March 16, 2012

Expat Profiles – "Mr. Earnestly Not Hemingway", A Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities' Bat Symbol, Austin and Valencia
I was recently interviewed for Blog Expat's series on expat bloggers. Go ahead, check it out. I know you're curious (¡Cotilla!) to know more about me, and I said more there than I have here. They frame their interviews around the theme of "from place x to place y", which in my case is from Austin, Texas to Valencia, Spain. It got me thinking, once again, of all the serendipitous parallels there are between my hometown and my adopted town... bat symbols, March madness lots of sun, approximate populations of 1 million people, and both dramatically transformed over the last 30 years.

I'm also taking this quasi-autobiographical detour, because pretty soon I hope to start a series profiling expats who've lived in Spain for a long time... Hey! All you other Spain bloggers out there! Know anyone interesting? How about you post an interview with them. (That's right, enough about you... And, no, I'm not talking about a guest post from one of your fellow bloggers. I'm talking about the interesting people you know or have met, who don't spend all their time online writing about themselves or their personal predilections.) Anyway, in the spirit of fairness, I'll first say a little about myself, a.k.a. "An Expat in Spain" —though a big fan recently re-dubbed me "Mr. Earnestly Not Hemingway"— by saying a little about my two hometowns.

It's always disconcerting, and admittedly a bit of a let down to realize that my story
is not nearly as exciting as that of hundreds of other expats out there... For example,
"From Minnesota to Hanoi: Fishsauce, Motorbikes and the golden Tortoise"...
now that's packaging!

Pretty soon the bluebonnets
will be in bloom in Texas!
Unlike Hemingway and many other expats residing here, I wasn't especially drawn to Spain, initially. (Closet confessions: when I was in college, what I really wanted to do was go to France, to live in Paris. Cliché! Sound familiar, Hemingway? The only reason Spain ended up being one of my first European destinations was because of language. Growing up in Texas, I learned Spanish, so I figured [Texanism!] it was appropriate to visit the one European country which speaks my one foreign language.) So my path to Spain is quite different from many of the other expats who blog here. I wasn't so quickly smitten by the country or the culture. I didn't drop everything to come live here for its sun, or food, or "way of life". It was accidental. Unlike Hemingway, I fell in love with and married a Spaniard (who, by the way, I didn't meet in Spain, but in a heretofore unmentioned third-party country). For me, falling in love with Spain, and especially falling in love with Valencia has been part and parcel with my having a wife and her family here who is Spanish, and who, without even trying to convince me of Spain or Valencia's elegance and beauty (they are, after all, not particularly patriotic, certainly less than me), continuously amaze me through their offhand cultural remarks or simple day trips, with the cultural richness of their city and region. A colleague of mine once said: "If you know 20 things, you think you know everything. But when you know 200 things, you know how little you know." After over a decade of coming to know this city, everyday better and better, it is only now that I know how little of its wonders I really know. I'm completely smitten.

But in Valencia, I have the "Azahar" or
orange blossom in late March, early April
Digression: My history dissertation advisor once advised me, in so many words, that... "We are all always telling stories about ourselves. All kinds of stories. The trick to succeeding at something [at that time getting a research grant] is telling a story that makes it natural to explain how you got from where you are, or where you came from, to where you want to be going." These are very wise words. We historians are professional story-tellers, but everyone tells stories. The hard part is learning how to draw upon this natural tendency for blogging story-telling, to consciously craft stories (but not fib!) about yourself and others, so as to open up new and fruitful futures. This is why historians are apt to repeat the saying, "What's past is prologue."

The funny thing is that my hometown Austin is kind of like Valencia when it comes to being passed up for other more flashy or convenient tourist destinations. (Aside: I've been egging on some travel blogger friends of mine to make Austin one of their next destinations.) Austin definitely was, for a long time, an underrated city. Though I think flashy events like South By Southwest have finally put it on the map. I've had a lot of conversations with costal Americans (i.e. Eastcoast, Westcoast) which have gone as follows:

Austin is both different from the rest
of Texas, and at the same time
_very_ Texan.
Costal person: "Where are you from?
Me: Texas. [hesitation, noting CP's anxiety] Austin, Texas. [relief on CP's face]
CP: "Austin! Oh, I've heard Austin is pretty cool! I've always wanted to visit it."
Me: "Oh, yeah? You should!"
CP: "Yeah [pause], [slowly] I would, but it's in Texas [disparaging, lamenting tone]. I don't know when I would _ever_ pass through there."
Me: [Hiding disappointment at yet another Costal person's phobia of America's center and lack of awareness of all its friendly, quirky fun.]

