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From Austin to Valencia: Not Hemingway's Spain

13 February, 2012 10:44  Erin Erin

not hemingways spain portrait My name is Zach. Originally from Austin, Texas, I lived in Boston for a while (PhDing) before I moved to Valencia, the third largest city in Spain and home of the famous rice dish paella.

1. Why did you move abroad?
One of my colleagues, a sociologist, jokes that one could do a really telling study of EU academic immigration just by looking at what he calls “el factor n,” the novio (boyfriend/girlfriend) factor in migration. I’m guilty as charged. I moved to Valencia because my wife is from here and we wanted to be closer to her family.

2. How do you make a living?

I teach English part time in a private language institute, though I also piece together funds from travel grants to continue my post-doc historical research. In this economy it is tough finding steady work. And expats have additional troubles, and not just due to work visas (which has not been a problem for me due to Spain’s friendly residence-through-marriage laws). There are a lot of rigid and byzantine employment steps, particularly for getting public positions, such as in universities, which can be confusing for outsiders unfamiliar with them.

3. How often do you communicate with home and how?

At some point I’m going to have to retire my “expat” status, and embrace the “immigrant” label. I really consider Valencia my “home”. That said, I keep in touch with family via email and facebook, more than anything, and video chat through skype with my parents periodically (once a month or so) and with my siblings every now and then (i.e. every other month or so). (Important aside, I have a lot of siblings.) Many of my siblings are having kids right now, which both eats up their free-time to video chat with me (especially given time zone differences), but also puts more incentive in our following my nieces and nephews’ progress. What would life be like without the internet?

4. What's your favorite thing about being an expat in Valencia?
Wow! Where to start? Let’s see, after being here for over two years, and traveling back and forth to here for over a decade, increasingly it’s the little things that make living here great. I’ve been thinking of writing a blog entry on what it really means to live in a neighborhood (barrio) here in Spain... where you know your bakery owner’s name, and talk with her about family; where you shop at the supermarket and see your banker (who you also know by name) shopping there, and where you have regular discussions with the grocery staff about the best way to prepare such and such food, because they take pride in their job, and also live in the area. This is all quite different from living in a city in Texas.

Let me add that food is another major plus in Valencia. And I especially mean in Valencia, not just Spain. It is so fresh here! You can tell the salad makings came directly from the “huerta” (produce fields) right next to the city. Moreover, you can get Spaniards to talk for hours about food. I once had to ask my in-laws if we could change the subject to something else, politics or sports or something, just to get a break from talking about food. That’s saying something, since I am fascinated by food culture. (Did I mention my doctoral research was on food culture?)

5. What’s the worst thing about being an expat in Valencia?
Hah! Where to start? The biggest frustration I experience is with the general negativity and pessimism here, particularly with the economic crisis in the news. I get tired of being asked why I’m settling in Spain when I could live in the (imagined) land of milk and honey, the United States. Spaniards don’t realize the crisis has hit there, too. They are also sometimes completely unaware of how good they have it. For example, I constantly have to defend the public health care system here. It’s awesome (when compared with the U.S. at least). When locals start to complain about wait times of 30+ minutes, I shock them by pointing out that where I come from one can wait this long, and still have to pay for it! Families are also a much more heavily utilized resource here. (Something I think economists don’t think about when they talk doom and gloom about Spain on the international news.) I think it would be really tough to live here without a personal, family connection like the one I have through my wife. That is a huge social safety net.

6. What do you miss most?
Tex-Mex! No wait, Thai Food! Or maybe good bagels! No, now that I think about it, Alamo Drafthouse Cinema (an Austin specialty and film-lover Mecca)! Okay, probably what I miss most are my friends and family. The truth is my wife and I are too resourceful to miss stuff from back home. We bought a tortilla press in Texas, and now make homemade corn tortillas for my enchiladas here. And I can make some mean margaritas from freshly squeezed limes for the occasional Tex-Mex themed party. So about the only thing we can’t make from scratch are our good friends and my family back in the States.

7. What did you do to meet people and integrate in your new home?
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. I came over to Valencia initially on a fellowship, and I’ve made a point of being the local liaison for that fellowship, to meet incoming fellows for Valencia each year and as such keep in touch with that American network here.

I’ve made some friends through my professional connections, though I’m sure others have told you that this can be a tough way to make close friends, since most locals already have their own rich social lives before you arrived. (Since there’s less geographical mobility in Spain than in the States, I think there is also less of a community of socially hungry, open-minded strangers ready to embrace newcomers.) Though I’m starting to discover some expats in Valencia who are more settled than the standard exchange student or English teaching fare. They are quite interesting, and I’ve been enjoying getting to know them better.

