Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)


February 11, 2004:

With a little bit 'o luck
Traveling to Dublin over intersession

It all started about a year ago, in 202 Fine Hall, which is an inauspicious place for any story to begin. Fine is the great brown monolith next to the Center for Jewish Life. Driving south to Princeton on Route 1, it is immediately visible, appearing over the treetops only seconds after Cleveland Tower. Fine is the building to which Princeton's mathematicians relocated in 1969 after the size of their department forced them to abandon lovely Jones Hall and move across Washington Road. It is uniquely hideous, ugly in only the way that an unattractive building on a singularly beautiful campus can be. The mathematics department occupies the lion's share of the building, but the Program in Applied and Computational Mathematics (PACM) controls the second floor.

202 Fine Hall was formerly the office of Scott and Konstantinos, graduate students in PACM. I knew Scott from the cycling team — he had lent me his gray LeMonde when I first took up the sport, and was known around the team as an all-around nice guy and fierce competitor given to bursts of great speed. He had met his wife, Elva, originally from Ireland, at a bank machine in Princeton. I knew Konstantinos from Arabic and hated him for two years before we became friends. He was a rare species of graduate student, an ardent Greek nationalist with a penchant for Henry Fielding and the bouzouki, a guitar-like instrument that he practiced on the grounds of the Graduate College. He also had a luxuriant growth of facial hair. "Kate, why do you have a photo of Saddam Hussein on your desk?" one of my friends asked when he saw a picture.

Last spring Scott and Konstantinos were rushing to complete their Ph.D.s. They sent out job applications to every corner of the world, preparing for careers in Academia or, if that failed, work in the Private Sector. Scott ended up at University College Dublin; Konstantinos went to the University of Edinburgh.

Over intersession I traveled to Edinburgh to visit Konstantinos, and then the two of us went to Dublin to see Scott and Elva. The flight took about 40 minutes, a pleasant jaunt through central Scotland, south into Ireland, and down into Dublin. We flew Aer Lingus — "lingus" being the Gaelic word for "clover" — and the flight attendants wore green dresses. The blue-and-green fabric of the seatbacks was decorated with words in an unidentifiable language — Martian or Muldoonish — that had ostensibly been lifted from a great Irish ballad, or maybe a lesser New Yorker poem.

From the airport Konstantinos and I took a bus to the other side of Dublin. The windows were grime-encrusted, the passengers French-speaking. We arrived at Scott and Elva's house and were introduced to their two children, Loghlen, earnestly explaining the concepts of mortality and imagination with a sophistication baffling for someone not quite four years old, and cherubic Luke. After a couple of Heinekens we walked to a local American-style diner, where Konstantinos expounded on his theory about the inability of Americans to survive outside the U.S. without regularly visiting the bastions of their empire: diners, Tex-Mex restaurants, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and McDonald's.

On the walk home the weather was mild. The garden walls were lined with slugs who had come out to enjoy the damp night air and leave translucent, snotty trails on the rough stones. Luke, whom Elva was pushing in a pram, lost a shoe somewhere between the diner and home, then merrily tried to lose the other one. Loghlen and Scott went back to recover it.

Later in the evening we went to Whelan's, an Irish pub that is, as Scott put it, both literally and figuratively on the other side of the tracks — Dublin is rebuilding its tram system, and the detritus of construction is everywhere.

I got a pint of Guinness with a nice froth on top. "Drinks like milk," Scott said. He warned us that the local custom is to buy a round for everyone in the group and that if one of us got thirsty for another drink, she should be prepared to pony up. For one terrifying instant I thought that I would have to buy a drink for everyone in the bar. Whelan's was packed, choked with pulsating music, vaguely menacing Irish characters, and a quantity of cigarette smoke that would make Ivy Inn look like a health spa.

At Whelan's we met Scott's friend Barak, who teaches at Maynooth. Maynooth used to train monks, but it has since expanded its demographic and these days educates the laity as well. Barak is originally from New Mexico and has spent some time at Princeton. When I told him I found the town dull, he insisted that it is not so sleepy as it appears on the surface.

"Princeton has a seedy underbelly."

"No way."

"Really, it does."

Since the closest thing I've ever seen to a seedy underbelly in Princeton was the Roto-Rooter truck pumping sewage out of Small World's basement, I queried Barak as to its exact location.

"You know, on Witherspoon Street, across from the hospital."

Yeah, right.

After Whelan's we moved on to the aptly named Old Man's Pub, a civilized place with wooden instruments on the walls and a small fireplace. Twice the opening strains of Billy Joel's Uptown Girl came on, but were quickly cut off and replaced by Michael Jackson's Thriller album, played at a discreet decibel. Conversation turned, naturally, to the Hippocratic Oath and the ethics of excessive plastic surgery.

Konstantinos and Barak ordered gin and tonic; Scott chose a weisse beer. I asked for an Irish coffee.

"Sorry, no cream."

"What's the closest thing you've got?"

"Straight whiskey."

"Great, I'll have that."


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu