Me Talk Pretty One Day

by David Sedaris

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“Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa” Summary

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When Sedaris’s partner, Hugh, was in the fifth grade, his class took a field trip to an Ethiopian slaughterhouse, where they watched a piglet slaughtered “execution-style,” with a pistol. At the time, Hugh lived in Addis Ababa, and he explains that this field trip’s destination was chosen largely out of convenience. In fact, Hugh took a number of unusual field trips in Africa, all of which Sedaris feels incredibly jealous of. Due to his own middle-class American upbringing, Sedaris’s childhood field trips were to places like Colonial Williamsburg, where the most exciting thing that could happen was that an actor would serve time in the stocks.

Compared to Hugh’s childhood, Sedaris’s was dull. At the same time that Sedaris was living in North Carolina with a cat and a dog, Hugh’s family was living in the Congo with two horses and a pet monkey. Not everything about Hugh’s upbringing was good, however. Although movies only rarely arrived in Ethiopia, both Hugh and Sedaris remember seeing a movie about “a talking Volkswagen.” But while Sedaris’s memories of seeing the film are unremarkable, Hugh recalls that when he left the theater, he saw “a dead man hanging from a telephone pole” on the other side of the parking lot. As his father was late to pick him up, Hugh stood looking at the dead man for a full hour.

Hugh’s family wasn’t wealthy, but because Hugh’s father worked for the US State Department, they had servants and guards, and Hugh grew up with diplomatic immunity. While Sedaris was spending his days at the mall, wishing for something interesting to happen, Hugh was witnessing military coups and being evacuated from the local teen club by soldiers.

When Sedaris was fourteen, he spent ten days in western New York visiting his grandmother, who was beginning to struggle with Alzheimer’s. During this visit, Sedaris had a strong feeling that his grandmother didn’t know who he was, and she was often surprised to see that he was still there. This was the longest that Sedaris had been away from home aside from his stays at summer camp, and he feels the experience toughened him.

Around this same time, Hugh and his family moved to Mogadishu, Somalia. As there were no English schools in Mogadishu, however, Hugh was soon sent to live with a friend of his father’s in Ethiopia. This friend and his family gave Hugh a room and a seat at the dinner table, but this was the extent of their friendliness. No one ever asked Hugh when his birthday was, and letters sent to and from his family took over a month to arrive. When his father’s friend decided to move his family to Germany a year later, Hugh found another family to take him in and so spent another year living with strangers. Sedaris envies the “fortitude” this experience must have instilled in Hugh, though not the experience itself.

During his mundane family vacations in North Carolina, the young Sedaris dreamed of exactly the kind of exotic-sounding trips that Hugh’s family was actually taking, to places like Cairo and Beirut. Sedaris realizes that his own unremarkable upbringing would have been the envy of someone less fortunate than himself, but instead of learning to appreciate what he had or giving in to his bitterness, he now simply pretends that Hugh’s memories are his own.

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