To Be An American

“Scrah-mache sahm! Aye dook, scrah-mache sahmn?” There’s a lady standing in front of me holding a plate of food. Everyone in the coffee shop is looking at us, and for a few seconds I completely forget where I am. Is this…Germany? Because I don’t recognize a single word the woman is saying.

Then I remember – I’m on the Derbyshire border, to the west of Nottingham, and I ordered scrambled eggs with salmon. I look so confused the whole cafe starts laughing.

“I’m sorry – I’m American!” I say, and then I laugh too.

As awful as it is to be American and have people associate you with that thing in the White House, it’s still wonderful to be American.

There’s a freedom to be crass, and lost and gauche and awestruck; innocent and earnest and many other embarrassing things that you don’t fully appreciate until you leave the US. (I try to not be those other embarrassing things like demanding and xenophobic and ignorant and loud and and and…okay, maybe I get loud sometimes, on stage, for a minute or two?)

As an American I can hear the Star Is Born soundtrack in a cafe in Cumbria and talk about it with the owner and say the music makes me think the movie might be okay but that it kinda sucks.  I feel almost honor bound to own up when we’re peddling well-intentioned but lukewarm manure.

I can thrill to the sound of a Norfolk yoga instructor saying the word “body” that elevates the body to a temple of grace, where you hear it in America and it sounds like “bawdy” and all sweaty. Just like I can quietly giggle every time a Pilates instructor says “bottom” in a Hull/Yorkshire accent, that makes me want to heave a big bucket of ice over a pile of freshly caught fish, or attack a mountain of coal with a coal shovel, with a glint in my eye. Instead I lift my arms above my head with the rest of the class and let them float back down.

Cromer Community Centre
Cromer, photo by Jeff Higgott

There’s a pride (I’m not there! I’m here!) in being an American overseas for a few weeks and a feeling of obligation to make amends (I’m sorry! we’re all so sorry, well not ALL of us – but then you guys ain’t perfect either).

In a little village newsagent I can pick up the last copy of Uncut magazine and say “I’m in it!” like a goof to the young guy behind the counter when he asks if I’d like to pay for it. And he answers “No! Really? Show me!” Maybe he’s just humoring me but it feels special because I’m far away from home and they still make magazines and I’m still in one occasionally and this young guy isn’t in London or even Brighton or Manchester, he’s in Prestwich.

In another country I can read a poem onstage I wrote about being in another country, with rhymes I probably wouldn’t dare to use in America, because it’s the effort of being here that the poem is about and I want the people to know it means something to me. And the poem is an attempt to join in.  A benefit of travel is that you expand your idea of who you are and what you can do and now I want to write a poem for every place I travel.

The leap of faith that got me on a plane and onto a stage not in America implies I still have hopes and dreams that are not grandiose but sit closer to honest aspiration than mere delusion – don’t they? When you’re young and you play to small audiences you tell yourself it’s just the beginning and those crowds will multiply but when the beginning is long in the past…you still have to believe it. Or sometimes I just think of live recordings I’ve heard of Townes Van Zandt playing to less than fifty people and think …lucky people. But how hard was it for him?


Edinburgh, photo by Shona Thomson

I like being one of the crowd except when I’m on stage and even then I want to fit in and it can be hard to be the lone American in a country hotel breakfast room on a Sunday morning when all the couples are eating their full English or continental breakfasts. It’s the type of place Eric and I would rarely stay when we’ve toured together because he’s seen all the blue highways (maybe they’re called greenswards here) & the threat of  dismal old-school B&B’s still lingers. But it’s very nice / not posh (even though the woman I spoke to in a pub before my gig at the Durham Old Cinema Launderette said “my, look at you – that is fancy” about the manor house hotel. ) Solo in the breakfast room I’m writing in my notebook feeling like the only role for me in this situation is female detective along the slightly disheveled lines of Brenda Blethyn in Vera, or Anna Friel in Marcella but fifteen or twenty years on. One of the benefits of late middle-age invisibility is the ability to blend in with the potted plants, and then you step out and slap handcuffs on someone at a key moment.

Being an American in a swimming pool in England (I remember when I used to look for barbq or eccles cakes or caramel logs on trips – now I look for exercise) I kept going to the wrong side of the other swimmer in my lane. When we both came up for air at the same time I said “Oh I’m sorry – I’m not sure what side of the lane to drive I mean swim on!” She laughed and asked where I was from. Even in her cap and goggles she had that Vanessa Redgrave strength and attractiveness. We talked about NYC in the nineties, she’d visited then. Everybody loves New York, it is still the place that captures people’s imagination most in America. It’s the place where all are welcome and everything is allowed, and everyone is in a movie of the most exciting day of their lives, in the fantasy anyways. I say I’m from Pittsburgh to win sympathy but I say I live in New York to win.

I tell the woman I’m a musician playing in Manchester. “The Apollo! That’s huge!” she says, mishearing me. I could lie and pretend it’s true but I’m a terrible liar so I say “Uh, no – I’m playing at a pub called… Gulliver’s?” “Brilliant,” she says, not missing a beat. “Well done!” I’m all the way over here to play a pub – there’s some kind of glory in it, not an Apollo type of glory but a “doing your thing” cult level secret club cachet – like playing in Hull, a northeast town you can’t get to from here, night after night.

Old Cinema Launderette, photo by Charlotte Emma Ball

“They want to charge me – get this – twelve pound to go in that room,” says a guy to me in the bar at the pub I’m playing in Hull.  I could just shake my head in disgust and sympathy, but I can’t help it, I tell him it’s cause I’ve come a long way and I’m playing in there tonight. We have a rambling conversation where he’s probably drunk but every word that comes out of his mouth sounds like some warped supertruth and I’m a little surprised when he actually appears in the audience during my gig, and stays until the end to thank me.

Glasgow Hug & Pint photo by Lindsay Hutton

Being American I can look befuddled in front of the hair dryers in the Victoria Leisure center where I’ve gone for a swim, and feel grateful when I ask the older lady next to me and she whips out a 20p coin and pops it into the coin box to turn the hair dryer on for me. If I was home I might just walk out with wet hair.

Was she really an older lady? Everybody feels older than me in England, even the young people. We’re babies – Americans. We can still learn, and do better. I like to hope so, anyway.

Amy Rigby solo UK shows

  • Thu 22 November  Worcester  Marrs Bar tickets
  • Fri 23 November  London  Betsey Trotwood tickets
  • Sat 24 November Hello & Goodbye show Resonance FM noon listen
  • Sat 24 November  Portsmouth  Emsworth Sports & Social Club tickets
  • Sun 25 November  Folkestone  Lime Bar Cafe tickets

8 thoughts on “To Be An American

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