Americano! Why Do I Do It?

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

WHY DO I DO IT? 

…I know it’s ficticious, but the Sunday I described above is my idea of a perfect day. It’s got everything I love about life in the Netherlands: an easy Sunday, cozy breakfast, cuppa coffee, great girl, good sex, long walk in the sun, time with my kids, beautiful city, killer music, cold drinks, shameless dancing and a good night’s sleep before the hectic work week begins anew.

When the sun is shining, the Netherlands is my favorite place in the world. Having said that, I do realize it is no more of a utopia than anywhere else on the planet. It’s a country, a real country, warts and all. In the 25 years that I’ve lived here, I’ve come to know Holland’s imperfections and blind spots. The weather can be gray and gloomy for weeks on end, the taxes are outrageous, and the Dutch people can, at times, be totally lacking in common courtesy. So I get it – there is a bad that goes with all the good.

But, as I press on towards the ravage of middle age, I have chosen to focus on the good stuff, which, oddly enough, sometimes makes the Dutch raise an eyebrow. If there’s one thing that the Dutch find suspicious about my opinion of Holland it’s that I’m too positive about their country. All that positivity can’t be for real, they’ll tell me. It’s just too American. But I love the place and for the foreseeable future I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

As with everything, having chosen to stay in Holland and create my life as a professional foreigner does come with a price tag. There is pain involved, too. Most importantly, I miss my family and friends in the USA. I am blessed to have a solid relationship with my mom and dad as well as with my brother and his family. I also have very close friends in the States and they mean the world to me. We try to see each other as often as possible but it’s very easy to let a few years slip by. Despite living so far away from, and seeing each other infreqeuntly, we are still close.

How do I deal with the pain of missing them?

Most days I remind myself that even if I lived in America, I would not see them on a regular basis. We have all grown older, we all have busy lives, and America is a huge country. In a heartbeat, circumstances can change and you suddenly move several thousand miles away from your loved ones. It happens all the time. I find peace in that simple truth. On top of that, I’ve gotten used to the situation. We are all creatures of habit and this has been my reality since the day I left the USA. I have developed a kind of resilience, or numbness, to the pain.

But a few times a year, particularly around the Christmas holidays, I lose my shit entirely. Every year, like clockwork, I slip into a deep funk at the thought of not seeing my parents, or my brother, or my friends at the holidays. It’s just really hard. I always manage to keep it together when I’m with my own children at the holidays, but as soon as they go back to their mother and I am suddenly alone and staring at a Christmas tree, I drop my head into my hands and sob.

But that, too, passes.

And then I remember where I am, and that I’m living a life I could only have dreamed of as a young boy in America. I remember what makes my engines tick and I find my way out of the funk. So why do I endure the pain of missing my friends and family, each and every year? Why do I do it?

Because I’m curious, that’s why. It’s really that simple.

I want to know.

I want to learn.

I want to explore.

I want adventure.

I’m curious about how to order those delicious looking pastries at that funky bakery in Barcelona. I want to know how the Schengen agreement came into being. I want to learn how it’s possible that I can go to the pharmacy and never have to pay for medication. I’d like somebody to tell me how coffeeshops that sell weed in Holland get stocked with weed when the growing of marijuana for commercial purposes is illegal. I’m curious about why grown men and women run with bulls in Pomplona. I want to learn the difference between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland and why they used to blow each other up. I wanna know how the Dutch invented bitterballen. I’d love to see the Northern Lights up in Sweden or Norway or wherever that happens. I’m dying to see if the cooks in Napoli can make better pizza than I can get here in Utrecht. I want to experience the atmosphere at the Ryder Cup Golf Matches in Paris when the Europeans play against the Americans. I wanna take the tour of Vermeer’s Delft. I’m curious whether Trump-style politics will spread to European countries. I wanna drive on the right in Britain and see if I can do it without crashing. I desperately want to watch the Dutch national soccer team finally win the World Cup, preferably with one of my sons on the team. I want to eat at a Michelin star restaurant in France and I want to eat gambas on a beach in Andalucia. I wanna stay in love with my special Dutch girl who can teach me new words every single day while we’re laying in bed, looking up at the stars.

And I can only do it here.

Is that too much to ask? God willing, I will live out my days trying to find answers to those questions. That’s why I want to stay and keep turning the next corner. Figuring out this stuff, learning it, experiencing it – that’s what gets me off. That’s what makes the life of a professional foreigner. Sometimes it hurts, but I learn a lot and it’s never boring.

