Princeton: visitor’s attractions

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(The picture is a historic coupon for obtaining ice, taken at the Mountain Lakes Nature Preserve in NJ.)

For the past six months I have been living as a postdoc in a big university in the US in Princeton. As I am moving forward soon to a new endeavour, I wanted to tell about my experiences regarding things I have done here, in everyday life, with a small child, and without a car in this particular case.

An omission should be mentioned before the start: living in a town that is of course frequently associated to its universities, I will not say very much about the campus life here. Part of it is because a lot of information is doubtless available for those who need it; another reason is that as a postdoc, I know something about what goes on in the campus but not all of it and rarely do go there after my office hours. Hence, more than a summary of academic activities, this post is an outline of what to do in a university suburb that is not directly linked with the universities. (The plural is intended, as the town has three universities, as far as I know.)

Let me start with where I and we spend the most of our free time relatively. The town has what I think is the most enjoyable public library I have seen. For start, the staff is very polite, the space magnificent, the child enjoys a fish tank, toys, and free story times, the adults eg newspapers, movies, cafeteria, of course books, and a good affordable cafe. What matters to me all in all, though, is how socially inclusive the place feels. You just need an address (maybe that would be flexible too) to get the library card: and that gives access to the collection albeit a lot you can do by just going there. It is one of those places, which as a visitor to any country one learns to appreciate, where you almost always feel at the right place and in the right time. I have seen visiting parents making many new connections there: I have also seen people bringing their own visiting relatives there (I also seriously thought about taking my mother) which shows the place is important for its users. On top of this social side you have the usual library books, as I mentioned, and we use it for renting dvds for a $1 for a piece.

When I mentioned the place to a US expat living in Europe, he remarked it is great to hear our child can engage with American culture this way. I think he has it right, regarding why going to this place serves more than just our immediate needs. Where else would our child learn so many American children’s songs? Where else would we watch the newest (in fact, considerably, from the European vantage) American movies if not here? With a one year old the movie theater is not an immediate option.

I will shoehorn the next recommendation in as it is related and even if this as a digital service is not specifically to do with the town. Nevertheless, with your library card you get to register with the Hoopla streaming service. This is rather ingenious maybe for reasons that have not been articulated albeit I have not checked on its origins. You use your account to ‘borrow’ ie keep streaming a video, a record, or an audio book for a fixed time: further there is a limit to how many works you can get in a month. Though this may sound limited to some, to me, it actually circumvents many of the issues I have with streaming personally. Because the amount of streams is limited, you actually sense possessing and thus appreciating what you have as long as it is on loan. It is not like the fast food buffet feeling of exhaustion, having ‘all you can eat’ as per music. And it doesn’t cost and thus it is and feels like a public service. 

Of course, a streaming library is as good as it’s contents and fortunately the selection is diverse, large, and even unpredictable when need be. I would have never imagined finding this many good records I enjoy.

My second or third attraction continues with the theme of music. Princeton Record Exchange is all what I remember a good old record store to be, which are either less common than before or then I don’t go to them anymore where I’m from. New records are ample, often even cheaper than the norm, and there right on time: the place further has a big used and discount section. You could theoretically get a good start of a record collection for less than $20. As a collector of some sort, the selection is also admirable (maybe partly because some of the American artists were rarer in Northern Europe than they were here). Nonetheless I count having bought more than 10 cds there in less than six months: that maybe more than the last 3-4 years combined for me. On top there is movies and even games. It is a good antidote for those Fridays when you walk home from work and know there is no weekend plan. On a broader note, I think the place has taught me to appreciate what a good record store is worth once again.

Let me end with some of the surroundings, with knowledge that much more may be reachable by a car. The Mountain Lake Nature Preserve just north of the center has a long stretch of forest and footpaths as well as a mountain lake. Gourgeusly green in the summer, it still is quite nice for a slight homesickness for Northern Europe during the rainy winter months. The little museum piece that started this post is from there: apparently the mountain lakes were dammed for generating an ice infrastructure back in the days. I have yet to find other similar preserves in a walking distance although they may exist.

I wish I could write more as the city center does have an impressive amount of shops and boutiques. I do notice I haven’t managed to visit many of them yet. There is always a chance of discovering something new before we embark, but above are the places I will miss and consider revisiting, if I travel here again some time.