Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish

Jun 1, 2010

It is Memorial Day holiday long weekend, the unofficial start 0f summer here in the U.S. The local swimming pools start opening their doors, shaved ice trucks turn their machines on for the season and welcome the holiday crowds with brightly flavored ice cones and just like anywhere else in the world, people make the most of the day off and travel in droves. Even the Obamas skipped town and missed the traditional laying of the wreath at Arlington Cemetery on Memorial Day to visit friends and family in Chicago.
So how does a nice Australian expat family spend the long weekend? Getting acquainted with a quirky side of American culture by visiting the Amish in Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

The Amish in Lancaster County, PA are quite the tourist attraction; in fact it was a little disappointing how "commercial" the areas in which they live have become. I can only guess that the Amish have set up these commercial zones, slightly removed from their residences to suit and preserve their traditional lifestyle while appeasing the mass of tourists. By building a commercial market district they can control the interaction they have with curious tourists by keeping them at an arms distance while satisfying their curiosity by offering trinkets (made in China), buggy rides and offering up Amish food.

Before visiting all I knew about the Amish were some vague facts that I remember hearing on an episode of Oprah many years back. The Amish people are of Swiss-German descent and emigrated to Pennsylvania in the 18th Century. The Amish continue to lead a simple, religious life shunning all modern technology. For some reason this simple life translates into women wearing bonnets and men growing awkward looking beards. The Oprah episode that I watched focused on a documentary called "Devil's Playground". The filmmakers followed a group of Amish teens partaking in an Amish tradition called Rumspringa. Rumspringa occurs approximately at the age of sixteen, when good Amish boys and girls should be considering marriage and some contemplate leaving the fold. During this period, church rules are relaxed and some Amish teens even move out of their community and experience non-Amish life. The teens in the documentary move out of home and partake in some cliched teenage sex, drugs and rock and roll but the majority return to their home and continue to led a respectable Amish life. At the time, I made a mental note to try watch the documentary and visit the Amish one day. As of this weekend, I just have "watch documentary" left on my to do list.

What I liked about visiting the Amish

- The names of the towns ("Bird in Hand" and "Intercourse")

- Bird in Hand markets, where you can score some real bargains and it still has some level of authenticity

- Driving through the back streets of the Amish towns and getting a glimpse of day to day life

- Road side stalls that local Amish children had set up to sell their home made goods

- Fresh strawberries: small, sweet freshly picked strawberries with the stalk still in tact

- Watching several generations of an Amish family travel around in their little horse and carriages

- Seeing the balck and grey Amish washing on the line flap around in the hot, dry sun

- Fried Chicken

- Apple Cider

What I did not like about visiting the Amish
- The very commercial and uninspiring Kettle Kitchen village
- All the other tourists