I have no idea why I’m like this and I certainly don’t mean it in some kind of pretentious, “look at me exploring the world” kind of way. Often times, this choice of mine is a pain in the ass and I deride myself for not living a simpler life near my friends and family in New England. But this is who I am. I’m not sure if my curiosity was born of a life spent constantly moving around, or if it’s just an inherent part of my personality. I guess it doesn’t really matter. This is me and, even though I need regular reminders that a more traditional 9 to 5 life would never make me happy, I have accepted it fully.

There are still so many things that I don’t know and so many places I have not yet seen. I’m 48 years old and I haven’t yet been to Asia or Africa or South America. I can’t wait to go, I want to go, I need to go. Life hasn’t made that possible for me yet, but when it does, I’m going. And when I pack my bags and head off to the airport, flush with excitement for a new journey, my mother will call me on the phone sweetly say, “David, it’ll be an adventure.”

 

THE END. 

Americano! Holland, A Fine Place.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

HOLLAND, A FINE PLACE.

The gentle chime of church bells, just beyond my window, awaken me sometime after dawn. It is Sunday morning in this, my city of Utrecht. I roll over and pull back the curtains, a faint summer sun pushing in. I open the window to let in morning air. Tilting the window open, I hear more bells – this time a bicycle – down on the street outside my building. I look down to see a father on his bicycle, reaching over to steady his young son who must have learned to ride very recently. He chirps words of encouragement to his boy and places his hand firmly on the kid’s shoulder as they press on down the street.

Dominique wakes up next to me, her eyes sleepy delicious. She awakes rested and smiling, always the deep sleeper. It’s one of her most endearing traits. Arching her back and stretching into this fine morning, she asks me, her voice soft, “hoe laat is het, liefje?”

We get up to brush our teeth and crawl back in bed to be with each other, in that very finest of ways, before easing into the day. Entwined in the afterglow, content and relaxed, I speak first. “It’s time for coffee”.

Luckily, there’s a great little coffee joint down on the corner. I throw on some jeans and my Red Sox cap and bound down four flights of stairs to the street. Pushing the heavy front door open, I head towards the coffee place and some much needed caffeine. Stepping inside, I pass two women sitting sipping cappuccinos. I walk to the counter where the amptly bearded Turkish proprietor coaxes the milk atop a freshly ground cappuccino into a large heart. I order two large caramel macchiatos, two small bottles of freshly squeezed orange juice and sit down to wait.

While I’m grabbing coffee, Dominique hops on her bike and shoots off to the bakery. Fresh bread. Maybe some croissants, or pain du chocolat. She insists that bread must be fresh. If bread is more than 24 hours old it is worthy only of toasting. If it’s older than that, it goes to the ducks in the park or, sadly, to the trash can. But if Dominique has her way, and when it comes to bread she most surely will, it’s not going into our mouths. According to sweet Dominique, life is just too short for day old bread. I love that about her.

Coffee and baked goodies in hand, we meet back at my place, my apartment instantly filling with the smell of freshly baked bread. The weather nice, we open the double doors to my little balcony overlooking the city and take our coffee, juice, and croissants outside to eat. Utrecht is slowly waking up. Up here on the fourth floor, we get to watch the city rise. A woman across the street has come out on her balcony to hang some laundry. A man directly across from us, his apartment also on the fourth floor of a separate building, is tidying the furniture on his own balcony. He hurriedly grabs seat cushions and deposits them in a weather proof storage box. The man is always tidying his balcony. It’s the only thing I’ve ever seen him do. As you can imagine, his balcony is spotless, most surely an expression of his chronic OCD.

We sip our coffee and nibble on the bread. We don’t say much, mercifully comfortable in our silence. We let the sun warm us and enjoy the peace. The rest of the day will bring friends and festivities, but morning coffee and breakfast is a quiet moment and we take our time.

