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Americano! The Nuns In Vught, Part 3.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE NUNS IN VUGHT

3.

… As a teacher, my modus operandi was relatively straightforward. When the student first arrived at my little room for the lesson, we’d introduce ourselves, shake hands, sit down, and get to talking. I was teaching lessons in the afternoon so, by the time a student made it to my room, they’d already been told about me. Most likely they’d been told, by one of the British teachers in the morning, that I was American. Usually, the conversation started like this:

“Well it’s nice to meet you Wim” I said.

“Uhm, yes. Nice to meet you too.” Wim answered. “You don’t talk like de other teachers” Wim countered.

“What do you mean Wim?” I asked, knowing full well.

“You are American. They are British” he said, proud he’d spotted the difference.

“Yes. Yes, I am. Have you ever been to America?” I asked.

My first move in the game. It seems an innocuous question, but there is plenty to learn from the response. The most common response to this question?

“Yes” he’d say, “I have been to America. To New York!”

The Big Apple. If I had a nickel for every Dutch person that had been to New York…

The counter-productive response to his answer would be for me to say, “but New York isn’t really America…” Never mind that it might be true. The point is to keep the conversation going and telling a student that New York wasn’t exactly the Blue Ridge Mountains would only discourage them. In short, it would shut them up and that is exactly what I didn’t want.

“New York City, the city that never sleeps” I answered, happy for him.

His trip to NYC meant a few things. First, and perhaps most importantly, he wasn’t anti-American. He was open to the culture. Second, he’d been influenced by popular culture. He’d seen movies, he’d watched television, he’d listened to music and he wanted to see the great New York. Third, his visit to Manhattan didn’t instruct him too thoroughly about American culture because he’d been to the bluest of blue states and felt nothing of the red state narrative. He was in the bubble.

But the bubble didn’t matter much. He’d been to New York and that gave me some mileage. Mileage, among us conversation teachers, was slang for “conversational material”. Knowing that we’d be spending five hours with each student, we needed stuff to talk about so we were always on the lookout for mileage. With enough mileage, those five hours of conversation lessons would cruise by. Easy money. On those desperate occasions where students didn’t provide much mileage, five hours was longer than two lifetimes.

With the “New York” people, I’d go straight to the tourist mileage. Had they been to the Statue of Liberty? Had they been to the Empire State Building? Ground Zero? The whole issue of 9/11, although a politically loaded topic, was guaranteed for at least 15 minutes of mileage. Fifteen minutes might not seem like a lot of time to you, but it was a good chunk of any conversation lesson, and worthy of some genuine mileage. With a particularly curious student, 9/11 could even get an entire lesson’s worth of mileage which was always the best result. To keep my student talking for an entire hour, on one subject – that was the holy grail.

During lessons, I wrote the student’s mistakes down. I did it without interrupting them, simply writing their exact words in quotes, while never losing eye contact. Over time I got very proficient at writing legible words without looking at the paper. Students would even get used to me writing down their mistakes, the act of me picking up my pen being a signal that said “a mistake was just made”. With the best students, me reaching for my pen was all they needed; as soon as I did it, they corrected themselves. Just like that.

At the end of the lesson, I had to write down what we’d done on the student’s “white card”. The card was a mini-folder that we used as a record of the lessons. It was a way for each teacher to report to the other teachers what had been done during the lesson. If I spent an hour talking about New York for example, I’d write: “great conversation about New York, 9/11, terrorism. Student making good progress!” It wasn’t rocket science, and it was perhaps a bit superficial, but it did the trick. My fellow teachers knew what was going on, and the student got a wee bit of encouragement.

If “mileage” was the precious commodity I sought as a conversation teacher, “pulling teeth” or “being a dentist” was the third ring of Dante’s Inferno. Put bluntly, pulling teeth meant a student would not, or could not, talk. The pressure of speaking English, the presence of an “authority” figure, a cramped room – it sometimes added up to a student who froze in fear. First and foremost, I felt for these students. They did not have an easy time of it. They would break out in what comedians eloquently refer to as “flop sweat” – meaning they were failing at the task and it was making them sweat. I never cursed these folks. It was my job as a teacher to encourage them to talk, and I had zero interest in shaming them into talking. That approach wouldn’t have worked anyway. If a guy’s brain shut down due to the pressure, no amount of force would do any good. So, I didn’t think lesser of them.

But it was still tricky situation. A “pulling teeth” situation sounded like this…

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Americano! The Nuns In Vught, Part 2.

…The next morning I took the teaching job. I started working shortly thereafter. One minor detail, I had no idea what I was doing. You could arguably consider my lack of knowledge as a hindrance. On the other hand, being clueless about the job seemed a trivial reason to doubt myself. It never stopped Trump!

I did get a bit of on-the-job training from my boss Imogen, which was nice. We had a few training sessions together which consisted of me creating a lesson plan and getting her approval. That done, she gave me the big thumbs up, “terribly excited” that I could start so soon. Apparently they really did need people. Starting the job so quickly, this, my friends, was the deep end. I was to begin the following Monday.

The school ran a successful “crash course” operation. Students, or course members as we were instructed to call them, were adults who needed to improve their English in order to do business internationally. As the teachers liked to say, our students were Holland’s “best and brightest” and “captains of industry” and “celebrities”. Part of that was true. We attracted more than a few VIPs. But the bulk of our student body were middle managers looking to improve their careers. They arrived at the institute on Monday morning at 8:00 a.m. and left the following Friday at 5:00 p.m. Every day they had four private conversation lessons, plus two hours of self-study and two hours in the multi-media language lab. On Tuesday and Thursday evenings they had an evening program which consisted of eating dinner in the target language (we taught English, Dutch, German, French, Spanish, and Italian), and doing a small group activity for two hours. It was an intense program, designed to totally immerse the student in the target language. Back in the old days, the nuns apparently ran the school like a convent and “locked” the students inside, hiding them away from the prying eyes of the outside world. Whether this was true or not, the reputation stuck and our students usually arrived expecting to be smacked on the knuckles and condemned to studying until they got it right.

