My Altea

On Saturday, February 27th, we celebrated six years with AlteArte. I remember our opening day as if it were yesterday. I close my eyes and vividly recall the anxiety I felt at having to take orders in Spanish and make drinks. I remember hoping that people would come while at the same time praying that they wouldn’t  – or at least not too many anyway.  I remember the relief that washed over me when my classmates from my Spanish class were among the first to walk through the door.

In some ways, it feels not so long ago. In other ways, it feels like a lifetime.

In the last six years, so much has changed – David and I, our relationship, our vision for what’s possible and what we want to accomplish. But we’re not the only ones to have changed. Altea has changed and is in the process of changing even more.

When we arrived in 2009, the church square, home to three major bars – Bar La Plaza, La Mascarada, and Cocoon – would get packed.  Then, on the last day of August two summers ago, Cocoon – which I had considered to be one of the more established businesses in Altea – quietly closed its doors. Since then, a crab restaurant has come and gone and a new restaurant just recently opened – leaving no sign at all of what it used to be. This past winter, even the square has been quiet, and AlteArte has practically been the only place open in the Old Town during the week days.

What happened? About two years ago, Altea was designated a historical site by the European Union. The designation put Altea on the map but came with a price tag. The houses needed to be maintained, the streets needed to be cleaned and the bars had to close on time. So, after four years of closing nearly every day at 4 or 5 in the morning, we were forced to adjust our closing time after a visit from the police two Augusts ago. Our official closing time was actually 1:30, but, for the next two years, we were able to get away with closing at 2 until our neighborhood started changing also. Houses were sold and bought by new neighbors, who, apparently, chose Altea for its tranquility, yet somehow overlooked the fact that there was a bar just at the end of the street. Ever searching for tranquility, the new neighbors started calling the cops on us. As a result, much to my surprise, the police made several visits in January, informing us that the neighbors had been complaining and that AlteArte was officially under surveillance – and would be required to close at the official closing time of 1:30 every day. January is the lowest period of the low season. How ironic that we had closed at 4 or 5 everyday in the first four years, yet it was now that we were getting more heat than ever. How confusing that we’d had much busier nights and never had trouble with the police, yet here we were in January, paranoid every night that we were going to get yet another visit from the cops.

And I found myself getting mad and frustrated at these new neighbors, who, instead of adapting to the neighborhood, were trying to change the neighborhood so that it would adapt to their lifestyles. And then I realized something. Of course Altea is changing. It has and it always will. No city, no place ever stays the same. When David and I first arrived to Altea in 2009, we were the new kids on the block and didn’t know much about Altea. We would listen with amazement as Warner would tell us how Altea used to be the party place and would actually draw people from the surrounding towns, and my eyes would open wide as Peter, our neighbor, recalled how Bar La Plaza would be packed with people almost every night of the week. Just because I can’t imagine Altea or Bar La Plaza being like that now doesn’t erase the fact that they were actually once this way.

Altea has changed and it’s still changing. I’ve noticed change ever since our second year, when I marveled at how quickly the businesses that had opened right before the summer had closed right after it, but, over the past two years, a different kind of change has been taking place. I have been here long enough now that it is no longer simply Altea that is changing, but rather My Altea.

Nearly two years ago, Eugenio Mira, the ceramicist that I so deeply admire, finally decided to slow down and downgraded from the large store exiting out on to Calle Mayor, the main shopping street in the Old Town, to the back of the shop that exits out on to the parallel street – the street that AlteArte is on. He opened his small shop only in the Summer months last year, and he might not be open at all this summer, he tells me as he gives me his card so that we can call him directly when my family comes in May and my sister needs to make her annual purchase of ceramic doves. And it’s a startling thought to realize that, had I arrived to Altea just a bit later, I might never have even known about Eugenio. I would have never had the opportunity to visit what came to be one of the first shops on the Calle Mayor, and I very easily might have missed the chance to meet one of the most inspirational and centered people in Altea who, unknowingly, helped me to find grounding and inner strength at at time in my life that I needed it most.

Had we arrived later, I might have looked with disdain at the abandoned house just across and slightly down the street from AlteArte that, due to its rapidly declining condition, has practically become an eyesore. I could never have imagined that this blemish on the street that tourists now try to angle out of in their photos was actually one of the most photographed houses only two years ago. I might have wondered how a house on such a charming street could be so lifeless, never knowing how full of life it once was – with a bedroom full of books and a facade that overflowed like a waterfall with plants and flowers. I might have wondered who lived there, but I never could have imagined the woman who actually did. Anna had such a grandiose presence and such a theatrical voice that she singlehandedly filled the neighborhood with life, drama and adventure.  Sometimes she would exit from her house barefoot, take a seat at our smallest table, order a glass of white wine and read her book. Sometimes she would tell me about her life which involved several countries and many men, and which, as hard as it was for me to fully grasp for all the things she has done, definitely was not wont of adventure. Sometimes she would call from her balcony, her face all but hidden by her plants, to Karl as he leaned out of the window of the house next door. Their constant banter, and the way that these neigbors would each complain to me about the other made me wonder about their relationship. And then one day Anna fell on one of the steep staircases of her narrow, three story house and was taken to the hospital. Her decline was quick, and, within months, she was moved to a home. And when I saw the impact that her absence had on Karl, I understood that their love/hate relationship actually had more to do with love than hate. And when I saw how the house has declined since she left, I understood it was she who added all the life and it was she who added the soul. And when I saw how the neighborhood has changed since she has been gone, I feel grateful to have arrived in time to meet one of Altea’s most vibrant characters.