Dishes in the dishwasher, showered and shaved, we head outside for a morning walk. Heading a few blocks west from my place, we cross the canal into the city’s ancient center. We take the Predikherenkerkhof, a tony street flanked on both sides by handsome town houses. This warm day has brought the world to its feet and we are passed by families on bikes, old men walking their dogs, students in small groups and lovers strolling hand in hand. At Utrecht’s famous Neude Square, we find a table under a large oak tree and order one last espresso, stopping more for the prime spot than the coffee. It is a gorgeous spot, our table protected from the sun by the tree’s flowing branches, but we’ll stay only long enough to throw the coffee back and pay our bill. Walking away from the square, passing several cafes, a gourmet burger joint, and a Greek restaurant, the street narrows to the size of an alley – Vinkenburgstraat. This little street is unique though, as it is home to a bit of movie star fame. Utrecht is home to the Netherlands Film Festival, a cultural event held in September and October of every year. By hosting this prestigious festival, the city of Utrecht has forever linked itself to the Dutch film industry. On the charming Vinkenburgstraat, award winning actors mark their immortality by putting their hands into squares of cement on the street. Reminiscent of Hollywood’s walk of fame, the Vinkenburgstraat’s splash of movie history stops tourists and townies alike who bend down to read the names in cement. At the street’s end, we run into the city’s pearl, Oudegracht – The Old Canal.

Completed in 1275, the Old Canal was, and in many ways still is, Utrecht’s commercial heartbeat. Boats from everywhere, carrying a variety of goods, would float into the city center and deposit the goods in the typical warehouses located at water level. For centuries, the Old Canal has done plenty of business, making the city quite prosperous for its day. In modern times, the Old Canal has been transformed into the city’s most vibrant retail area, with a large number of shops located up at street level. The vast majority of the original warehouses have been transformed into restaurants, cafes, and various businesses.

Today, strolling along the Old Canal, the weather dry and warm, the outdoor cafes and restaurants fill up quickly, a nice table in the sun a valuable commodity. Big, leafy trees line both sides of the canal adding vibrant splashes of green to the area. We take the stairs from the street down to the waterline, just to watch the boats drift by. Tourists in paddle boats struggle to propel forward while locals whizz by in engine powered vessels. The restaurants are so full by now that revellers eat and drink just inches from their chairs toppling over into the canal. It’s all very nice.

We stroll down the canal, eventually taking the stairs back up to the street. Walking along, flanked by the gabled 17th Century building on both sides of the canal, I feel little pulses of excitement rise within me. I am here, in Europe, walking this beautiful canal with this beautiful lady, and this place is my home! Sometimes my good fortune in this random life startles me, but I do my best to accept the ridiculous amount of luck I forever seem to have had.

Nearing the end of the Old Canal, we reach one of my favorite streets in the town, the Twijnstraat. After my divorce I lived a stone’s throw from here and I grew to love it dearly. What is its charm, this quaint street? First, the restaurants and cafes – which are plentiful. There’s a place called Fishes on the corner that sells fresh fish and seafood. There’s a Belgian bakery that sells bread and pastries and has a nice lunch menu as well. There’s a Vietnamese joint, a French bistro, a craft beer boutique, and a gourmet cheese shop. Just to make sure things don’t get too posh, a dive bar modeled on an “American roadhouse” and a late night shoarma shack take their place on the street, just to keep the hipsters honest.

When I lived here I had my favorite stops: Cafe Ledig Erf for the best outdoor seating and strongest Belgian beer, and Cafe de Poort for good bar food, no nonsense ambiance and a nice view of the water. But my all time favorite spot on the Twijnstraat goes to a pizza place called Da Portare Via. They do the big wooden oven pizzas and I swear on the grave of my Italian Grandfather, Papa Mangini, that Portare’s pizza are the best I have ever tasted. I may be a man prone to hyperbole but, in this case, it’s genuine. Da Portare Via’s pizza chefs, none of them Italian as far as I can tell, bake the thinnest, most melt-in-your-mouth, pizza crust this side of Napoli. They’ve since expanded their operation to an even better place on Utrecht’s Voorstraat. If you are ever in town, stop at Portare Via and grab a pizza and a nice bottle of Chianti. You will not be disappointed.

We make it to the end of the street, hand in hand, and stop for a glass of prosecco at De Poort. Grabbing a table near the water, we sip our wine and watch a group of seven cyclists who’ve just finished a morning ride. They slowly unstrap their feet from the intricate pedals and stretch gingerly before sitting down for a bite and a beverage. We soak up the sun and the bubbly vino, and smile quietly while we observe people jostling to get a table in the sun. You gotta have some hustle to get a good spot in this town and we’ve been lucky this time. We finish our wine, pay the man, and scurry off.

