On December 7th, David and I became Alteans. Officially becoming two of the 23,000 people who live here was as simple as filing a paper with the city hall. It was an almost instantaneous process. Oh, how I wished that becoming part of the Altean community could be as easy!
Up until that point, we hadn’t had the best of luck. We had barely moved in to our charming, village house before Paco had thrown us out, leaving us wondering whether all Alteans were as reserved as he, but, more importantly, instantly changing my whole vision of what life would be like in Altea. There would be no bundling up close to a cozy fire on a cold winter night. Instead, we would be pressing our knees up against the oil heater that David’s step mom brought us from Torrevieja in order to stay warm in our drafty apartment. No longer would we hear the quiet voices of pedestrians walking by. Rather, we would be subjected to the constant drone of cars on the major road just outside of our building. It was as if Altea’s cute village homes were reserved just for the locals and we had been rightfully placed where we belonged: just on the outskirts of the old town, close enough to gaze upon its beauty and even catch a glimpse of the church if we looked through the surrounding apartment buildings at just the right angle but too far removed to really be a part of things. Perhaps, Altea was just to look at but not to touch.
Nevertheless, I was determined to not let our experience with Paco cast a negative light over our new beginnings in Altea. And so, with my parents, we started exploring our new village. We bought ceramics at a local artisan and learned that the owner had had the store for 27 years. My father liked him and had tried to talk to him. But neither could speak the language of the other. Not much was communicated verbally, but the strong desire to connect was evident and left a good energy in the air. We visited a local painter’s shop. An ivy plant wrapped its way inside, rendering the artist’s little paintings of Altea all the more charming. And I remembered the first time that David and I had come to Altea. This was the artist that I had seen painting while an old woman leaned over her balcony above and talked to him below. The scene looked like it came out of a painting and I had captured it in a photo. The artist’s shop was tucked away just to the right of that scene.
And when my parents and David left for California, I continued to go out, hoping that, just by being outside, I might hasten the transition from tourist to local. And I sat on the stone wall set just slightly back from the major lookout point, and I quietly watched as tourists arrived – one after another – to admire the idyllic, panoramic view in front of them. They always took pictures and usually stayed a while, and I could tell that they were swept away by the magnificent spread of rooftops and water below. And then I switched places and sat in a patch of sun in the square for a while, and I looked at the pedestrian street below and caught sight of a couple kissing. And I realized that my heart-thumping, head-over-heels reaction to Altea might have been personally life changing, but the feelings that I had experienced were far from unique. Thousands had come before me, thousands would come after me, and each and every one of us would experience a connection with Altea so moving that it was often visible in some form or fashion.
But this realization only made me yearn for more. I wanted more than just the typical reaction that any tourist would have. I wanted to know the people who lived inside these beautiful homes, so well crafted and so well cared for. I wanted to walk through the streets and see people that I knew – just like the old lady I saw one day at the supermarket. In just the short time that I was behind her as we rode the escalator up, she had spotted three different people she knew who were on their way down. I wanted to be personally invited inside these homes from behind whose doors often escaped soft music and warm laughter.
As of that moment, though, I knew no one. But, as I passed through the square on my frequent trips to the library for wifi, I saw the painter who owned the little shop and who had been painting in the square the first day that David and I had visited Altea. After several crossings, blank looks turned to recognition and then a friendly wave and then, one day, he said hi and introduced himself. And that’s how, all on my own, I got to know Juan who, unknowingly, had made David’s and my first visit to Altea picture perfect and who seems to open his little shop when he feels like it by hanging his sign from a shingle and opening his doors for business.
And, because Altea is so small, you can’t help but start to see people you’ve seen before. They may not always be in the place that you originally saw them, so it becomes a game of Memory as you try to remember why they look so familiar. We saw the security guard from the immigration office getting drinks at one of our favorite bakeries; we crossed paths with the owner of Casa Vitale, the restaurant where we sought refuge when we came to visit Altea during a downpour; and I said hello to a waitress who served me a vegetarian sandwich at a cafe near the water as she hiked up to the top of the old town. And, every time such a thing happens, I experience a small jolt of happiness. These brief encounters may be insignificant for them, but, for me, it adds dimension and meaning to my life in Altea.
We’re even getting to know the cats who roam freely in the streets. On our first visit to Altea, we assumed that they were strays and were even tempted to take one home. It turns out that each one has a home. So, now, when we come across one in the street, we look a little closer and sometimes we can identify it as Paco’s or Juan’s.
But, without a doubt, it’s David who holds the true key to unlock the invisible door that separates the locals from the outsiders. He talks to the people and immediately blends in. And, thanks to him, we now know the owner of an antique store who we’ve sought advice from and who’s fixing our wine barrel that we brought from New York. David helped connect me with a friendly woman who has a store near our apartment and who’s interested in doing a language exchange. And we even exchanged numbers with a guy that we sat next to in a bar – and who turned out to be the son of the mayor of Altea.
Slowly, Altea is transforming. As we walk through its charming streets, we still stop dead in our tracks sometimes as we catch sight of a view that’s so picturesque that it takes our breath away, but now the streets hold a different kind of significance. That’s where Juan has his shop, that’s where Paco lives, that’s where our wine barrel is being fixed. And, after some trial and error, we’ve figured out the labyrinth of winding streets to determine the shortest path down to the center of town and the easiest way up – necessary knowledge for when I’m late for Spanish class or we’re trying to catch the tram that departs only once an hour or when we’re bringing our groceries home.
We still have much to learn about the way things are done in this little village. We still have plenty more people to meet. And we still have a long way to go before we’re real Alteans in the true sense of the word. But at least it’s a start and perhaps, one day, we’ll even be invited inside one of these charming homes so that we can add our own voices to the laughter.