My Altea continues to change. Juan Dura, the artist who captured the charm of Altea in his paintings that he would sell from his small shop in the square but who also made me fall in love with Altea during our very first visit to Altea, left his shop and Altea this fall, when, as rumors have it, he fell in love with a woman from Malaga. Had we arrived just years later, I never would have known that there was once an artist who would set up his easel just outside of his shop and paint a perfect picture of the picture perfect setting before him.

And shortly before leaving for California in November to surprise my dad for his 75th birthday, Pepa and Warner came in. We had known Pepa since our first year. She had opened her shop, Artesans, a short time before we arrived to Altea. And, through the years, we watched as she became part of the ebb and flow of Altea’s seasons – as, every spring, she prepared her store for yet another summer – painting the walls, shopping for new merchandise, taking a gamble on what this year’s tourists would spend their money on, and ironing the new clothes hours on end. We saw as she converted her living room into a second room for the store and added second hand merchandise, trying to adjust to the times and appeal to a new type of customer who was spending carefully and buying less.  I knew that Pepa had been struggling to make ends meet, so the announcement that she was moving to the north of Spain to open a store in a ski town that supposedly had two high seasons didn’t surprise me, but it deeply saddened me. Warner would go with her to help her get her new store ready as he had helped her with her store in Altea. So, on October 31st, instead of dressing up in impressive costumes as they had every Halloween previously, they were setting out to set Pepa up with a new life – and a new store. Had we arrived to Altea a little later, I might never have gotten to know Pepa who helped clue us in to all of Altea’s fiestas, who told us about the shooting stars in August, and who has been such a part of our history that she helped us perfect our mojito so that we could  officially became a mojiteria.

And when I returned from California a month later in December, David told me how El Raconet had closed while I was gone. And I was beyond shocked.  The closing of El Raconet signified something grand. It was a bar that had opened about a year after we took over AlteArte. They had entered the scene strong, created a lot of noise, and had quickly become the new popular hangout for the students. Insecure and only in our second year, we couldn’t help but compare ourselves to them, to wonder if they had more customers than we did, if they were open longer or if their parties were better. El Raconet’s arrival made us focus on what we wanted AlteArte to be and tested our focus and dedication to that vision until we were able to move beyond the initial feeling of insecurity. Had we arrived later, we might have missed that era altogether that made us question and define AlteArte’s identity early on.

And, as if all of that wasn’t enough, in November, Sissel moved back to Norway. One of my first friends in Altea and one of our first customers at AlteArte, Sissel had been one of our strongest supporters since the beginning. Altea is a transient place, and I have learned time and time again to say hello and goodbye as people come and go, but Sissel’s departure was one of the first times that I had to say goodbye to someone who had been here longer than I have. My Altea was most certainly changing.

Six years may have passed in the blink of an eye, but, when I step back and look at the big picture, I realize exactly what six years represents.

And finally I can better understand why the old woman across the street from AlteArte was so upset when we added an extra table to our terrace. It had caused such an uproar and literally almost caused a war, and I couldn’t understand how one table could cause such discontentment. Not having been in Altea or Spain long enough, I hadn’t realized that the addition of that extra table prevented her from setting out her chair on the street and sitting there on a countless summer evening watching the people walk by. It was a custom that she had been doing probably for as long as she could remember, yet here we were, newcomers to Altea, disrupting her sacred tradition. For her, us placing the table and filling it every night with customers marked one significant way in which Her Altea had changed.

Altea is constantly changing and will continue to change. Last week, I met a couple who just arrived to Altea. The husband asked if we could meet for coffee as he had questions for me since they have dreams of establishing a business in Altea. And I can’t help but think of when we were just setting out on our own adventure six years ago. And I wonder if we’ll come to represent something significant to this couple just as people like Eugenio Mira, Anna, Juan Dura, Pepa and Sissel and places like El Raconet had come to represent something very significant to us. I wonder if we’ll become a part of Their Altea.

Places mean different things to different people. They are moments captured in a snapshot and comprised of the people, the experiences and the memories of each individual who walked its streets during a certain period in time. No matter how much Paris changes, in my mind, it will forever remain the place that I knew it in 2000 – pre Euro, pre Starbucks when life was affordable and you could walk Paris’s streets without feeling the presence of the U.S. New York City will forever remain the city that I knew it between 2005 and 2009 as a city of dreams and aspirations. When I’ve gone back to Paris in recent years, I’ve been shocked by how expensive the city has become and how the energy has shifted.  If we were ever to visit our old East Harlem neighborhood again, I doubt that I would even recognize it, for it was just on the brink of gentrification when we left in 2009. Places change. They have and they always will. All we can do is enjoy the present moment even if it’s fleeting, make our time meaningful while we’re here and be ready to embrace the change that’s sure to come.

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Anna’s house then… it’s the one overflowing with plants and flowers on the left.


