Princeton for a Year

It was just about a month ago that we departed Algiers after a three year post and arrived in our new home, Princeton, New Jersey. We’ll be here for a year, give or take, while Adam works towards a master’s degree in public policy, paid for by his employer, the U.S. Department of State.

Early impressions of Princeton: It’s a quaint and charming town that has moments of real grandeur, what with Princeton’s stately Oxford-inspired buildings and grassy lawns. This is where John Nash beautiful minded and where Einstein genuised (and you can walk right by Einstein’s house. Someone lives there today). But then it’s just a skip from a highway with every big box store imaginable, so in that way, it feels very much like the suburbs. There are also farmlands, nature trails, a canal, and a swimming quarry, so in that way it feels rural. Basically Princeton is all the things: A small town, a suburb, an Ivy League university campus, and the country. The one thing it isn’t: A big city. (But it is just an hour by train to Manhattan, and I’ve already visited the Big Apple once and stayed with a friend at a hotel that was just a few blocks from that noisy high-rise where we lived for three months in 2014.

To back up: Our landing back in America was fairly smooth, or at least as smooth as it can be coming from Africa with two cats and five large suitcases.

We took a van cab from Newark airport to our cute 1,100-square foot apartment located in one-quarter of an old house, right off the main drag of downtown Princeton. Our housing situation was rather fortuitous as we’re our friends who has owned this condo for six years just got married and moved a town over into the home of her new husband. Most of the other graduate students in Adam’s program are staying with their families in sort of dingy “graduate student apartments” or, shudder, some in actual dorms with cinderblock walls and shared bathrooms. Moving into a dorm at this stage of life is my literal nightmare, as in, honest to God, it’s a recurring dream I have. So we’re so grateful to have a cheerful apartment in the cutest part of a very cute town, steps from dozens of restaurants, shops, and Bent Spoon Ice Cream, home of some of the best (and most creatively-flavored) ice cream I’ve ever had. The apartment is fully furnished and we had just a few smaller pieces sent here like an armchair, rugs, and all my kitchen things, which should arrive in October. I figured I’d be bummed not having my things, but our friend has good taste and amazing kitchenware and so her place is stylish and comfy.

But that’s not to say I haven’t been hard at work designing: I’ve spent that past two weeks transforming the dirt patch small backyard into an English cottage inspired little oasis. Sneak peak reveal pic, but I’ll do a full blog post on that transformation soon.

This is the view from the loo. I like to keep the window open while I go so I can admire my handiwork.

So while the housing situation is about the best it could be in a town where housing options are scarce and rent is NYC priced, I won’t lie, it’s been an adjustment to go from a four-bedroom stand-alone house with a patio and an upstairs yard in Algiers to a one-bedroom apartment. In our Princeton apartment, there is just one bedroom, a kitchen, and a narrow living room. Adam and I (and Gus and Boj) are in such close quarters that there is truly nowhere to fart without it being heard by the other person. We’ve been married for a decade now and they say the traditional 10-year-anniversary present is audible farts. So, happy anniversary to us.

In the past month, Adam has settled into his summer school routine, which he calls “math camp.” He spends his days in an economics course or a quantitative statistics course and studies or works out for most of the the rest of the time. There are about 20 other mid-level career folks in his cohort, a few of them are foreign diplomats, and I’ve gotten to know them and their families a little bit, but hope to hang with them all much more. As for me, I am planning on starting my design business (aimed at foreign service folks) soon, but I’m also feeling a deep sense of wanting to connect with my family and friends. Normally after an overseas posting, we’d do “home leave” for a month and visit our people, but we just got off the plane and immediately started on this new chapter of life. It was too abrupt for me. I’ve already been to Michigan once to see the fam, and I’ll be going back again soon for a week in the region of the state we call Up North, and after that I’ll be visiting my bestie Lauren and my cousin in Denver, then meeting up with Adam for a family wedding in Montana. Sadly, Adam gets no time off from school, so he’ll be missing out on the trip to Glacier National Park that I’ll be going on with his mom, stepdad, and a few aunts and uncles.