Crossing the square, we follow a shaded sidewalk that loops around and follows a different canal back towards the center. It’s a green oasis in the middle of town, a refuge for dog owners who come here in droves to walk their pets. Thankfully, the owners respect the city’s leash laws otherwise all hell would break loose as dogs would go bonkers trying to sniff out their next mate. But today it all procedes in the most civilized of fashion and we walk briskly, slightly buzzed from the wine, and re-join the Old Canal near Utrecht’s Grand Dame, the Dom Tower.

Built so many thousands of years ago, The Dom is our Eiffel Tower, our Space Needle, our Freedom Tower. Sticking way up into the sky, tourists flock from all around and townies like me still stop and stare when the light hits her from a certain angle. She is big and beautiful and is one of those special attractions that towers above everything in her wake, while also doubling in function as a landmark to get your bearings and sense of direction. All roads lead to the Dom and one quick glance in her direction will tell you where you are and which way to go next.

Pushing through the large crowds at the Dom this morning, we make our way along the canal, turning right back onto Vinkenburgstraat, passing Neude Square, and back to my apartment. Having walked just long enough to feel it in our legs, we arrive at my place just before my sons show up to join us in watching some soccer on TV.

My boys arrive right before kick off. They come bundling in, feisty and joyous, all elbows and knees, still finding their way from puberty to young adulthood. Soccer is something we have shared since they were little. They both play the game, at the highest level for their age group, and seem to be continuing the line of good Mangene athletes. Our favorite team is FC Utrecht, the local major league franchise. It’s a blessing and a curse loving this team because to love them is to let go of ever winning the biggest prize. It’s a simple matter of economics with a smaller market team like FC Utrecht. Without the requisite dollars and cents, buying the talent necessary to win the big one is next to impossible. But we love them all the same. FC Utrecht is historically a “club of the people” meaning the core of its fanbase is local born and working class. Tickets are entirely affordable so I don’t have to take out a second mortgage to take my boys to the stadium for a match. The atmosphere in the stadium during matches is old school European with songs being sung from kick-off to final whistle. We’ve been to plenty of matches in the driving wind and rain of deep winter but it’s worth the pain. It’s a labor of love.

On this fine day though, we’re staying home to watch on TV. Utrecht is playing against Rotterdam’s biggest club, Feyenoord, which is a particularly fun rival because Dominique is from that part of the country. She cheers loudly for Feyenoord, the boys cheer even louder for Utrecht, and I am stuck somewhere in the middle. I make fresh guacamole, Dominique whips up some tasty club sandwiches, we pour ourselves tall drinks and the game is on.

The match is stellar. Both teams are in the mood to play offensive soccer. Utrecht gets on the board first, the center forward slamming a header into the top right corner of the net. Feyenoord returns the favor just minutes later to tie the game at 1-1. Both teams add another, taking the match into halftime tied at 2-2. But the second half is all Utrecht. Our guys punish the Rotterdam defense with masterful through balls, adding two more goals to bring the total to 4-2. My boys hoop and holler, rubbing salt into Dominique’s wounds and cackling their way back outside. We have a great time watching the game and my beloved sons leave happy.

The match has ended and now we’re off to a music festival on the other side of town. We’ve both taken the day off from work tomorrow so it’s no-holds-barred tonight. We text a group of friends and arrange to meet at the festival grounds in a couple of hours. The music today will be mostly EDM, but there will be enough “real bands” to keep things from getting too one sided. With the weather good, it’ll be a zoo at the festival so we decide to leave promptly to get a jump on the crowds. We like to travel light, taking only a summer jacket as well as sunglasses, keys, and money.

Having arrived at the festival, the music is top notch, the dancing sweaty, and the company divine. At midnight, when city noise ordinances force the DJs to stop, we slowly make our way outside back to our bikes. There is talk of after-parties, many of which will go on until the sun comes up, but that’s not our vibe tonight. We are headed home, to my little place in the center of town. We say our goodbyes to friends old and new, jump on our bikes, and pedal back to town, the zzzzzz of dance music still booming in our ears.

Twenty minutes later, we’re home. We lock the bikes, climb the stairs, and there’s just time enough for one last nightcap before heading to bed. Dominique carefully pours two cognacs, no ice, and accompanies them with a tall glass of San Pellegrino water, just to fend off tomorrow’s hangover. Peering over my balcony, out into the vibrant city, its frenetic energy now really heating up, we drink our way towards some well deserved sleep. Today was one for the history books.

Americano! Still Proud To Be An American.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

STILL PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN

1.