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Anna’s house now. It’s just a shell of what it once was.


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Anna’s house now.


Street Scene

Juan Dura was painting during our very first visit to Altea.


Pepa and Jenny

Pepa (on the left) has been part of our Altea since the beginning.


Ivan and Sissel

Sissel (on the right) has been one of our strongest supporters since the beginning.

Gaga

Some of us live to 30, others to 100. But, in the end, life is not about the number of years we are alive. Life boils down to a handful of defining moments that give shape and meaning to our time on this earth. Some moments are so unpredictable that they shake up your life – such as the double layoff in 2009 which resulted in David and me leaving New York and coming to Spain.  Others are so intense that they shake you to your very core.

It was towards the end of May, during my parents’ and my sister’s annual trip to Spain when we received the news. My grandmother had taken a turn for the worse. The news itself, while disturbing, didn’t stop my world as news like that should have. So what if she was spending more time in bed? She was 104 after all. Who could blame her? But that didn’t necessarily mean that it was anything serious. Maybe she was just passing into another stage of life just as she had when she had gone from walking to being confined to a wheelchair… a phase that she had stayed in for more than a decade.

Call it denial.

The daily calls home offered varying reports, but  nothing was too alarming.  She still spent every day in bed – a drastic change for my grandmother who, in her later years, waited impatiently every morning for her caregivers to come so that she could get out of bed. But my grandmother was strong.  She would pull through.

I had rented a car while my family was here, and the plan was to drop them off at the airport in Madrid where they would then fly back to California and I would drive back to Altea. David encouraged me to go back to the US with them. He had ever since he had first heard the news. I resisted, thinking of the various reasons why it would be reckless to do, still refusing to believe that this was anything really serious.

And I would have stuck with that plan if not for the fact that we were in Spain and everything moves slower in Spain – even the wheelchair pushers. It turned out that my family had checked in at the airport and were waiting for the wheelchair that my sister had reserved for my dad. My dad doesn’t need a wheelchair, but my sister has started requesting one for him whenever he travels in order to make the long trip less tiring.  In other words, he very easily could have walked, if necessary. The agent confirmed that the wheelchair pusher was on his way, so they stayed put. The minutes ticked by but no one came to push the wheelchair. The agent held fast. The departure time approached. No need to worry.  Yet, my sister was worried and then started to seriously stress. She knew the Madrid airport and knew that it was not a short distance between the check in desk and the gate. At last, the wheelchair pusher arrived. But he was in no hurry to get anywhere. And as he took his time pushing my dad, the minutes continued to tick by. Too many minutes. It turns out that everything is late in Spain – everything except for that plane which was leaving right on time. By the time they finally arrived at the gate, the flight had been closed out. No apologies were given. And, just like that, they had to figure out a different way to get home if they wanted to travel that day or they had to try again for the exact same flight – the next day.

Meanwhile, I was about a half hour away from the airport when I decided to stop for a coffee. I sent a quick message to my sister to make sure everything was OK. When I heard what happened, I drove back and picked them up. We would try again the next day. But, until then, I was just happy to have another day with them.

It was later that evening that my dad called my aunt for an update. The report was dismal. And that’s when the reality finally started to sink in. Maybe the end really was drawing near – as impossible as that was to imagine. The next day on the drive to the airport, at the very last minute, we made all the necessary arrangements for me to go with them, and I flew back to California with my family.

We drove up to the Big Bear house – the beautiful, mountain home that held so many memories for me. This was where we had spent every Christmas when I was growing up. We would surround the base of the tree with presents, and, every Christmas morning, grudgingly abide by my grandmother’s rules to eat breakfast before opening presents. It was in the backyard of this house that David and I had gotten married nearly 13 years ago. We had chosen the Big Bear house not only for the idyllic setting, but also so that my grandmother could be present. I still remember looking up and seeing her in her wheelchair watching from the porch.  This is where the big family reunion would take place every August, when family would fly in from everywhere, and my grandmother would host her growing family. In the later years, when she was no longer capable of cooking or even standing up to greet us, she would stress at how useless she had become. What my grandmother could never see was how she was the core of our family and that she, singlehandedly, kept the family together. We all needed her but for so much more than the meal or drink that she might have once served. She was the source of all that was good and pure. Somehow my grandmother had weathered life and hadn’t become bitter or negative or weighed down. My grandmother loved unconditionally and gave unendingly – not just to her family but to everyone who was fortunate to cross her path and mostly to the underdog. She took care of those who it seemed life had forgotten about or given up on.

We entered her house in Big Bear. On any other occasion, my grandmother would have been there in her wheelchair to greet us as soon as we entered the front door. But, now, it was only peace and tranquility that embraced us. My grandmother was in bed. And that’s where she stayed – only once in the three weeks that I was there requesting to get up. The day that she did, we all rejoiced as she was helped into her wheelchair and we sighed with relief when she took three bites of scrambled eggs and two sips of coffee – for she had barely eaten over the last weeks. But, as she slumped over, unable to keep her head up, we realized that what we had hoped was a miracle was nothing more than a valiant last demonstration of strength, and most likely, ever the self-sacrificer, my grandmother was probably doing it just for us.

