearly whispering into my ear, I figured the only way forward was to pull up my stakes, give up on my dream of living as a professional foreigner in a faraway country, and heading back “home”. My demons were in fact telling me to RUN! I thought I could go back to New Hampshire, maybe get a teaching job at my old high school. Maybe coach some high school basketball as I had been a successful basketball player myself. Maybe buy a humble abode on my old street, Coe Drive. I knew people back there in New England, people who cared for me and would most certainly want to help. I could convince my family in Holland that this was the moment to get real and to go back to where I came from. They would come with me and we would start anew with a steady and safe job, a steady and safe life, in a place that I knew, a place with less risk. We would go back to my home.

But we can never go home again. Can we?…

Americano! Celebrities and Dignitaries, Part 2.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

CELEBRITIES AND DIGNITARIES, PART 2

…Gerard.

Some stars just seem to float around the show biz galaxy for years and years and nobody is really sure why. They continue to shine but for doing what, exactly? This isn’t to diminish their talent, as some performers are so good at re-invention that we don’t even notice anything has really changed. We just continue to see the ‘good-ole star’. Such is the case with Holland’s very own Gerard Joling. Mr Joling got famous sometime between the Middle Ages and now, and has been famous ever since. He sings. He dances. He hosts. He pretty much does everything that needs to be done in order to present a television production to an audience. There is no debating that Gerard is one of the hardest working men in Dutch show business and has been since Jesus parted the Red Sea.

But if you try to put your finger on exactly what he does, you’ll find yourself at a loss for words. Safe to say, the man is a consummate professional and despite what you may think about his oeuvre, the tenacity required to achieve 30 + years of longevity in show business is monumental. Hats off to ya Gerard, you’re still on TV!

There is, however, one tidbit I’ve never been able to forget about my time with Gerard Joling. It happened during a conversation lesson when he came to our school. He had come to improve his English because of a musical project he would be working on in New York. Given that he’d had hit songs on the Dutch Top-40, and he clearly saw himself as a singer, I asked a simple question at the beginning of our second lesson:

“So, Gerard. Who are your biggest musical influences?”

To which he replied…with silence.

The man is a singer, but he couldn’t answer my question. I am more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and perhaps he had so many influences that he simply couldn’t name anybody, but I did find it rather odd that a singer couldn’t name any singers that had influenced him. Instead of answering my question he kind of hemmed and hawed, dropping the ubiquitous Madonna as a possible influence. He ended the conversation by saying, “actually my only influence is Gordon, hahahahahaha!!!!” For those you non-Dutch readers, Gordon is a fellow Dutch entertainer and a colleague that Gerard clearly has a love/hate relationship with. The have made several shows together, most of them unwatchable if you ask me, and their names have become forever entwined with each other.

Having effectively deflected my question, a technique he used frequently during our lessons, I was at a loss as how to keep him talking for 5 days of lessons. After all, if you can’t talk to a musician about music then you’re up shit’s creek without a paddle. So, it being a lovely day in the southern Netherlands, the chirp, chirp of birds filling my teaching room with sounds of Springtime, I asked him a simple question:

“Gerard, do you wanna go outside and take a walk?”

He sprung up so fast from his chair that he startled me. Clearly Mr. Joling had been feeling a little confined in my teaching room. Perhaps some leftover trauma from his own years at school?

“Ja!” he exclaimed. “Let’s go outside. It’s BEAUTIFUL OUTSIDE!”

Taking walks with something I often did with students. Sometimes the room just got a little too small and the student would freeze up with his or her English. A change of scenery was often the way to shake up his system and coax him back to talking. My lessons were 55 minutes long and I’d carved out a route in Vught that would take about 50 minutes to walk. Going outside wasn’t only a benefit to the student, it also helped me to feel re-invigorated about teaching again.

When I finally got ouside with Gerard, we began to walk my route. At one point, we passed near an elementary school. The kids were coming outside. They spotted us and immediately recognized the celebrity student I’d been teaching.

“GERARD JOLING!!!” they belted, seemingly in unison, and came bounding over to us. I was instantly overcome with a fight or flight response and proceeded to consider the few options available in order to quicly get the fuck out of Dodge.

But not Gerard.

He stood perfectly still…and waited. He’d obviously seen this before. Hell, he’d seen this for his entire adult life! He didn’t wanna run, he wanted to STAY!