…When I was a young man, I ran away from America. It wasn’t political or economical or anything like that. I just had to go, so I came to Europe.

As of today, I’ve been outside of the USA for more than half my life: 25 years and counting. But the cliche is true: you can take the boy out of America but you can’t take America out of the boy. I still feel as American as the day I left and I often find myself daydreaming about what my next life in America could be.

Where would I go?

What would I do?

Would the country still be recognizeable?

Would I still feel American?

Impossible to say. And there’s only one way to find out.

Despite all the turmoil in America these days, all the negativity, I still believe the American experiment is the most exciting game going. I’m still inspired by the idea of starting a brand new country, half way across the world, based on a set of ideas agreed upon by a group of entrepreneurial pioneers. Very few people have ever tried that, let alone tried it and created something as vibrant and beautifully imperfect as the behemoth that is America. I shall forever continue to be a proud American.

Having said that, there is one aspect of American culture that I just cannot accept. In fact, it makes me feel shame. Guns. I don’t care what the N.R.A., or pro-gun people argue, our gun policies make no sense. They just don’t. We’re the only “civilized” nation that has mass shootings at this rate. It’s disgusting.

I will never come to terms with guns in America and, sadly, I’m not sure it will ever change. I fucking sure hope so, but I’ll tell you this in all honesty: I’m glad my sons are being raised in the Netherlands. It feels safer somehow…

Americano! So You Wanna Be a Professional Foreigner?

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

SO YOU WANNA BE A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER? 

1.

…Maybe you think it’d be cool to move far away and make a life for yourself in a foreign country. If so, more power to you. I encourage your wanderlust entirely. But if you really do want to get that passport and GO, GO, GO – please consider a few things before you embark.

GET A JOB.

If you’re going to move abroad and become a professional foreigner, you’re gonna need a job in the foreign country of your choice. This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many ambitious young people I’ve seen show up in Europe, only to smoke pot and couch surf for an entire year. I’m not saying that’s a bad way to spend a year of your life, but if you’re looking to stay for the long haul, you’re gonna need to find proper work. Politically speaking, I must say that Europe has moved significantly to the right since I first arrived looking for a residence and work permit way back in 1993. Freeloaders are not welcome anywhere. Xenophobia is trending and most countries, in Europe or elsewhere, will demand that you add something to their society in the form of work, as opposed to “milking” their system.

First and foremost, consider teaching English. Why? Because there’s plenty of work. Everybody, from the humble shopkeeper to the travelling Grandmother to the evil terrorist, wants and needs to speak English. The power of English teaching jobs is that, as a native English speaker, you’re not taking a job from a local person. I was originally awarded a work permit in the Netherlands because a Dutch person could not do my job, because a Dutch person is not a native English speaker. To be clear, when I advise you to teach English, I mean for you to teach at a private language school for adults. Forget teaching English in elementary education as you’ll need teacher certification in the local country. The private schools for adults generally do not require local elementary education certification. Find a T.E.S.L or a T.O.E.F.L. program and apply there. One of the best advantages to teaching English in one of these programs is that you will absolutely have to use your cultural identity to get the job done and that, after all, is the core of being a professional foreigner.

GET A DEGREE.

Get a college degree before you leave your home country. Any college degree. I happen to have a Bachelor of Arts with a minor in T.E.S.L. but you don’t have to have one of those. Any degree will do. Just be able to show the locals that you finished college. When I taught at the Nuns in Vught, they pretty much hired any native English speaker with a college degree as long as they could put two sentences together and were possessed of a reasonably amiable demeanor. But the college degree was a must – so do whatever you have to do to get one.

LEARN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE.

This one is hard. Really hard. It took me three years to learn Dutch, and I’m good at languages. I took formal lessons and read books with uplifting titles such as “Dutch in Three Months!”. Ultimately though, there’s only one way to really learn a foreign language – you have to NEED to speak it, not just want to speak it. Until your livelihood, your personal relationships, or, in some extreme cases, your physical safety are at stake, you won’t learn the local language in your country of choice. Simply wanting to “sound cool” or “push your boundaries” are not enough. You gotta need it, to learn it. In my case, I ended up learning Dutch when I met people who didn’t want to speak English. They understood English, and spoke it a little bit, but I learned Dutch because they spoke it to me constantly over a long period of time. Finally, I learned to speak Dutch.