As I visited her bedside every day, and I watched the string of visitors, and I heard the phone ring endlessly, and I admired the flowers that arrived, I realized how many lives my grandmother had touched. And, as my grandmother’s body shut down more and more every day, it occurred to me that this might be the only time in my life that I would witness someone die of nothing more than just old age.

In those three weeks, my grandmother didn’t say much at all, especially as it became increasingly difficult for her to speak. On the occasions that she did initiate speech,  it was to ask after her kitty which she did daily. Where was her kitty? Had someone fed her kitty? And then once more on the day that we were leaving – when she asked for my dad. I had to fly to Mexico and my parents and my sister were coming down the mountain to drive me to the airport. We anxiously summoned my dad who had already said goodbye and who was waiting for us in the car. And, as we all crowded around her bed, excited to see her more aware than she had been in a while, we said goodbye. And, together, we recited “Crossing the Bar”, a poem that had become one of my grandmother’s favorites especially during those last weeks of her life. My grandmother knew it by heart, and at our prompting, would recite it often and fervently during those last weeks  – as if she hoped that by saying it, she could speed up the process so that she, too, could cross the bar and enter into heaven. And I realized that this might very well be the only in time in my life that I would witness someone exit this world as elegantly as they had lived in it.

After we first arrived to Big Bear, Anne, my grandmother’s physiotherapist, often said that she thought my grandmother had hung on until we arrived from Spain in order to say goodbye. But I think what my grandmother needed was for us to come back, say goodbye and leave again. Because, as fervently as my grandmother tried to let go, she couldn’t when we were there sitting next to her, encouraging her to eat, saying goodnight to her every evening and anxiously checking in on her every morning. Two days after we left, following a perfectly clear day, the sky opened up and, in the middle of the night, the rain came. And Big Bear, which had been suffering from a serious drought, was treated to a storm so grand that the entire valley was left without electricity.  By dawn, the skies had cleared up once more, and my grandmother was at peace. She had finally found the way to cross the bar – one month short of her 105th birthday.

My sister felt bad breaking the news to me on the very first day that I had arrived in Mexico and just as I was reuniting with many of my closest friends from college, several of which I hadn’t seen in years. But as the words registered and the tears fell, they gathered around me, and I couldn’t help but feel that it was somehow fitting that they were the people I was with at that moment. They had met me just out of high school, we had all lived together in our second year of college, most of them had personally met my grandmother when they had attended my wedding held in her backyard. These were some of the people who knew me best, but, most importantly, they were the ones who best understood what it meant to me to lose my grandmother.

Those three weeks beside my grandmother shook me to the core and will forever be some of the most precious and defining moments that I have lived. I so easily could have missed that opportunity to say goodbye, to tell my grandmother in person how much I love her and how important she is in my life, to personally feel the love and positive energy that filled her room during those last weeks. I came so close to not being at her side. But thanks to David who pushed me to go, and thanks to Coral who made it possible for me to fly standby on that flight back with my family,  and thanks to the wheelchair pusher who arrived late, I made it right where I needed to be.

My grandmother was – and continues to be – a pillar of strength for me. I am stronger because she gave me the tools so that I could be, I am a better person because she modeled greatness for me, I am me because she empowered me to be who I wanted to be. I don’t believe that I am even capable of coming close to emulating my grandmother. I believe few people really can. But I hope that, through AlteArte, when I help someone to showcase their talent, or reach out to someone, or make someone feel part of a community, I am – in some small way at least – honoring my grandmother’s very beautiful spirit.

I love you, Gaga.

We Reach Five Years and Take Business Up a Notch

In February, as our five year anniversary approached, and I started looking through photos and reviewing the year, I couldn’t help but feel proud of what we had been able to accomplish. The addition of the third level, or what we refer to as the “gallery”, had changed the dynamics of the business, not only making AlteArte’s presence much more dominant on the street, but making it much more flexible in the possibilities.

In the past year, we had held monthly exhibitions, attracting artists from as far away as Madrid. We had offered workshops ranging from a flamenco dance to a drama workshop taught by professionals in the field. We had used the room for  weekly language exchange meetings where people gathered together to practice their English or their Spanish. We had hosted special speaking events from local authors as part of our book club. And we had filled the gallery with music performed by talented musicians such as a local swing/jazz group and a very talented singer/song writer from Norway.

The truth was that the possibilities were limitless. And the gallery was the perfect space to bring everything to life. The door connecting it to the rest of AlteArte could be closed, the music could be turned off, and we could be hosting a special event without it affecting the rest of the business in any way. In fact, from the first level, you wouldn’t have a clue that something was happening on the third. It was so unlike our first year when we attempted to show a movie only to have a serious clash between people who were there for the movie and people who were there just to have a drink.

Best of all, Altea is like a treasure box of talented people. And, by expanding to the third level, we were providing the space to showcase that talent. Altea and AlteArte went hand-in-hand, and, in a very natural, organic and almost effortless way, the gallery came to life.

And, as much as the glowing comments from customers had replenished my energy and pushed me forward for the first four years, the feeling that we were authentically adding to the community and becoming a center of culture in Altea’s Old Town filled me with a very different kind of sense of accomplishment and fulfillment.