And that’s when I knew. This is what Gerard does. He is just really fucking good at being famous. He was absolutely wonderful with those kids. He was…natural. He must have signed 30 autographs. Not only was he answering the kids’ questions, he was asking them questions as well, about school, about football, about their teachers. Within minutes, he’d charmed the socks off those kids and artfully managed to endear himself to them and end the conversation so that we could walk on. It was quite a performance.

The cynic in me would like to chalk up Gerard’s talent, his ease with those kids, his obvious pleasure in the exchange, to the kind of “superficial” celebrity often associated with Paris Hilton or the Kardashian clan. And maybe it is superficial. But maybe I’m just jealous. Maybe I would like to get all that attention, everywhere I go, and be able to handle it like I was having just the best goddamned time in my life. I’m inclined to believe that my aversion to his lack of musical heroes was a reflection of my own predudice. I’m just being a snob when I judge him for not knowing the difference between Bill Withers and Bill Wyman. Who knows? And ultimately, what does it matter? Gerard Joling made those kids, and himself, nothing but happy when we crossed paths all those years ago on a Sprintime walk in Holland. Isn’t that good enough?

Dinand. And Dennis.

When you think of Holland, you probably don’t think about rock & roll music. Holland has other more famous stereotypical things like windmills and tulips and wooden shoes. But like every culture, the Dutch need their rock stars. It doesn’t happen very often, but once in a blue moon a rock group pops out of the woodwork to captivate the country and rock their socks off. Arguably the most famous, and biggest, band to come out of Holland would be the legendary Doe Maar. Plying their trade by creating a solid form of reggae and ska topped off with Dutch lyrics (a novelty at the time), Doe Maar quickly found themselves on the receiving end of some Beatlemania type hysteria. Sold out shows, a merchandising craze in the form of buttons, and screaming girls. Lots of screaming girls. Doe Maar got so big that eventually, much like the Beatles, threw in the towel and disbanded for many years. When making music ends up not having much to do with making actual music, I can imagine it becomes quite a drag. Nobody want to be a puppet, am I right?

But in their day, Doe Maar was BIG.

Fast forward to twenty years later. The late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Two guys from The Hague accidentally forge a musical partnership and the rock band Kane is born. Possessed of a sound that encompasses the big guitar rock of U2 with the angsty intensity of Pearl Jam, Kane got very big, very fast.

Riding on the coattails of that success, the band’s front man Dinand and its lead guitar player, Dennis, arrived at our language school to brush up on their English. Being the founders of the band, Dinand and Dennis had grand plans and the big, bad world awaited. They knew their sound was “international” enough, and they already sang in English so it made sense that they aspired to take their sound over the border. Which meant that they needed to be ready do interviews, and concerts, and everything else a band does, in the English language.

As it turned out, the boys in the band arrived for their first day of school on a national holiday in the Netherlands: Queen’s Day. Former Queen Beatrix’s birthday is a beloved Dutch holiday which was then celebrated every year on April 30th. It’s a glorious day, one in which the entire country turns orange, flea markets abound, and Dutch people from all walks of life get terribly drunk and fall of their bikes. It’s one hell of a party. Queen’s Night, the evening before Queen’s Day is pretty raucous as well. DJs and live music fill the cities and villages and, in many cases, the festivities proceed until well into the wee hours.

Such was the case for Kane’s mysterious and charismatic lead singer the night before he arrived to start working on his English. I was scheduled to teach him at 10.30 which was also my first lesson of the day. Truth be told dear reader, my own liver was feeling rather pickled on that particular morning, so I was shaking off some cobwebs myself. But when it came time to teach Dinand, he was nowhere to be found. This wasn’t uncommon as students often struggled to find their way on Mondays, the first day of lessons. So I went looking for him.

I found him passed out on a couch at the end of my floor’s hallway. This was a first.

The throngs of insurance salesmen and logistics experts that I most often taught had the tedious habit of not passing out on couches at precisely the time that I’d be teaching them. They most often showed up early and hovered near my doorway until I invited them in (which, more often than not, annoyed the shit out of me). I found it quite that endearing that the rock star I was about to teach was sleeping off his hangover on a couch inside the school. Ha! Classy move, rock star! You get an “A for effort” as we say in America.

I didn’t need to wake him up and ask him if he was Dinand. Every single person within 100 square miles of this joint knew exactly who he was.

But I did have to wake him up. I reached out and nudged his shoulder, absolutely clueless as to how he would respond.

His eyes darted open and he sat right up. He had definitely been sleeping.

I reached out my hand and introduced myself, “Hi. My name is Dave. I’m your teacher this morning.” I said. “Can you believe they’re making us work on Queen’s Day???” I added, hoping to break the ice.

