Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Subsidy, Charity & Working for Free

In retrospect, I’d rather not have started up my solo business in the year 2009. But at least I had a job. I was writing and presenting daily ANP news in Engilsh. We’d just streamlined our process for a daily 13.00 airtime, when I heard we’d been canceled. In fact, there was a problem with the invoicing as well. The problem was basically that my boss’s entire media business had gone bankrupt, and he didn’t tell anybody. Remember XM News? Exactly. That guy still owes me money.

Clearly, there was still demand for Dutch news in English, because people kept asking me about it. ‘When are you going to translate the Dutch news again?’ At one point I thought, ‘Why not do it on my own?’ Maybe I could get a subsidy! I’d applied for a subsidy once, and I learned a lot. Specifically that I never want to apply for another subsidy.

I was approached about crowd-funding. I even tried doing a Twit-vid series on Twitter to make some demos. I went back to ANP and worked on a pilot for a Dutch News in English app. I tried going to AT5 and helping resuscitate their ‘Amsterdam Today’ series. AT least someone in the city of Amsterdam recognized the need for Dutch news in English. They’d take a bunch of AT5 news items, subtitle them in English and slap on a few English-as-second-language voice-overs to tie it together. It was unwatchable. Some topics were indeed interesting for internationals, for example Amsterdam’s response to the Weed-Pass law. But then they’d switch to some typical, arcane story about replacing a bike lane in de Jordaan. I offered to do all 3 jobs in one. I’d pick the stories that really matter. I’d translate them into English, and I’d do a voice-over to string it all together. We were getting somewhere, and then they lost their subsidy.

We decided to do things differently the next time. We went to expatica.nl. We told them we wanted to offer free content in exchange for exposure on their platform, and then we’d go after sponsors. Expatica had just tried their own video content and been burned. ‘We can’t pay you anything,’ they emphasized. We clarified: we don’t want you to pay us. We just need you to take the free content and use it. ‘Okay…’ they said, as the gears turned in their heads, and they looked at us with deepening suspicion. ‘But when are you going to ask us for money?’ We’re not. We just want to make this project work! Our strategy is just like the Dr. Seuss t-shirt: ‘Do what you love and the money will follow.’ We’re doing it. ‘Behind Dutch Headlines’ is a labor of love. If we ever get paid, so much the better. If we never get paid and we have to stop, then at least we can say we did it. But honestly, if we never get paid, I’ll still keep doing it. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

Fight the Crisis - Organize Charity for Lost Causes

One of the first speaking gigs I ever got was in high school. Some friends of mine were in a band called Nadsat Rebel, and they got a gig in a church basement outside of Chicago. Somehow I got the nod to be their warmup act. They didn’t care how I started, as long as I ended with ‘Straight from the depths of hell, it’s Nadsat Rebel.’ Get it? I said hell. And it was a church. Well, they were rebels.

While I’ve never really sought after the job of Warm-up-Act-for-Band, the job seems to have found me. When Caro Emerald sold out 3 nights at Amsterdam’s Heineken Music Hall, they needed someone to introduce her. They wanted someone who could seem like a 1950s Vegas type. Smarmy but charming, preferably with his own tuxedo. I got the gig. I like to think it was good karma. Why?

I love jazz music. While most Dutch radio is intent on assaulting me with all the Lionel Richie, Phil Collins & Jon Bon Jovi that I came here to avoid, there is one station that I can stand: Arrow Jazz FM (aka Sublime). Why did they change their name? You’ll see.

But yes, I like Arrow Jazz. What’s that, you say? ‘I’m a boring, old whiner, and I don’t care that they play the same 10 songs over & over?’ You have a point. But if I have to listen to the same song every day, I’d rather have Nina Simone than Lady Gaga. Rather Lou Rawls than Katy Perry. And I believe even One Direction would choose Miles Davis over One Direction. SO – when Arrow Jazz asked me to be the front-man for their Arrow Jazz live shows, I said yes.

The shows took place at Sugar Factory in Amsterdam, every Monday. (You see already how this is going to end.) Sugar Factory is a great space, just off the beaten path. It’s across from the Melkweg – which, itself, is already off the beaten path. The main host was DJ Graham B from New Cool Collective. We had some great live acts - and I got to introduce them! Konrad Koselleck Big Band, Bas van Lier & Def P, and my favorite: Fred Wesley of the JBs. When James Brown said ‘Blow me some trombone,’ he was talking about Fred Wesley. I got to talk to Fred Wesley backstage, about the old recordings and the intros for the live shows. That guy with the weird, high-pitched voice. ‘That’s Pee-Wee!’ Fred Wesley warmed up immediately. So I did my best Pee-Wee imitation for the intro.

Sure enough, we got word that Arrow Sugar Suite would not continue to receive funding from Arrow Jazz FM. In fact, they were going off the air completely. Bankrupt. No more Arrow Jazz FM. I can’t say I was surprised. But I was surprised at what happened next: I made up my mind to try and save them. I thought ‘Why not organize a benefit concert called “Save Arrow Jazz?’”

It was March 2009. I got a couple dates to set up an event, and – when the cause was Arrow Jazz - it proved refreshingly easy to get people to donate their time. We had Hans Dulfer & his band. We had Wicked Jazz Sounds. We had Benjamin Herman from New Cool Collective. And my favorite was Zuco 103 with Brazilian sounds from Ms Lilian Viera herself. For 2 star-studded evenings, we raised money for Arrow Jazz FM. Or did we? Apparently the money that was raised went to cover the sponsor money they never gave… The result: they still went off the air.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Dutch Identity: Who are we?

‘The Dutch identity? I haven’t found it… Nederland is too diverse to sum up in any one cliché.
- Princess Maxima

‘Princess Says Dutch Identity Doesn’t Exist’ – Dutch media

Not long after Maxima’s famous quote, I was invited to a Dutch management seminar enititled ‘Dutch Identity: Who Are We?’ I was invited to sit on a panel and share my experiences with other internationals. I said yes. What could go wrong?