And I remembered just over five years earlier when we were first moving to Altea, and I had yearned to be a part of it all. There were still so many layers of Altea that I had yet to uncover – and perhaps never will – but, as we celebrated five years, at least I could confidently say that, in our own way, we had added some extra magic to this special town.

Raising Business

People often ask me if I have children. I look around, spread my arms wide, and I show them my child: AlteArte. Perhaps it’s not what they were expecting, but it’s the closest thing I have – besides our two cats – to a child. And, though I know that the two are very different, there are some aspects that seem to be quite parallel. The people listen with interest. And I do my best to explain.

David and I ventured into AlteArte with the same trepidation that I imagine any new parent must feel as they welcome their child into the world. We didn’t know what awaited, we didn’t really understand how it would change our lives, and we hoped that we would be good at it although there was no guarantee that we would be.

Much as I imagine it must be like with a newborn, AlteArte kept us up late in the beginning, as our days often wouldn’t end until 4 in the morning – even on weekdays. Being a morning person, I struggled to adjust to the new schedule. It was difficult that my days wouldn’t start until noon, my most productive morning hours slipping into nonexistence. The hours were irregular, and we could never quite make any plans for the following day, as we never quite knew when we would be able to turn off the lights the night before. For the first 8 months, we opened 7 days a week as we tried to familiarize ourselves with the rhythm of running a business in Altea. AlteArte became our top priority as we lived and breathed the business 24 hours a day. The business became our everything.

The first two years, we watched with fascination and worry, as we hoped that the decisions we were making were the right ones. Were we focusing on the right things? Disciplining in the right way? We worried about positioning ourselves correctly and finding our place among the other already exisiting as well as new businesses in Altea. We navigated these new waters as best we could, and, during the journey, we made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot – some lessons taking longer than others to sink in.

As a new parent often is, we were tested in those early years. What would we accept, how much would we put up with, what were our limits and would we actually go so far as to punish? It took us four years to understand that we needed to set the rules and actually close at closing time, for example. A simple act, which, once we were confident enough in our decision to reinforce it, greatly improved the quality of our lives.

When we got our first visit from the police – the first time being only a week after taking over AlteArte – we panicked, as any parent would. The customers were too loud, the dogs were getting into the neighbors’ trash at 2 in the morning. It didn’t take many visits from the cops for us to understand that it was up to us – up to our guidance and our modeling alone – to steer AlteArte clear of trouble.

I also learned that, as much as I might have wanted to do or believed that I could, I simply couldn’t please everyone and that people are extremely complicated beings. And I had to learn that not everyone is a good customer and that it was important to weed out the good ones from the bad – much the same as a parent must feel when they want their child to have friends but must also be cautious of who their child hangs out with, for not everyone is a good influence. So came the subsequent lessons of learning that giving too much can hurt in the long run and how to let go once I was at peace with the efforts that I made.

And then came the hardest step of all – stepping back and trusting. Hiring people was an extremely difficult step for me to take much as I imagine it must be for any new parent hiring their first babysitter. It was one thing when David and I were the only ones running AlteArte. We put our all, our everything into the business because it was, well, our baby. We wouldn’t have put anything less. I was determined to be there, to be present, to ensure that customers went away happy. So, when we hired someone to work with us during our second summer, I maintained my post on the terrace, in order to have the most contact with the customers. It didn’t matter that I was still working hard, that I was still running. I didn’t trust anyone else to do the job. In year three, we tried hiring someone more full-time to, ideally, free us up more, and I tried letting go, but all it did was tie me down more. I became overprotective and watched like a hawk and felt ashamed to be doing so. But I couldn’t help it. I needed to know that everything was being done correctly, that the customers were being greeted when they walked through the door, that the drinks were being noted, that he cared as much as we did for this entity that we were putting under his care. In the end, we let him go, and I wondered how much of it was me being too anal or him being too blasé. Perhaps it was both.

In year four, we tried again, this time hiring Emily, a girl whom we had known since our first year when she would come as a customer. She was a student at the Art University but older and more mature. And she had a desire to work, and when we were slammed with work the first week that she started, she embraced it, claiming that this was how she learned best. And I liked her attitude. I loved that she cared. A short time later, David made the decision to hire a second girl, Ampy, to prepare us for the Summer months. Ampy is friendly and positive and quickly got to know people’s names, and I felt that I could let go even more. And I even relinquished half of my post on the terrace to her. And with the two of them on board, I could finally relax, for I trust that they’ll take care of AlteArte when we’re not there.

And, as the years passed, AlteArte grew and started taking on a life of its own. We had provided the core, the foundation, but AlteArte was growing into its own being and proving to have its own personality. And we sat back and watched with wonder as people from all around the world visited AlteArte and we listened with pride as they exclaimed what a nice place it was – much like I imagine it must be like for a parent to hear praise of his or her child. These unsolicited affirmations reassured us that we were doing something right and fueled us with the energy to keep going.

Five years have passed and David and I have stepped into the background. Once all about us, AlteArte is now about AlteArte. We’ve survived the infant and toddler years and AlteArte now stands on its own two feet. And that allows us to do a little less handholding and focus more on the future, which, though never certain, certainly looks bright.