With God as my witness, Dinand, the biggest rock star to come from Holland in a long time, answered with these unforgettable words:

 “Well, I’m here aren’t I?”

Alrighty then…

Now before you misconstrue his words and think that maybe he was just trying to explain that he was now awake and ready to get started with the English lessons, I urge you to reconsider. Over time, I grew to like and respect Dinand during our time together, he is a good soul, but his remark at that very moment was 100% cocky rock star smokescreen. He was attempting to tell me that if he was to be gracing us with his presence, we better goddamned well be open on Queen’s Day!

It was an inauspicious beginning.

I invited him into the room. He schlepped himself off the couch, running a hand through his longish, dark hair and followed me in silence to my teaching room.

I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was insanely hungover and not entirely aware of what he said? Maybe his response was a defense mechanism that signalled his struggle to deal with his massive fame? Could it have been that he needed some kind of introductory manouever to weed out the brown nosers and gold diggers from the rest of the well meaning population? I’d forgive you for thinking that he was just being a dick, but as I learned throughout our lessons, he isn’t a dick. I’m not sure the reason for this strangest of first meetings with Dinand, but it wasn’t my job to create a confrontation (which is a good job for a guy like me as I’ve never had a problem deferring to the biggest ego in the room). My job was to welcome him, make him feel safe, and get him speaking English.

Mercifully, it wasn’t hard to get him talking. I quickly discovered that Dinand was an intelligent, curious person who also had the ability to listen which, I’m guessing, is somewhat rare in very famous people. Either way, I got him gabbing about music, film (his famous band’s name, Kane, was taken from the film Citizen Kane), the USA, the Netherlands, pretty much anything. He was a quick learner and we had good fun. Eventually he and his band’s co-founder Dennis, who was also studying at our school at the time, invited me to join them for lunch. They were also kind enough to invite me to the band’s practice room in Leiden. I took them up on the offer and went to watch them practice. As a musician it was exciting to get a behind the scenes glimpse at the workings of a big time band. Safe to say, they had a pretty sweet set up. Their jam room was much more than a stuffy overheated garage. It was more of an airy warehouse, funky loft type joint with a little kitchen and couches and lots of space and a legitimate PA being worked by a soundman and band girlfriends from exotic faraway places like Denmark. If this was the bigtime then the bigtime is not half bad. A man could infinitely spoiled, in a very short time, in a place like this. There were Kane haters in Holland that would argue that the band didn’t deserve such spoils, but nobody gave it to them for nothing. They earned every square meter of what they had. And they didn’t have to invite me there. That was an act of generosity and I appreciated it wholeheartedly.

There were other famous people that came to our school. I highly enjoyed working with a well known music/TV personality with whom I shared a common love for Jeff Buckley’s 1995 album Grace. I particularly loved her dishing about taking XTC with her even more famous TV news/enfant terrible boyfriend at the time and going to see Jeff Buckley in concert. She was also kind enough to compliment lyrics I had written for my own band, and even shared that she liked a bit of gentle biting during sex. I don’t remember how the subject of fetishes came up during the lesson, but I certainly have never forgotten that spicy little detail.

There was the time my student, the very famous actress, was struggling with some kind of mysterious stomach ailment and, in an attempt to soothe her affliction, proceeded to lay on the floor for the entire two hour session. Just so you know, the other students, none of whom were famous show business personalities, simply sat in their chairs. She participated while lying horizontally on the floor because the show must go on!

There was the time the then President of the Democratic Republic of Georgia came to learn English. Despite his lofty position, he was a man so devoid of personality and charm that he might as well have been embalming dead bodies in a funeral home in Siberia. To top off the jovial atmosphere during our very stinted lessons, one of his bodyguards stood outside the door while he sat inside hopelessly trying to learn the simple past tense.

There was the time I inadvertently infuriated the wife of a very famous Dutch politician by “outing” her as a student at our school. I apparently complicated her attempts to fly under the radar during her time at the school by mentioning her name to another student. It was an honest mistake, she was pissed, my boss was caught in a tight spot, and I felt like a dumb-ass.

There were others. Reality TV creators, business tycoons, bluebloods, footballers. But despite the celebrities and dignitaries, we mostly taught mid-level managers, salary slaves and working stiffs just like you and me. The glamour of the celebrities was exciting but the normal folks were the meat and potatoes of our operation. We all taught and learned from each other and it was a goddamned good gig.