Maybe this is where I got that chip on my shoulder about Valencia... ah, transference. Except it's worse here because there's no excuse about Valencia being in the middle of nowhere, like one could hypothetically argue with Austin. Valencia is now only an hour and a half from Madrid by train, 3 hours from Barcelona, and less than 2-3 hours by plane from a bunch of European capitals.

Sure, George W. Bush was governor of Texas, but before him there was
biker governor Anne Richards, and since him we had the likes of Kinky Friedman
(unsuccessfully) run. Austin just recently mourned the loss of Albert "Leslie" Cochran,
a very politically active homeless transvestite, who though unsuccessfully ran
for mayor three times, was very successful in putting a spotlight on the issues
that the city's homeless faced. He She will be missed! Despite their leftist agendas,
none of these people would makes sense anywhere but Texas, and fit right in in Austin.

Anyway, the other day, as I was thinking about all this, it struck me for perhaps the umpteenth time how odd and crazy it is that both cities have for their symbol the same creature: the bat (in Spanish "murciélago"). For me, it's almost like destiny. I mean it's not like they chose a lion (England) or a bear (Madrid) or some other typical symbolic animal of power like that. Nope they both chose a flying rat the peculiar nocturnal animal, the humble bat. As it turns out, while the stories for how they elected this mammalia volans are pretty different, the principal inspiration is basically the same, there are a lot of bats flying around both cities.

Valencia's bat ("rat penat" in Valencian Catalan) iconography is steeped in tradition and colorful tales about the city's reconquest by Jaume I. Story goes that the night before he was to invade Valencia, Jaume I and his soldiers were awoken by a mysterious noise outside their tents. As it happened, just at that moment the Moorish armies were sneaking up to attack his troops while they slept. The king and his army, thus awakened by this noise, had no trouble defending against the surprise attack. Later, they determined that the noise had been made by a bat. According to this story, out of gratitude to this fortuitous nighttime visit by the animal, King Jaume I incorporated the bat into his symbol, placing it above the crown to become the city's "escudo" or seal. A less colorful explanation points to the fact that Jaume I's original seal had a dragon above it. Locals in Valencia continuously confused the dragon for a much more familiar creature, the bats that frequented the city and were beneficial to farmers in fighting off insects that would otherwise plague the crops of L'horta de València. By the 18th century, officials simply dispensed with the dragon and put a bat in its place. Whichever story you believe, the result is a lot of bat iconography around town, principally in the city's seal, but also appearing incorporated into other local institutions.

Yep, if you look up above the Ayuntamiento entrance (no, above the falleras!)
you'll see the bat over the city seal, one of many such official bats all over town.

Probably the most famous use of the bat in Valencia is in the Valencia CF soccer team's logo

Some shrubs in the shape of the Valencia seal, including the bat,
in the Río Turia near Plaza de Zaragoza.

You'll even see the bat on the utility covers on the streets of Valencia.

The bat regularly appears in Fallas. I saw it this year in this falla's light display,
the famous Convento-Jerusalén.

On the prowl for bats in the city, I found one in this street mural.
I encourage you to make a game of it. How many bat can you find in Valencia?

The story behind Austin's adoption of a bat symbol is a mixture of charming ecotourism and savvy (if also a bit commercial) marketing strategy. At some point in the late 1980s, the city powers that be realized Austin was home to the largest urban bat colony in the world – 1.5 million Mexican free-tail bats, most of whom sleep under Congress bridge downtown. And as anyone who knows Texans will know, being the largest or biggest at something is something a Texan won't let pass without being celebrated, boasted about, and transformed into a coffee mug. By the 1990s, local tourism institutions had figured out how to turn this into a tourism boon, encouraging people to visit mid March to November, especially in September when the migratory colony is largest because of a bunch of newborn baby bats. Out of this emerged a bunch of bat symbols, linked with Austin's other famous exports... Slacker (1991)-style "Keep Austin Weird" weirdness, live music, and quirky politicians of all political stripes.