My first job at the school was as a “conversation teacher”. In technical terms, my purpose was to create a safe learning environment in which the student felt encouraged to use the target language in an active way. In reality it meant: no matter what, keep the student talking. I was getting paid to talk. Ha!

Getting someone to “just talk” might seem simple but, I can assure you, to do it properly is an art. By properly I mean this: the student actually speaks. In addition, the student doesn’t feel “talked down” to, understands what you’re saying, takes risks, makes less mistakes, has fun, and grows in confidence, all the while remaining blissfully unaware that he was being taught anything at all. Piece of cake, right?

In your dreams, pal. To do it well is hard work.

As with anything, at first I sucked. I made the cardinal mistake that most conversation teachers make in the beginning: I talked too much. I was nervous and, as a result, I gabbed like a mafia rat. Obviously this is bad. The point of a conversation lesson is to allow the student to converse. The teacher is supposed to shut up, listen, and occasionally ask an effective question, when the time is right. Unfortunately, I was unaware of the mistake I was making. I made it through several lessons until a blunt Dutchman, Pieter – a man who was moving to Canada to start a dairy farm, stood up at the end of our lesson and loudly proclaimed: “DAVE, WHEN YOU ARE ASKING ME DE QUESTION, YOU MUST NOT BE TALKING THERE AFTER. YOU MUST THEN LETTING ME TO BE TALKING, YES?!”

 His grammar was atrocious, but his message was clear. I took the hint.

From that day forward, my teaching began to improve. Rather quickly, I made an important discovery: people love to talk about themselves. Imagine that! Dutch people particularly love to talk about their opinions, of which they have many. It’s part of Dutch culture. In Holland, if you never have an opinion or speak up about anything, you’re considered slightly suspicious, as in “we never know what that guy is thinking…”.

So my task was to extract my students’ opinions and what is that wee thing that everybody always has an opinion about? The United States of America, of course!

Thanks to Pieter the dairy farmer’s blunt advice, I changed my style of teaching. I started listening. My improved listening skills allowed me to catch a glimpse of my student’s view of the world and, once I did, I dropped my first American card, and the conversation took off.

Armed with the knowledge that most people enjoy talking about themselves, as well as knowing that American culture is a topic that will get even the dryest son of a bitch talking, I threw myself into my teaching. In an inspired bit of late night brainstorming, I decided to see my students as my fellow players in an intricate game, the game of conversation. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a negative way of framing the lessons for my students. I was proud of every single one of them for, at the very least, aspiring to improve their English skills. It’s an admirable thing, bettering yourself. Not everybody is willing to endure the vulnerability necessary to get better at something, much less something as intricate and complicated as a foreign language. But by imagining my students as players in a game, I was able to turn the lesson into a fun adventure, a kind of challenge, rather than a tedious “lesson”. This would become particularly useful in later years as a way of breaking the tedium of teaching so many lessons in a row. The object of the “game” was for me to make the student speak better English. My role was to prod them ever forward, one baby step at a time, until it was too late for them not to realize that they’d made progress…

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Americano! The Nuns In Vught, Part 1

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE NUNS IN VUGHT

1.

I woke with a new resolve.

My dad, who had recently started a new business, offered to take me on a few sales trips. His new game was distributing footwear and maybe it could be a gig for me too. We hit the road, together. After a couple of appointments it was clear there was no work for me. But it wasn’t for lack of trying. My dad was very generous to include me in his new venture, but it was slim pickins. He had his hands full trying valiantly to get a new business off the ground. But, for me anyway, it wasn’t happening. You can’t beat a dead horse. Time for plan B.

In the years that my mother had been living in Holland, she’d met a few foreign women who taught at a local language institute. She’d even been hired to teach there but ended up not taking the job. My mother had been an English teacher at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, so language teaching fit her well. The women she met taught at a place called Taleninstituut Regina Coeli, better known in Holland as “the nuns in Vught”. She put it in a few calls for me and, before we knew it, I had a job interview. This was big.

I’m not much for the concept of karma, but in the rough and tumble of any young man’s life there comes a time when, eventually, mercifully, he’ll catch a break. This was mine: an interview for a teaching job at the school run by nuns.

The Regina Coeli Language Institute was founded a long time ago when a group of French nuns left their country and moved to the Netherlands. They formed a new order in Holland and began teaching adults a range of foreign languages. By the time I arrived on their doorstep in late summer of 1993, they’d become the most famous language institute in a country full of language institutes. Truth be told, they’re the only famous language institute in the Netherlands, having defeated all competition in creating the strongest brand in the business.

Famous or not, I was just happy to have an interview.

The day of my interview arrived. I met with two pleasantly coiffed, very English ladies, Imogen – the head of the English department, and Hazel – the school’s director. During the interview, I understood quickly that “British” was the dominant culture in the English department. Hazel, the director, was straight out of central casting, a woman so terribly English that she could have easily played the character of Ms. Bouquet on the BBC’s classic sitcom, Keeping Up Appearances. Hazel and Imogen were both unendingly polite and professional with me, despite whatever insecurity I may have been feeling at their utter Englishness. Luckily I’d clocked some time in Britain so I wasn’t thrown too much. As it turned out, being American actually played in my favor. I was exotic, once again. Plus, I was a young man and there were exactly zero young men currently employed there at the time.

The interview went well. They offered me a job. Hooray! You’d think I’d have been doing backflips of joy and relief. Instead, I felt… existential angst.

Why?

Because, fucking hell, here it was: the first “real” job after college. I’d be paying (Dutch) federal income taxes. I’d have health insurance. I’d be working with, and reporting to, people over thirty years of age. I’d have staff meetings every Monday morning. It was amazing.

I was sweating bullets.

Of course my job teaching English at Regina Coeli would provide me with much needed structure. Of course it would provide me with an income. I needed those things. And I wasn’t against the idea of working. I never had been. I just wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to teach. I certainly hadn’t been building towards this moment in any “career” sense. Just a few weeks prior, I wasn’t even thinking about a job, yet here we were. It seemed so serious. So grown up.