I taught English at the Nuns in Vught for nine years. I learned how to be a professional foreigner there. After teaching more lessons and meeting more people than I could ever hope to count, I began to grow weary of our teaching philosophy. Our school, and most adult language schools, teach foreign language by using a “total immersion” concept. In other words, the students spend the whole day working on the target language without being able to escape. It’s a bit of a force feeding concept in which a massive amount of constant exposure to the target language will invade the student’s brains and lead to dramatic improvement. I’m not so sure. Lemme put it this way: if you need to learn some Italian really fast, in order to fly down to Italy and impress your business contacts or brand new in-laws, the total immersion concept will definitely work for you. For a short period of time anyway. It’s like a dose of botox – it’ll keep the wrinkles at bay for a bit, but you’ll need to come back for more. For those of you looking for more long term improvement, I just don’t believe in the total immersion concept. I believe in a kind of slow cook method in which you speak the target language in the real world, make mistakes, go back to your teacher, learn the right way, go back into the world and try again, after which you’ll make more mistakes and repeat as necessary.

Once I figured out my very own way of teaching I handed in my letter of resignation and started a little teaching business called House of English. Being a solo entrepreneur instead of a contracted cast member at the famous language school, I basically hit the road and taught English lessons in every corner of the Netherlands. My target group was essentially the same as at the school, minus the famous people, and I made house calls. I’d come to your office, your club, your home, wherever you wanted me to come and I’d teach you English over the course of many weeks and months. I still do this kind of work and it never gets old. To me, there’s something very special about watching people get better over a long period of time…

Americano! Celebrities and Dignitaries, Part 1.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

CELEBRITIES AND DIGNITARIES, PART 1

Fame is a strange commodity. Given your particular view of the world, famous people may float your boat, or leave you cold. Whatever your proclivities, there is no doubt that celebrity sells. That said, as a consequence of having taught some very famous Dutch people during my time at the school, I’m about to drop some very famous Dutch names. If you’re Dutch, you may find my stories about your homegrown celebrities a fun thing to read. If you’re not Dutch you’ll have absolutely no idea who I’m talking about. Should that be the case I say this: either skip this section about my life as a professional foreigner teaching famous Dutch people, or read it as an instructional tale about the ways and whims of people privileged enough to be “celebrated”. It’s up to you, dear reader.

However you might feel about fame, this much remains true: what’s big in Japan might not even register in Brazil. Fame has boundaries. Sure, some stars are bright enough to shine across the universe, but it doesn’t happen very often. Trump. Obama. Oprah. Tiger. Messi. Ronaldo. Everybody knows them. But there are countless levels below that brightness which still bestow their owners with influence, power, and prestige.

And so it is in the Holland. The Dutch have an expression, “world famous in Holland”. The point being, one can become a household name in the Netherlands, but travel just a few hours in any direction, towards Belgium or Germany, and that fame melts away like an ice cream cone in the desert. The Dutch use the expression “world famous in Holland” as an attempt to convey to Dutch celebrities that, should they get too big for their britches, reality will slap them back down. The Dutch, reserved though they may be, are not immune to fame but their celebrities understand that anonymity is just a Sunday drive away.

All this being said, our language school attracted the most famous people in Dutch entertainment, business, and politics. Our school didn’t have an explicit strategy for attracting celebrities and dignitaries, but it happened anyway. We got the best and brightest, week in and week out.

After several months of teaching, my boss seemed to think that I’d be a good guy to teach the famous people. I think it was a combination of circumstances: I was the youngest teacher, at 24. I was American. I was into music. I made no secret of my fondness for partying. I had to admit that I liked the idea even though I didn’t know any of the famous people involved. Teaching the celebrities was considered a glamourous assignment at our school so I, and a few other teachers, took it as a compliment that we were given the opportunity.

As fate would have it, being ignorant of a particular famous person’s fame is the best to place to start when preparing to teach them. Because I didn’t know who they were, it most often invited them to let their guard down. I wasn’t pretending not to know them either – I simply hadn’t been in the country long enough to become aware of their talents. And this was pre-internet so I couldn’t just google the famous person and binge watch their work on YouTube. I obviously asked around to find out more but that’s not near as exciting as knowing the person or their work before meeting them.

Bart.