The seminar started with a panel of old, balding, white men. They were leaders of Dutch government and business, and they all agreed that Maxima was wrong. There IS a Dutch identity. But they couldn’t agree on what it is, exactly. I thought to myself, ‘If you guys can’t figure out the Dutch identity, then who will?’

It’s no wonder the panel couldn’t agree. According to the seminar’s first speaker, part of the Dutch identity is the need to disagree. Ever since they threw off Spanish Catholicism, the Dutch have been resistant to dogma, even if that means debating everything. Since 1574, the Dutch celebrate their unwillingness to take orders. In my experience, this is also true at many Dutch restaurants.

The ironic part is that – since the Dutch are non-hierarchical – no one wants to be on top. The Netherlands is perhaps the least-chauvinistic country in Europe. The speaker summed it up like this: The Dutch are rather proud of our accomplishments, our culture, and our contributions to world society. But we are deathly allergic to taking any credit for it.’ In essence – if the Dutch do have a national identity – they don’t feel comfortable acknowledging it.

Up next was the panel. I was invited to sit onstage with a Chinese law student, a Turkish telecom entrepreneur, a Polish consultant, and a Dutchman, who was former head of international investment for Rabobank. What started off as a panel quickly turned into an impassioned monologue. Mr. Rabobank agreed that the Dutch are non-hierarchical by nature, and – in his experience – that’s why they are a nation of followers. ‘We don’t need a seminar on management; we need a seminar on leadership! We are a country full of nothing but managers. Who will have the courage to stand up and lead?’

One man in the audience had a question for Mr. Rabobank. He was from the Ministry of Economic Affairs. The men knew each other. What followed was a heated debate. Mr. Government defended his record, defending the Dutch model, and defending the idea of Dutch leadership. And then the retort from Mr. Rabobank: ‘Then why haven’t you done anything to prevent the rise of Geert Wilders and the PVV?’ There was no answer.

The moderator then gave the mic to the other members of the panel. And then: ‘Mr. Gregory Shapiro, what’s your opinion?’ 

(to be continued) 

Friday, March 22, 2013

The underemployed, the out of work & the bankrupt.

The underemployed, the out of work & the bankrupt.

As the Dutch government grapples with redundancy reform (making it easier to fire workers)  and employment rules (making it easier to hire people), here’s a check-in with my real-life expat connections.
After a look at the statistics, let’s take a look at the bigger question: is anyone happy here?

The underemployed. He’s American. He came over here years ago to work with a company that ended up giving him a long-term contract. He didn’t think he wanted a job-for-life, but now he’s quite dependent on it. Sure enough, the company is now scaling back. First, they wanted him to start up his own company so he could invoice them – as well as other clients. But now they want to terminate his contract, and he’s fighting the decision. Result: it’s very awkward, but he’s still going in to work, and he’s miserable.

The out of work. She’s from Colombia. She had a job at Radio Netherlands Worldwide. She was laid off. I’m still wondering how the Dutch government – the enforcer of the anti-redundancy rules – is able to lay off hundreds of people in one swing of the axe. Since being laid off, she’s started her own company. She’s translating, writing her own blog, and working on a podcast with this guy.

The out of work. He’s American. He also had a job at Radio Netherlands. His show was so successful they syndicated it and it played on NPR in the United States. He’s been on unemployment since they laid him off / he quit. Now he’s itching to get back to work, and he’s starting up his radio show as a podcast. There’s no money in it yet, but he has faith…

The out of work. He’s British. He came over here years ago for a short-term job. He also got a long-term contract. But he decided to leave and start his own company. He married a Dutch woman, and they’re expecting a baby. But one of his steady clients just put all their business on hold. Now he’s looking for work and slightly freaked out about the fact that February set a record for bankruptcies in the Netherlands.

The bankrupt. They’re a small Dutch company in artist management and event organizing. The changes the Dutch government has imposed over the last 2 years proved to be too much. Cutting off all subsidies. Raising the tax on tickets. Then lowering it again. All the while, they were losing business due to the continued recession, caused by self-inflicted austerity. But – the Dutch government also gave them a big loophole. Apparently it’s possible to declare bankruptcy, change the name of your company, and continue as if nothing happened. That’s what they did. Are they hiring again? Not yet. But they’ve got a new lease on life and a new perspective.

Is anyone happy here? Actually, yes. The out of work are all going solo, they're motivated and they have a sense of purpose. The bankrupt are battling back and making amends. The underemployed guy is the only one who’s really unhappy, fighting for a contract he didn’t really want at a place where he doesn’t really like to work.

Yes, the Dutch government should reform the redundancy rules. But while they’re dragging their feet, the rest of us are going solo. We're moving on with our lives. If they can provide an economy where our solo businesses can thrive, then everybody’s happy. If not, we’ll be moving on from Nederland. 

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Englis-crimination. TV? Dutch only, aub

Unfortunately, the Big Film Quiz was on Dutch public broadcasting, so it had to be in Dutch. That’s just the way it is. I asked why, and it was explained to me: ‘the public broadcasters are aimed at, shall we say, higher educated viewers.’ So, of course, the commercial channels are for lower educated viewers. And, indeed, whenever I hear English on TV, it’s Paul Turner on ‘Voice of Holland,’ or Derek Ogilvie talking to dead people, or Dan Karaty on ‘So You Think You Can Dance.’ And they do the live shows, where they can’t even subtitle it. (Actually, they do try. Karaty will say something like ‘Nice technique, but I wanted to see more performance, more expression, more attitude, more wow, more swagger!’ …and the subtitle will come up a few seconds later: ‘Goed, maar kan beter.’)  

So, if the public channels in Nederland are aimed at higher-educated viewers, then why are the lower-educated viewers the only ones trusted to speak a second language?

In 2012, Pep Rosenfeld & I came close to being on Pauw en Witteman. Boom Chicago was asked to develop material for the 2012 election. Would we be willing to spend a bunch of hours developing & trying out material linking the Dutch election to the US election? Yes. And would we be willing to come in and try it out in the studio so the producers & Jeroen & Paul could see? Yes. Was it funny? ‘It was very funny,’ they explained. ‘It’s just… we want to wait until Leon de Winter is on the show. Then we’ll invite you.’ Winter came and went, and we’re still waiting.