Most of us, I believe, have that very serious moment in which we question absolutely everything in our lives. Maybe there are a few disciplined souls out there whose lives are directed by an ever-present compass, guiding them step-by-step through life’s rites of passage, confidently en route to that shining moment when their professional career begins.

But not me.

And aren’t we supposed to know for sure what kind of work we want to do? That night, I sat down with my mom and dad to hash it all out. They were straightforward: “What do you really want to do?” they asked.

This was the “follow your heart” line of thinking. God bless them for even considering it. I think lots of parents would simply say “do what pays the bills”. But not my folks. At the same time, they weren’t such hippies that they ignored the practicalities of life. Bills, indeed, need to be paid.

My mom finally asked, “Dave, if you could do anything, right now, what would you do?”

I knew the answer, but didn’t have the courage to say it. My dream seemed so far-fetched, so starry-eyed.

“I wanna be a musician” I muttered, weakly.

There, I said it. Music. A band. The stage.

Let’s forget for a minute the horrendous odds against actually making a living as a working musician. Let’s forget the shitty venues and the broken down vans, and the gas station food and the sleazy promoters. Let’s forget that there are always a zillion men and women out there who are infinitely better than you. Add it all up, and there is not a single goddamned practical thing about being a professional musician. It makes about as much sense as a nursery rhyme.

But my parents hung in there and heard me out. Ultimately, my mother put the solution right on the table: “Honey” she began. “Why don’t you take the teaching job and start a band on the side?”

It was so simple, yet I hadn’t seen it. Yes – this was the way forward. Combine the teaching and the music. Countless musicians do it that way. Why couldn’t I do the same?

Even if I couldn’t, I was willing to give it a go. During the day, I would teach Dutch people English. At night, I’d play “American” music in Dutch bars. Almost accidentally, my little life had some direction…

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Americano! The Big Move, Part 3.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE BIG MOVE

3.

When that plane finally landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I headed out to the street and my new life in the Netherlands. As so often happens in Holland, I was greeted by rain. Lots and lots of rain. My previous summer vacations in 1991 and 1992 were sunsplashed affairs. The weather those years was uncommonly good and it added significantly to my infatuation with all things Dutch. But 1993 was a different story. Holland was stuck in a low pressure front for weeks on end.

The gloomy weather did nothing for my mood. I was spooked. Homesick and unaware of my first move in this new life, I found myself frozen with paranoia. As I settled into my parents’ new rental home (they’d moved away from the summer paradise with the swimming pool), wracked with jetlag, all had lost its sparkle. I slipped into a sticky depression.

I suppose depression is not uncommon for anybody who moves to a new place. Starting over is daunting. There was so much I needed to do, but I couldn’t get out of bed. Staying up too late, sleeping too late, smoking and drinking too much, this wasn’t the start I’d envisioned. I’d expected to hit the ground running and bound into my new life in Europe! Instead I was spending long mornings in my little bed, drinking black coffee, smoking Camels, and listening to John Coltrane’s Ballads album. Although it’s true that Coltrane is required listening for any serious music lover, it’s not exactly the best thing to do when depressed. Slow, sad songs, over and over. My parents were beginning to worry.

Here’s the thing about depression – everybody who gives two shits about you will tell you how to feel happier. Every single one of those lovely people will mean well. They really will. They will tell you to get some exercise. To go outside. To eat good food. To drink less. To just look on the bright side.

Problem is, none of it really works. Well, it probably all works, but when depression hits, you’re not hearing it. Of course you know that eating salads and taking long walks is better than Camel Filters and shots of vodka. But knowing isn’t really the point. It’s not a rational process. All the good advice goes in one ear and out the other.

I needed a shock to the system. Back in the old days they used to give people with depression “Electro Shock Therapy”. I’m not entirely sure how it works, but wires are attached to your head and then, ZAP! The white coats shoot electrons or neutrons or whatever into your frontal lobe and the massive shock is supposed to make the fog lift.

But I didn’t need the electrons. All I needed was a good night out with my brother Scott. If I haven’t made it clear already, my brother Scott is an angel. He’d howl in laughter at my description of him in that way, rabble rouser that he is, but it’s still true. Scott has the hugest of hearts and is capable of truly reaching that most elusive human holy grail: unconditional love. He gets it. All of it. And he’s lived it too. My brother has more scars than most mere mortals could ever endure, but here he is: big smile and a big heart, and “C’mon Dave, let’s go get shitfaced with some Dutch people!”

Not to downplay the seriousness of depression but, for me anyway, sometimes that’s all it takes. A loved one to grab you by the shirt, take you out, and remind you that this life is so indescribably precious. My brother does it by listening, by refraining from judgement, and by just being around to feel the blues too.

Scott, on vacation in Holland from boarding school in Groton, Massachusetts, took me to Eindhoven. Stratumseind, to be exact. My parents were living in Best, a town near Eindhoven, and Statumseind was a skinny little street in Eindhoven full of bars on both sides. We hit it hard. As we glided from one bar to the next, Scott kept his eye on me. He knew the score – a night out drinking with his depressed brother is a two-edged sword. It could go either way: fun and games, or crying in my beer.

True to my nature, I chose the fun and games. We drank. We danced. We listened to the mindless thump of early 90s techno in crowded, sweaty bars. We talked to every tall, blond Dutch girl that would give us the time of day. And sure as shit, I began to see the light. I was in Europe, my new home. All of this: the nice towns, the historic culture, the beautiful buildings, the coffeeshops, the endless bars, the pretty girls. All of this was mine. Mine!

We drank until dawn and took the train back to Best. The sun came up. We collapsed into bed just before my parents got up to start a new day.

“Hey little brother, thanks for tonight” I said. “I really needed it.” I added, grinning as my head hit the pillow.

“No problem bro” Scott said knowingly, as he lit one last Camel before passing out, the scrape of his lighter filling the room. “Jesus, these Dutch girls are hot” he added and we both cackled away until glorious sleep took over.

 

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Americano! The Big Move, Part 2.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE BIG MOVE

2.

