Our weekend in “the old country” wasn’t exploding with warring factions, unresolved crimes of passion, or never-forgotten slights at somebody’s daughter’s wedding. Maybe that’s because we weren’t in Sicily, and were not appearing in a Francis Ford Coppola movie. I know, I’m kind of disappointed too. But what it lacked in drama, our family reunion more than made up for in charm, ease, and gentle reminiscence by our group’s elder members.
Thirteen of us visited West Chester, PA on a beautiful spring break weekend. My mother-in-law and her sister had spent their childhoods there. Strolling down the streets with them as guides was a lesson not just in family history but in small-town life in 1940s to 60s America.
The old firehouse, for example, is the reason the family bought a TV. It was there that their brother, Tom, went to watch sports with the firemen every day after school. Their parents did not like that one bit and decided the only way to keep him home was to buy their own TV.
Many of the buildings have long since been converted to other businesses entirely. Behind their modern-day facades lie long-forgotten memories, like the town’s one department store, where the family would buy everything from fabric to school shoes.
Today, West Chester is a bustling college town—it is home to West Chester University—with loads of restaurants and boutiques. But it still maintains its old school small-town charm.
The weekend’s favorite haunts reflect West Chester’s graceful blend of old and new:
Hotel Warner: The Hotel Warner sits in the heart of West Chester in a converted movie theater. With its large vintage black and white photos of the town and theater, it set the perfect stage for our walks down memory lane and beyond. We loved that you could walk everywhere from here.
According to 6-year-old Jeremy’s school what-I-did-on-my-spring-break worksheet, his favorite part of the weekend was the “chair races.” I was not aware of this event but I’m guessing maybe our downstairs neighbors were. Sorry.
Éclat:: The culinary highlight for me was hands-down the insanely delicious chocolate I stumbled upon at Éclat. I met the chef/owner, Christopher Curtin, and within minutes we were waxing nostalgic about Belgium like long-lost cousins. I know very little about most things but I’m becoming kind of an expert in artisan Belgian chocolate. And this man is legit. He trained under one of my favorite Belgian chocolatiers, Pierre Marcolini. His bars and mendiants have an intense, honest flavor and are sourced from some of the best cocoa on earth. In fact, he filmed an episode with Anthony Bourdain during a chocolate quest in Peru.
D’Ascenzo Gelato: This quaint little shop was so nice we went twice. Their homemade gelato and sorbet was delicious and their little outdoor seating area was a perfect place to check out the action on Gay Street (along with High Street, this is the town’s main street). It takes me about a minute to establish a routine so I ordered the same thing both evening: a scoop of dark chocolate and a scoop of hazelnut. TDF (I’m not sure if TDF is a “thing” but it was to die for).
Baldwin’s Book Barn: We discovered this bookstore on our way out of town and I could have spent all day, all winter really, wandering, browsing, and maybe catching a nap with one of the resident cats. The rambling shop rambles through an early 19th century stone barn on the outskirts of West Chester. The bookstore opened in 1946 but you lose all sense of time wandering through its nooks and crannies, creaky hidden stairways, and seemingly endless little reading corners. It was hard to tear ourselves away.
We couldn’t have picked a better setting for our gathering. Walking the streets of our relatives’ childhoods taught us about them, our children’s heritage, and American history. Thank you, West Chester. And maybe we’ll see you next year!