To their credit, many producers in Dutch public broadcasting have had no problem putting me on TV. I was speaking English for NOS Election Night in 2000 with Boom Chicago. I was with Pep Rosenfeld on Barend en van Dorp in 2004. And we went on Twee voor Twaalf in 2008. And in 2012 I did my solo series ‘Verkiespijn’ in English on Vara HumorTV. Subtitled, no problem. I even interviewed Horace Cohen, who has American citizenship. I asked him if he was going to vote, and he said ‘Yes! Definitely. But how do you do it? At the Embassy on Museumplein?’ Technically, that’s the Consulate. And no, you can’t vote there. You have to request an absentee ballot and send it in. Horace replied, ‘Oh, well then no, I’m not going to vote.’ We agreed Obama could use a more motivational slogan. Horace suggested ‘Voting Made Easy.’ Or more like ‘Vote Obama, unless it’s too much trouble.’

I’ve come close to being on De Wereld Draait Door. The producer explained that they were getting complaints about having the same guests all the time. And in 2012, they wanted some people talking about America who were actually from America. A week before they were going to have me on, they tried some new faces at the table. Now they were getting complaints about too many guests they’d never heard of. I got bumped for Leon de Winter.

I teased the producer from De Wereld Draait Door about the No-English policy at the public broadcasters. She said, ‘It’s not just English. It’s any other language.’ A-ha! So there is a policy! She explained, ‘There’s no written rule that Dutch public broadcasters have to stick to Dutch. But there’s an unspoken rule that – if you’re accepting money from the Dutch government – then you’re expected to stick to the mother tongue.’ Dutch broadcasting, alias Le Academie Nederlandaise. I suppose that’s why I quite enjoyed it when Matthijs van Nieuwkerk invited guest-host Adrian van Dis to take over the show for Book Week. Adrian van Dis came on, and the first thing he did was switch language. First came the fluent German interview, and then the fluent English interview. 3 languages for the price of … less than Matthijs van Nieuwkerk. That was a pretty good deal. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Immigration - save up for a ticket on KLM like civilized people

Former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers was in the audience for another show I did. It was a private event for the Old Society of Old Dutch Men. That wasn’t the official name, but that’s how it felt. The main table was crawling with Christian Democrats. Lubbers was interesting, but the one I wanted to talk to was former Immigration Minister Gerd Leers. His party CDA was in the coalition with Geert Wilders, and I wanted to know how much his hard-core immigration policy was dictated by the PVV.

I performed my routine, comparing Dutch politics to US politics: ‘in America our elections 18 months. In the Netherlands there are some governments that don’t even exist 18 months.’

Part of me thought I’d be asked to leave the building – or the country. But then I was approached by a man in black with a big, silver cross. He introduced himself as the Bishop of Maastricht, and he said he loved my speech… Before I knew it, he’d introduced me to Gerd Leers. And there I was, face to face with ‘Mr. Immigration.’

Gerd Leers & I ended up talking about the big news from last month: the amnesty granted to child asylum-seekers and their families. Mr. Leers said he was glad to see the issue resolved. He had a nice quote: ‘Make no mistake: If I could, I would grant amnesty to most asylum seekers. But at some point you must realize you are giving a huge gift to the human traffickers.’ And so I got schooled. Apparently, human trafficking is a huge industry, shuttling the poorest people to the West with false promises, in appalling conditions.

Ideally, those poor people should all save up for a ticket on KLM and arrive like civilized people. I said, ‘good preparation for Human Trafficking Awareness Day tomorrow.’ Leers said, ‘Oh, I hadn’t heard.’ 

Monday, March 18, 2013

High-wire Political Parody

In the world of political standup comedy, there’s just one top gig: the White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner. There’s no such thing in Dutch politics. But I’ve come close. Every year Het Parool hosts an event called ‘The Year in Politics,’ and I was the host in 2010 – right after Geert Wilders took power. …But I’ll get to that in a minute.

One of the shows we do at Boom Chicago is ‘Political PARTY,’ celebrating Dutch politics American-style. Pep Rosenfeld & I co-host the show with pollster guru Maurice de Hond, and he invites his favorite Dutch politicians. For example, one of our first guests was Femke Halsema. First, we’d ask her a few questions. Next, we’d ask her to name her political adversary: Mark Rutte. Then she’d have to dress up as Mark Rutte and answer questions as Mark Rutte. It was a surprisingly liberating experience for her, and she was very good.

While Femke Halsema would be doing her Mark Rutte impression, I’d be sitting next to her doing my Femke Halsema impression. She’d be busy making Rutte look ridiculous, I’d be making her ridiculous. It’s one thing to stand in front of the President and make jokes about him. But sitting next to a politician and doing an impression of the politician is not for the faint of heart. Someday, I hope to live up to the shining example of Stephen Colbert standing next to George W. Bush and ridiculing the President without him realizing.

Another one of our guests onstage was Lodewijk Asscher. Back then, he was Amsterdam Deputy-Mayor. Now he’s Deputy Prime Minister. First, we made fun of his name. It’s the perfect Civil Servant title: starts with ‘Ass’ & ends in ‘Chair.’ We teased Asscher that he looked like the perennial young-man actor John Cusack. Cusack made ‘High Fidelity,’ a fine film. And Asscher made a priority of improving school infrastructure, a fine move. But then came the North-South Metro line, which – like Cusack’s ‘2012’ was WAY overbudget and deeply unsatisfying.