The AlteArte Team

The AlteArte Team

I Find My Roots in Christmas

What makes you you or me me? Is it the country that we come from, is it the experiences we live or the type of people that we surround ourselves with? Growing up, I clung to my American identity, not because I felt particularly American but because I felt for sure that, despite all outwardly appearances, I wasn’t Chinese. Then, as I grew in to myself and made sense of the discrepancy of who I looked like I was on the outside versus who I felt like I was on the inside, and had the opportunity to live in other countries, my sense of self and who I am expanded. Besides being the home of my birthplace and the setting of my childhood and adolescence, I don’t feel that the US solely or entirely shaped me or made me who I am. I’ve never felt a nationalistic pride of being loyal to one country, and I don’t feel like we should be defined by borders or limited to territories. When people ask me – which they often do – if I miss the States, I’m truthful when I say that I don’t miss the US. What I do miss is my family and friends.

But I have seen the importance that other people place on birth country. At 14, I was surprised by the look of admiration and respect that would cross peoples faces when traveling in Europe with my sister each time that we answered the inevitable question of where we were from. That’s when I began to understand how powerful the nation that I came from really was. But, in the subsequent decades, I’ve also seen how the reactions changed. As the US toppled from its pedestal, the admiration that once was so present on peoples faces at my response turned to disdain. In Argentina, they were quick to point out that California used to belong to Mexico, and I started feeling ashamed that we came from stolen land. Once proud to answer the inevitable question, I began to dread it.

In Spain, people can’t make sense of it when I say I’m American and they become even more disbelieving when I state that I’m from California. For Spaniards, Californians have blond hair and blue eyes – more in line with my own beliefs when growing up. Born to a father who’s caucasian and a mother who is Chinese but who was born in Jamaica, I don’t quite fit the image that many people have of an “American”. And I’ve often thought how amusing it would be if I could take them to Irvine, California to the impressive complexes packed with Asian restaurants and bakeries and supermarkets and drop them off there to mingle with the hords of Asian Americans who look just like me.

I’ve always felt that I’m the easily adaptable type. I always felt that I’m not the type to cling to certain traditions and customs. Move me to new countries, and besides the fact that I won’t become a carnivore regardless of how much meat is incorporated into the local diet, I feel that I shed and don new cultural practices as needed.

But then this December, as I was falling into the slump that I have experienced annually since moving to Spain six years ago, I finally understood why my heart always feels so heavy. I realized that maybe some traditions and customs are so engrained in me that it’s hard to let go – traditions created by my family, customs carried out by a nation. Perhaps, there’s a part of me that misses the US more than I realize.

For me, Christmas is going to my grandmother’s house in the mountains, of reading The Grinch That Stole Christmas with my sister on Christmas Eve, of attending midnight mass at my grandmother’s church, of waking up to a white world and a cozy fire and bulging stockings and a real tree that, in the later years as it got harder for my grandmother, turned into a plastic tree, and sitting around with my family as we open gifts. Christmas is also about lights, music, special treats like eggnog and peppermint ice cream, holiday parties, and, dare I say it, malls and stores packed with people snatching up the latest tech gadgets and must-have accessories.

Here, in Altea, not only do I lack all of that, but Christmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas. There are barely any lights in the Old Town to spread the cheer even though David has filed complaints, as a business owner, with the city hall. The streets are empty and the malls are deserted even the weekend before Christmas, and Christmas Eve is a big day for people – but not to sit around a fire after dinner or read Christmas books with family members but, instead, to go out to the bars.

As I was missing my family this year and remembering what Christmas used to be like and just feeling down in general, I realized that, when it comes to Christmas, I haven’t completely adjusted or shed the American culture for the Spanish one. I guess some things are just so engrained in us that they can’t be simply forgotten by a move overseas.

But it’s not because Spaniards don’t care about family. On the contrary, they care about it maybe more than Americans do. It’s because, for Spaniards, another day is more important than Christmas – January 6th, Three Kings’ Day. It’s not that Christmas doesn’t exist in Spain. Depending on the household, Santa does come bearing gifts, but it’s largely looked upon as a commercial holiday that’s imported from the US and centered around a mascot fabricated by Coca-Cola. Three Kings’ Day is when Spain goes all out. On the eve of the big day, the empty streets fill up with the impressive parade carrying in the three kings. It is these kings that bear gifts and candy and it is to these kings that children write letters asking for a specific toy or gift. And, in the days leading up to this important day, bakeries stock up on Roscon de Reyes, the King’s Cake, that contains a hidden bean and a figurine. Find the bean and you’re responsible for buying next year’s roscon. Find the figurine, and you get to bear the crown.

Having lived in three difference states and three different countries, who I am is a compilation of many diffent experiences, influences, and cultures. Most of the time, I don’t feel American or really miss the US. But, every once in a while, I find myself really wishing that I was there. Sometimes, no matter how special a new tradition is, it just simply can’t replace an old one – like Christmas.

There’s Something About… Altea

Altea is a special place. I’ve said it so many times, I’ve heard it being said so many more. Some people are born here but many, many more find their way here, led to this village on the Mediterranean by unexplained forces. It’s the type of village which should be a top destination in all the guide books. But people keep quiet about it as if there’s some kind of unspoken code of silence. Altea is such a special place that it’s better to keep hush about it lest the masses discover it and fundamentally change what makes it so amazing.