The first famous Dutch person I taught was a television presentor, creator, and producer named Bart de Graaff. Bart had become a household name in the Netherlands for a combination of reasons. As a young boy he’d been involved in a serious car accident which caused him to suffer from serious renal failure for all of his life. As a result, he developed a growth disorder which basically meant that his body remained the size of a twelve year old, while his emotional maturity continued to evolve. Interestingly, Bart used his unique physical situation to create highly watchable television. Put another way, his boyish appearance allowed him to get away with asking interview subjects fiercely blunt questions. People never saw it coming and, before they knew it, they were answering his loaded questions.

I saw Bart’s special disarming technique the first day that I was scheduled to teach him. Our lesson was planned for 1:30 pm, right after lunch. In the recreation room, where students drank coffee and unwound between lessons, there was a ping-pong table. The table was hugely popular among students and teachers which made it hard to get a turn to play. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to play. I arrived early for work that first day with Bart and headed to the rec room. I walked in to find Bart negotiating his way into a game by using his diminutive size. Two guys were in the middle of a heated battle, but Bart wanted to play too and kept pestering the men to give him a chance. Fearless as ever, Bart blurted out to the bigger of the two men, “hey – how about we do this? If you can beat me at one point, I’ll wait my turn. But if I beat you, I get the table.”

The man took the bait. Given Bart’s celebrity status and his loud mouth, a crowd had started to develop. It seemed that every other student waiting around for class had now taken notice of the little guy at the ping-pong table.

Bart grabbed a paddle and positioned himself at the far end of the table. The big man, who’d been playing, and winning, for a long while, chuckled to himself when he saw that Bart barely seemed tall enough to be able to see the ball coming. Bart was tiny.

The man sliced a backhand serve across the net. Bart timed his return perfectly and smashed a crosscourt forehand back over the net, the ball zipping past the man and slapping into the wall behind the table.

Point for Bart! The man gladly shook his hand and surrendered the table. Bart never looked back. He held court at that table every lunch time for the entire two weeks of his English course. As his teacher, I was honored to play a game with him after every one of our lessons. He was an excellent player. But I held my own and beat him a few times. No matter who won, we drew a crowd every time and the more people came to watch the better Bart played.

A striking thing I noticed about Bart during our lessons was that he never sat down. His body was the perfect size to just stand and reach on the table to write and read his books, similar to the way my son Timo, who is eleven, would do. He wasn’t self-conscious about it either. He just stood there and that was fine with him. Fine with me too.

Once we got into the basics of English grammar and vocabulary, I noticed that Bart possessed a blazing intelligence. The man was smart and he picked up on new concepts very quickly. When he didn’t understand things, he asked immediately and wouldn’t move on until he truly understood the answer. Some students would pretend they understood in the hopes that I would just continue and not challenge them too much. I admit there were times when I did that very thing in order to keep the ball rolling which, as a teacher, is not the best thing to do. But it happens. Bart was having none of that. He would ask and ask and ask until I made it clear enough for him to get it. It was a trait I began to recognize in other celebrities that came to our school.

 

Americano! Night Job, Part 2.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

NIGHT JOB

2.

…A few nights later, we met and drank many beers in a now defunct watering hole called Cafe de Buut in Eindhoven, a bar where local legend Ad van Meurs – may his soul rest in peace – and musical angel Ankie Keultjes, had a flourishing Monday night residence. Upon meeting, it was clear that Donnie and I were different human beings. He was classically trained. I was self-taught. He was from the South. I was from the North. He loved GWAR. I loved the Grateful Dead. He was more punk. I was more hippie.

None of those differences mattered. We hit it off. Meeting Donnie was one of those transitional moments that every life has; our new lives in Holland now included making music.

The band got to work immediately. I played rhythm guitar, Donnie played lead. We both sang. We both wrote songs. We found a Dutch bass player, Irene, and a Dutch drummer, Eugene. They were as ambitious as we were. We lined up a practice room at a local foundation for musicians, known as Paraplu. We agreed to rehearse twice a week, on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights, for three hours per session. In the final act that makes a band complete, we decided on our name: Grinn. Initially we decided to call ourselves Grin, after the cheeky smile, but it turns out guitar player Nils Lofgren had a band with that same name. So we added an “n” and made it Grinn.

It was an awful name.

Choosing band names, however, is not easy. In fact, it’s extremely difficult to come up with an exceptional band name. There are very few of those: Soundgarden. Sex Pistols. The Dandy Warhols. The Rolling Stones. Beastie Boys. The Roots. A Tribe Called Quest. The Clash. Names that evoke the band’s sound and, at the same time, have some kind of edge. Of course, conventional thinking goes, if the music is good enough, the name doesn’t matter, hence shitty band names such as: The Beatles. Pearl Jam. The Grateful Dead. Earth, Wind, and Fire. Phish. They Might Be Giants. Bullshit names, every one of them. And yet it doesn’t matter because the music is good. We were not slowed down by our sucky name. We wrote and practiced and went looking for gigs. It didn’t take too long. Within 6 months we found some places to play.