Lodewijk Asscher picked – as his political alter-ego – (former PM) J.P. Balkenende. He entered with ‘Folks, if you liked Balkenende 1-4 you’re going to love Balkenende 5!’ And – of course – I sat next to him, doing my impression of super-likeable Lodewijk Asscher. As it turned out, Asscher was not only a good improviser, but a good debater too. His Balkenende started attacking my Asscher as a weak-kneed Liberal, and I started attacking back. I was also happy to spell out the holes in Asscher’s arguments. Asscher said he’d liked President Obama, that ‘staying in Afghanistan was the right move.’ My Asscher said the same thing, but quickly added that ‘we, of course, pulled our troops out already…’ 

Sunday, March 17, 2013

I survived being on Dutch TV

I’ve done some acting in the Netherlands. Normally, whenever someone needs an English-speaking character, I’ll get a call. I’ve played a casting director on ‘Onderweg naar Morgen,’ a catty modeling coach in ‘Radeloos,’ and a news reader in ‘Phileine Zegt Sorry.’ One of my favorite gigs was for the soap opera ‘Goede Tijden Slechte Tijden.’ In one of the story lines, the young love interest goes on a ski holiday and injures herself. Who plays the doctor? Me. I said, ‘You want me to be an American doctor, right?’ No, French. ‘But the lines are in English.’ Well, just say them with a French accent. And there I was on the set with Barbara and her daughter Charlie (Charlotte & Aukje / Lieke whatever). We were running our lines, and I wasn’t French enough. I tried again. Again I got the note ‘More French, please.’ Just for fun, I did a crazy, broad French accent – somewhere between John Cleese in ‘Holy Grail’ and Inspector Clouseau. And no one said anything, so I did it for camera. If you ever watch the clip back, you can see everyone dying with laughter in the middle of the scene. It was just that kind of hospital.

And then someone thought it would be a good idea to have me on the Big Film Quiz. Every year, Dutch Public Broadcasting gets a bunch of Dutch actors and makes them compete in a number of challenges involving film trivia. Sometimes they have to identify film quotes, and sometimes they compete to do the best re-enactment of famous film scenes. And every year it’s pretty fun. The host is Matthijs van Nieuwkerk from the closest thing the Dutch have to ‘The Daily Show,’ known as ‘De Wereld Draait Door.’

I know Matthijs van Nieuwkerk from his days as director of Amsterdam broadcaster AT5. It was there that we did the ‘Boom Chicago News’ in 2001. I know he speaks English, but he’s made a rule for himself not to do it on tv. So the story goes, he once did an interview with an American actor – the guy who played Ridge on ‘The Bold and the Beautiful.’ Apparently the plan was for Matthijs to ask difficult questions and make fun of the guy for being an airhead. Unfortunately, the plan backfired when Matthijs couldn’t quite understand the accent and couldn’t follow what the guy was saying. Since then, he made a rule: ‘Only in my native language.’ …If only I’d followed that rule.

(to be continued) 

Me & Naomi Watts in Almere

I dreamt I was in a crappy movie with Naomi Watts… no wait, that really happened. 

Dutch film directors have done pretty well in Hollywood. In the 1980s, Paul Verhoeven made a name for himself with ‘Robocop’ and ‘Basic Instinct.’ In the 1990s it was Jan de Bont with ‘Speed.’ Next up for US success was supposed to be Dutchman Dick Maas…

Dick Maas is, I would say, Nederland’s crappiest success story. He’s known for making Hollywood-size films with a Hilversum-size budget. Probably his best work is the boat chase in ‘Amsterdamned’ along the famous canals. But after crashing into the rowing club, then the Dutch street organ, then an even more implausible brass band flotilla… you’re left wondering if he’s taking it seriously or if he’s taking the piss. That’s Dick Maas to me: he’s aiming for parody, but it comes off as poor-man’s homage.

Dick Maas’ first-ever movie was ‘De Lift’ in 1983. It was a simple horror story about an elevator where people were being killed - by the elevator. For everyone who’s ever wondered what happens when you get your head caught between the elevator doors, this movie is for you.

For his big jump to the US market, Maas decided to redo his first movie, with a ‘Die Hard’ makeover. The exteriors were filmed in Manhattan, but the bulk of the production was in Almere by the Big Brother studios. And – since this time the movie was in English – they needed American actors, and I got the call.

Everyone from Boom Chicago tried out for the film. Ike Barinholtz got to play a fussy office assistant. Josh Meyers was on a SWAT team. And I got a role as a tech nerd / computer expert named Chip. (get it?) The filming was scheduled for August, 2000 – right in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where I was performing for Boom Chicago. We told them I probably couldn’t do it, unless they could schedule all my scenes into the same 36 hours. Somehow they made it work, and I found myself on the set next to Naomi Watts. But I was labeled as ‘the prima donna.’

At that point, I’d never heard of Naomi Watts. In 2000, we were all more impressed with her co-star James Marshall from ‘Twin Peaks.’ James was open & friendly, and he liked having someone to talk to on the set. I teased him that he didn’t seem as dumb as his character on TV. He agreed. After ‘Twin Peaks,’ he’d had to deal with a serious illness. But this was his comeback and his ‘big chance to play an intelligent role in a smart script.’ Oh, dear.

Naomi Watts was Australian and, so we were told, a friend of Nicole Kidman. We’d be running lines, and she’d have to ask me – in her broad ‘Strine’ accent – ‘dizz thaat sound roight?’ 
I dreamt I was in a crappy movie with Naomi Watts… no wait, that really happened.

Dutch film directors have done pretty well in Hollywood. In the 1980s, Paul Verhoeven made a name for himself with ‘Robocop’ and ‘Basic Instinct.’ In the 1990s it was Jan de Bont with ‘Speed.’ Next up for US success was supposed to be Dutchman Dick Maas…

Dick Maas is, I would say, Nederland’s crappiest success story. He’s known for making Hollywood-size films with a Hilversum-size budget. Probably his best work is the boat chase in ‘Amsterdamned’ along the famous canals. But after crashing into the rowing club, then the Dutch street organ, then an even more implausible brass band flotilla… you’re left wondering if he’s taking it seriously or if he’s taking the piss. That’s Dick Maas to me: he’s aiming for parody, but it comes off as poor-man’s homage.

Dick Maas’ first-ever movie was ‘De Lift’ in 1983. It was a simple horror story about an elevator where people were being killed - by the elevator. For everyone who’s ever wondered what happens when you get your head caught between the elevator doors, this movie is for you.

For his big jump to the US market, Maas decided to redo his first movie, with a ‘Die Hard’ makeover. The exteriors were filmed in Manhattan, but the bulk of the production was in Almere by the Big Brother studios. And – since this time the movie was in English – they needed American actors, and I got the call.

