We have spent the past few days in Amish country. Pennsylvania and upstate New York seem to provide the perfect natural habitat for these religious and cultural oddities - gently rolling countryside set against a backdrop of hills, fields full of sweet corn and those iconic red New England Dutch barns. Political correctness these days has gone so crazy that no-one dare say anything that even touches the long hem of any religious community or minority group but, let’s be honest, this Amish thing is all a bit bonkers. For just that reason, these seemingly happy folk hold a fascination for us and we wanted to know, and see, more. We had never encountered a real, living Amish, until yesterday that is, when our chance suddenly came along.
As we were driving around the fabulous Finger Lakes (which we shall come back to), a sight made us jam on our brakes and immediately spin the car around. A young Amish family in their buggy, looking like extras straight out of a Little Women period drama, came cantering down the road past us. We followed.
A mile down the road, the horse and carriage pulled off into a small farmyard. We drove in behind them in the Mini and watched attentively as the mother and elder daughter stepped down and went into the farm shop. Such was our curiosity that it was, of course, irresistible to approach the father, with his matinée idol looks, who was tenderly carrying his youngest bairn in his arms on the seat of his chariot.
When you don't know what to say, you say the most ridiculous things. "Excuse me. Are you Amish?" was the naïve question. As became obvious later, the enquiry contained a fundamental error. The word came out as a clipped ‘Aimish’ . Big mistake. Huge. We found out later it's pronounced ‘Aahh-meesh’. This must have explained the bemused expression on our new friend’s face (above) - he must have thought this idiot with a London accent, dropping his H's, was looking for his pal called Hamish. And that must have been why he returned such a long, silent and bewildered gaze. Any chance of a conversation was instantly over.
So we went into the cramped little shop and into a world apart, stepping back to a time in which the Amish choose to be frozen forever. This was not the sort of farm shop you’d be used to. There was no fruit or veg, just rolls and rolls of plain material for their frocks and bonnets - absolutely no gaudiness or stripes - and, it seems, just one dress pattern, always without any buttons, which are seen as ostentatious. We had entered a fascinating anachronism of drapery and haberdashery.
So we have been looking into the Amish lifestyle and culture. Their church, we learn, goes back to the Anabaptists in 1693. They started coming over from Germany and Switzerland in the early eighteenth century and seem today to have fixed their watches back to a rural 1800. They are best known for their simple, dated lifestyle, their dreadful dress sense and their rejection of modern technology. They are almost always farmers. They will not connect to the electricity network or drive cars. They don't use phones, although on occasion a family may have one between them. They don't watch TV or listen to the radio. But most alarmingly, they don't shave their legs or underarm hair (must have some French in there somewhere). They are monogamous and are terribly good at having children (a clutch of five or six seems quite average) who are school educated only until the age of around 14. They are exempt from state compulsory attendance beyond the eighth grade on religious grounds. They shun colleges seeing them as a threat to their community. Amish church membership begins with baptism, usually between the ages of 19 and 23. Once baptized, he or she may only marry within the faith. If they then leave, they are usually outcast from family and community.They are pacifists and refuse to join the military. Interestingly, their population in the US has more than doubled since 1989 from 100,000 to over a quarter of a million. Typically they live in small settlements of around 20 to 30 families. In 1990 a census accounted for 179 Amish families. Today there are nearer 500. And it is set to double again in the next 20 years.
So we leave them in peace and their splendid isolation. All completely potty to us - but they don’t seem to be harming anyone and if they are happy...
Escaping reality and living a play set in another time could be a perfectly good answer.
Heading north into New York state en route to the Niagara Falls, we stopped for a couple of days to explore the beautiful Finger Lakes, a series of narrow, long and very deep stretches of water, like Scottish lochs resting in a Swiss setting. We stayed near Seneca Lake, at a campground a few miles outside a town called Watkins Glen, which is famous for two incongruous things - its Grand Prix racing circuit sitting atop a nearby hill and its amazing State Park, which comprises a long and extremely deep slate gorge with fabulous waterfalls. Here are some pics and a couple of quick videos to give you an idea..
Her ladyship at Lake Keuka, near Hammondsport
Watkins Glen State Park
Trying the local grape in the form of some very average wines