In case you haven't heard of it, and most likely you have not, Renfrew is a small farm village that is in Butler County, and the location of my family farm. It is also my go-to place to relax, get special projects done, visit my family, and generally soak up lots of love and pampering.
The founder of the village is John Renfrew. He came to America from Scotland in 1774 at the age of seventeen and settled on the banks of the Connocochigue Creek, in Franklin County, He built one of the first gristmills (grinds grain into flour) there, having purchased the land in 1778. This property is still in possession of the fourth generation of Renfrews, and the old stone mill is still standing. John Renfrew, who was a Revolutionary soldier, died in 1844 at the advanced age of ninety-six years. He married a Miss Thompson, and they became the parents of five children.
Pennsylvania is also a home to many religious societies that looked for religious freedom in America. These include the Mennonites, Utopian Harmonists, Amish, and Quakers. Our first family farm was located in Harmony, PA, which is where I did most of my growing up. The Harmony Society was formed in Germany in the late 1700s, but relocated to the United States due to religious persecution. The group, led by Johann Georg Rapp purchased 3,000 acres of land in Butler, Pennsylvania to build the beginnings of a society that would last for roughly 100 years and build three successful communities in the U.S. Two of these communities were located in Pennsylvania.
Members of the Harmony Society were known as Harmonists or Rappites and they put all their goods in common. Because they believed that the second coming of Christ was close at hand, they did not put effort into gaining converts. The Harmonist Society is remembered best for its financial success and the attention it gained from economists and politicians nationwide before its dissolution in 1892.
Originally, most of the population of Butler County were farmers and from Germany. I grew up in an extremely homogenous area that is, in my opinion, still isolated in their location and viewpoints, but I try not to pay attention to that. I am here for the best sweet corn you will ever eat, the taste of homegrown vegetables, the smell of freshly mown grass, fireflies flickering on hayfields, brilliant orange sunsets, family parties and picnics, and the quiet.
Not to brag, but my mom still takes care of me. She cooks for me and would clean up after if I let her, makes coffee in the morning, washes my clothes, and folds them. I am in the enviable position of having a mother that still takes care of me at my age. I know this.
This was a big trip for Dennis and I because it was the first time he was to meet my family. Almost all of them still live there. My three brothers, most of my nieces and nephews, my aunts and uncles, and many cousins. I recognize that it is crucial to my emotional well-being to come back here to visit, to contemplate, to steel myself to withstand the difficult and sprawling megalopolis known as L.A. I know that any of my family who moved away feels the same way I do ... the importance and even the urgency of coming back here to visit.
My favorite local restaurants:
1. Harmony Inn (not an inn)
2. Log Cabin Inn (also not an inn)
3. Rachel's Roadhouse
Fly into Pittsburgh International Airport. Rent a car. Drive about an hour and north.
Thing I Learned: There's no place like home.
Things to do near Renfrew:
1. There are no hotels in Renfrew. There is a Beacon Hotel, but you can't stay there. You can only drink beer and eat there. Same with the nearby Harmony Inn, But there are some in the neighboring towns of Cranberry, Zelienople, and Butler. I've never stayed in any because I always stay with my mom. The summer has many worthy activities such as the Butler County Fair (the location of every vacation of mine growing up) and boating on Lake Arthur at Moraine State Park, but I would rent a car and drive up Route 79. That trip would take you through farm country, past lakes and rivers, little towns and villages, Amish country, and all the way to Lake Erie and Niagara Falls.
2. Drive south in the spring and take a day whitewater rafting on the Youghiogheny River in the spring. I've done these twice and it is exhilarating and well worth the trip. From there I continued on to Fallingwater, the stunning Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house built over a waterfall, south of Pittsburgh. When my kids were little, we also went to Gettysburg National Park and museum (which is far, far more interesting than I ever thought it would be) and Hershey Park, for the kids and the chocolate.
3. Hiking and Biking. Western Pennsylvania is home to many fantastic trails most of them converted from old train tracks. One trail goes all the way to Washington, D.C.
4. Horseback Riding. I grew up riding horses, so I never had to rent. But this is a link to supposedly the best rental facilities. I can tell you that Pennsylvania has probably the most beautiful trails of anywhere in the U.S. We used to start out in the morning, and not come home until sunset. And one of our goals, was to find a different way home - not just turn around. Thanks mom for letting us do that and not worrying too much (something I'm not sure I could do with my children).
5. Visit Pittsburgh about an hour and a half south of Renfrew. Consistently voted as one of the top ten cities in the U.S. to live and most recently, named one of the "Best Places to Travel in 2017," by Harper's Bazaar, Pittsburgh has a lot to offer - too much to list here. So do some research and visit!
Let us know what your favorite Pennsylvania activities are. I'd like to explore some new places and activities the next time I go home to visit!
We stole away from Santiago to visit Buenos Aires, and explore some good Malbecs from Mendoza. I had a free ticket on Sky Airlines and we stayed in an Airbnb that was in the nicest neighborhood of Ricoleta and a couple doors down from the Plaza Hotel and was still pretty reasonably priced. Flying over the Andes was mesmerizing - the endless snowy peaks straining against their earthly confines, trying to scrape the bottom of the plane. I thought of a book I had read a long time ago, Alive, where a plane had crashed in the Andes and the survivors had to eat each other to stay alive. I shuddered.
