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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…

 

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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…

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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…

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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…

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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?…

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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…

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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.

 

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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…

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Americano! Night Job, Part 1

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

NIGHT JOB

1.

… I loved my job at that school. It taught me the ins and out of using my identity as a foreigner to make a living. The endless hours of conversation were an invaluable gift; it taught me volumes about myself, but it also taught me about the hearts and minds of others. Perhaps most importantly, it paid my rent and allowed me to take my Professional Foreigner act to the stage, in pursuit of my original dream, with my soon-to-be partners in crime, in a rock & roll band of our very own.

A quick word about music and Americans: when we leave the United States and travel around the world, certain things stick to us like glue. Pop culture. Sports. Politics. Everybody loves and hates our Presidents, especially these days. But there is one thing, one beautiful, undeniably American thing that we carry with us wherever we go: the almighty power of good ole rock & roll. Some would say it started with Chuck Berry, or Elvis, or even further back with Robert Johnson. Who knows? Who cares? Fact is, when Americans carry the stars and stripes into the world, we become an ambassador for rock. Some do it better than others, but we all get to do it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most American musicians, regardless of genre or ethnicity, are proud of our rock & roll heritage.

Music got its hooks in me early. I remember sitting in my humble bedroom as a seven year old boy in Plano, Texas, the pesky sun blasting through the windows, listening to my parents’ records: Elton John. Fleetwood Mac. Bruce Springsteen. Michael Jackson. The Beatles White Album. Chuck Mangione. Electric Light Orchestra. My beloved Nana Mangene gave me my very first record: The Bee Gees Saturday Night Fever, which was her gift to me for my first holy communion. I ripped it open and dashed to my bedroom, playing the album over and over on my little turntable. Stayin’ Alive, How Deep is Your Love, More Than A Woman, If I Can’t Have You, Jive Talkin’. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t get enough.

As I rolled into my early teens, I listened to 80’s hip-hop by The Fat Boys, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Slick Rick, Run-D.M.C., and eventually Beastie Boys, Ice-T and N.W.A. Hip-hop and rap were sweeping the world and even though we were white boys from New Hampshire, maybe because we were white boys from New Hampshire, we fell in love with hip-hop too.

But it wasn’t until I graduated from high school in 1988 that a gift from my Aunt Anne changed everything. In a move so gracious that it defies imagination, my Aunt gave me her vintage Takamine acoustic as a graduation gift and, after that, nothing was ever the same.

I had tried to play guitar before, when I was around 10, but it didn’t stick. Playing that first guitar hurt my fingers and I couldn’t get my little hand around the fret board. As I moved into puberty, I started to hang out with more musical friends, guys that actually played instruments and songs. Guys that were in bands. I enjoyed hip-hop, but there was no scene around us where kids were actually making that kind of music. Lots of kids had acoustic guitars, though, and it seemed like the coolest thing in the world to sit around playing one.

So, even though I was a committed and successful athlete, the “jocks” weren’t really my best friends. My heart was with the musicians. My friends had a band in high school called Nevada. They played classic rock cover tunes at school dances and local “Battle of the Bands”. I followed them wherever they went, voraciously listening, picking up a guitar and strumming here and there.

During the summer of 1988, after graduation, I cared about little else than that Takamine guitar. I disappeared into chord progressions and pentatonic scales and song books. I asked my friend Adam, a guitar God if ever there was one, to teach me. He said yes. He taught me out on my porch, in the early evening light of a humid New Hampshire summer. I paid his teaching fee with tickets to see the Grateful Dead in Saratoga Springs, New York. Out there on my porch, Adam teaching me the ropes, mosquitoes may have been swarming hungrily in pursuit of our blood but nothing, nothing, could tear me from that guitar. I was smitten.

I wanted to play in a band. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to pile into a van and drive to shitty little shows in shitty little bars. Even though being an athlete had been most of my identity up ‘till then, sports had little pull over me anymore. Now, it was all music, all the time.

Fast forward to my burgeoning life in Holland and, as you know, my day job as a conversation teacher with the nuns was going swimmingly. As weeks rolled into months, I’d earned the respect of my peers and, most importantly, the respect of my students. My work at the institute gave me the means to enhance my life in Holland. I was a happy man.

My schedule was ideal: I started my first lesson at 11:30 a.m, had an hour lunch break and then did four straight lessons until 5:30. Once a week I taught an evening session from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. The late starting time was perfect for milking every second out of the glorious night. As fate would have it, rock & roll is mostly a nighttime pursuit and I now had a situation in which I could be in a band at night and still have a few hours to recover in the morning, before getting on a train to my day job.

I put up an advertisement at a local music store in Eindhoven. One guy responded: Donnie Duvall. He was an American from Richmond, Virginia who had moved to the Netherlands to be with his Dutch girlfriend, Ellie. Donnie was a conservatory trained musician and, even though I didn’t know it yet, a nasty-ass guitar player. I called him immediately.

We arranged to meet…

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Americano! The Nuns In Vught, Part 4.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE NUNS IN VUGHT

4.

“So, Wim…how are you today?” I’d say in an attempt to get the conversation started.