…After my trip to New Hampshire I went back to Colorado to prepare for the move to Holland. It’s not like I had that many loose ends to tie up. I had graduated, my job at the record store disappeared, and the band was plodding along on a road to nothingness. Things had pretty much run their course. The only tough part would be telling my friends I was leaving. I’d met many good hearted folks in my five years in Greeley and here I was having to say goodbye again.

Which always hurts.

Yes, I was used to moving around, but still. The friends we make during those formative years from 18 to 23 years old are genuine. One of the enduring privileges of American college life is the amount of free time that can be dedicated to just hanging out with friends. Telling my friends from New Hampshire would be the hardest. These were my Original Homies. To tell them I’d be moving permanently to Europe would mean a distinct and lasting separation. They wouldn’t be surprised of my decision however. During the time my parents lived in the Netherlands, all three of them had visited. We bounced around Europe on the trains, making it to Munich, Salzburg, Prague, and repeated visits to Amsterdam. They knew how great life could be in Europe and I knew they’d support my move wholeheartedly.

But this was real adulthood. High school was over. College was over. We’d partied hard, travelled hard, studied when necessary, and seemingly prepared ourselves for the impending crush of the serious adult work of employment, mortgages, and tax returns.

Telling the band I was moving to the Netherlands wouldn’t be easy either. Even though none of us depended completely on the band’s income to pay our bills, it was still a positive and productive part of our lives. I would especially miss my friends Javier, our guitar player, and Ted, our drummer. We’d been through the ringer together, piling amplifiers and drums into cramped cars and driving all over Colorado’s front range to play in dive bars. Javier was one of the very first people I met in Greeley as he also lived in Snyder Hall during our freshman year. Ever the gentle and hyper-intelligent soul, I knew I was unlikely to meet a person as authentic, and interesting, as Javier. The son of Argentinian parents who’d fled Argentina during the Junta years. Jav was not your average American teenager. His father was an artist, a professional conductor, his mother a professor at the University of Colorado. Whenever we visited Javier at his parents’ home near Boulder, they spoke to each other only in Spanish, which greatly added to the exotic nature of our friendship. Jav was, and is, a gifted musician and his impeccable taste and unwavering artistic scruples had a massive influence on me. It would be hard to leave him.

Telling Ted wouldn’t be easy either. Where Javier enhanced my life with his encyclopedic knowledge of the blues and multi-linguistic big town view of the world, Ted was the beating heart of Americana. A St. Louis kid, born and raised, Ted was the kind of guy that embodied all that is great about America: friendly, sport loving, adventurous, and a guaranteed all-around good time. Plus, he was a kick ass drummer. Ted was completely free of pretention, lukewarm about “artistic integrity”, and always ready to party. I loved the guy. I’d lived in his apartment for a while with his roommate, the legendary Arthur Fairburn, a prep-school transplant from Connecticut and another of God’s funniest and most loving creatures. Leaving those two guys, and the belly laughs we had together would be no picnic.

True to my Mangene roots, the end of my life in Colorado happened fast. I told everybody that I would be leaving within a week, ripping the proverbial band-aid off the wound. Nine days after arriving back in Colorado and saying my goodbyes, I was on a plane to Amsterdam.

For good.

Crossing the Atlantic this time immediately felt different. When I had visited my parents over the previous two summers, the trips were summer vacations from college. I’d flown over for a couple of months, relieved to be out of the classroom, no strings attached. It was pure, hedonistic fun.

But not this time. Sure, I was jacked up about the adventures awaiting, but I knew I’d need work, transportation, a place to live. I knew I’d need to make new friends, once again. I knew I’d need to learn the Dutch language and get the necessary residence permits and governmental green lights required of any migrant. It was scary. I barely knew where to start.

Luckily, my mom and dad were still living in Holland, and even though my father’s overseas assignment with the Big American Corporation had recently ended, acrimoniously I might add, I had a safety net. My folks welcomed me with open arms. I couldn’t have done it without them…

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Americano! The Big Move, Part 1

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE BIG MOVE

1.

…Amsterdam left its mark.

In fact, all of the Netherlands tickled my fancy. I fell in love with the Dutch “live and let live” attitude. I fell in love with the Dutch enthusiasm for art, music, and culture. With my parents now living full time in Holland, and me visiting during summer vacations from college, I had plenty of time to explore. I discovered the wide, sandy beaches of Zeeland, flanked by rough dunes. I visited perfect small cities like Utrecht, Haarlem, and Den Bosch – towns big enough to offer big city delights, but small enough to remain manageable. Most of all though, I fell in love with the Dutch people: their bluntness, their quirky humor, their confidence speaking English. Being a folk from a small country, the Dutch opened my eyes to how big the world really is – they knew because they’d explored it. To this day I’m still amazed at how unpretentiously worldly Dutch people can be. To the Dutch, travel and exploration are normal. It’s what they do. As a young American, they infected me with a desire to go places. Holland’s central location in Europe made it easy to get on a train and go somewhere, anywhere. I still had to finish school, but Holland had gotten its hooks into me.

I went back to Colorado and finished school but, after graduation, decided to stay in town to play in our band, The Green Horns. Music was number one in my life at the time and I’d spent the last two years of college working hard in our little band. I was the lead singer and rhythm guitar player. Even though I was done with school, I didn’t want to give up on the band. My homeboys from New Hampshire had moved up to Summit County, Colorado to be ski bums. I had originally intended to join them, but I wanted to keep playing music. They were disappointed at first, which I understood, but my heart was in the music and not in skiing. So I stayed on campus in Greeley.

It must be said that a nice college campus is one of the gems of American life. It’s a nicely manicured town within a town, where friends are close by, everything is walking distance, students run the show, and partying is a priority. As I’ve said, the campus in Greeley took partying very seriously so I wasn’t in much of a hurry to leave. My campus was comfortable.