The first place we visited was La Recoleta Cementario. The Argentinians know how to do death right. The first cemetery photo below is me standing in front of a rather "simple" family mausoleum that looked like a palace. This place is an unbelievable maze of tombs and it seems as if all of Argentina’s history is buried here. We were looking for the grave of Eva Peron but we couldn't seem to find it, even after asking many caretakers where it was. Very mysteriously and multiple times, they pointed to a phantom location before we even got the question out of our mouths. We wandered up and down the rows of buildings. The cemetery seemed to go on forever and ever, its narrow streets of stone and brick “homes” holding sad plastic flowers and dusty coffins covered with cloths, many broken into. The dark angels hovered over roofs against the purplish-blue sky. The black, wrought-iron gates vainly attempted to keep out potential robbers and keep in lost souls. At one point we saw signs pointing to an unknown tomb that we thought might belong to someone important who might be near Peron, but as it turned out, it was only the funeral de jour… a benign soul of questionable importance. The entire family hunched inside the shadowy mausoleum eating lunch over candlelight with many family members sucking on cigarettes in the narrow thoroughfare blowing their misty smoke into dead air. In the end, we couldn't find Evita Peron’s final resting place so we finally gave up.
I started thinking… what did I want to do with my remains when I died? I remember that my patent attorney in Chile recently had to leave one of our meetings early because his Aunt had died. I asked him if they were going to bring in food and drink, and party to celebrate her life (she was in her 90's). He was mortified and said no, that's not how they did things in Santiago. That's what we did when my grandmother died. She was in her 90's and sick and I looked at it as a sad occasion to be sure, but one that we made the best of. I enjoyed being with my family. We ate and drank and toasted the wonderful woman, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother that she was. It's funny how death is viewed and held differently from country to country, family to family. I decided that I don’t really care what happens to me after I die, but I do want a big party thrown for me. I want everyone to have a good time at my funeral.
After some follow up research we found out that when she died, Eva Peron’s corpse had been stolen and was missing for 16 years accompanied by ample amounts of farfetched intrigue. After they found her body, her husband’s next wife kept Eva’s embalmed remains in their dining room next to the table for two years! Now her final resting place is in La Recoleta Cementario. But is it?
My observation about Buenos Aires is that it is a missed opportunity. As an example, the sidewalks need repaired, even in the best neighborhoods and walking through the rest of the city is somewhat daunting. It is at once a metropolis on the edge, but also vibrating with indescribable beauty and passion and possibility. It is the kind of city where we stopped into a cafe for a quick snack, glass of vino tinto, and charge for our phones ... and were treated to a tango dance. We spent six days walking and exploring, eating and drinking and by the way, the Malbecs didn't disappoint.
On the Eastern Side of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires stands the Casa Rosada – the palace of El Presidente – currently Mauricio Macri. It’s from the balconies here that Eva Perón famously preached to throngs of impassioned Argentines. The building’s color could have come from President Sarmiento’s attempt at making peace during his 1868–74 term (by blending the red of the Federalists with the white of the Unitarists). Another theory, however, is that the color comes from painting the palace with bovine blood, a common practice in the late 19th century.
On Sunday August 9th, we had made a reservation to see La Casa Rosada and walked through some - it seemed to us – not so safe neighborhoods to get there. One of the events going on en route was some sort of Peruvian festival complete with dancers in sequined outfits, entertainers, food vendors and hawkers of every sort of thing imaginable.
After wading through masses of people whose contagious enthusiasm immediately put us in a celebratory mood, we arrived at the Palace. It was walled off with an impenetrable iron fence and a garrison of armed soldiers standing at the ready who explained to us that the palace was closed for “maintenance.” But I didn’t think so.
Outside of the fence was a food vendor cooking ribs, sausage, and other unidentifiable meats, on the longest grill I’d ever seen. The smoke alone I’m sure consumed Argentina’s carbon footprint allotment in the fight against global warming. After escaping the smoke and catching our breath, we continued on to San Telmo through even more sketchy neighborhoods.
We found a temporary oasis in a restaurant called, La Popular, which arguably had the best papas fritas in the Southern Hemisphere and a pretty good glass of Sauvignon Blanc that was served at room temperature which didn’t seem to affect its good taste. After resting our weary feet, we continued on and discovered a wonderful array of antiques and handcrafted goods that made the perilous journey worthwhile. I bought a handmade pair of white, leather Agua Patagonia shoes that are super cool looking and comfortable.
On the way back, the Peruvian festival had seemingly gotten a little rowdy and out of hand and we had heard that there was some sort of bomb scare. Walking down the street (I think it was Córdova or maybe Sante Fe?) we saw people running towards us from the direction in which we were headed. I asked a vendor, who was quickly packing up, “¿Que paso?”
She responded as she ran off, “Hay peligros.” Which loosely translates to, “There are dangers.”
A scene flashed through my head: World War Z, when the “infection” first broke out. I felt like the wife of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) standing there for one moment, confused, while a stream of people started running toward us, panicking, perhaps a part of an unnecessary mob mentality, or perhaps a harbinger of something real, something more nefarious.
Dennis shouted, “Look at all these people running toward us. They’re running away from something. Let’s go!!!!”
It didn’t take me longer than two steps of a tango dance to agree and we took off, down dark side streets, crooked alleys and crumbling sidewalks, past buildings of forbidding iron gates and graffiti sides, hand in hand, and finally came out on the other side, a reasonably lit street where we stopped to catch our breath.
We never found out what the danger was, but later heard that it was a knife fight. It turns out that it was more Westside Story than World War Z. Nevertheless, we made it home safe and sound.
What did I learn? Beauty is only skin deep.