TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER
BY DAVE MANGENE
CELEBRITIES AND DIGNITARIES, PART 2
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?”
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…