“…uhm…uhm…ok.” He’d say, the sweat already departing his temples and heading for his cheek.

“Right. Glad to hear you’re doing ok. Did you have a good night’s sleep at the hotel?” I’d ask, keeping my question closed so that he only needed to answer with one word.

“…uhm… no. Ok.” He’d say, catching himself after the word “no” knowing that, by mentioning a bad night’s sleep, I’d be forced to ask a follow up question as to why he’d slept poorly. The “ok” in his answer was an attempt to put me off the trail.

“Ok Wim, can I have a quick look at your white card?” I’d ask, nodding at his bag, the card hidden inside.

“… card?” He’d answer, reaching up to wipe the sweat.

This would go on for several minutes. Poor Wim. Pulling teeth took an extra set of skills to remedy the situation, none of which included the assortment of drugs a real dentist could give to a patient.

I had to do it the old-fashioned way: patience, compassion, and acceptance. The key here was not to fight against it. If the student was stuck, the student was stuck. I had a few options. First, if it was a Dutch student, I could speak to them in Dutch. This went against company policy. Our strategy was “total immersion” and speaking in your native language was considered a no-no. In the old days, a student speaking his native language in a foreign language lesson was likely the moment a nun pulled out her ruler and whacked the student’s hand. Fortunately we’d let go of that teaching technique, however. During my first few years at the school, I hadn’t yet learned Dutch so it wasn’t a solution anyway. Once I learned Dutch, I did have the option but it was a double-edged sword. Allowing the student to speak Dutch gave them some freedom, but the whole point was for them to learn English and if we spent the entire lesson speaking Dutch, their English wouldn’t improve. The last thing I wanted was for a student to leave the room conscious of how much Dutch we spoke. So falling back on Dutch as a remedy was a last resort.

A second remedy I used when pulling teeth was simply to drop the pretense of talking about “business” and talking instead about something the student loved. Football, travel, their kids, money, Holland – you name it. In many ways that is the core of being a Professional Foreigner: find whatever makes their rockets fly, and talk about that. Many students were so brain cramped by the idea that they were at the school to improve their “business English”, that they forgot to talk about the simple things. Everybody can talk about something they love. It’s human nature.

As I became more and more comfortable with the concepts of mileage and pulling teeth, I began to play my American cards more frequently. When students told me they had been to New York, I was always able to play the “Friendly American” card. I was genuinely interested in the student’s opinions about America and, as they told of their adventures, we laughed and had a grand ole time. The Friendly American was probably the easiest card for me to play because it is close to my true nature. I, and most of my fellow Americans, are naturally friendly people. But friendly I mean we smile and laugh heartily, we avoid rudeness and we exude a general ease with strangers. Friendliness has always been the face America shows to the world.

But not all my students responded to friendliness.

Since America’s participation in the liberation of Europe in May of 1945, the trans-atlantic alliance has been the guiding light in western freedom and democracy. Put another way, America and Europe are friends. Sure, there are occasional moments of strain in our “special relationship”, but the bonds that tie us are solid. Having said that, there is a pocket of humanity in Europe that is not entirely on board with the American narrative. As I pointed out in the introduction to this book, some people just don’t dig us. It could be our isolationist tendencies, or our arrogant “super power” strutting, or, even simpler, a lack of affinity for “American positivity”. No matter the reason, during my work as a teacher and Professional Foreigner, I met a few souls that made it all too clear they’d rather stab themselves in the eyeball than embrace Americana. For moments like those, I learned quickly to play a different card.

Conflict has never been my cup of tea. If you give me some wiggle room, I’ll find a way out of confrontation. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed either. For whatever reason, it is who I am.

But, like it or not, there are times when fire can only be fought with fire. Sometimes, I simply had to push back with a student, because it was the only language he (they were almost exclusively men) understood. Keeping in mind that walking away, or silence, were not an option during a conversation lesson, I would lob a couple of bombs across the table and wait for the dust to clear.

The most common sticking point was inevitably American politics. American intervention in the Middle East, American intervention in Eastern Europe, American intervention in general. The American Government does indeed have a way of becoming entrenched in other peoples’ affairs, for better or for worse, and my students’ had opinions about that. When I came up against a classic anti-American, I most often played the “Fearlessly Optimistic American”. In other words, I listened to my student’s world view, his cynicism about America, and offered up words of hope. I didn’t disagree, as that was to smother the fire. Instead, I indulged his opinions ever more deeply, and countered with the fact that someone had to intervene, and America always got the call. I suggested that, no matter what, American ingenuity would prevail. It didn’t matter if I agreed with my own words as, again, the point was to keep my student talking. You may call this disingenuous, and perhaps it is, but my role as a Professional Foreigner was to encourage conversation, no matter what.

Interestingly, the vast majority of anti-American students backed down almost immediately. As it turns out there are very few true fanatics out there. A slight bit of compassion would go a long way towards finding some gray area in a man’s world view. After all, a proper terrorist wouldn’t have been at our school, learning English in the first place. So how bad could they really be? By the end of a week’s worth of lessons, I always found some kind of common ground even if it was as simple as soccer or Dutch food…

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