I have just visited a small town in Pennsylvania called Intercourse. Its tourist blurb encourages us to ‘Slow down the hurry’. Er… OK…
Intercourse is in the heart of Amish country and that’s why we went there. Apart from the fact that the drive over there was beautiful, what you meet is a very strange juxtaposition of vastly different cultures.
The Amish wear particular clothing (the women a dress with white apron before marriage and a black one after marriage; the men wear white shirt and black trousers with braces (suspenders) and buttons – no zips are allowed). They refuse to use electricity and drive horse-drawn buggies instead of cars. Their refusal to move with the modern world comes from their religious tradition rooted in the 17th century.
They are visited and gawped at by tourists who romanticise the Amish lifestyle (as if it were simply yet another ‘lifestyle choice’ towards personal fulfilment) and locals who complain that the Amish don’t pay taxes, but use the roads, etc. So, buggy rides by strange-looking Amish are a tourist ‘must’, and the shops are full of Amish produce. And the tills are electronic.
Some of the visual contrasts are stark. For example, I didn’t spot any obese Amish, but they were being patronised by some very large non-Amish in very large vehicles. I would love to get inside the head of the Amish and know what the tourists look like to a people who work extremely hard, live a fairly simple life and try to keep themselves to themselves. How do they sustain their values and integrity when confronted every day by the rewards of affluence and consumption, then exploit that consumer thirst for the sake of their own economic well-being?
I think I brought to this a rather simplistic assumption that simple people would be purer than they perhaps actually are. It was odd to see a couple of Amish women get in a large vehicle and drive off. It was somehow odder to see young Amish people with plain, functional clothing and modern (expensive-looking – but what would I know?) trainers.
I like the idea of people retaining a culture that defies or implicitly challenges the values and priorities of the rest of the world. I admire the singular tenacity of a people who want as little distraction from their love of God, family, home and hard work, but engage as far as possible with that alien world around them. But I don’t want to collude in some of the romanticism I saw which holds up the Amish life as one of peaceful simplicity: working hundreds of acres with a horse-pulled plough might lead to peaceful sleep for the workers, but it wouldn’t be most people’s idea of a nice life.
However, I just wonder if the experience with the Amish has anything to say to how we approach Travellers in the UK – or any other cultures who see the world differently. Or does it really all come down to whether they pay taxes or not?