Interview with Giovanni Franken

Giovanni Franken: Not a sad story!


Giovanni grew up in the Milinxbuurt. Domestic violence. An alcoholic father. A sketchy neighbourhood. Giovanni talks all about it, but wants to prevent one thing: “I absolutely do not want a whiny story. I am not a victim, but grateful to my parents. Because of them I became the person I am today, and they did what they could to educate me.” That’s why today’s story won’t be a whiny one, but a lovely conversation with Andreas Bouman.

Giovanni, from what kind of family do you come from?

G: From an Aruban working-class family, we lived in the Milinxbuurt. My parents came from the then poverty-stricken Aruba, looking for a better life. My father worked in the harbor, he carried things around. My mother was a housewife. The division of roles was traditional: my father was in charge at home.

Were you happy as a child?

G: If you had asked this at the age of 20, I would have said, “No. I had a bad childhood, with loads of violence and a father who beat me and my mother.” When I was 20 I was really angry.

So, that  perspective changed? 

G: Yes, although it took a while. Around the age of 40 I decided I wanted a better quality of life. To be happier. To achieve all this, I had to deal with my childhood traumas. Why did my parents do what they did? Their background and past haven’t been the nicest to them. I got to understand that they did their best and did not have the right tools to give me a carefree education and childhood.

So, everything is forgiven and forgotten?

G: I’ve forgiven them, 100%. I’m grateful to my mother for taking care of me and standing behind my father, even though he was often a prick. My mo genuinely deserves the world, by reason of her making the best out of a hopeless situation. 

How about your father?

G: I have forgiven him as well. I have a better relationship with him now than ever. We talk. We see each other. That has been different, I am grateful for that. I now know that he was not used to anything else, his childhood in Aruba was no fun either.

Does this new perspective change things?

G: No, man. Not at all. You can forgive someone, but you’ll never forget the emotional and physical pain they brought along. I still get a physical reaction whenever I see my dad, which isn’t necessarily a good thing.

But you don’t feel like a victim?

G: Absolutely not. I don’t want a whiny story. Like, “Oh look how bad I was and look where I am now.” I don’t like that, because without my youth I might never have been more motivated to make it as a footballer and now as a trainer. And in addition, I’ve been to areas where people are really bad, Haiti, Honduras, Zimbabwe. That’s the real jungle. There, people really have to survive and children are literally born in a dirty gutter. The Millinxbuurt is pure luxury in comparison.

So everything is relative?

G: Absolutely. We are generally doing well here in the Netherlands. Emotional pain often has to do with the perception of pain, about how we perceive something. If I feel sad at the age of 42 about something that happened at the age of 8, then that’s a perception. I have a good life now and I’m happy. I have 2 healthy children, a house, wife, a job. My gaze, my perception, determines whether I feel grateful or sad, I make that choice myself. And I choose to be grateful towards my parents. 

Beautifully spoken, Giovanni.

Were your parents proud of your talents in soccer?

G: No, thanks to my neighbour his father, Arjan de Jong, I joined a real soccer club. He saw the talent in me when we were playing on the streets. I’m still forever thankful towards him. 

So that’s when your talent showed??

G: Yes, on my 10th or 11th it was clear and I was selected by the KNVB for the regional team of South Holland. Then I could play with Feyenoord. 

So, did your dad come and watch you play?

G: Watch? He is crazy about football. But he always got super drunk in the canteen. If he misbehaved again, I had to call a taxi. Or I had to bring him home myself, while of course I had no driving experience whatsoever.

And that went well?

G laughing: Yes, I still don’t know how. In retrospect, of course, life-threatening, but I was ashamed of having to answer for my father’s misbehavior afterwards.

Did that happen a lot?

G: Yes, of course with all good intentions, but as a teenager I couldn’t deal with all that. For example, my trainer Stuivenberg asked, “How are you doing now?” I didn’t want that concern at all, it made me rebellious. I said that I didn’t want a therapist, but a football coach.

Were soccer and home two different worlds?

G: Of course, 2 completely different worlds, but school was a completely different world as well. I was the only coloured person in gymnasium, there were only rich, white children and their parents were completely different from mine. I saw 3 footballs lying there in the backyard and if 1 leaked,  a father fetched another one the same week. That was unthinkable in our home. I had a well-worn ball and I was careful with that.

The gymnasium and the Milinxbuurt, that seems like a big contrast?

G: Sure, but also educational. You get human knowledge, wisdom of life. You see all kinds of different perspectives. You learn that everyone acts from their own background, acts within their own capabilities. If you see that, you can also communicate and deal with different people.

What did you learn from your Dutch neighbours?

G: I learned from my neighbour that not all parents were so strict and I ate traditional dutch stew for the first time in my life.

Which was nice?

G: Well, the neighbour didn’t think so. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but he complained about the food to his mother. Instead of stew, he was served a jar of chocolate spread with bread. Naive as I was, I tried that at home the next day.

I take it that didn’t go well?

G laughing: Haha, no, I had to run for my life! “Why don’t you want chicken with rice?!” I was intelligent, analytical as a child. My father called it smart. But in some ways I was also naive, because of course my Aruban parents would never approve if I did not eat the food or was rude to my mother.  

Antillean parents are strict, right?

G: Indeed. You don’t look at elders when you speak against them, to show as a sign of respect. You listen to your parents, the father is the boss. It’s how my parents got it from their parents.

Did you have fun in your neighbourhood?

The atmosphere was fantastic. Nobody had anything, but you shared everything and that is why, for example, there was always barbecue when the weather was good. You don’t find that solidarity in neater neighborhoods.

But it wasn’t a party every day, was it?

Absolutely not. In the neighborhood, each ethnic group had its own piece. Dutch hill billies, Moroccans, Turks. One day I got a blue BMX, I was overjoyed. I drove into the wrong neighborhood, was surrounded, and miraculously managed to escape, and drove home quickly.

So, your dad was happy to see you home again?

G laughing: No, not at all. He said, “Why are you luring those boys home now, now they know where you live. Get out!” I ran out again where the boys came after me. Fortunately, I was able to run fast. But I also felt stupid. I could learn and exercise well, but that did not mean that all my actions were the right ones.

You’re telling your story with such grace and no wrath or hatred, how come? 

G: What I said earlier: my childhood made me stronger. Wiser. It motivated me to make something of my life. And I have learned that most people do what they can. It may sound almost Buddhist, but that insight has helped me a lot.

Also in your current work as a soccer coach?

G: Indeed, I understand the boys who come from a disadvantaged area, because I am such a boy myself. But I also understand the boys who come to training with a stacked bag.

A stacked bag? What do you mean by that?

G: Clean underpants, shirts, towels. A filled water bottle on the side, some treats. In short: boys for whom everything is arranged and come from a completely different environment. I understand that too, because those were my classmates at the gymnasium. At ADO Den Haag, we have a nice reflection of society and I understand all perspectives.

Do you have a message for the people that are struggling at the moment? 

G: Life is the best school for learning. You learn the most from life, the best confrontations are the confrontations with yourself. If you win it, you can do anything. Stay calm, life is a long drive and confront yourself, because it is worth it.

It was an inspiring conversation and I wish you all the best, Giovanni.

G: You’re very welcome and I wish you and the Everyday People Foundation the best. Normally I am not so outspoken, but if this motivates others, I will gladly tell my story.

Thank you once again, this is greatly aprriciated!

G: Thank you!