But the people who do somehow stumble upon it – as David and I did five years ago when we were desperately searching for the next step after we lost our jobs in New York, saw that Torrevieja wasn’t working out, and just happened to get off at the tram stop labeled, “Altea” – seem to stay. Kim is a 40 something Norwegian who arrived 20 years ago and is still here. Piero came from Italy intending to stay just for a year… That was 15 years ago. And, since David and I have been here, we have watched many more arrive, become enchanted by what Altea offers and fight to make a home here. Ted sold everything he had in Texas to set up his base here and write a book about his experience walking the Camino de Santiago, Maria chose Altea as her refuge when her husband suddenly announced that he wanted a divorce and she was forced to reinvent herself and her life. Gill, once the owner of a dance school in England, proactively chose to put her health first and moved to Spain for the lifestyle, sun and healthy foods. We each have a story to tell, we’re each on our own personal journey. Somehow we all ended up here in this tiny village on the Mediterranean.

But Altea is not a place that you can just come to. It is a place that you have to be ready for. I have always felt that Altea – because of its small town feel and its oneness with nature – was a place that I was happy in because I had already lived in Paris and New York and arrived to Altea at a point in my life when I was more ready to settle down, when I was more in search of this kind of lifestyle. I always thought that, in this way, this made me ready for Altea.

Until a friend pointed out a different perspective… Altea is a place that you have to be ready for energy-wise.

Google defines energy as, “the strength and vitality of sustained physical or mental activity”. This is a literal definition, and, up until the time I moved to Altea, this was pretty much the scope of my own understanding of the term.

However, after having lived in Altea for five years now, I understand energy in a different way and by a different meaning. Energy can be felt so strongly at times that it is nearly tangible. Some people are more susceptible to feeling energy than others. And energy comes in both positive and negative waves. Energy can be a force that connects us. It can also be a destructive field that separates us.

Altea is full of such an intense energy that sometimes it reverberates with it, and, depending on what you give out, Altea will return to you 10 fold. A guy came in the other night, just as I was contemplating this blog on energy, and announced of his own accord and without any prompting from me that Altea has a bad energy. To my relief, he left minutes later. Out of the blue, this guy who I don’t recall having ever come in before, had come and gone but had left me with his message. I could see it in his eyes when he entered, I could feel it in the energy he emitted. A general dissatisfaction, an eternal searching without the satisfaction of discovery at the other end.

But that hasn’t been my only run in with negative energy. One night, about a year ago, David was on a trip and I was running AlteArte alone. A woman who we have known since nearly the beginning came in saying that she had heard David was gone as if to explain that that was why she was now here. She sat at the bar and sipped her glass of red wine, and, as the night drew on, she became increasingly intense. The last customers left, yet she stayed. Meanwhile, the topics of her conversation grew disturbingly dark. She offered me some of her wine, growing insistent when I refused, finally dropping it after I repeatedly told her that I didn’t drink. And then she told me about how she had cheated on her husband with many men and asked if I was never tempted to do the same. And, as I looked in her eyes, the pupils now dark and dilated, I wondered if I was somehow looking at the devil, so bizarre was the interaction that I was having with this woman who was trying to tempt me with vices and so intense was the negative energy that filled the room. The clock struck 4 am, and I gently prodded her to leave, kindly refusing her ominous offer to wait while I closed so that she could walk me home. With a sigh of relief, I got her out and quickly locked the door behind her, but when I had finished and was leaving, I found her sobbing on the steps leading up to the church. I’ve never had such a disturbing encounter with someone.

Altea is, indeed, a special place, but it can be a prison to some – like the antique seller and furniture restorer who has lived here for 40 years, and is only waiting for retirement so that he can leave. It can be a paradise to others like my friend from Norway who feels like she has found her home here and never wants to leave.

Over the past five years, I have heard countless times as people from all backgrounds and from all around the world exclaim how special Altea is. Indeed, it is a very unique place that has left a profound impact on many people, but now I know that you have to be ready for Altea in more ways than I originally thought. You have to be ready to make the right choices and stand up for what you believe in and fight for what you want. You have to be ready to receive 10-fold what you put out.

It has been just over five years since we got off at the tram stop labeled, “Altea,” walked along the promenade and then, with enraptured delight, discovered the Old Town. I know now that the reason I was so struck by Altea was because I was ready for Altea. I felt enveloped by its beauty and grace and positive energy, and I felt sure that we had found what we were looking for. And I know now that it’s because we had.

Perhaps people like Ted, Maria, Gill, David and I didn’t haphazardly stumble upon Altea, after all. Perhaps, we were guided here because we were ready for Altea. Perhaps not more is said of Altea not because of an unwritten code of silence but because it’s simply a place that will be found by the right people when the time is right.

Then. And Now.

