I’m the type of person who prefers learning how to walk before being required to run. It just makes sense to me to take the time to test out the water before jumping in headfirst. So this whole business of opening AlteArte before I felt fully comfortable was downright nerve wracking. Nevertheless, despite my small panic attack, we opened the doors and, at 5:00pm on Saturday, February 27th, we were officially open for business.
And we didn’t even have to wait long before our very first customers came through the door! It was an older couple and they sat down at the bar. I looked at David expecting him to take the order. But he didn’t move. And then it became awkward as David, his mom (who was still visiting from Paris) and Amparo, the girlfriend of Pepe, the previous owner, just stared at me. What? Why weren’t they greeting the customers? Why was I the one who had to take the order? They were the Spanish speakers, not me! But no one was moving, so, reluctantly, I asked the couple what they wanted.
The wife wanted a bottle of water. Easy enough. And then I got busy making a cuba libre (rum with coke) for the husband. But Amparo stopped me and asked me if I was sure I had understood. Yes, I could have sworn that’s what he said. But now I was doubting myself and asked him again and this time could discern that he wasn’t asking for a cuba libre. But what it was that he wanted, I didn’t have a clue. And then David finally took mercy on me and got to work filling the order. And I realized just how far off I had been. He didn’t want a mixed drink. At 5:30 in the afternoon, he wanted a poleomenta, a mint infusion. And I hung my head in embarrassment. I wasn’t fit to be taking orders! What was I doing here?!
And my anxiety mounted. If I had nearly messed up an order for an infusion, how was I going to operate when I got more complicated orders? The first customers left and then the minutes ticked by. An hour passed before the door opened again. I looked anxiously to see who was entering and let out a sigh of relief when I recognized the next customers: a Norwegian couple from my Spanish class. The Norwegians speak English fluently, and, suddenly, my confidence returned. How wonderful it was to know that, while I still might not know how to make the drinks, I could at least communicate with them!
Not even half an hour later, the door opened again. And this time, Sissel, another classmate, entered with a group of friends in tow. And, suddenly, the whole lower level of our little business was full. And, as if it couldn’t get any better, I could speak with everyone!
And the wonderful support of my friends put me at ease. They had been asking week after week when we would be opening. So when they had asked again after our class on Thursday, I had told them that we would be doing a soft opening on Saturday. I hadn’t made a big deal of it because I wasn’t sure myself if we would be ready. Nevertheless, with my mere mention of it, they had come out in full force to demonstrate their support. And I was grateful for the good friends that I had made from just two months of Spanish class. And I felt proud that it was to my credit that these people were here and that, even though we were in Spain and I wasn’t as well integrated into the local scene as David was, I was helping to make AlteArte’s first day in business a success.
And after my friends left, others entered to fill their seats. And AlteArte was full and remained that way for the rest of the evening. And it all happened so quickly that I didn’t have time to get scared or nervous or get consumed by worries about what would happen if I didn’t understand an order. The people came so I went into action. Because I had no choice. And before I knew it, I was off and running even though I hadn’t yet learned how to walk. Had I known what was in store for us that Saturday night, though, I might have opted to stay at home in sheer fear of what was to come.
First off, we didn’t have our tap beer in place yet. Most Spaniards drink “cañas” because they’re cheap. They’re also fast and easy to serve. But, since we weren’t equipped with the tap, it was adding challenge to an already difficult task. People were ordering mixed drinks – Cerol con coca cola, Beefeater con tonic, Brugal con limon – and I was having to not only discern what it was they wanted, but where on the shelf the right alcohol was.
Secondly, somehow, I had been designated the bartender for the evening. I should have been the last one to be making the drinks, but Luisa was tired from the night before and David was busy being the DJ. So, I was left to make the drinks. Fortunately, Amparo was seated in front of me and able to translate the orders – or at least say them slower and explain them when necessary. How in the world could I have known that a Clara was half beer, half lemon Fanta otherwise?? Indeed, my training was still underway and I still had much to learn.
But somehow I managed to pull it off, and I was handling orders, making drinks, taking the money until 4am. And our first night was an overwhelming success and went better than I could have ever imagined.
But Saturday was just the beginning. Every day after that, we waited with anticipation to see what it would bring. And we weren’t disappointed.
We hosted our first Spanish conversation group with the students in my class, and they offered us a beautiful candle to put on the bar. We met wonderful customers like Warner and Nadia who hadn’t come to AlteArte since the original owner had owned it about a year ago but had haphazardly decided to pass by on our second day in business. They told us about how Altea had changed, about how it was once the party place where all the people from Benidorm, the city 10 minutes away, used to come to to party. And 20 years ago, Warner used to own his own bar near the square. And they were impressed with what we had created and it reconfirmed in our minds that we had created a space that felt good. Since then, the two have become regulars and have each brought friends. And I look forward to their visits and feel that this is the kind of energy that I want to foster. And Pepe and Amparo stopped by regularly, proving that they genuinely cared about us and AlteArte.
Life has a haphazard way of happening in Altea, and one event, in particular, added color to our first week. It had to do with one of our neighbors who came by on our second day in business and told us a bit about his life and mentioned that he was an artist. He also came in on the third day when Sissel, my classmate, just happened to be there. After he left, I casually mentioned to her that he was an artist. And when she asked for his name, I told her without giving it much further thought. But her reaction was astonishment which, once the realization washed over her, quickly passed on to me. It just so turns out that she has a very valuable painting of his hanging in her house in Norway. And that’s when I realized that, barely had we opened the doors, and we already had a famous artist frequenting our little business!
But not everyone who walked through AlteArte’s door that first week brought smiles to our faces like the students in my class, Warner, Nadia and the artist did. On Thursday evening, we had an unexpected visit from four policeman who showed up outside and officially warned David about the noise. We should have been expecting them, actually, but, being new to the neighborhood, their presence was downright startling. But so was the crowd of students who had arrived hours before at nearly midnight and had, within minutes, filled the entire space and overflowed onto the steps outside.
We quickly learned that Thursday night is the one night that the students from the art university go out. And, as we got to work serving beer after beer, we also quickly came to understand that AlteArte was their hangout. It was so much their preferred destination that, even when we shut off the music and turned on the lights, they continued to linger and talk and drink, requiring me to muster up all of my strategic thinking to devise a way to try to get them to leave. In desperation, I offered a sweet French student that I had gotten to know during the evening a chupito (shot) in exchange for her to round up the students and get them out. The plan worked and soon everyone had moved out of AlteArte – just in time for the cops’ second visit.
We learned a lot during our first week in business, but especially so that Thursday night when the students came out in droves, when the cops came twice, and when later on we noticed that the students had taken things: a small basket in the bathroom, a table runner, even a framed photograph taken by one of their fellow classmates at the university. Indeed, our training was still underway and we still had much to learn.
All in all, though, our first week went far better than we were anticipating. And, supposedly, this was still the slow period! The tourists wouldn’t really start arriving until the end of March. Without any publicity, AlteArte had gotten off to an amazing start, and I was glad that I had trusted David and taken the leap.
It was amazing how things just felt right – as if everything was somehow just meant to be.