An Open Letter to the State of Iowa

There was a night that will go down in infamy dubbed the Valencia Bar Crawl night.

I was in Valencia, Spain with three girls I’d met on my study abroad program – Megan, Ashley and Anne – and we’d decided to nurse our Ibiza hangover with a few beers on a quiet night that involved more than a few beers, moto rides on slick city pavements and even a male stripper.

But I digress.

The night started by ducking into a brightly lit old man bar – the kind where the bartenders wear crisp white shirts and black pants, and the beer is always cheaper. In our half drunk state, we wrote love notes in Spanish to the bartender’s son, Miguel, and he asked, “¿De dónde venis?”

Ioooooooowaaaaa, said Meg, and I realized I was in the company of all Iowans. All of the sudden, that cartoon bombilla went off over the man’s head.

“Ah, yes, the Iowa of Walt Whitman! I love his poetry. Iowa must be beautiful.”

Sure, if you consider acre of acre after cornfields beautiful, then Iowa is your Garden of Eden (though I really, really do love corn on the cob). I only had the pleasure of calling Iowa home from August – May each year while in college, but I adore that state.  I got a degree from their flagship university. I was taught by engaging professors who had succumbed to the charm of Iowa City. I bled black and gold (and still do). I met my closest friends there. I studied abroad thanks to a grant made possible through the state, which may have arguably led me to end up in Spain. Yes, Iowa is more than just the Hawkeye State to me.

During my sophomore year of college, I was finally able to vote in a presidential election. After having sat through hours of civics classes, I wanted to exercise my freedom to. Iowa’s important role in our nation’s changing – or not – of leaders made for the first few months of that school year to be interesting and dotted with celebrity sighting (rumor is I let Tom Arnold stumble past me while under the influence).

Let me remind you that I went to the Iowa J-School. I never had Stephen Bloom as a professor, despite seeing him in the hallways of the Adler Building and smiling, as Iowans do. When his name kept cropping up on my Facebook feed this week, I figured he was some kind of political analyst before I thought, Hey, he shares a name with a professor I almost  took a course from.

Sure enough, when I looked for the Atlantic Weekly article where he lambasted the geographic center of America, the face with the straight nose and shiny, dark curls was smirking right back at me. I read the article. I furled my eyebrows as to why anyone would find a problem with people relating pigs with money (um, HOLA, I live in Spain). I hated on Bloom in Spanish. If I had the actual article in my hands, it would have gotten ripped up and thrown in the recycling.

In it, Bloom states that, to be Iowan – not a transplant like he and I – one must hunt, fish and love Hawkeye Football. I only fall into one of those categories, same as good old Steve, as I was born in Detroit and have called Illinois my home since I was four. But it stung to have someone throwing all of what I love about Iowa back in my face.

Iowa never seemed foreign to me, just an extension of the things I learned to love living in a bustling suburb. Iowa exemplifies rural America, sure, but Bloom glosses over its thriving arts scene, its sustainability achievements and the world-class universities, one of which employs him.

I may never be able to claim Iowa roots, but the Hawkeye State is more than cornfield, swines and kids named Bud. Field of Dreams, which takes place in Eastern Iowa, claims that “If you build it, they will come.” I think Iowa is trying to reinvent itself, offering incentives to teachers who stay in the state, pioneering sustainable agriculture ideas and playing up its arts scene. Iowa may not be a utopia, but I love hundreds of things about it.

Iowa City: University town and UNESCO World City of Literature

I come from the concrete jungle of Chicago, so choosing not to go to journalism school at Northwestern shocked my parents – I didn’t want to stay in the city. I wanted somewhere wide open, an extension of my high school years (I actually enjoyed mine). Besides, I’ve never been too artsy fartsy – I much prefer a cold beer and sports (see below).