The rewards of becoming fluent in a foreign language are endless. It enables you to really talk to people. You can shop for stuff without having to flail about at the mercy of others. You increase your potential for getting a job. Some studies show that speaking multiple languages wards off dementia in later life. But this is just the practical stuff. The real reward of speaking a foreign language is inclusion. We are social animals and we all need our tribes; speaking the language is your ticket to a place in the tribe. It’s the difference between surviving and thriving in your new home country. When you speak the local language, you become a participant. You get to speak your mind. You count. You matter. You are truly seen and heard.

It takes time. It will require truck loads of patience and determination. You will need to be vulnerable and accept making mistakes. You will have to accept that you will forever have an accent and your accent will always label you as a foreigner. It’s a genuine challenge, one of life’s greatest challenges if you ask me. But it’s worth it. The sense of achievement is unsurpassed by little. Some people think that only “certain people” can learn a foreign language, as if learning a foreign language has something to do with intelligence or a special genetic disposition. Bullshit. If you can read these words you are smart enough to learn any foreign language. You just gotta need it, you gotta work at it, and you gotta keep working at it until you get it. When you do, you’ll feel an enormous sense of pride that lasts forever.

PICK A COUNTRY, ANY COUNTRY.

Leaving the country of your birth and moving elsewhere is a shock to the system. We all handle that shock differently, but it’s a shock nonetheless. We don’t have the expression “culture shock” for nothing. As a result, my advice is for you to find a foreign country and make it your home base. With a new “home country” you can put roots in the ground and grow from there. If you’ve ever listened to a professional musician talk about life on the road, you’ll hear that they never really “see” much in the countries they visit. Sure, they have fun and they pick up a few things about the places they pass through. But that’s it – they’re just passing through. A professional foreigner needs to stay somewhere long enough to compare and reflect upon what it means to be foreign, and to use that knowledge in some way that makes them a living. It’s the difference between being a tourist and being a foreign resident. Tourists are on vacation and headed to the airport sometime soon. Foreign residents are cemented into a foundation from which they can learn.

Obviously it doesn’t matter which country you choose. Whatever floats your boat. I would recommend a country that doesn’t share your native language, but that’s just me. I think being forced to learn a new language will enhance your experience tenfold. A stable country with a working economy and a lack of war would be nice. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to more volatile places. Maybe your sense of adventure needs a less stable country. I don’t know. It’s your call. Every once in a while I get an email from the American Consulate in Amsterdam warning me not to go to this country or that country because it is too dangerous, corrupt, or hostile to Americans. I’m sure these advisories are well researched and include the very best of intentions, but something about them awakes the rebel in me. Don’t go to Haiti, they say. Well, we’ll just see about that, Mr. Uncle Sam! I’m not saying I’m taking my next vacation in that “shithole country”, but I am saying I determine what is a shithole and what isn’t, not my Government. And so do you. Just pick a country and go live there as opposed to breezing through as many countries, as quickly as possible.

DEVELOP A THICK SKIN.

Being permanently foreign is not for the faint hearted. It takes resilience because some people in the local country are going to resent you, demonize you, ridicule you, pick on you, and, sadly, hate you. It’s hard, but you’ll have to do it.

Believe me, I am no paragon of thick skin. I can be ridiculously over-sensitive. This has pros and cons obviously, but over the years I’ve somehow found a way to not let the haters get me down. Do yourself a favor though – let that negativity go. As a professional foreigner, you have much to offer your new homeland. Never forget that…

 

Americano! Finding Myself.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

FINDING MYSELF

1.

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

The honest answer is no.

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

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

I have never become “comfortable” with myself.

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

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

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

I am here and this is me.

I am hot and I am cold.

I’m up and I’m down.

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

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

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

“It’s just a ride.”

So ride it.

Enjoy it.

Cherish it.

Nurture it.

Hate it.

Love it.

But for the love of God, live it.

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

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

Americano! Omdenken, Part 1.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

OMDENKEN

1.

…Over the years I continued to make my cheesy movies. I continued to write and sing songs and put them online. Most of all though, I continued to teach English to Dutch people. In 2012 I decided it was time to put my method of teaching English into words. I wrote a book called Nooit Meer Steenkolenengels which roughly translates to “Never Speak Pidgin English Again”. About half way through the process, I got the crazy idea to illustrate the book myself. I had recently taken to drawing and found, to my surprise, that it relaxed me. So I kept doing it. As with all my projects at the time (and pretty much everything in my life) I had no formal training at drawing and, as a result, had no idea what I was doing in any kind of technical sense. But as the inimitable Robbie Williams once said about his singing talents, “I can’t sing. But it never stopped me from singing.” That’s a sentiment I can get behind.

