Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate
Swearengen '04 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
September 10, 2003:
A summer abroad, a
Not so long ago I took the New Jersey Transit from Penn Station.
I had been in Europe for six weeks, and the ride from New York to
Princeton was the last leg of the trip. The train was crowded, as
the Transit is wont to be, and noisy, as the Transit is wont to
be. Across from me an Irish girl with peroxided blonde, spiky hair
spoke rapidly into her mobile. The battery cut out.
"Dammit, they're going to have my arse for this. This is
what happens every time I leave work before 7. Cutthroat, absolutely
cutthroat. Vicious bastards."
She told me that she had been working at an investment banking
firm for a little under a year. I told her she didn't have investment
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Above her head was a notice: "When passengers do not cooperate
with the conductor regarding payment of fares or conduct on the
train, the police will be summoned and the passenger will be removed
from the train at the next station stop." All but three letters
guess which ones of the word "passenger"
had been effaced.
Ah, New Jersey. It's good to be back.
I spent the last two weeks of June in the backwoods of Georgia.
By backwoods I mean Bakuriani, a rundown ski resort west of the
capital, and by Georgia I mean the former Soviet republic. In Bakuriani
I went on long hikes in the mountains with 60-odd diabetic children
and an Armenian mountain guide named Edic. The diabetic kids have
been coming to Bakuriani every summer since 1996, when a Georgian-American
venture produced what was probably the republic's first summer camp
not involving declamations from Eugene Onegin. Edic has been coming
to Bakuriani since the camp's beginning, and he makes Princeton's
Outdoor Action leaders look like Troop Beverly Hills'. Once I jokingly
threatened Edic with a table knife. He reached into his pocket,
pulled out a switchblade, and employed one of his few English words
to indicate that my own puny knife was, well, execrable.
When I wasn't hiking in the mountains I rode around in a 1940s
jeep. Its key had been lost long ago, and the only way to start
the jeep was to stick a knife in the ignition and twist. The purpose
of the jeep was to ferry snacks d ried sausages, bread, and
small tart plums to Edic and the campers during their hikes.
On other occasions it was used for excursions into town to buy cigarettes
for the camp director or to send letters from the post office.
The post office in Bakuriani is better staffed than the one in
Palmer Square, but there are no stamps or envelopes to send letters
abroad. Out back is an overgrown garden and a gold-painted bust
of Joseph Stalin. Before he became Russia's man of steel, Stalin
was a Georgian boy. After coming to power he had a summer house
built in Bakuriani. The house is nice brown, with white gingerbread
trim but Stalin only visited it once, and only stayed 15
minutes. The dictator had hypertension, and Bakuriani's high altitude
one mile above sea level was insalubrious. He ordered
another house to be built, this one several hundred feet lower,
in the town of Borjomi.
Borjomi is home to the eponymous bottled water so popular in Georgia
that unscrupulous vendors sell counterfeit versions. I found Borjomi
and its imitators to be gassy, sulfuric, and ultimately indistinguishable.
They all were, without question, the worst things I've ever had
to drink. Instead of Borjomi I drank tap water, which sputtered
out of the faucets in angry bursts. It was warm, clotted with bits
of mud and twigs, and undoubtedly very alive, which will be confirmed
when I get the results of my tests back from McCosh.
One day I went for a walk in Bakuriani and wandered into a convenience
store. It was built on the post-Soviet Wawa model, meaning that
it sold vodka but no donuts. The vodka was kept in a big drum on
the floor, and when a customer wanted some, he gave a glass bottle
to the proprietor, who stuck a rubber tube into the drum and mouth-siphoned
the liquid. There were dried fish, stacked chest-high next to the
counter, and imported cigarettes and cheap badminton rackets. In
a corner, unprotected from flies and grimy hands, were fresh-baked
loaves of bread that an old bearded man ardently palpated. A short
time later, I would see the exact behavior in Paris, this time with
After Georgia I went to Paris for a month. The purpose of my visit
was to do thesis research in an Algerian neighborhood in the northern
part of the city, a venture generously funded by Princeton's Program
in Near Eastern Studies. My research involved going to parks and
cafés and interrogating gentle old men who were too nice
or too slow to run away. They told me anecdotes about the history
of their neighborhood and about immigrating from Algeria as young
men. One provided a scathing critique of a neighborhood couscous
restaurant; another talked about passing a kidney stone. The old
men were all more helpful than their younger counterparts, who invariably
took out their wallets and produced pictures of their Fiats, or
alleged that my research would be incomplete without a visit to
This summer marked an exceptionally low period in Franco-American
relations, and so there were few of my countrymen in Paris. There
were, however, several Princetonians. Justin, a senior in the English
department, had come to take an intensive French course at the Sorbonne.
He lived in the same hostel as I did, and the two of us went to
the Tour de France to cheer for Lance Armstrong, himself a casualty
of the intercontinental pissing contest. Laura and Elene, members
of the Class of 2001, came to Paris for a week of vacation. Both
live in New York. Laura works in the film industry and is disappointingly
reticent when it comes to namedropping. Elene works for an investment
banking firm. Both are somewhat disillusioned with post-Princeton
life, when money begins to assume a new level of importance. Elene
recalled that one of her New York roommates a former Princetonian,
in fact had once left a note on a head of lettuce asking
that Elene pay 30 cents for the part she had taken. Alexandra, who
also graduated in 2001, is working at the International Herald Tribune
office in Neuilly, on the western edge of the city. The Herald Tribune
was recently wholly acquired by the New York Times, and its office
is bilingual. Alexandra works in the editorial department, where
she uses the French she honed as a comparative literature major.
"I started off at Princeton as an engineer. It's a good thing
I changed my mind, isn't it?" Alexandra said.
You can reach Kate at email@example.com