8. What custom/ habits do you find most strange about your adopted culture?

Not drinking water. Okay, so maybe there is some other stranger custom or habit that I’m not recalling right now, but this culture of not drinking water causes me the most trouble. It’s not specific to Spain. It’s true all over continental Europe. There couldn’t be a bigger culture gap on this issue than that between Texas and Spain. The first time my wife visited me in Texas, she had a serious moment of culture shock when the waiter brought her a “glass” of tap water the size of Montana (and chock full of ice). Well, I get equally frustrated in Spain every time I order a glass of water, and make a point of saying tap water ( "del grifo" ), and they either tell me they can’t offer me anything other than bottled water (if I’m unlucky) or look at me like I just ordered water out of the toilet, but begrudgingly bring me it (if I’m lucky).

And don’t get me started about airports. Whatever happened to a public health mentality that access to fresh water should be a public right? Somehow bottled water here has classed out people like me who don’t want to pay money for hydration or waste plastic on something so routine and basic as water. Most European airports have become like the Sahara desert for bottle-yielding tourists like me. When I mention this to my Spanish or European friends, they humor me with their sympathy, but then they start talking about how odd it is that Americans drink so much water (as opposed to beer or wine) with their meal. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Spaniards in general just don’t drink as much liquid with their meal as Americans do. It’s a curious difference, and I don’t know why it’s so.

9. What is a myth about your adopted country?
I would refer your readers to my blog project, and its effort to dispel the “Hemingway paradigm” ... bullfights, hot-blooded dark-eyed latinos, deeply superstitious Catholics, etc. These images are about 100+ years out of date, if ever they were true beyond any superficial level. Though there is a newer stereotype that has been grafted over that one, which is the “sol, sangría and playa” myth. (Believe it or not, there are cold and wet regions of Spain that are also beautiful.)

Also, Spain is a “big country”. (And I’m saying this as a Texan – cue ironic joke about Gregory Peck and 1958 film Big Country.) It’s big not in the sense of size, but in the way that it has filled every crevice of its land with diverse people and cultural identities. It has a lot of variety... cultural, geographical, economical, gastronomical. If you hear anyone say something about Spain, including me, chances are it reflects their personal, limited exposure to the country. The Basque Country is not like Valencia, Madrid is not like Zamora. And if you are a poor college student you see one part of the country, but if you are a professional or a family person, you see another.

10. What advice would you give other expats?
Would it be too crazy to say, read the newspaper, or watch the daily news! It probably sounds passé in this 21st century twitter, feed-burning, and social-networking referral world, but there was once a time when people talked about the “imagined communities” fostered by mass media like television, national newspapers, or the radio. I have the impression that most of the expats in Spain aren’t using these very often. Which is a shame, since a lot of Spaniards do use them. Just from watching the daily news on TV, I find I’m generally on top of the current events and conversant with most locals about topics they are following and chatting about. And there have been times when I tweeted some happening somewhere in Spain, or made a comment on a post about some cultural event, and other bloggers (even ones living there) were really impressed. Well, the secret’s out. Most of those times I was inspired by what I saw on the national news. It goes without saying that it is also an incredible way to learn a foreign language and to pick up new vocabulary. TV also provides you fodder for some excellent small talk with locals who you don’t know well, for those moments when you wish you had something to talk about with them.

11. When and why did you start your blog?
So building on what I wrote for question 9, myth-busters, I started writing my blog because I was tired of reading hack travel journalists “rediscover” Spain by following in the footsteps of Spain’s most famous American expat, Ernest Hemingway. Sherry, bullfights, meat and manliness, it all sounds like someone’s grandpa here. It’s like these journalists didn’t get the memo that more than half a century has passed since the man came here, and that a couple of “minor” social and cultural changes have occurred since then. It isn’t the Spain I know. I started taking notes on thoughts I was having about it the spring of 2011, and started writing up material for the blog over the summer. The actual blog posting didn’t get going until last August, but I already had ten plus years of material to draw upon, and all the local knowledge and cultural wisdom of my adopted family too.

12.  How has the blog been beneficial?
For one it has put me in touch with a pretty interesting community of other expat bloggers. I’ve learned about other regions of Spain, and also been reminded of the headaches that can startle us Americans when we first get here. (It’s been almost ten years since I first lived in Spain, so I had forgotten some of the cultural surprises and shock that can hit you, and which many of hemingway spain marketthese other bloggers capture very nicely in their posts.) It’s also inspired me to learn more about things that I had always been curious about, but never took the time or care to really get to know. I want my entries to really cover a topic. So I start investigating the subjects a bit, and also poll my friends and family about it. Sometimes, when I’ve done it really well, my family here will tell me that even they learned something from it. That’s when I am most proud of an entry, and feel it has really contributed something to the blogosphere, even if it’s just a drop in a sea of impressions flowing out there about Spain.

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