But therein lies the rub…

Being comfortable on campus when you actually are a student is fine. But staying in your college town after graduation… it’s a bit like being a wedding crasher. Sure you’re at the party, but without an invitation. People tolerate you, even understand that you’re trying to figure out your next move, but there is a slight stink to the whole thing. It’s just not quite right. Greeley being the kind of party town it was, there were plenty of post-graduate kids straggling around. Kids in their middle to late twenties, not really kids anymore, shifting from one keg party to the next, working dead end jobs, still frequenting their old haunts, unaware what to do in the straight, adult world.

After graduation, my good buddy Todd gave me a job at a record store he managed out at the impossibly glamorous Greeley Mall. It was a pretty good gig selling Madonna albums to high school girls and Billy Ray Cyrus albums to locals. When I wasn’t working at the mall, our band played on. This was still a time, the early 1990s, when live music was actually played by musicians in bars, and Colorado did indeed have a decent “local music” scene. It wasn’t Seattle, by any means, but there was plenty of work.

Even though I was relatively happy working a day job and playing in the band, I missed the imposed structure of student life. It wasn’t so much that I missed it, but that I needed it in order to stay out of trouble. After graduation, I’d spent most of my time hanging out with the musicians and artists in town, some of whom were still students. But a shift had taken place – I wasn’t a student anymore. I was a working stiff, albeit one trying to make a go of music. The Green Horns were a decent rhythm and blues band, with a tasty bass player and a solid horn section, but it became clearer every day that we weren’t going to be signed to any record deals. Grunge was the sound of the day and here we were playing covers by Albert King, James Brown, and The Funky Ass Meters. Even I, a wide eyed dreamer if ever there was one, was beginning to see there wasn’t much future in it.

To my complete surprise one destiny filled day, my job at the record store fell through. The place was a chain store and HQ just pulled the plug. In one fell swoop, we all lost our jobs. The naked truth? I was a “post-grad” singer in a semi-professional going-nowhere band, short of a day job, and spending most of my time seeing other going-nowhere bands, staying up with the lovely folks in the very late night/early morning party crowd. Don’t get me wrong, these were great people, and we had more than our fair share of fun, but late night parties, Jagermeister shooters, and the all too seductive powders don’t for a bright future make.

Something had to give.

A short while later, just to get a brief respite and sort some things, I went back to New Hampshire to hang out with my friends. One gorgeous summer day, laying around at Wallis Sands beach, reluctant to travel back to my slacker existence in Greeley and hearing everyone talk about their upcoming upwardly mobile adventures, it hit me like a ton of bricks:

it was time to move permanently to the Netherlands.

A big move to Europe made perfect sense. Even though I loved Greeley, and the friends I’d made, there was little to go back to. During the past two summers, I had fallen in love with the Netherlands. Having graduated from the University of Northern Colorado, I had a college degree in English. Maybe I could teach English in Europe? These were possibilities. Real possibilities.

I decided to go. To move. Wow. Just like that. Holland. Europe!

To celebrate my momentous decision, the biggest decision I had ever made in my young life, my beloved friends and I left the beach and went to a tattoo parlor in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I wanted to ink this day in my memory forever. So, on that hot summer day in Portsmouth, I inked a tattoo of the sun onto my lower left leg, to celebrate the fateful day that I decided to move to Europe…

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Americano! Across The Pond To Europe, Part 4

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

ACROSS THE POND TO EUROPE

4.

… To get to the District’s main thoroughfare, Oudezijds Voorburgwal, where the bulk of the red windows are found, you gotta first wind down tiny little “streets” which are really just skinny alleys. We walk these alleys, innocently unaware but on the lookout all the same, and then suddenly, unexpectedly, boom.

Here she is.

We are but a few feet from her window, its red light casting an eerie glow across the alley.

She has caught our eye. She is tall, very tall, supported by impossibly high heels. She’s wearing a flourescent pink bikini, pulled taught against her tan skin. Leaning down from the bar stool placed strategically in her window, she maintains eye contact, caressing her curves ever so delicately, careful only to hint, cautious of revealing too much. She waves us in with her finger, smiling, her eyes never leaving ours. She undoubtedly repeats this ritual dozens of times every night, but we feel like she sees only us. She is, in a word, mesmerizing.

But we don’t budge.

We are in her trance. Two young American men, boys really, standing slack-jawed in an Amsterdam alley, the glare of red lights bouncing off rainy cobblestones. She opens her door to address us but, before she can speak, we are gone. Genuinely freaked, we scurry down the alley, passing many more women on our way to the safety of the bigger, more crowded street.

I don’t care who you are, the first time you see a real professional, standing in a window, five feet from your face, it will stop you dead in your tracks. You might consider yourself to be the coolest of cucumbers, but this, this, is intense. They are so…close. For my brother and me, years of prudish American sexual upbringing collide instantly with the naked reality of the world’s oldest profession. It’s a shock, no doubt about it.

Having arrived at Oudezijds, giddy and breathless, we spot a coffeeshop on the corner.

“I think we might need to smoke up on this one” my brother says, always the best of sherpas.

“Sure” I mutter, still wobbly.

Going from one rite of passage, the first Red Light window, to another, the first Amsterdam coffeeshop, is quite a lot for a young man’s constitution to handle. Scott, unsurprisingly, is solid as a rock. As always he is strong and stable and ready to rock. My bro is as heavy a heavyweight as one might ever hope to find and I don’t mean that in the literal sense. The kid can hang. If I were ever to find myself in some sketchy back alley in some godforsaken corner of the globe, my brother Scott is the one person I would really, really, really wanna have in my corner. Put succinctly, my brother has got my back. No. Matter. What. And I sure needed it during those first fleeting steps in Amsterdam’s Red Light District.

As he leads us to a small wooden table and glides on to the counter, he throws me a sly wink as the coffeeshop man takes his order. Scott instinctively knows that a threshold is about to be crossed. We are not in Kansas anymore.

“I’ll take 25 Guilders worth of Purple Haze” he says confidently. “And gimme two cappuccinos to go with that” he adds. Coffeeshop man nods and turns for the bounty. He plops the fat bag of weed down on the counter and turns to fire up the espresso machine, the grinding of coffee beans filling the air.

