Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

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

September 10, 2003:

Rites of passage
A summer abroad, a broadening summer


New Jersey

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 banker hair.

"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 a baguette.


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 their apartments.

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 kswearen@princeton.edu