Pia by Charlotte.jpg

Illustration by Charlotte Dijkgraaf

Just say that one rather common word a bit more languidly than usual, drawn out with the slightest hint of melody, followed by a small pause, and people smile and light up. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t start humming along to the iconic song composed by George Gershwin for Porgy and Bess.

It’s been called the best song ever written for the musical theater. Stephen Sondheim observed that Gershwin’s lyricist DuBose Heyward must have struggled with what to write after that first word. He could have written “when,” but “that would have opened a completely different poetic realm,” Sondheim said. “The choices of “ands” [and] “buts” become almost traumatic as you are writing a lyric — or should, anyway — because each one weighs so much.”

Writing is hard. Every word you put down leads to different places. You want the reader, or listener, to bear with you. Your goal is to take them to the very place you have in mind. Which, in my opinion, for good writing, is never the obvious.

I guess many people, thinking about their hometown in summer, would put have written a “but” instead of the “and” that DuBose Heyward wrote. They would be surprised to find the living easy in the middle of July. But they would never know, because, just in case, they leave town. In Princeton, The Great Summertime Escape starts around May, when people begin talking about their getaway spots.

“We will be in our summer house in Maine … visit the grandchildren in Provincetown ... hang out in the Hamptons,” they tell us. They look forward to avoiding the mugginess, the soaring heat with its melting sidewalks. In June the great exodus starts. “Bye, bye, till Labor Day,” they say as we wave them goodbye in their packed cars. Their last-minutes flip-flops perched next to the straw hats on the dashboard. Off they go.

What they do not know is that the very city they abandoned will transform itself while they are away. Well, I would say, because they are away. Princeton in August becomes the best vacation address one can imagine.

I always liked to stick around in summer, wherever I lived. In Amsterdam, I enjoyed the empty midsummer streets, where you can hear birds chirping, and leaves rustling, instead of cars honking. Two of my babies were born near the end of July. I have sweet memories of strolling through a quiet park, feeling a child floating inside me. Getting an ice cream cone without having to wait in line, licking it up on an empty bench. Slowly enjoying your lunch without people eyeing your seat.

And although I value my friendships, being away from each other for a bit is wholesome, a vacation in itself.

Afterwards, you have stories to tell each other. New insights. Fresh ideas.

By mid-July, Princeton is empty. Early mornings, I walk to Lake Carnegie without seeing another human being. I sit on my favorite stone and watch a solitary rowboat glide merrily down the stream. Surrounded by deer, I dream up plans for October.

I walk into town, passing a dog-training class with playful pups pulling their cheerful owners. I sip an extra milky macchiato outside the small café. A feeling of exclusive luxury that has never once in my life been topped. Not in Saint Tropez, not in Aspen, not on a yacht sailing the Caribbean.

The city is mine.

Summertime ...

And the livin’ is easy

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.

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