Everyone from Boom Chicago tried out for the film. Ike Barinholtz got to play a fussy office assistant. Josh Meyers was on a SWAT team. And I got a role as a tech nerd / computer expert named Chip. (get it?) The filming was scheduled for August, 2000 – right in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where I was performing for Boom Chicago. We told them I probably couldn’t do it, unless they could schedule all my scenes into the same 36 hours. Somehow they made it work, and I found myself on the set next to Naomi Watts. But I was labeled as ‘the prima donna.’

At that point, I’d never heard of Naomi Watts. In 2000, we were all more impressed with her co-star James Marshall from ‘Twin Peaks.’ James was open & friendly, and he liked having someone to talk to on the set. I teased him that he didn’t seem as dumb as his character on TV. He agreed. After ‘Twin Peaks,’ he’d had to deal with a serious illness. But this was his comeback and his ‘big chance to play an intelligent role in a smart script.’ Oh, dear.

Naomi Watts was Australian and, so we were told, a friend of Nicole Kidman. We’d be running lines, and she’d have to ask me – in her broad ‘Strine’ accent – ‘dizz thaat sound roight?’
(to be continued in the book...)

Friday, March 15, 2013

No Subsidy for You - Crumbs or Slums?

“We’ve become a nasty little right-wing country” – Youp van ‘t Hek

The New York Times recently wrote that the Amsterdam arts scene is ‘under siege.’ And - as a member of the Amsterdam arts scene – I agree it’s certainly had its ups and downs. Literally. In 2010, the Dutch government decided that – instead of 6% sales tax for our services – they would instead charge 19%. And they dropped it down again. The government wanted to make a statement about the arts, and – if the statement was ‘we have no idea what we’re doing’ - they succeeded. I also noticed the statement they made by declaring what would be exempt from the tax hike: the cinema. Apparently, ‘normal’ Dutch people don’t need whiny high-art; they just want to go to the movies. In practice, it’s mostly the American movies. Effectively, it was a subsidy for Hollywood. On behalf of Hollywood, thank you! That’s just what they needed.

The New York Times article was written by Nina Siegal, who was my former editor at Time Out Amsterdam. She explained to me how she took a maternity leave and was subsequently laid off. I asked, ‘isn’t that illegal?’ Yes, it is. Apparently they also wanted to make a statement: that they are recklessly cruel bastards. I told her that – at times like these – it’s important to look on the bright side. Specifically: Time Out Amsterdam is now bankrupt, and Nina is writing for the New York Times.

Nina’s article for The New York Times focused less on the random tax changes and more on the other nasty bit of arts reform: slashing subsidies. At issue was the Theater Institute Netherlands, which is being forced to close down. Over the years, they’ve amassed a fairly large representation of Dutch theater history, which is now up for grabs. If only the subsidy had been slashed by 90%, they could have at least kept the lights on. But no – 100% cut. The same thing happened to the Dutch Slavery Institute NiNsee. Dansgroep Amsterdam. And Theater Engelenbak.

And here we get to the quote from above. Youp van ‘t Hek is one of Nederland’s foremost cabaretiers and one of my Dutch theatrical heroes. Remember Buckler beer? No one does. Buckler was a non-alcoholic beer, which was around before I got here. The story goes that they were shamed into pulling their product from the shelves, thanks to one comedian who kept ridiculing them, mercilessly. His name: Youp van ‘t Hek. His last name is hard to pronounce, but it sounds a lot like ‘Fanatic.’ And he fanatically hated Buckler beer.

It’s nice to think that a comedian can affect social change. (But where is he now that Bavaria.0 is assaulting the airwaves?) More importantly, Youp van ‘t Hek used his influence to save the Kleine Komedie theater from closing down. But – come to think of it - where was he for Theater Engelenbak? 

So - is the arts scene in Amsterdam in fact under siege? Yes. But that doesn't mean it's dying. In my neighborhood, there are pop-up ateliers and galleries growing in new, unused spaces. While the big money is being thrown at the big projects (Stedelijk, Van Gogh, and Rijksmuseum), the true artists are rejecting the handouts and setting up shop in squats. Forget the crumbs; freedom's in the slums. That's how Amsterdam was when I got here in the 90's. As the Dutch like to say: the circle is round. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dutch Directness + Hans Teeuwen. Don't make him mad.

Dutch Directness + Hans Teeuwen. Don't make him mad.  

Living in the Netherlands, I’ve come to realize that Dutch people really do like to ‘Doe normaal.’ If you’re too full of yourself or putting on airs, there’s a built-in Dutch bullshit detector that will kick in and cut you down to size.

Before Amsterdam, I spent most of my time living in Chicago and New York.
In Chicago, people want to know where you come from: ‘You’re Venezuelan? My friend growing up was Venezuelan. Wanna hang out?’
In New York, people only care where you’re going: ‘You’re from Boring Smalltown? I’m from Loser Smalltown. What’s your plan to get rich & famous?’
Amsterdam is a mix of the 2: ‘You want to be rich & famous? Cut the shit! Where are you from? Don’t care! Plus, here are my favorite insults for that place.’

For example: ‘Hey, I saw you onstage! It was not very funny. Are you really from America? I thought so. You’re so loud, and you think all your jokes are funny. What now? Are you going to shoot me?’

This is known as Dutch Honesty. When I meet Dutch people, it’s often as if they want to show off some new Truth Serum they just drank. ‘Your nose is big!’ ‘Your suit is too big.’ And this was a quote aimed at a female colleague of mine:
‘You looked really nice onstage tonight! I was looking at your trousers, and I’m pretty sure you shave your pubes. But my friend says you have a full bush. So which is it?’

In particular, Dutch honesty and Dutch courage are a bad combination. In the days following 9/11, I was here in Amsterdam. After I’d do a show, sometimes there would be a Dutch guy to buy me a drink.
Him: ‘You’re American, right? It’s terrible what happened in New York. Let me buy you a drink.’
Me: ‘Thanks.’
We’d clink our glasses. And – as soon as I’d take a sip – that’s when he’d start in.
Him: ‘You know, you really did have it coming.’
Me: [Spitting my beer]
Him: ‘Oh yeah… Reagan gave the Afghan rebels their weapons. You created the terrorists in Saudi Arabia by propping up the oppressive regime. And why did you build such big targets in the first place?’

