Learning to Love Lancaster

Laboring to like a location I long to leave.

Lancaster County, PA, is hopelessly mired in its traditional, agricultural past. Its simple farmland, unremarkable suburbs and wannabe metropolis are all tinged by the county’s provincial history.

Its Amish and Mennonite settlers and roots in farm culture give it an inescapable conservative atmosphere; it’s a challenge to find anything locally-owned open on a Sunday. Some unfriendly natives give newcomers sour customer service and show no curiosity about anyone they haven’t known from the cradle, as if they fear corruption from outsiders.

Tourists come here to admire the bucolic patchwork farmland and instead get trapped in a monstrous line of traffic to such attractions as “The Amish Experience” (a creepy wax museum), The Dutch Motel (with its neon sign perpetually signaling “No Vacancy”), and the Rockvale Square Outlets (the Mecca of spendthrifts and penny-pinchers alike).

And then there’s the delightful odor of manure that tinges the air three seasons a year. Spring is the worst, when the fresh new breeze is infected by pungent rotting-dung fumes. Only when newcomers point out the stench with surprised distaste do locals even notice it. They shrug.

I live in Lancaster. I do not love this place. I never have.

I have never reveled in the down-home feel of the wholesome countryside while inhaling the fresh manure scent. When I was at college, I never longed to return to Lancaster (though I did miss my old bedroom and my mom’s cooking). When a friend of mine told me she hoped to come back to Lancaster to raise her family, I shuddered. “Lancaster is not my home,” I thought.

My father, a Navy man, moved our family here the summer I turned eight, leaving behind a green-shuttered house near downtown Annapolis, MD, where everything was within walking or biking distance. The proprietor of the local coffee shop knew my mom by name and stocked Nutella in single-serving foil packets. The harbor was nearby, glistening in the sun and speckled with Navy sailboats.

Our new house in Lancaster featured an enormous room for me with a bay window and an absurdly small closet, and the move promised the adventure of meeting new friends. We settled in, and I learned that I didn’t like Lancaster. The air smelled like poop. People said “yous guys” and “them things,” their bad grammar already grating on my 8-year-old ears. I had to sit through cursive lessons at school, even though I’d already done that in second grade at West Annapolis Elementary. My friends were mean and catty. I was often alone, daydreaming in my backyard.

Three years later, my family moved again, this time to a modest home in an affluent development in Orchard Park, NY. People were nice there. Winter lasted six months, but the sky was glorious, everyone skied, and friendly strangers inquired about my parents’ life story while we waited in line at the grocery store.

Another three years later, we were back in Lancaster. I begged not to return to my old school district, so my parents bought a home in Strasburg, a small town just up the road from pure Podunk.

Home of the Strasburg Railroad and Thomas the Tank Engine Weekend (an event to which crabby parents brought their excited children by the Ford Windstar-load) Strasburg was stuck in a 1950s time warp. Most of the townspeople are one generation away from farmers, and half the students at my new school already knew how to drive a tractor. They spoke with terrible grammar and bizarre accents, and any inquiry about where I had come from was more accusatory than inquisitive.

Oh how I hated high school.

Two years ago, after an unsuccessful post-graduate stint working retail in my college town, I moved back to my parents’ house in Strasburg. I was broke, looking for work, depressed but hopeful. I spent time with my high school best friend, who had found a social circle of young people from work and invited me along. When I saw a gathering of twentysomethings laughing and drinking, some of my prejudice toward everything Lancaster-related began to melt. I had assumed that Lancaster was full of only uptight, narrow-minded, conservative, judgmental fuddy-duddies, but there I was sharing beer with lively free-thinkers who broke the rules. One, a chemistry major, even brewed his own absinthe.

Last year, I fell in love with a man born and raised in Lancaster County. I met his friends — smart, funny guys who, unlike most of my high school classmates, “get it” when I make a joke. I started to think about Lancaster as my boyfriend might see it: not the best place on earth, but not necessarily worth actively despising. I thought about how we were both children here once, in school districts only a few miles apart. I thought about how when I first noticed the scent of manure trailing through the air 16 years ago, he might have been outside a couple of towns over, riding his bike through the same air.

Over the last year, he and I have discovered the places worth seeking out in tiny Lancaster city. We discovered a used bookstore, where four quarters can get you a novel with a crooked spine; a vintage-clothing shop, where if you dig through the racks long enough, you might find a rockin’ Halloween costume; and Senorita Burrita, a cozy restaurant with burritos the size of small children, a staff comprised of hipster art students who play the Cranberries over the stereo, and a sign in the bathroom that reads “Of course the employees are washing their hands.”

I’ve been in the city enough times now that I can actually imagine renting an apartment there, something with hardwood floors and a kitchen that smells spicy and where I can keep the fresh produce I purchase at Central Market on Saturdays. Something close enough that I can ride my bike to the quirky gift shop Here To Timbuktu, which reminds me of a similar store in my college town. A place within walking distance of The Pressroom, a quiet, classy bar located beneath the Lancaster Newspapers headquarters.

Slowly, subtly, I have learned to like this place. A little.

I also have a job that I enjoy so much that my kicking-and-screaming desire to get out of this county has subsided to a minor murmur, something to remind me that someday, I would like to experience something different.

This past fall marked 10 years for my family in this house in Strasburg. Because of my father’s Navy career, my parents never lived anywhere longer than three or four years for the first two decades of their marriage. Strasburg is longest any of us has lived in one place. I haven’t quite come to terms with that; I used to pride myself on my wanderlust and desire not to live anywhere for long, something that was perhaps instilled in me the day I was born in a Naval hospital in Virginia.

I still want to live somewhere else. I don’t want to live all of my 20s in the town where I grew up, a town that, despite these newly-discovered redeeming features, doesn’t really have a whole lot to offer young singletons. I don’t want to turn 30 and wonder why I never left Lancaster.

I doubt that my grudging acceptance of Lancaster will ever blossom into sincere appreciation, but I’ve come a long way from snorts of derision and the overwhelming disbelief that I could ever be happy here. I may never love Lancaster, but learning not to hate this town is eye-opening enough.

Article © 2006 by Jill Coste