Before this tale descends into some sad story of broken dreams and bitter musicians, I’ll give it to you straight: Grinn never “made it”. But you couldn’t have told us that at the time. We were as driven as any rock & roll quartet and we worked our asses off. Saying “yes” to every gig, no matter how small or soul-assassinating, became our modus operandi. We believed in a simple philosophy: play live and do everything yourself. We realized that nobody is ever coming to discover anybody. It almost never works that way.

Which was pretty noble of us.

In retrospect, we never really had a legitimate chance of signing a record deal, or going on tour, but not because we weren’t talented. My take is that our sound was a little too diverse, made up of our differing influences without really meshing into one definable sound. We’d bounce back and forth between funk, “grunge”, punk, esoteric Zappaesque type noodlings, pop, and blues. Ours was a busy canvas. It would have been hard for a record company to make any money with us and that, dear reader, is the most bottom of bottom lines.

But it didn’t matter. We were too busy playing. It must be said that we generated a decent little local following. We had some fans. We played a few festivals. We played a few legendary Dutch clubs. We did ok, man.

The most important thing for me though, was that playing in the band became yet another way to continue my career as a Professional Foreigner. Regardless of what you may or may not believe about music, singing is acting, and that’s why it was an extension of my Professional Foreigner career. I was standing in front of people, playing a role, and using my culture to define that role.

As for a singer who is acting, it’s obvious when you see an artist like David Bowie performing as Ziggy Stardust, or KISS in their glory days. Those musical artists were just as much theater as rock. But any singer who steps up to a microphone and attempts to sing a song is also playing a character. Perhaps several different characters in one night. The point of singing is for the singer to convey the emotion. That requires acting. Even for the most non-theatrical artists.

In our band, my, and Donnie’s, act was to “be American”. The context may have been different than teaching conversation English to business executives during the day, but the “act” was the same. Donnie and I both got to play the role. In Eindhoven, the Netherlands, at that time, there weren’t any bands that consisted of two American musicians that had found each other after moving to Holland. We had a unique story.

This was a mixed blessing.

On the one hand, as I mentioned before, American musicians playing music outside of America, in any genre, have street cred. Although the merits of this reputation could be argued, there’s no doubt that America is perceived as the rock&roll nation. Fact is, when you get outside of America, as a performing musician, foreign audiences have expectations. We owe a great debt to those American artists that spread the message of rock&roll to every corner of the globe. Those musicians were missionaries and they gave a priceless gift to the world.

We used the reputation wholeheartedly. We figured there was no reason to shy away. If our forefathers had paved the way by convincing Europeans that Americans rock, who were we to blow that off? If people wanted to give us more credibility as as band because we were (50%) American, that was just fine.

There was another side to the same coin, however.

If we were so good, having been reared on rock in the USA, why were we local artists playing in small bars in a Southern Dutch province, for 15 people on a Wednesday night?

Fair question.

Our situation was a bit like an English guy moving to the States and becoming a hot-shit local soccer coach, his pedigree as an Englishman boosting his reputation in the area. But then one day, Manchester United comes to town to play an exhibition match against the local MLS team and, well, you get the picture. If the English guy was so good, why wasn’t he playing, or coaching, for Man U?

So we were stuck between people liking that we were American and hating that we were American. On stage though, I definitely played the Performer American card. I talked a lot between songs, unafraid of the audience. I only spoke English. I had learned a few Dutch words and sayings in the meantime but I didn’t use them onstage. Our shows were an “English-Only” zone. I regularly reminded the audience that they should be drinking more. I asked them to bring shots up to the stage. I told them they should be tipping the bartenders. None of these typical American bar band techniques worked very well on a Dutch audience because Dutch people don’t generally drink a lot of shots and they don’t tip much either. But so what, here we were, up on stage in Holland, jamming out! If people thought we were obnoxious for yelling , “shots!” on stage, so be it. We came to party, so let’s get it on.

The next morning, I’d go back and teach Dutch businessmen how to speak English. Without really knowing it, the yin and yang of teaching and playing in the band began to feed off of each other. As an English teacher I was legitimate because I was American and as a musician I was legitimate because of the very same fact…