Oh, and lucky for us, we did already have a few visitors – a pop in Lauren and her baby; a visit with Dan, one of Adam’s best friends from college as well as his wife and toddler; and an overnight with Sarah (our international travel buddy who just moved back to the U.S. as her time in a dreamy Parisian apartment came to an end).

I’m filling by days with grocery shopping, cooking summery-yet-laborious meals, light exploration of Princeton (I’ve done a few walking tours), hard manual labor in the yard, jogging on the canal, movies at the adorable Princeton Garden Theater, beers and Bingo at the Ivy Inn, writing at Small World Coffee whilst sipping a $5.10 cold brew coffee, trying Princeton’s many restaurants with Adam, and yoga. Oh and I’ve been delighting in effortless TV watching as I don’t have to use a VPN and the Internet works 100 percent of the time. What We Do in the Shadows, The Bear, and Severance, which I cannot stop thinking about it, and for my nighttime viewing comfort, my fifth rewatch of Frasier. I’ve been reading Henry James’ The Golden Bowl for the better part of a two months now, which has taught me that reading classics is really a skill you lose if you don’t exercise it now and then.

So, America, some things are new. Tops things that have changed without me knowing:

  1. Many young women wear bike shorts and sports bras in lieu of a regular outfit.
  2. When you set up your Internet, no one comes to your house to install it. They just send you everything you need, you scan a code, and you set it up yourself. No more waiting for the cable guy!
  3. There are new hybrid fruits like “apriums” and “plumcots”
  4. Deliveries are so fast it’s like we’re living in a Jetsons universe where personal drones deliver goods nearly instantly. It feels like a moment in time that will not, cannot, last.
  5. The Amazon delivery person takes a picture of your package when they drop in on your porch. This I did not know.

Some things haven’t changed but had perhaps I had just forgot that:

  1. Americans are friendly. You should say hello to everyone you pass on a running trail, and making conversations with people in line for ice cream, at the table next to you at dinner, and with the checkout person as a store are all normal, everyday things.
  2. It’s so damn convenient. I’ve lived for so many years accepting that running an errand for a home improvement project will leave me drenched in sweat, using Google translate, and more often than not, empty-handed when I’d fail to find what I was looking for (spackle in both Jerusalem and Algiers proved illusive). Just the other day, I got a tag made for our cat’s collar at Petsmart, I bought a few more bags of mulch for our yard at Home Depot, and I did a full-on euphoric grocery trip to Trader Joes, all in the span of an hour.
  3. There is practically no project I can think of where you can’t find all the tools in one place and that place of wonder and limitless possibility, thy name is Home Depot. I was there the other day and when someone asked me if I needed help, I informed them I was on an “inspiration walk.” Home Depot Inspiration Walks. It’s a thing.
  4. All Americans abroad everywhere talk about how great Trader Joes is when they get together. But still, you forget just HOW GREAT it is. I have been positively giddy all three times I’ve went so far, just like excitedly shaking jars of Everything Bagel seasoning and juggling balls of mozzarella. Luckily TJ’s has the worlds chattiest cashiers (some things do not change) and they’re all been receptive to my gushing about how much fun I just had shopping in their store.

Okay, lots more later. Off to sweat in the yard.

To Princeton,

Emily

5 Comments

  1. I’m having some of these same revelations having been back from Cairo for a week—porch pics, saying hi, sports bras and high waisted yoga pants/bike shorts, etc.

    Let me know when you hang up your shingle. I’m in need of design help!

  2. I’m so excited that you’ve finally made it to The Best Old Place of All! I loved reading your first impressions and look forward to your further adventures. Once you’ve finished with Henry James, I recommend This Side of Paradise, which explains so much about that place.

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