Apparently, the deal is ‘I buy you a beer, and until you are done drinking I get to tell you everything wring with your foreign policy. Those were some of the fastest beers I ever drank.

Some Dutch people have raised bluntness to an art form. Literally. His name is Hans Teeuwen. If possible, do not get in an argument with Hans Teeuwen. I found this out the hard way. 

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Redefining 'Cheap'

Stereotype: ‘The Dutch are cheap.’ 
You know the joke: ‘How do you make copper wire? Give a 5 cent piece to a couple Dutchmen & watch them fight over it.’ I heard that joke from my Dad, and he’s Jewish.  

But are the Dutch really cheap? Or are they zuinig? I realized the difference when I went to visit my Dutch mother-in-law. She lives right on the border of Limburg, and every time we show up, she serves us vlaai. I dutifully balance the tiny plate on my knee as she also offers me a cup of coffee on its saucer. And just when I’ve managed that comes the cookie tin. If anything, she’s generous to a fault; not exactly cheap.

It’s when she offers the cookies that it happens. One time, after I chose a cookie, she slammed the cookie tin shut with gusto. And I thought: ‘Ha! I’ve got you!’
I said, teasingly, ‘So, it’s just like they say in the books. You’re cheap with those cookies!’
She asked, ‘What do you mean?’
I explained, ‘You closed the cookie tin so quickly. You must want to make sure I don’t take more than one cookie!’
And she said, ‘No, no… I close the cookie tin so that - when you want another cookie – the cookies, they are fresh.’
And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a different way of looking at it… You actually care about quality.’ Come to think of it, I come from a culture where the cookies stay open until they’re quickly devoured. But this idea of Quality? Efficiency? We Americans just take one look and conclude: ‘CHEAP.’

Granted, sometimes the Dutch take the freshness concept a bit too far.
Me: ‘Where’s my bread?’
My colleague: ‘What bread?’
Me: ‘The bread I bought and put here in the refrigerator.’
My colleague: ‘What bread?’
Me: ‘I bought it yesterday. A full loaf of bread..’
My colleague: ‘Oh, that old rubbish! I threw it out.’

The Dutch are so fanatic about fresh bread that they make it nearly impossible to buy fresh bread. 

Monday, March 11, 2013

Bike Karma

Bike Karma - How to Be Orange Chapter __ (part 1)

I bike. Even in Chicago. If ever you’ve seen the one madman, biking in the middle of a snowstorm, that was me. When I saw the standard means of transport in Amsterdam, a part of me felt like I was home.

My first bike in Amsterdam was a rental. Then a loaner. I asked where to get my own bike, and the common answer I received was ‘Go find a junkie.’ I’d happened to be accompanying a friend of mine home, when a junkie approached us. ‘Fiets te koop’ meant ‘Wanna buy a bike?’ My friend offered 50 Guilders, and presto he had a bike. The next night, I found myself wandering the same street on the way home, with 50 Guilders in my pocket.

It was near the Red Light District that I found a thoroughly disreputable looking gentleman on a bike, saying ‘wanna buy?’ I nodded yes and followed him around the corner into one of the myriad shadowy corners. I looked at the bike. It seemed rather new. I asked, ‘How much?’ And he said, ‘25 Guilders.’ This seemed a bit too good to be true. All my instincts were now telling me I was in over my head. If I’d been brought up in New York City, I’d have said ‘I don’t like this,’ and walked away. But I was from the Midwest, and I felt that wouldn’t have been polite.

I held up 25 Guilders and asked ‘Can I try it first?’ Now nervous, the man said ‘Yeah. Here,’ and he gave me the bag he was holding, so he could turn the bike around. To my surprise, he hopped on the bike and took off – with my 25 Guilders. Like an idiot, I followed him, saying ‘You forgot your bag…’

A quick examination of the plastic baggie proved that I hadn’t purchased a bike at all, but instead what looked like crack cocaine. I’d heard of these guys. Fake drug dealers. It’s one of the more enduring scams in the city. And it’s not technically illegal, since no one was in possession of any real drugs. It’s just some powder made to look like a rock of crack in a baggie.

At this point I’d drawn a bit of attention to myself, since I was holding up a bag of drugs in public. One downtrodden guy was looking at me curiously. I said, ‘Can you believe it? I was trying to buy the bike. Instead, I got fake drugs.’ Wide-eyed, the guy said ‘Let me see that…’ The way he cherished the bag, I’d started to think maybe it wasn’t fake. It occurred to me to say ‘That’ll be 25 Guilders, Sir…’ But in retrospect, I was happy to get out of there with my syringe virginity.

The junkie bike. At one point, everyone I knew had one. My boss even had one covered in red & yellow tape, to be decorative. That’s how I learned a valuable lesson about Amsterdam biking etiquette. My colleague had borrowed the fancy, taped-up bike from our boss. Together, we were riding side by side in the bike lane. At one point, the bike lane merged a bit with the sidewalk, and two pedestrians started shouting at us in Dutch. We weren’t sure what we’d done wrong, but one of these guys had lunged at my colleague and started grabbing the bike. It soon became apparent that this pedestrian was – in fact – the one who’d meticulously applied the red & yellow tape, since it was his bike. And he had every reason to believe we’d actively stolen it. My colleague was trying to explain: ‘But you see, I’m just borrowing the bike from the guy who paid the guy who stole it from you…’ And after realizing what he’d just said, he immediately gave the bike back.

Now we had to explain to our boss what had happened to his bike. He just laughed ‘Easy come, easy go. Sorry to put you in that situation.’ That would not be the last awkward situation. Another colleague of mine was caught on camera. On the front page of Het Parool. They were doing an exposé on the rampant sale of junkie bikes in Amsterdam, and they had a tryptic of photos chronicling the sale, with the faces blurred. But to anyone who knew him, it was obvious: that man is Pete Grosz. The location was right next to Boom Chicago. Of course, Boom Chicago was not implicated. Though they’ve sold me more than one illegal bike over the years.