So I wrote the book in English and then went looking for a publisher. I got a grand total of 13 responses from the big, bad world of book publishing. Eleven publishers ignored me entirely. One publisher replied saying “thanks but no thanks.” And one brave publisher in The Hague, Kemper Conseil Publishing, wanted to give me a shot. There was just one catch…

The book needed to be published in Dutch, not in English.

Their reasoning was straightforward: most Dutch readers want to read books in Dutch, not in English. Even if their English is good, which is quite common in the Netherlands, statistics have always shown that most people prefer to read in their native language. After initially being turned off by the idea, I eventually agreed with the company and translated my own book into Dutch. It was slow and boring work simply because Dutch is my second language. In the end, two editors corrected the translations that I had done and the book was released in June of 2012. My launch party was a grand affair with a DJ and live music and drinks and dancing. I gave a speech in which I talked about the process of writing the book and posted that on the internet as well. I am proud of the book even though it didn’t come close to breaking any sales records in the Netherlands. The fact of the matter is, every year I get royalties totalling enough to buy a nice bottle of champagne. But I wrote the thing, and I found a publisher and my book will forever be out there. Sometimes that’s enough.

A few years later, on a ho-hum Tuesday morning, I got a Facebook message from an English woman named Lynn whom I’d met previously to talk about English teaching in the Netherlands. Lynn’s message was an advertisement by a Dutch company called Omdenken. I had heard of Omdenken years before, from my friend Sanne Paulan who had turned me on to their philosophy. Omdenken is a Dutch word that translates in English to “flip-thinking” and, every year, the company does roughly 500 in-company shows, clinics, and workshops as well as theater tours throughout the Netherlands and the rest of Europe. Omdenken performs its shows for roughly 75,000 audience members per year and has a book that has been in the Dutch Top 60 bestseller list for more than 200 weeks. In fact, every single Omdenken book has become a bestseller.

The basic premise of Omdenken is to take a problem and flip it into a new possibility in such a way that the problem disappears. Sanne had told me about the company’s founder, Berthold Gunster, and I had checked out their stuff online. I immediately knew that their work would speak to me on a deep level. I was so impressed with Gunster’s concept that I promptly stole the idea for his “Ja-Maar Show” and created a show to promote the sales of my own book called “The Nooit Meer Steenkolenengels Show”. Although I didn’t use any of the Omdenken concept in my show, I did steal the marketing approach in order to sell tickets. When I finally met Berthold, it’s one of the first things I told him about myself. Upon telling him, he just titled his head back and laughed. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, is it not?

The advertisement Lynn sent me pointed out that Omdenken was looking for a “social media expert” to do their English language stuff. They wanted a native English speaker and somebody that lived in Utrecht. I matched both of those criteria and, although I was plenty busy with my English teaching and other activities, I decided to drop them a line, explaining that I loved their work and that I shared something in common with the Berthold Gunster: our mutual friend Sanne.

Omdenken’s Social Media Director, Nelleke, wrote back and invited me to come talk. A short while later I found myself sitting at a table in their cozy office on the Old Canal in Utrecht. Interestingly, I wasn’t actually looking for a job. I had my hands full with House of English at the time, and came to the “interview” just because I wanted to meet the quirky minds behind the massive success at Omdenken. In retrospect I suppose not needing a job is an effective way to enter a job interview – it takes the pressure off. We simply spent time talking and getting to know each other. It was really nice. Berthold’s first question to me was one I will never forget because it was a foreshadowing of things to come:

“Hey Dave, how’s your Dutch?” he asked, his eyes smiling.

“My Dutch is really good Berthold” I answered, a bit more precocious than I normally would be.

He didn’t follow up my answer with another question, or try to test me in any way. He seemed to just make a mental note of my answer and our conversation carried on. An hour later, we were done. They sent me back out into the bright daylight, promising to call as soon as they knew what they wanted to do. I rode my bike back to my apartment on the Gansstraat in Utrecht, inspired by our talk, but free of expectations.

An hour later, my phone rang. It was Berthold. He offered me the social media job. But there was more. He asked me to meet him at Cafe de Poort later that same afternoon to discuss another idea he had. He wouldn’t give away any details, but just told me to meet him later. This was mysterious and more than a little exciting.

