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Sarah Vowell, Pt I (i.e. pre-finishing Unfamiliar Fishes)

I have a strong affection for Sarah Vowell, stemming from a five week stint in France at the age of 21. I had had four non-consecutive semesters of French prior to going (my high school offered Spanish) and was promptly placed with a host family that did not speak any English beyond the 17-year-old Jean Pierre being able to inquire “Do Ah ‘ave an accehnt?” and the mother proudly proclaiming “Apple pie!”

Missing my family, my friends (the kids in my program were goobers), a steady internet connection, DVDs and an American keyboard (my first e-mails had no apostrophes, as I could not find that key), I sank into a week-long depression which involved me crying every day, usually on the steps of, or inside, something grand and historic.

Back in America I had optimistically opted to only pack two English books. “I want to IMMERSE myself,” I told my parents. Little was I to know that soon, the sound of someone speaking English would cause me immediate happiness and joy, and a desire to hug them to oblivion. Thus, when I got to my room at my host parents’ and unpacked, I saw the two Sarah Vowell books I had brought, The Partly Cloudy Patriot and Assassination Vacation, and teared up. I zoomed through Patriot and realized I would have to ration Assassination Vacation (I also had a brief affair with Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun, but suffice it to say that book sucks and I didn’t finish because I hated it).

One of the best parts of my day was climbing into bed at oh, say 9 (I was not a participant in Avignon’s semi-active nightlife), grabbing Assassination Vacation, and reading about crazy men assassinating presidents in the 19th century. The important part was that they were doing it in America. America, the place I had lived my entire life and always taken for granted, but now thought of as being a giant land mass that was much too far from where I was. I had to think of my parents as being across an ocean, and of me being in a place where it’s almost impossible to find a chicken sandwich. Sarah Vowell understood and spoke of her love for America, without making it seem dumb. Reading her books made me proud to be the nationality I was, instead of feeling crappy that my country had never done cool things like kidnap a pope (ok, that’s not technically what happened, but whatever).

The most connected I ever felt to her was when she discussed living abroad: “Once, when I was living in Holland, I went to the movies, and when a Marlboro Man ad came on the screen, I started bawling with homesickness.”

Something similar happened to me upon seeing a poster for Ice Age 2 (or “L'Âge de glace 2”). I didn’t see Ice Age, and had no interest in seeing its sequel, but it was from my country, it had jokes I would probably find dumb but would ‘get’, and my family would be able to see it, unlike most of the other movies playing, all of which seemed to feature a zany-looking balding man.

That small bit of understanding endeared Sarah Vowell to me forever. So what if at the end of Assassination Vacation she goes off on a huge diatribe against Christianity? So what if I haven’t really liked her last two books? I am going to buy and read whatever she has published until I die because her books sustained me in what has so far been one of the crappiest periods of my life: being 4000 miles from almost everything and everyone I cared about, and feeling totally alone, except for Sarah Vowell and her books.

Oh, also except for No Doubt’s “The Climb,” but that’s a different story.


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