When I went home for Thanksgiving break, I realized that it had been three months since I’d driven a car. It’s not only that I don’t need to drive at Princeton (I hardly leave campus, and when I do, there’s a bus or train), it’s that I can’t — my car is back in New Mexico. As a result, I spend much more time than I ever have walking.
If you walk everywhere, the world is a different place. It’s slower and requires less focus, so you spend more time interacting with the environment. You search for different routes; you find hidden corners. You notice things. Since the oncoming of fall, I’ve surprised myself by finding a favorite tree: the one just in front of Dillon, with the bright yellow leaves, both on its branches and covering the ground under it. I pass by every morning on my way to my Russian class, and every time I look up I feel like I’m in a different world.
I’ve realized that when your mode of transportation is different, so is how you interact with the space around you. When I returned to New Mexico, I remembered that Albuquerque is a driving city. I think I’d forgotten all the evenings I spent driving home up to the mountains. It was the same every time — the streets, traffic lights, signs, and twists in the highway as it passes through the canyon, all of it. Driving wasn’t bad. I don’t actively dislike it. But never during my time in Albuquerque did I have a favorite tree.
I came to Princeton with many goals in mind. Like most of my goals, very few of them went the way I expected. Each fell short in some minor but significant way, and I was left with a mixture of slight disappointment and contentment that can be described as the feeling that things went as well as they could have gone, or perhaps the way that they were going to go.
My most important goal was to be present. I wasn’t going to spend my first semester at college thinking about home. I was going to be fully here, take advantage of everything new to me, and fully live the experience of being away from home for the first time, even if it was going to be difficult or painful. Because even the difficulty, alongside the joy and the newness, is something I could never have if I didn’t leave home.
My classes were difficult but manageable. There were setbacks and triumphs. There were points in the semester where I half-seriously considered the efficacy of buying a train ticket back to New Mexico. There were moments of genuine elation — in my classes, with friends — where I could not imagine being anywhere but here.
There were many moments of waking up with my eight-o’clock alarm for Russian feeling absolutely horrible, still warm from my dream, wrenched back into a reality of unfinished homework and the cold walk up from Forbes. Those days usually had intervals where all I could think about was all the things I missed from home: green chile; New Mexican sunsets; my family; old friends; and time I once felt I had wasted, watching TV, or reading for kicks, accomplishing nothing in the name of spontaneous, everyday pleasure.
Fall break came and passed. I stayed in Princeton, mostly working on essays and homework. Classes heated up. I had less and less time to call home. Thanksgiving approached, and with it long-awaited rest. The week leading up to it was my most relaxed and my most busy. I had a movie night with friends, explored the area on my bike, watched the bonfire and went to New York twice the weekend before. I was exhausted and basically at peace.
When I returned to New Mexico for Thanksgiving break, Princeton seemed like a dream, distant — at times lovely — and not particularly well remembered. Home was concrete, present, incredibly mundane but at the same time precious. Some parts of the return, like the sunset hike around the open space by my house, seemed as otherworldly as they were beautiful. Moments were treasured because they could be whiled away. I felt like I’d never left, and in every moment, I knew that I wasn’t staying long. It was a paradoxically wonderful time; the first time in ages where my every movement wasn’t plotted on Google Calendar and where I did everything I could possibly imagine wanting to do.
The night I left, I was sad and content. Sad to be gone but content in the fact that I would be coming back in three weeks. Until then, I would take advantage of every second of the three weeks I had left.
The trip was awful — I took the red-eye to JFK and didn’t get a single wink of sleep. Three trains to Princeton Junction. The Dinky wasn’t running that day. I waited two hours for it in the cold before taking an Uber to campus with strangers and an acquaintance. I had a headache and felt pretty miserable in general. Still, when I walked into my room in Forbes, I had the oddest feeling that I was coming home.
Then I was back. School reasserted itself. I had to read Dante’s Divine Comedy for the HUM sequence by Thursday, a Russian test on Monday, an internship application also due on Monday, and an article to write as soon as possible. I was present again, for better or for worse.
Now I have a bit of perspective: this past week has been a microcosm of my time in Princeton. I have been uniformly overwhelmed, at points dejected, but have had experiences that I honestly believe to have changed my life. My finals period looks bleak, and I find myself daydreaming again and again about New Mexico and all the lovely things that I’ll do during winter break.
I don’t know where this story ends. I don’t know how leaving home can leave me so happy and so sad, so empty at moments and so fulfilled at others. Tonight, I walked back from the Rocky dining hall to Firestone. I had been talking to a few friends, enjoying myself, but had to get back to work. The common room was warm and decorated for the holidays. The chairs looked incredibly comfortable — if I had sat down, I would have fallen asleep.
Outside, the air was cold and damp. I’m still not used to that. It was a perfectly clear, dark night; the yellow lights in the windows made me think of winter at home. On the walk, every building — Alexander, Nassau, Whig and Clio, East Pyne — so much smaller than the mountains, but grander than any building you would see in Albuquerque. In Palmer Square, I could see that they’d put up a tree. I talked to my mother for a few minutes outside Firestone about my day, how scared and excited I was, before going inside. These are the moments when everything makes sense, when I know that I can feel far away and still be at home.
Daniel Viorica is a Contributing Writing for The Prospect and Satire at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.