We sit, again speechless, while Scott rolls a “Euro joint” which is simply a fat cigarette laced with bits of the purple haze. Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” blares from the speakers. Our table is near the large front windows, close to the front door. The window is adorned with paintings of pot leaves and smiling rastafarians. Inside, the clientele is predominantly “tourist”, several languages fighting to be heard over Bob Marley’s voice. I hear Spanish, French, Italian, plus a few languages I can’t even identify. Russian maybe? Or Polish? Something Slavic anyway. Dominating the airwaves in this place though, is British English. Holland being so close to Britain, and the UK, in those days, being just as Draconian as America when it comes to smoking pot, the Brits flock to Amsterdam. The British crowd that has taken over this little coffeeshop is quite clearly the “neck tattoos, football hooligan” type. Jacked up on the same adrenaline my brother and I feel after having just seen our first professional sex workers, the visiting Brits are hooping and hollering, joints blazing away. These lads are the kind of crowd you might not want to run into outside a stadium after their club has just lost a big game, but here, ensconsed in the mellow vibes of an international weed selling establishment, everybody is feelin’ irie. It’s all good.

After several minutes of quietly smoking our first Amsterdam joint, my brother finally breaks the silence.

“Dude, I don’t know about you” Scott says, rolling the blunt between his fingers, “but she gave me a boner. ”

A veracious observation. After all, the whole point of the Red Light District is to, for lack of a better word, titillate. It’s raison d’etre is indeed sex.

“Yeah, dude” I answer. “She was hot”. Keep in mind that we are young men, ages 20 and 18, and sexual arousal is not exactly a difficult feat to achieve. To see that lovely woman, to know that we “could have” was, indeed, erotic. But we were both too intimidated to do anything about it because of the complicated range of integrity issues involving possible human trafficking, unfair labor practices, and the highly controversial decision to actually pay for sex. The result was the kind of paralysis that proprietors in the Red Light District don’t care to see because gawking customers and are not paying customers. Crossing that threshold, and walking inside to complete a “transaction” with these women, it was just too much for these small town boys to handle…

 

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Americano! Across The Pond To Europe, Part 3.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

ACROSS THE POND TO EUROPE

3.

…he wasn’t being unfriendly. It was just that he’d seen this before. A 20 year old American, alone, clearly jet lagged and in town to play golf, limps into his pub, orders a drink and then, rather elegantly, spits it up on the bar. Happens all the time. In the summer months St. Andrews is crawling with American golfers, all of whom wander the streets jet lagged on their first night and end up in his bright and cozy pub, all in varying states of disarray.

“Yeah, I’m American” I answered, quickly recovering. “Sorry about that.” I add.

“No’ a problem, mate. Where ye from?” he asked.

“New Hampshire. Well, Boston. Close to Boston.”

“Aye” he offered, smiling knowingly, moving down the bar to take an order.

By now, the genie is out of the bag. People on both sides of me have heard us, and are now acutely aware of my glaring Americanness. I strike up a conversation with two local guys, both caddies at the golf links. Emboldened and settling down as the first pint hits, we get to talking.

About golf. About George H.W. Bush, President at the time. More beer. Some whisky. Cigarettes – nothing wrong with smoking in pubs way back then. The conversation turns to Elvis and Route 66 and those chocolate kisses that Hershey makes. The Scots ask me about World War II and actually refer to Americans coming to save Europe. It’s obvious to me, now many drinks deep, that they like my being American. In fact they’re almost thanking me, grateful for what the US had meant to the UK and Europe. Now with a good buzz on, I keep asking them questions about Scotland, but they don’t wanna talk about Scotland. This being 1990, they wanna talk about Baywatch and Vanilla Ice (!) and Michael Jordan. On and on they go.

And that’s when it hits me: I’m playing the American card.

More specifically, I’m playing the “Savior American Card”. In other words, and this was still possible back then, the fact that my Grandfathers both fought in World War II, and helped to liberate Europe, is endearing me to these Scottish caddies. I hadn’t sacrificed anything to earn their respect, but they were showering me with respect anyways. It’s as if they’d been saving it up over the years and now had the chance to express themselves. I loved it, and, even then, could see the potential it created.

Over the years, I would discover a whole range of “American Cards” that I used in my work as a professional foreigner: the naive American, the cool American, the ugly American, the performer American, the stupid American, the rich American, and the fearlessly optimistic American. Just as I’d done in that Scottish pub the very first night, I’d figured out a way to play whichever “American Card” I needed to keep the conversation going, to get people to reveal themselves and, ultimately, to forge human connection.

Scotland was an eye-opener. For the first time, I felt what it meant to be “American”. To hear a stranger’s opinion of you based only on his thoughts and experiences. To have my “American” accent turn heads. To awake curiosity and disdain at the same time. As always, I enjoyed the attention they gave me in Scotland. We had fun. At the same time, I knew I’d turned a corner. There was a big world outside of the United States that was both intriguing and intimidating. I’d gotten a taste and, even though I didn’t know it yet, there was no going back.

After Scotland I went back to Colorado for my second year at University. My parents stayed in the UK for another 4 months before my Dad made that fateful call with the historic news about their move to the Netherlands.

In the meantime though, there was more traveling to do. That same year, at Christmas time, we took the next step. With our adventure in the United Kingdom behind us, the Continent beckoned. Amsterdam, to be exact. Mom, Dad, my brother Scott, and I. We took the ferry from Dover, England to Calais, France, and then drove 4 hours north to the Dutch capital.

There is little that can prepare a young American man for his first trip to Amsterdam. Some towns have a reputation, forged on years of popular culture and urban myth. Paris comes to mind. Las Vegas. New York City. We see these towns in movies, and hear the stories. Scary, exciting places full of danger, vice, and opportunity.

Arriving for the first time however, Amsterdam is, first and foremost, a living, working city. There weren’t any police officers standing on street corners, smoking joints and flirting with hookers. Even though those acts wouldn’t technically be illegal in the Netherlands, it still wasn’t happening. Like every tourist in every city, we checked into our hotel, The Eden near Dam Square, and unpacked.