Iowa City has been haunted by plenty in the past (Ashton Kutcher, duh!), but it’s especially known for its Writer’s Workshop, a world-renowned center for literature. Even Kurt Vonnegut was a director of the program, which has garnered Iowa City the title of a UNESCO World City of Literature – the only in the States. Sidewalks are paved with verse and independent bookstores thrive. The hours I spent running my hands over bindings in Prairie Lights are only rivaled to those spent at Brother’s during FAC, but as someone who loves words, Iowa City was just it for me. And, funny story, I spent time calling the Hancher Performing Arts Center pool without having ever seen a show there!

People say Iowa is all bacon and beer, but even the artsy fartsy can get their kicks.

Where else can drinking be acceptable before sunrise?

I am a self-proclaimed beer lover, so I clearly enjoy being able to have a beer for lunch and go back to work.

Iowans like beer, too. Not just for lunch, but many like it for breakfast, too.

But this isn’t what I love about Iowa. In a professional sports team-less state, everybody becomes a Hawkeye Football fan (you did pick up on that, Stephen). There’s little else to say, expect for that people came across the heartland to watch the Hawks run onto the field, followed by Herky on his little trolley waving the Iowa flag wildly. I came from a high school with a strong football program, so buying into the Hawkeye fever was an easy decision.

I have so many wonderful memories of other black and gold embraces in Kinnick, of other fans sharing their chili and space heaters in the back of their trucks, kids decked out in Hawkeye gear. I’ve never felt the spirit of how a sports team can bring people together until I went to my first Hawkeye game freshman year. I still follow the games from Spain, feeling the crush of defeat when we lose and yelling IIIIII as if I were in the student section. I love football, I love the taste of the second Natty Lite on Melrose, and I love sharing Gameday Iowa with Iowans.

The Fabric of Our Lives

Ok, so clearly cotton isn’t the main export from Iowa, but Iowans are about as down-home, country-loving as they come. And I love that about them.

Passing the I-80 Truckstop, deemed the largest in the world, the radio stations suddenly switched to country. All of them. My dad searched for anything else before cursing and turning off the radio to give me a pre-college visit pep-talk.

“Don’t rush into it. you’ll know when it’s right.” Ah, Don. You so smart.

We pulled off the exit towards Iowa City, a welcome break from the miles of endless highways that crisscross the Midwest. Rolling down Dubuque Street, I gawked at frat houses as my dad recounted his own years as president of his chapter. We parked near the Iowa Memorial Union and began our tour. After scaling what is seemingly the only hill in the city, upon which sits the Pentacrest, we toured the new business building, exiting in front of a crumbling brick church. An old man tottered by and tapped me, saying I wouldn’t regret being a Hawkeye.

I asked my dad to buy me a hoodie, convinced I would be calling Iowa City home for a few years’ time. Even after visits to Wisconsin, Illinois, Purdue and Indiana, I knew I had my mind made up.

When he asked why, it was simple – the openness of the people who smiled on the street, the simplicity of the Iowans. I was never once disappointed with the people of Iowa who take their family traditions seriously, who open their homes and hearts to anyone who asks. When a tornado ripped through downtown Iowa City in 2006 just hours before a busy Thursday night in the area popular for nightlife, I was overwhelmed by the support I saw from friends of the University, lifetime Iowans and the president.

Iowans are, for lack of better words, great people. With hearts the size of their state. I’ve met some of my dearest friends there, as they were always the ones to turn to when I needed someone to talk to, the ones who send me cards here in Spain, the ones who invited me to Easter brunch at their houses. Those religious freaks over in Iowa know where they come from, and are proud of it.

Come January, people will be watching Iowa. For better or for worse, a seemingly homogenous state will help determine the political course for one person. Maybe Bloom’s words really have taken roots. Here’s hoping they haven’t…

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. guapa!!! i love it! memories… ps – i have some tailgating pics… ;-)

  2. Such fantastic memories! I do beleive we were trying to find the cheapest cerveza in Valencia :) I had forgotten about flirting at the ice cream shop! We were trouble thats for sure! :) Maybe oneday the 3 of us ladies (megz) will get the pleasure of traveling together again!

  3. The jungle of Chicago… is that what they’re calling Wheaton these days???

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