Our landlord is a hippie. With a long beard and a laid back, laissez faire attitude, he’s more than happy to go back in time over a beer at AlteArte. With a grin on his lips and a light in his eye, he relives his days of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Now in his 70s, he often travels locally to compete in quick, less than five minute chess games with some of the best, but he once was the one pouring the drinks and turning up the music at El Corral, the tri level bar that was the first pit stop in “La Ruta del Bakalou,” an infamous route of techno music and drugs that started in the 80’s and stretched from Altea to Valencia. High on drugs and life, people would depart from El Corral at 2:00 am and stop at different bars along the way, not arriving at the final destination in Valencia until 11:00 am. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, some wouldn’t make it to that last stop, losing their lives somewhere along the curvy road that hugs the Mediterranean. La Ruta del Bakalou came to an end in the mid 90’s. What brought about its demise? Pepe shrugs. It was just the trend of the people at that moment in time, he says matter-of-factly. The people changed and so did the trends.

Fast forward several decades to March 1st when we celebrated our fourth anniversary and excitedly opened the doors to ArteAltea, a light and open space much more suitable for exhibiting art. The store just next door to AlteArte had become vacant in October, and Pepe approached us about taking it. Cautious to not be too hasty in our decisions, we gave it careful thought and considered what we wanted for the future and for AlteArte. And we realized that it was an opportunity that might not come around again anytime soon. So, for the next two months behind closed doors so that no one could see, David, with the help of a construction worker and an electrician, set to work painting, installing professional lighting and cabling for the art, and furnishing it modestly but just comfortable enough so as to provide extra seating. And, just as he had done years previously with AlteArte, he molded it and transformed it and created a space that was beautiful and inspiring. And, in the last week before our 4th anniversary party, he added the window and the door and united AlteArte with ArteAltea, making it hard to imagine that, at one time, they had ever been separate.

We had spent so much time planning and plotting and through it all trying to keep everything a secret, but, little did we know that we were in store for some big surprises ourselves. Two days before the big party, on a quiet afternoon, Pascual walked by – as he often does – and motioned to me that there were customers outside. Grabbing the menu and rushing outside in fear that they had been sitting there for a while, I stopped dead in my tracks and my heart skipped a beat as my brain tried to register what my eyes were seeing. There, in front of me, within touching, were my mom and my sister who had traveled from California just to be there for the party. And as the realization set in, the emotions came pouring out. For, as important as the approaching day was, I had never, ever expected my family to make such a long journey just to attend, and it touched me deeply that they had made such an effort to be there. But, barely had we gotten our heads around that surprise when, the very next day, in walked another – David’s mom. She had flown in from Paris just to be with us. And, on the actual day, Sissel, one of my first friends in Altea who filled AlteArte with all of her friends on our very first day and who is like my Norwegian mom in Spain, made the final surprise, having flown in from Norway just for the weekend. Already, the day was memorable before it had even started!

Our anniversary kicked off with an art opening by Hans Peter Fjugstad, a Norwegian artist and a loyal customer who we had chosen to inaugurate the space. Juan Rivera, a well-known, local DJ transitioned the art opening into a party while Antonio, a professional balloon artist who has an amazing ability to make flowers, animals and just about anything imaginable from a simple balloon, added just the right touch to make the evening fun and original.

And people flowed through the three levels and onto the street outside, including Geir and his group of 20 friends who had traveled all the way from Norway for the party. And the whole space was alive with energy and excitement and celebration.

At first glance, those old enough to remember might have looked at this once again tri-level business and been reminded of the days of El Corral when Pepe and his wife, Sandra, got fines for having 100 people in the street and eventually got shut down by the city, but, upon closer inspection, they would have seen that what we were creating was something entirely different. The times had changed and so had the people and the trends.

And with ArteAltea finished and officially open, what David had envisioned and created triggered my own ideas and inspirations for the potential of this new space. And I began to dream bigger and think larger. AlteArte hadn’t been the most conducive for activities or events. But, now with this new space that was joined yet independent from AlteArte, suddenly the possibilities seemed limitless. And, in the months following the opening, I busied myself with researching local talent because there’s nothing more beautiful than living in a place like Altea and having the type of business where we can showcase that talent.

And I organized a local author event and poetry reading and acoustic music for Sunday afternoons. We also organized creative workshops like how to make tie dyed t-shirts. It went over so well that one of the attendees showed up a week later, telling us how she had so much fun tie-dying that she had tie-dyed everything white that was in her wardrobe! And we got articles in the local papers and the dynamics changed.

And when Eugenio Mira, a movie director who is the son of Eugenio Mira, the ceramist who I admire so much and wrote about, was not only willing but excited to carry out my idea of organizing a screening of his recently released movie, Grand Piano, starring Elijah Wood, with him in attendance for a Q&A afterwards, I was humbled and proud at what we were accomplishing. Mira had done screenings around the world but this would be the first in his hometown and we had the honor of hosting it.

We had effectively transitioned into being a place that showcased talent, created memorable moments and brought people together. And what started out as just a local, off-the-beaten-path bar, was becoming a destination on the map. And I hoped that, through these efforts, we were making a positive impact and adding to the beauty of Altea. And just like Pepe and Sandra made history with El Corral in the 80s, perhaps one day, decades from now, people might talk about David and me and the impression that AlteArte and ArteAltea had on Altea.

But the future is the future and some things are too hard to predict. So, for the time-being, I travel back in time with Pepe – whenever he chooses to take me. At his request, I play I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by Rolling Stones, and we both get lost in our own thoughts. We are at different stages in life and have very different pasts, but the song speaks to both of us and unites us in the present.