At 3:00 pm, the very same day, I walked the short distance from my apartment to the cafe and found him sitting at a booth, alone. The cafe, as with most quality Dutch cafes, was bustling with afternoon revellers. I joined him at the booth.

As I sat down he reached out and gave me a firm handshake, offering me a drink. I ordered sparkling mineral water. He was drinking a Diet Coke. Never one to mince words when important business is at hand, he cut to the chase:

“Dave, we want you to do our English social media, you know that already. But I have another offer…we also want you to become an Omdenken Trainer…” he said, his words trailing off but his eyes fixed on me. I didn’t know exactly what the job of Omdenken Trainer entailed but, given the success of the company, I knew it’d be huge.

I was speechless.

That very morning, when I had woken up, I wasn’t looking for a job. I was content in my life as an English teacher, blogger, and occasional musician. And now I was being offered not one, but two jobs. It was all rather dizzying.

“Wow, Berthold…” I finally offered, several seconds later. “That sounds big” I added, unsure of my footing. “I think I’d like to order something a little stronger from the bar now” I asked, to which he just smiled and called the waiter over. He ordered a red wine and I had my favorite Belgian beer, a Duvel.

Simply put, I wasn’t sure how we’d arrived at this junction. Berthold explained to me that his partner Annemargreet, the business director at the company, had checked out my stuff online before the interview. She’d found my tiny YouTube channel, with the lo-fi sketch comedy films, the love songs, and the speech I gave at my book launch. It was that speech that most closely resembled the work I’d be doing as an Omdenken trainer, and it impressed her. She promptly gave Berthold the heads up and he checked out my stuff too. Amateur or not, my online work struck a chord with them. As fate would have it, they had recently gotten rid of a trainer after a long separation and needed a new one. They hadn’t actively started looking for a new trainer yet, and here I was falling into their laps. The timing was beyond serendipitous.

Part of the attraction to Omdenken is that the company has been doing very well the past several years. Everybody loves a winner, am I right? The word Omdenken, and our shows, books, and merchandise, have quietly become part of the national conversation here in the Netherlands. Everybody it seems has, at the very least, heard of the term Omdenken.

As I mentioned before, Annemargreet and Berthold have a simple job title for the second job they offered me that fateful day: Omdenken Trainer. In this case the word “trainer” doesn’t really cut the mustard. In reality, the job is more a combination of Master of Ceremonies, facilitator, comedian, actor, and teacher, all rolled into one. To do the job well requires an ability to both memorize and deliver scripted text as well as the agility to improvise comedically. At this point in my life, I can honestly say there is no other job on the Planet Earth better suited to my own skills set than the job of trainer at Omdenken. We fit like a glove. My work at Omdenken, doing shows all over the world, is the very definition of my dream job.

Despite being a little flabbergasted when Berthold and Annemargreet first offered me the two jobs, I took them anyway. How many times do we get a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Well, as the saying goes, we get the opportunity exactly once. I wasn’t gonna pass this one up. It won’t come as a surprise to you, but actually taking the job was the easy part. As it turned out, I sucked at the social media job mainly because computers fill me with anxiety so my results were decidedly average. I got fired from that one after 8 months. But I took to the the trainer job very well. Still, getting on stage in front of a living, breathing audience, that’s a continuous challenge. As Jordan Peele taught me at Boom Chicago, there is only one way to really learn: on stage, and the beauty of Omdenken is that I have a steady stream of shows as a way to properly master the art of comedy and theater. It’s a pretty cool job, if I do say so myself, and I hope to continue doing it until they put me in the ground and throw dirt on my box…

Americano! The Almost Funny Man, Part 3

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His name is Jordan Peele.

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

 The best goddamned movie of the year!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Americano! The Almost Funny Man, Part 2

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is that?” I asked.

“On stage, bro” he replied knowingly.

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

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

Americano! The Almost Funny Man, Part 1.

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

THE ALMOST FUNNY MAN

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I never saw him on American television.

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

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

And I was smitten with the work of Bill Hicks…

Americano! Going Solo, Part 2

AMERICANO!

TALES OF A PROFESSIONAL FOREIGNER

BY DAVE MANGENE

GOING SOLO

2.

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

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

Ever.

And neither can you.

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

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

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

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

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

On the contrary, my discovery was a liberation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wasn’t going anywhere.

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

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

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

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

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