My brother and I were ready to wander. We left my parents with a quick, “see you later”, and bound into the streets. Upon first glance, there was no doubt Amsterdam is a handsome city. The buildings, mostly dated from Holland’s Golden 17th century, are tall, gabled, and narrow. They lean into each other, slanted ever so slightly, like a man who’s had one too many. The streets are small, crowded on both sides by parked cars, the “ting-ting” of bicyle bells whirring by. Oh, the bicycles. They are everywhere. And these weren’t recreational cyclists. These bike riders were clearly on their way to work, on their way to school, on their way to the supermarket. Mothers with children in seats on both the front and the back of the bike, whizzed down the packed streets, their faces determined. Trams signal their own presence with more bells, starting and stopping with a heave, narrowly missing the fluxommed tourists. The trams were the biggest vehicles on these crowded streets and, being the lions in this Serengetti, they take no shit. Ring the bell and GET THE FUCK OUT OF THE WAY reigns supreme. The bustle of Amsterdam, the weaving traffic, the omnipotent trams, the countless bikes – to me it’s amazing people aren’t being hit on every street corner. In some unimaginable spiderweb fashion, cyclists weave in and out of each other, peacefully, forever ringing their bells and carrying on.

Taking it in, my brother and I have become quiet. Speechless, actually. Amsterdam is subtle in its insistence, without the bravado of New York’s skyscrapers or the grandure of Paris, but the city seeps into our brains nonetheless. We trudge along towards Dam Square, the drizzle slowly morphing into proper rain.

“Jesus, dude” my brother finally offers, breaking our silence. “This place is hopping.”

“No shit” I answer, wiping rain from my forehead.

We press on to Amsterdam’s most infamous of neighborhoods, and the first destination for many who come to town: the Red Light District…

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Americano! Across The Pond To Europe, Part 2.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

ACROSS THE POND TO EUROPE

2.

…This was my very first trip outside the North American continent. I’d been to Canada and to Mexico as a kid, but those countries don’t really count as foreign travel. Europe was a much bigger deal. I had to get a passport, which – fun fact – 90% of Americans never do, because 90% of Americans never even consider leaving the country. Sure, the United States is a country big enough to spend your whole life exploring, but to never even think about visiting somewhere that requires a passport? I find that lack of curiosity dispiriting. And before you go calling me elitist, a flight overseas, in this era of low-fare airlines, is cheaper than you think. Where there’s a will there’s a way, know wadda mean?

I flew to London. Mom and Dad picked me up and we drove north to St. Andrews, Scotland – The Home of Golf! This was huge. To golfers, American golfers in particular, St. Andrews is a legendary place and something of a spiritual retreat. The golf course itself, or the Links as they’re properly known, is not some thrown together “resort”, carved hastily into Florida morass and flanked on all sides by time-share condominiums. St. Andrews wasn’t even “built” at all. It’s a classic “links” golf course which means that it lies directly next to the sea and was formed when local shepherds allowed their sheep to graze in the area, clipping the grass to a manageable level. Or so the story goes. This all happened back in the Middle Ages so the history depends on which story you believe. Whichever it is, the place is undeniably special, and I was on my way to visit.

Looking back now, my entire life had been leading up to this moment, my first trip abroad. Countless moves, new schools, leaving old friends, bizarre accents, strange customs, all of that was just a warm up. There’s no question that being a Texan in New Hampshire, and a New Hampshire kid in Colorado, exposed me to new cultures. But all the moving around I’d done up to this point was within the United States. It was intense, and it was beginning to teach me to use my foreigner status, but crossing the pond – this was next level.

After arriving at London’s massive Heathrow airport, I noticed police officers and soldiers all over the airport, their jaws set and faces tight lipped. They all were carrying machine guns.

OK…this was different.

Never saw machine guns in an American airport. Keep in mind, it was August of 1990 and global terrorism hadn’t become the brand name that it is today. Back then, the UK was still very jittery about “The Troubles” which was code for the ongoing war between the British Government and the IRA. London is a town that knows from bombing, hence the machine guns. Bags collected, I cleared customs and walked out onto the street. My parents all smiles, we piled into the car to drive several hours to Scotland.

I’d been told the stories of people in England “driving on the wrong side”. Indeed, they drive on the right, and no matter how many stories I’d been told about it, the first time you sit in a British car, driver on the right, pull up to that first “roundabout” and proceed to go the opposite direction – that is one of life’s more unnatural experiences. Every fiber of my being was screaming out, as my dad pulled into traffic. I held onto the door handle to steady myself. My parents had been in England for a while then, and my dad was used to the British driving. I, however, was in the backseat shitting bricks.

I closed my eyes and rolled with it. With my dad at the helm, there was no need to worry. Being a pilot, he instinctively knew how to control his vehicle and he had an uncanny sense of direction. Once we got out to the highway, or “motorway” as the Brits call it, I relaxed. Cars were no longer careening at us, just one lane over. Now, they were on the other side of the motorway with a steel barrier between us. I was safe.

And then, the jet lag.

I was out like a light. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know. But this was my first time travelling across the Atlantic, and I wasn’t really prepared for the jet lag. When it hit me I fell, practically mid-sentence, into a slumber so deep that I was unaware that my neck had drooped against my chest at the most painful of angles. I’m pretty sure there was drooling involved as I woke with a shock, hours later, and promptly wiped a stream of saliva equalling London’s Thames River from my neck and chin.

Night had fallen.

What?!

Just like that, it seemed, we went from afternoon sun to darkness. I’d been knocked out for a long time. Famished and a little shaky, we finally arrived in St. Andrews, the drive from London having been longer than the flight from Boston. We checked into our hotel. Strung out on travel, my legs cramping, I mercifully made it to my bed, and then, in the cruelist of twists, proceeded to stare at the ceiling, desperately unable to sleep. Just as jet lag had delivered me to the deepest of slumbers, it now had me more awake than a cross-country trucker on meth. Insomnia is bad enough. But there’s a special ring in hell for whoever invented jet lag induced insomnia. Completely wired, I had no choice but to get up and wander the streets.