I like to think I’ve paid for my junkie bike sins, in that I’ve had so many of my own bikes stolen. Although I guess you can’t really call it stealing when I leave my keys in the lock, like an idiot. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Sex, get over it

Sex, get over it

Sex in the Netherlands is, frankly, annoying. Everyone thinks we’re over here having sex all the time. In my experience, it ain’t so.

What’s nice is that the Dutch treat sex as a natural part of life. When I moved here in the 90’s, I remember there was a Safe Sex outdoor campaign on posters and billboards. Since the subject was sex, the poster showed a naked couple - about to have sex. The image was the woman kneeling on her bed, topless. Standing in front of her is a big, black dude. He’s wearing nothing. With one hand, she’s about ready to take off her panties, and with the other she’s holding up a condom, saying ‘Doe jij iets aan, doe ik iets uit.’ ‘If you put something on, I’ll take something off.’ To me, it was the perfect way of saying ‘You’re not in America anymore.’ Granted, there is more and more sexually explicit imagery in America. And sometimes, there’s even a little nudity. But both sexuality and nudity, combined with a black guy in that white girl’s bedroom, would probably have most Americans calling the police.

And it’s not just Americans. I was once hired by a Polish event organizer to do some standup for a corporate gig. She arranged the event at a posh hotel on Dam Square, which is also right next to the Red Light District. The instructions were clear: yes, you can talk to the audience, but don’t mention the Red Light District. I asked the mostly male audience, ‘What you want to talk about?’ Unanimously, they answered, ‘The Red Light District!’ So – before I went on to talk about bikes and tulips – I did a couple jokes mentioning the Red Light District. The organizer went beserk. She flung herself into the tech booth in back, trying to wave me offstage – rather like a mother hen whose eggs had just been stolen. Eventually, they cut my mic. Afterward, she was apoplectic: ‘You have killed a part of me... I cannot believe you said those words… A part of me has died tonight.’ I hope she didn’t see that AIDS poster.

The Red Light District has been described as an adult-themed outdoor amusement park. And – like most amusement parks – if you’ve been through it once, you pretty much get it. Every time I’m hosting people from back in the States, they want to see the women in windows, the sex shops… and more than once I’ve taken guests to the live sex show. The live sex show: Bad Porn Live. To be fair, it’s less porn & more stage show. The partners are introduced like figure skaters: ‘Let’s hear it for Tony & Sabrina!’ Like figure skaters, they have their chosen music and choreography – with many of the same poses figure skaters use. Except these guys go all the way.

The most interesting thing I ever witnessed at the live sex show was the moment they got an audience volunteer they weren’t expecting. We were there with a group, mostly Americans and some internationals. There’s a moment in the show when one of the couples asks for a volunteer, as a joke. But one of the women from our group stood up and said ‘Yeah!’ And sure enough, she got up onstage, got down on her knees and started going to work. I couldn’t tell who was more mortified – the performers onstage or the group of Americans who – as it turned out - would never talk to her again.

By now, I’ve come up with a solution for my out-of-town guests: the sauna. The Dutch co-ed, naked sauna. It satisfies their need for nudity, and it’s good for your skin. Also, it’s 100% Dutch Culture shock in a nutshell. The first person who took me to the Dutch sauna was my Dutch boss. And she was very upfront about it. She said, ‘This is the sauna, these are my tits, now everyone relax.’

I still remember my telling my brother we were going to the Dutch sauna. He said, ‘Oh no, I didn’t bring my swimsuit.’ That’s how we do it in the States. I told him, ‘No problem. All you need is a towel.’ But then in the locker room he was nervous. ‘How can there be women in locker room?’ That’s the deal. You get undressed, they get undressed. And then he started enjoying himself: ‘I’m going to see real naked ladies.’

But quickly there were so many naked females it was overwhelming. So many styles of pubic hair: The triangle, the stripe. The angry spider. Quickly he realized it’s all kinds of naked people. Men, women. Young, old. Skinny, fat. Tattoos, appendectomy scars, and how often do you get to see Grandma naked? It’s the real deal.

But for my brother, the real surprise was not the women. It was the men. He said, ‘I’ve never seen so many penises before.’ It was the length, but also the girth. The ones that grow and the ones for show. And the foreskins. Because – when you’re from America, Not a lot of foreskins. ‘Congratulations it’s a boy’ & snip snip. You’re an honorary Jew.’ In America, we’ve heard of foreskins. We just never get to see a lot of them.
They’re all kind of like fashion statement turtleneck sweaters. And there’s such a variety! Some are form-fitting turtlenecks. Some are a little snug. Some are hand knit by Grandma. With a slurfje. Grandma just kept on knitting.

I do appreciate that the sex industry is good business for the Netherlands. I’ve even had the pleasure of performing for one of their trade shows. Well, almost. Boom Chicago theater was hired to perform at an event called Europerve. Latex, leather & PVC.
‘Think Kink.’
There was a runway and a fashion show for all the naughty garments. And then there was a duo act worthy of the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. These people had so many piercings in their genitalia that they were able to combine magic, juggling, and magnets.

Unfortunately, there were 2 shows that night, and I was designated for the other one. But I didn’t want to miss my colleagues in latex. I was given a ticket if I wanted to come later, just to see the spectacle. But it was a theme party, and I needed a costume. And so - like Cinderella going to the ball - I found my fairy godmother in the form of Frank the house manager. The man is an artist. Using the theme ‘perve,’ he looked around the theater for inspiration. Instead of a pumpkin, he found some plastic flowers and a plastic cactus. The plastic cactus was the size of a squat basketball. He said, ‘This is your costume.’ He cut out a hole for my face to stick through, and he placed the cactus ball over my head. He took the cut-out remainder and made it into a codpiece, which I strapped on to my loins. The finishing piece was nothing but some sandals and a cape. To this day, I will think of myself as the belle of the Europerve ball. 

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Evolution of a 'Second-World Country'

Amsterdam Day One

The date was April 4, 1994. The question was, ‘Would I be willing to give up my acting career in Manhattan to come do comedy in Amsterdam for the summer?’ Since I was living on tips and paying rent via credit card, the answer was an immediate YES.