This bat statue marks the area next to Congress Bridge where people line up
to watch the bats fly out at evening from under the bridge.

Why take my, or any Texans' word for it? When you can trust this banner placed
on the bridge years ago, which states definitively that this is the _largest_ (urban)
bat colony. What I don't understand is why this statement hasn't already been
 etched in bronze (or pink granite) there.

People can cruise on Town Lake to watch the bats from the river... on
boats which feature, yep, a bat.

Perhaps the most unlikely of uses of Austin's bat image is for the mascot of
the city's professional hockey team. (Hockey? In Texas? Get a rope.) Yes,
Austin's team is called the "Ice Bats", and this is their logo. Scary, or cute?

As if that coincidence weren't enough, both cities also completely transform in March. Valencia has its Fallas festival, fireworks, falla statues, and festival food, Austin its South by Southwest festival, film, music, and. Both festivals peak around the same time, March 9th through 19th, just when both cities' natural beauties, Valencia's River Turia and Austin's Greenbelt, are on the verge of blooming with full spring fever.

March Madness: Valencia has Fallas. Austin has SXSW.

Ah, yes. Austin and Valencia. My past and my future. I love you both, equally!

Speaking of Fallas... here's another mascletà video:

Wednesday's Day 14 (March 14, 2012) mascletà was pretty amazing. The pyrotechnician company is
Hermanos Caballer, one of several offshoot companies from the Caballer family,
that has a long and glorious history of great fireworks shows.
(You'll see the name Caballer a lot this week on the Fallas program.) They don't disappoint!


Kaley [Y Mucho Más] said...

You are definitely a writer. I liked this part of your post because I identify with it "For starters, I largely inherited all the friends and family of my wife. That is a big plus, since they are all very close friends and have embraced me as such."

That's the same for me, and it's really great. Anyway, you don't have to defend Valencia to me anymore; however, to some Spaniards I know--maybe. I'm not naming names, though. Not on your blog.

Mr Grumpy - Tumbit said...

How can you ever write about Austin, Tx, without a single metion of the legend that is Stone Cold Steve Austin ?
Hang your head in shame, you imposter !

An American Spaniard said...

Thanks Kaley! It's a real privilege to get that kind of insider ticket to Spanish culture, so you definitely have to enjoy it!

Mr. Grumpy, I was all ready for people to crucify me for not mentioning Stevie Ray Vaughan and Austin blues. So you definitely caught me off guard on Stone Cold Steve Austin... Is it enough of a defense that he's not actually "from" Austin, just born there? But, hey, I don't want to pick any fights with his fans! So let's add him to the list of reasons to mecca to my old hometown, and call it even.

Sorokin said...

Hi, Expat, being also an "expat" the other way round (Spanish expat in Belgium, I mean), I have just a question that harasses me reading your interview: How do you make a difference between an "Expat" and an "Immigrant"?

Sorokin said...

Incidentally, I forgot: enjoy your "fallas".

Paddy Waller said...

Nice posting Zach....I also have a Spanish wife and live nr.Xativa.And I also have a blog!: about Valencia. If you are ever in Xativa and want a little insight into the area we could meet up for a drink or something.
Like the name of your blog btw..very good

An American Spaniard said...

Sorokin, yes, this is a question I've posed before, when I wrote about Biutiful and top manta. And I plan to ask my interviewees this question, too, are you an expat or an immigrant? I suppose the answer is a mixture of mindset, cultural integration, and also economic affluence. (BTW, I very much enjoyed Fallas... blog post about it up soon!)

Paddy Waller, nice to meet you! I've added you to my blog wall and will definitely follow your blog. And I've been meaning to go to Xativa for a long time now. So I'll be sure to look you up when I visit there.

Tumbit - Mr Grumpy said...

Another Childhood illusion shattered.

Anonymous said...

Very nice writing! i also like valencia, is a mix between a big and a small city. perfect size!

congratulations from the team of

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