St. Andrews is famous in the United States because of golf. But nobody had ever told me how poetically beautiful the town really is. Winding brick streets that climb subtle hills and back down again. Sturdy, old buildings, none higher than a few floors, lined up next to each other in harmony. I passed an ancient cemetary, a little creepy under the Scottish moonlight, and saw a grave from 1162. Mind blown, I pressed on, still wide awake and followed a crooked street back into the middle of the village.

I wasn’t sure of the time, but I stumbled towards a brightly lit building, crowded with people inside. As I neared the front entrance, summoning the courage to enter, the door swung open, releasing the sweet sounds of Van Morrison’s Into The Mystic out onto the street.

My first pub.

A young man’s life, and memory, is peppered with rites of passage that take him from boyhood to manhood. The specifics may change according to our preferences, but the monumental moments are relatively similar for us all: first boy/girl, first kiss, first day of high school, first job, losing our virginity, getting a drivers license, first concert, first night away from home, and highly important to a kid like me, first legal trip to a bar which, in my case, was a pub.

Yes, as you know dear reader, I’d been to bars in Colorado by getting in with an illegal fake ID. But being able to stroll into a legitimate alcohol serving establishment, knowing that you’re fully within your legal rights to do so, marching calmly to the bar, looking the barman firmly in the eyes, ordering that beverage and having him matter of factly plop it down in front of you, without a second glance – that is a moment that separates the kids from the grown-ups. Not that it’s a macho thing – it’s simply a matter of maturity. You are now old enough to enter the world of adults as an equal.

I’d like to think I sauntered into that pub, fearless and determined. But…no. Instead, I walked into my first pub shaky and zombie-like, intimidated and looking over my shoulder for the ghost of that asshole Durham cop to bust me.

I made it to the bar and ordered a “pint of lager” because I’d heard the guy next to me order one. Raising that pint to my lips, Van Morrison still serenading the gathered revellers, I chugged a little too greedily and spit a mini-river of lager back onto the bar.

Smooth.

Not surprisingly, the barman noticed and came straight over.

Wiping up the beer in delicate circles, we locked eyes, and he muttered an unforgettable question, his Scottish brogue thick, that would mark the official beginning of my career as a Professional Foreigner:

“You American?” he asked…

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Americano! Across The Pond To Europe, Part 1

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

ACROSS THE POND TO EUROPE

1.

AMSTERDAM!

“What, like Amsterdam in upstate New York?” I asked.

“NO!” he yelped. “AMSTERDAM IN HOLLAND! YOU KNOW, THE TULIPS AND THE WINDMILLS AND ALL THAT!” his excitement growing.

“Wow Dad. That’s awesome” I said. “When?”

“Well, your mom and I will be moving over in early January. We’re really excited. Here’s your mother!” he said, quickly handing the phone to my mother. I talked to my mom about the practicalities. For my dad’s job, my parents were indeed moving to the Netherlands, home of Amsterdam, wooden shoes, tulips, cheese, football, windmills, hookers, and…weed.

Of all the gin joints on the entire planet, and my parents move to Amsterdam: mecca to the marijuana faithful, home of the van Gogh museum,  AND the notorious Red Light District. It was a ridiculously sublime twist of fate and so serendipitous in its incredulousness that we could hardly believe it. But my father was serious. They were indeed moving to Holland.

My brother and I felt like we hit the lottery. Scott called immediately.

“OK Dave, so lemme get this straight” he said, “mom and dad are moving to the Netherlands, which is that European country where they have coffee shops, right?”

“That’s right.” I answered gleefully, starting to get used to the idea.

“And like, in one of those coffeeshops, you can just walk in and buy weed and smoke it up right there, am I right?”

“Yep.” I said.

He went on, not quite grasping the enormity. “So, when we go over there next summer, we can just buy weed, and smoke it, and not get busted?” he asked.

“You betcha” I answered.

“Can we drink beer too?”

“Yep. That too.”

“Holy shit.” He added, his voice trailing off.

As mind blowing as this new revelation was, it wasn’t the first time we’d heard similar news. My parents’ European adventure didn’t officially begin in the Netherlands. Before making that legendary phone call and moving to Holland, my folks had lived in Bath, England for a year. They’d left New Hampshire to move to the UK during the summer of 1989. My brother and I weren’t as over the moon about the move to England because, well, coffeeshops. Put another way, England didn’t have any, which decreased the ‘forbidden fruit’ factor and made us feel a little ho-hum about the whole deal.

When my parents moved to England, my brother and I stayed behind in New Hampshire for summer vacation. I was studying out in Colorado, and my brother was at boarding school in Massachusetts, and we jumped at the thought of being able to stay in the house in Durham, during our summer vacation, while my parents were gone. Not only were they gone, they were on another continent! Although we had more freedom that summer than we were used to, the prying eyes of Durham were still upon us. My grandparents lived in a town nearby, Rochester, New Hampshire, and my grandfather checked on us regularly. My grandfather, who we called Papa Redhead and loved dearly, was relatively hands off when it came to disciplinary stuff, be he was a veteran of the United States Marine Corps, so Semper Fi motherfucker. He was no dummy, and he kept his eye on us. Fair enough.

At that time in my life, I knew and cared little about England, or the United Kingdom. I’d read enough English Literature at school, so I was aware there was a place called England. I’d enjoyed King Arthur and all the Camelot stuff as a kid. The Knights of the Round Table, that was fun. I also knew of Britain because I was an avid golfer and you can’t be involved in golf without understanding the British contribution to the game. I’d watched the British Open Golf Championship on TV every summer since I was 12, and one thing struck me as bizarre: the tournament was held in July and the golfers often had to wear winter hats, and even gloves, to fight the cold. In July?! It didn’t seem possible and certainly did not make a positive impression. Winter hats in July? I figured the place to be a depressing shithole.

But my folks were going to live there, so I’d planned to visit during the summer of 1990…

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