My idea of Amsterdam was shared by most Americans, I suppose: The Golden Age, Anne Frank, then sex & drugs and downhill from there. To be honest, I expected one big red light district, full of grand, old buildings that had seen better days. I was in for a lovely surprise.

I remember getting off the plane at Schiphol Airport and thinking there may have been a mistake. It was such a modern, sleek, well-designed airport I thought, ‘this can’t be Amsterdam.’ It seemed like a model for a more modern American airport. In fact, that’s exactly what it was – shortly afterward, the Dutch had been called upon to redesign JFK. I’m going to sound like Bill Bryson, but I was pleasantly surprised at the free baggage carts. They were actually larger – LARGER! – than their American counterparts. And they were free. I couldn't get over that. I had seriously misjudged the Netherlands.

The signs were in English. The ads were for Heineken. And the first thing I saw out of Customs was Burger King. I thought I was in Pittsburgh.

And the charm offensive continued. Instead of having to surrender my baggage cart, I was able to take it right down to the train platform. It was my first time on a walkway escalator, and the handbrake on my baggage cart actually worked. Within 1 hour, I’d already started to redefine my definition of ‘2nd world country.’ That term was now reserved for JFK International.  

Friday, March 8, 2013

Dutch Immigration: ‘Benefit Tourism,’ meet ‘Brain Drain’

‘Benefit Tourism,’ meet ‘Brain Drain.’

The Dutch government wants to crack down on Benefit Tourism: welfare cheats sneaking into the country to sponge off the system. In fact, these thieves may even be coming from within Europe! But a new report from the Dutch statistics bureau says most Europeans in the Netherlands are supporting themselves, thank you very much.


Is the Netherlands being overrun by waves of immigrants? I don’t think so. There are too many natural defenses. Like the Dutch dunes protect us from the sea waves, we are protected from the waves of immigrants by the Dutch language. Ask anyone getting off the boat: ‘Would you rather say bon jour, good day, or goedemiddaggggg?’ These welfare moochers are – by definition – lazy, yes? Then why would they subject themselves to the Dutch language?

Granted, there are a bunch of asylum seekers in De Vluchtkerk in Amsterdam. I was there, speaking to an activist friend of mine. She said, ‘Don’t worry! Most asylum-seekers do all they can to avoid the Netherlands. Even among human traffickers, the Netherlands has a reputation as the most inhospitable system. Indefinite detentions, prison brutality, and sometimes your prison burning down - with you in it (Schiphol Prison fire).’ Knowing all this, I wondered why the Dutch government isn’t more relaxed about immigration. She said, ‘I think they have no idea.’

The Amsterdam Expat Center would seem to agree. I was talking with the Expat Center director about the expat tax incentive ‘the 30% rule.’ The previous government wanted to scrap the rule, saying that expats don’t need such an incentive. The Expat Center director went to talk to the Minister to complain. Apparently, the Minister was under the impression that most ‘expats’ are Shell employees on an expense account, spending half the year in Singapore & playing golf. Really.

But elsewhere, the message is getting through. I went to a seminar at Randstad Recruiting, where old, white men are preaching diversity. The seminar was hosted by Dutchversity (as in Dutch Diversity.) Dutchversity was started by a young woman named Dionne Abdoelhafizkhan (as in Abdul, have a scan). Dionne made a name for herself with a little experiment. To test the Dutch job market, she applied for 10 different jobs with her birth name. And she applied for the same jobs with her mother’s name De Vries. De Vries got 6 responses. Abdoelhafizkhan got zero. After making her experiment public, she now has the attention of multinationals, such as Randstad.

Mr. Randstad, Ton Hoopmans, is a good ol Dutchie. He’s as white and late-50s as you can get.
‘Looking at me, you’d think I voted for (ruling party) VVD, right?’ (That’s exactly what I’d thought.) ‘Wrong!’ And he came out swinging with a wake-up call for the Dutch government: ‘We are dying!’ And it’s well-known: the Dutch population is getting older, having less babies, and shrinking. The Dutch call it vergrijzing – literally ‘The Greying.’ And this trend is affecting the whole of Western Europe. According to Hoopmans, by the year 2030 – probably sooner – every country in Western Europe will be ‘competing for immigrants.’ Not kicking them out; inviting them in. The solution to vergrijzing? I guess you could call it verbruining.

And now we’re seeing a debate between VVD & Labor PvdA. Not long ago, VVD politician Frits Bolkestein suggested that Jews might want to leave the Netherlands because Islamic anti-Semitism is getting out of control. That same day, I happened to be at an event called Jewish / Moroccan Comedy night. They said the mayor might show up. (They always say that.) But that day the mayor did show up. PvdA Mayor Eberhard van der Laan gave a speech, blasting the VVD ‘scare tactics.’ He even ended with a personal plea: ‘If anyone here is so afraid you’re seriously thinking of emigrating, please talk to me first. Call my office. I’ll take the call, 24 /7.’ It wasn’t a great way to end a comedy night, but the crowd liked it.

While ‘Benefit Tourism’ may be a real issue for the Dutch government, one hopes they’ve also head of the problem of ‘Brain Drain.’ Talented immigrants may come here to study, but soon after, they leave. Enter NUFFIC – the Dutch organization for international students in the Netherlands. Recently, they organized an entire trade fair with the explicit goal of keeping these students in the country. I spoke at the event and did a quick poll. ‘How many of you are hoping to stay after you graduate?’ Most of the 500 people had their hands up.

Come to think of it, there were a lot of Europeans in the audience at NUFFIC. I spoke to a Polish woman studying psychology. A Greek woman was studying Business Management. A Romanian woman was doing research at an NGO. She was with some other Romanians. I asked if they were worried about next year, when the floodgates of Romanians and Bulgarians are due to open wide. The Romanians said ‘YES! Bulgarians are stupid!’ I spoke to some Bulgarians, who said ‘UGH! Romanians think they know everything!’ So, in the Netherlands / Belgium – these guys should feel right at home.

I’m sure there are Europeans and immigrants coming here & gaming the system. But most of the people I talk to are classic expats: highly educated people who are happy to live somewhere other than their home country. I say let’s keep them.