Before we left Hong Kong, we booked ourselves a second, “long-term” place in Central New Jersey, away from the craziness of New York. The idea was, we would arrive at JFK, take a quick limo ride to the Union City apartment, pass out after the grueling sixteen-hour flight with the baby, shake off the jet lag over the next few weeks and move somewhere a little farther and cheaper to use as our “base of operations” while I looked for a job.
We settled on Plainsboro, a small town about a ten-minute drive away from Princeton University. The proximity to Princeton was a key deciding factor because when a town calls itself “Plainsboro,” you pretty much know you’re going to get bored AF. We were all for peace and quiet, but didn’t exactly need a fortress of solitude. Not that Princeton is a metropolis, but we figured since it’s a college town, there would be things to do and see when the four walls became too much. We also thought we could take a stroll around the campus every now and then and let the atmosphere of this great educational institution rub off on our one-year old. Something might stick, you never know. And as Turks we are no strangers to wishful thinking, as this traditional anecdote illustrates.
Our Plainsboro landlord was a young Chinese-American woman whose sister lives in Hong Kong (purely coincidental) and operates a sex shop with her husband (I got your attention, didn’t I?). Well, not a sex shop in the classic sense, but rather a store that specializes in chic, cutting-edge vibrators (I guess I could have used a better adjective there). At our landlord’s request, we visited her sister at the store to pick up a bag full of Hong Kong-style candy bars and snacks to deliver to her in New Jersey when we arrived. I think this Hong Kong connection really helped us secure our first long-term lease in the U.S. without yet being residents and undergoing the usually required credit check. While in the store, we couldn’t help but browse the inventory a little. Everything has become so bright and colorful over the years! It was almost like being in a candy store. I thought those things only came in tan and black.
Plainsboro and Union City couldn’t be more different, despite being within an hour’s drive of each other in the same state. While Union City was urban, gritty and Hispanic, Plainsboro was rural, green, and surprisingly Indian (as in, from India, not Native American). The town consisted of old homes, farms, parks, golf courses, apartment complexes and strip shopping centers along crisscrossing roads, attempted to be brought together by a tiny, after-the-fact “downtown” (called the Village Center, built as recently as 2007), which was cute but so tiny it took all of three minutes to stroll its length. Very good Indian restaurant though (called Jhopri). It was also fun to visit farm houses and buy fresh produce and pies from the stands set up by the owners.
Our apartment overlooked a golf course. When we looked outside we saw nothing but green, except for the occasional (usually elderly) golfer and the little golf balls scattered around the turf. There was always the smell of pine trees, and no road noise whatsoever. Easily the most zen place we’ve ever lived in.
Princeton, on the other hand, was quite lively and had a layout I was all too familiar with from having studied at a large U.S. university myself: A humongous, leafy campus with a mix of historic and newer buildings on one side and a quiet, suburban neighborhood on the other, separated by a lively “main street” (Nassau Street, in this case) lined with restaurants, bookstores and other businesses. I love U.S. college towns. They are safe, walkable, liberal, and have great record stores. You don’t always get that package in American cities.
Fun facts about Princeton: The town is actually home to another highly prestigious academic institution, The Institute for Advanced Study, where Albert Einstein was a Faculty member. The institute is at 1 Einstein Drive. As for Princeton University, it is a member of the famous Ivy League, it was a men-only school until the 1960s, and former First Lady Michelle Obama is among its many well-known graduates.
I still can’t get past this “Plainsboro” name. It’s like an admission, or a warning that there’s nothing to do there. It’s like saying, “we, the residents, have refused to give any thought to what to name our town.” My various theories as to the origin of the name included the town being set on a plain (aren’t most towns), or that it was meant to be a plain vanilla kind of place from the beginning (how unambitious), or that its founder was a Mr. Plain. I then looked it up online, but that didn’t settle the question either. According to this website it’s either because there was a “Planes Tavern” in the area during the time of the first Dutch settlers, or due to the town being on a coastal plain. If it’s the former, I wonder why the name’s not “Planesboro.” It would have sounded cooler, too. But even then, who, or what did the “Plane” in “Planes Tavern” signify (and what happened to the apostrophe btw)? From what I could find, there is no Dutch last name called Plane. Or first name. Maybe it’s a name that’s no longer in use? And wouldn’t it be Van Plane? Or am I stereotyping Dutch names? It would actually make sense if it were “Van Plain,” seeing how the Netherlands is also on a coastal plain. “From the plain.” I’m kidding of course. The word for plain, or plane, would clearly be something different in Dutch. I guess we will never solve the mystery of Plainsboro, or of Planes Tavern for that matter. But regardless, it’s never too late to change the name of the town. Why not Vanillaboro? Now that’s a nice sounding name. You’re welcome. Too bad I can’t copyright a name and sell it.
Since I had already concluded my job search, our days were mostly free and we used this time to do a few side excursions. Cranbury and Hightstown, to the East of Plainsboro, were two picturesque lakeside towns we enjoyed spending time in (different lakes – Hightstown was on Peddie Lake and Cranbury was on Brainerd). Cranbury had this great ice cream place and we found a hip little restaurant in downtown Hightstown run by a chef who’s originally from Boston, if I remember correctly. Another culinary gem in Hightstown was Fernando’s Grille, where we unknowingly arrived for the early bird dinner and got an amazing deal. It was just us and old people. Having a toddler who needs to go to bed early does have a few perks I guess. We also drove down to the beach at Asbury Park but just strolled on the boardwalk because the actual beach was super crowded. Even though my wife hated it, I did enjoy the sights of the abandoned power plant and the creepy, graffiti and mural-laden tunnel thingy nearby that looked straight out of some Stephen King novel. Things we don’t typically see on our Mediterranean beaches.
Our stay in Plainsboro lasted only a couple of weeks – so much for our “long-term base.” I had already accepted a job offer from Washington, D.C. before we even left Union City, but we moved to Plainsboro anyway because we had to vacate our apartment within days and we hadn’t found a place to live in the D.C. area just yet. We spent a lot of time Googling to find a place to live – again – and chose an apartment complex in a far Northwestern suburb of D.C. called Kentlands, in Gaithersburg, Maryland.