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Making Princeton at home

As August slipped away and the first day of classes approached, I spent a good deal of time searching for that start-of-the-semester energy that typically imbues everything, even the most mundane activities, with excitement, if also a small apprehension at the academic tasks ahead. A week beforehand, it was quite underwhelming to think that the only thing different about Aug. 31 would be waking up just slightly earlier to log on to Canvas and click on a Zoom link instead of aimlessly switching between my phone’s apps.

There would be no buzz of slowly pulling a new dorm room together — finding a new home for all my things and, of course, myself. There would be no thrill or joy of seeing friends again after a summer apart, having each done their own thing, whether it be an internship or class, a project or travel. There would be no infectious, vibrant chatter in a lecture hall while the professor tries to figure out the projector.

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Rather, it would just be my desk, my laptop, and me. It wouldn’t be walks across campus punctuating my day, but instead the shifting sun pouring more of its light (and heat) into my room as the day passes. Of course, such parts of campus life cannot be recreated from afar. Still, as the semester drew nearer, I recognized a habit of sorts that had begun taking shape throughout these past months in quarantine. I found myself making as much of Princeton as I could at home.

As a university, Princeton obviously has academics at its core: professors and students, teaching and learning. Precepts and lectures and seminars — all conduits for this task — however, had already been transported home. Sure, their remote nature has altered them, but I needed not make too much effort to have this side of Princeton at home. Similarly, much of social life and clubs has been transformed—at times even unrecognizably so — but I’ve still managed to see my closest friendships and most of my clubs carry on.

Meanwhile, learning at a distance has left the actual Princeton environment the hardest to bring home — doing so is in large part impossible. Buildings, much less a campus hundreds of acres in size, can’t be shipped home, flat-packed like Ikea furniture for each of us to assemble. Such a feat would simply be impractical and frivolous, yet many of my friends might know how much I wish this weren’t the case just from my random and expansive knowledge of the physical history of the campus. I don’t actively hide how much I wish to once again be among Princeton’s Gothic arches and towers.

With all this rumbling in the back of my mind, throughout the past months I stumbled into a habit of trying to bring home the remaining things that make Princeton, well, Princeton. And by “remaining,” I mean those things that either weren’t already brought home through Zoom calls, messages, and other such media or that simply weren’t possible to bring home.

Looking back at the months since March, it seems the first such bit of Princeton I brought home was my breakfast. Just about a year ago, I was writing one of my first articles for The Daily Princetonian about how RoMa’s grilled cheese sandwiches helped make Princeton feel a bit more like home. Somewhat ironically, I’ve recently done the reverse, buying yogurt and granola at the grocery store just so I could have at home the breakfast I would make myself every weekday morning at Princeton. Missing my walks from Blair Hall to the Mathey entrance of the dining hall where I would usually spend a couple minutes talking to Heather as she swiped my prox, I found recreating my breakfast — maintaining this part of my campus routine — helped ease the transition to the new, though hopefully just temporary, normal.

All through the summer months and now as classes have begun again, I’ve continued to buy the tubs of Fage Total 2% yogurt and whichever granola Costco happens to have available when I go grocery shopping. And in doing so, I’ve continued to start each of my days with one of the smallest things that has shaped my Princeton experience — helping to preserve some of my connection to campus, which is prone to weaken as the months at home continue.

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Turning from food to drink, one of the next bits of Princeton I brought home was Rojo’s Roastery. Snugly tucked into one of Palmer Square’s many storefronts, Rojo’s provided me a place to momentarily retreat from the University bubble alongside an oat milk latte. It wasn’t a total isolation from campus life — nor was that what I sought — since so many of my Princeton memories include a cup of Rojo’s. If anything, it provided a true retreat in the more spiritual sense of the word that I experienced through the numerous retreats of my Catholic schooling: a chance to reflect, to connect, to even simply breathe. Often, when I would get fed up from my coursework, I would make my way over to the Palmer Square cafe for a much-needed break. It’s where I went with friends a couple times. It’s where my RCA Tilmann Herchenroder ’21 bought me a couple drinks on the University’s dime while chatting about the year’s progress. It’s even where I struck conversations with French professor Christy Wampole — even though she wasn’t teaching any of my courses — as our coffee-drinking schedule matched up during the couple weeks of the spring semester we had on campus.

Months after having last tasted Rojo’s espresso blend mixed with oat milk in Palmer Square, I once again tasted its slightly sweet, rich caramel and even fruity notes at home after ordering some coffee beans from its website. I had finally succeeded in my multi-year campaign of convincing my mom to buy an actual espresso machine in place of our pod-based machine. Yes, I did enjoy tasting this coffee again, but my throat also clenched up a bit upon first tasting it. But it wasn’t from a food allergy or anything of that sort. Rather, it was a purely emotional response to a taste and smell tied to so many of my favorite campus memories. There are the memories I’ve already mentioned, of course, but there are many others as well, like waking up just early enough on a brisk October morning to make it to Rojo’s, before rushing down to McCarter Theater in time to drive over to the workshop with Triangle’s tech crew, so we could spend the day building the “Once Uponzi Time” set. Now, I may not be able to make any more memories down Nassau with Rojo’s in hand this semester, but having this coffee again is yet another bit of Princeton I’ve managed to bring home to hopefully ground these drifting months, even if just momentarily.

All I’ve mentioned is part of a habit, but I don’t suppose two is enough for classification as a habit. However, I’ve at least had a trend since I bought five notebooks in mid-August for my five classes. I should mention that there’s no uncertainty in which notebooks I ordered: Rhodia’s A4, lined, side-stapled notebooks in orange, filled with 96 pages or 48 sheets of their 80 gram paper. I could write many words about why this notebook is my preferred notebook, but that’s not the topic at hand. Rather, these orange notebooks matter in all this because of where I first found and bought them. Not too far from Rojo’s down on Spring Street stands Hinkson’s in a storefront that forms the lower corner of a parking garage.

Unsatisfied with the notebook selection available at other stores in town, I almost accidentally stumbled upon my orange notebooks at Hinkson’s while walking around after picking up books at Labyrinth a year ago. Since then, I’ve bought these notebooks for my courses at the start of each semester. From the Lewis Center to McCosh and Wallace Halls, I’ve filled up many of these notebooks while learning and studying across campus. One of the reasons I so enjoy writing even when a keyboard is available is that tactile experience of pen or pencil, gliding and scratching across paper as I form the lines and curves of my words — even these words as I write my initial draft.

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And just like the taste and smell of Rojo’s coffee flood me with memories, so too does the feeling of writing in one of my orange notebooks. There are memories of such things like furiously jotting down what economics professor Kelly Noonan was saying and drawing about microeconomics, only to look up at a bat flying around as shrieks filled McCosh 50. There are also memories of afternoon study sessions next to Chancellor Green’s stained glass windows or in my dorm late at night, not totally concentrated on my work due to listening in on my roommates’ chatter. Memories like these are the ones I’m reminded of yet also miss as I take notes in these orange notebooks while attending a Zoom lecture from the isolation of my room.

Yogurt and granola, Rojo’s coffee and orange Rhodia notebooks — none of them may soon be featured on the Princeton Instagram in one of its many curated images of Princeton, the institution. Still, these three things are some of the smaller, more everyday parts of my Princeton: the place that’s a home, the community that’s enriched with friendship, and the handful of years that are so wonderfully special. Being able to have these three small bits of my Princeton at home may just be enough to feed my patience until the day I finally walk through campus again, on my way to class after an early breakfast, coffee in hand and a full backpack in tow.

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