From the Outside In

Word spreads quickly in Spain’s small villages. We saw it happening in Torrevieja when the old ladies would sit out on the sidewalks until late in the night, gossiping among themselves of all the latest happenings. David remembers the old women from his own childhood in the village where he grew up just outside of Sevilla. And now that we own a business in Altea, a village of 23,000, we’re directly feeling the impact that word of mouth can have.

People are talking about AlteArte. Customers know my name although I have never formally met them, others have heard that there were new owners who made lots of changes and came to see AlteArte for themselves. But it wasn’t until Ernest came up to the bar a week after we had opened that it really struck home exactly how much people were talking. Ernest was en route back home to Lithuania after living in Hawaii for 10 years. He had made a quick stopover in Altea to see friends and had heard about a bar being run by a Californian and a Spaniard. Therefore, when he approached me at the bar, it was because he wanted to meet the Californian. He was friendly and left a deep impression on me, for hearing that word was getting out not just about the business but also about David and me – and that it was positive – was a solid sign that we were doing something right and gaining acceptance in Altea.

And I couldn’t have been more thrilled, for running a successful business in any village in Spain requires more than just the necessary capital, the right product or even good prices. More important than everything is being accepted by the locals.

I had been conscious of the possibilty that, by us coming from the outside, we might automatically be discounted in the eyes of the locals. I had even fretted to David that maybe business would die down once we took over AlteArte and all of Pepe’s friends were no longer coming to see him. After all, Pepe, the previous owner, was Altean inside and out. He had been born here and had Altean ancestors. We, on the other hand, had only just arrived to Altea in November. Therefore, how could we even attempt to establish the same kind of connection that Pepe had with the locals? We couldn’t. So, somehow, we had to find our own way of connecting with them on a different level.

While, inevitably, we have lost some of Pepe’s regular clientele of locals, we have been fortunate to have many factors working in our favor that have helped us to keep others: David is Spanish and can naturally and instantly connect better with the locals than I ever could; AlteArte is a favorite hangout for some so even though the owners are new, the space still holds special significance for them; Pepe and Amparo are still regular customers which gives off an important message to the others that we’re OK; and I have made a special effort to speak Spanish and get to know the names and favorite drinks of the regular customers.

And people have responded favorably, and I have come to realize that maybe it doesn’t have to be such a negative thing that we come from the outside. Maybe the fact that we come from the outside adds flavor and color to the local scene. As long as we show that we respect the Alteans and don’t want to change things, the fact that I’m from California and that David and I have lived in New York City might actually be seen as exotic and as a good thing. And as long as I show people that I’m trying to learn Spanish, they will see that I’m trying to integrate and forgive me for my horrible American accent and my lost-in-translation misunderstandings.

And I started realizing that, by being a foreigner myself, maybe I could add a valuable component to AlteArte. I could motivate the Spaniards who wanted to practice their English to speak to me in English. Some wouldn’t dare speak English except that they see that I yearn to speak Spanish just as they do English, and therefore feel more comfortable trying out their English.

Also, coming from the outside helps me connect better with the English-speaking tourists like the couple from Poland who came during our second week and said that they just want to talk to people but, wherever they go, they’re just served their drink and then left alone. They asked me questions about Altea and the wife told me that she loved Altea and that being here inspired her to paint even though she had never painted. And I understood the feeling because Altea had evoked the same creative inspiration in me the first time I had seen it.

And I got to thinking that maybe, just maybe, if we do it carefully and correctly, David and I can unite the people who live in Altea – the local Spaniards who were born here with the foreigners who have houses here and live here year-round. As a foreigner in Altea, it’s possible to live in Spain and never learn Spanish. There are pockets of Norwegians and Russians who have their own communities and don’t need to integrate if they don’t want to. But what about the foreigners who want to learn Spanish and become more a part of the local scene? Surely, I would need help if I were here on my own and if I didn’t have David to instantly bring me in to the heart of Altea.

So I have done my best to do what I can to unite the two worlds. Sissel from my Spanish class knows a lot of Spanish but never has the chance to practice it, so when she was at AlteArte one evening, I asked Andreas, our furniture restoration friend who has lived in Altea for more than 30 years, to speak with us – in Spanish. And when my friends from class came last Friday to practice Spanish, some of our Spanish regulars were there and the two groups started speaking together. And it felt good to see that we were helping to bring both worlds together. And just last night when a girl who had just arrived from Finland asked me if I knew anyone who would be interesting in taking a Salsa class with her, I turned to a couple of the regulars and asked them if they knew anyone. One was interested in learning it himself. And maybe, just maybe, it will work out for them to take the class together.

And, slowly, we’re building a clientele of our own. It’s not Pepe’s clients, it’s not Benjamin’s (the original owner). It’s a combination of the two. It’s the students who come out in droves on Thursday nights. In addition, it’s the Norwegians, Irish and English students from my class who tell me that they don’t usually go to bars but really like to come to AlteArte. It’s the local restaurant owners who come after they close their businesses to relax and get a drink. It’s an actor who has a house in Altea and stars in a Spanish TV series. He plays a mean character on the show but is super nice in real life. It’s the grandson and daughter of an extremely important artist here in Altea. And it’s the little, old lady who was looking down from her balcony at the artist (who has since become my friend) painting below the very first time we visited Altea. She came two Sundays ago with her granddaughter and her husband to watch a soccer game.

And, when she walked through the door, David and I turned to each other, and silently acknowledged the significance of the very monumental moment. For her mere presence inside AlteArte spoke volumes and demonstrated that we, indeed, were reaching the heart of Altea.

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18 responses to “From the Outside In

  1. More and more Altean each and every day… I have definitely heard of AlteArte and have set it as a destination point – to revisit it with the new owners – who I hear have made some great new changes since I saw it last 🙂

    Live in Altea and let the world come to YOU – you’ve got the right idea!

    • It’s pretty convenient to have everyone come to us – including the whole Wilson family very soon!!! 🙂 Can’t wait for you to see it!

  2. Wow, Sara, this is just amazing! I am amazed and so proud of the progress you’ve made in your Spanish, and the fact that others are able to recognize that you’re really trying. I’m so glad that this is going so well for you both! (Not that I ever had a single doubt…) 🙂

  3. Hi, Sara! It’s Melissa (in NYC). I saw a link to your blog on Facebook. I love this post and am so happy to hear that you and David are doing well! Your whole experience to-date sounds so romantic… your bringing older generations together with younger ones, introducing strangers to locals… It sounds lovely! Keep writing, and I’ll keep reading (and fantasizing about Spain)!

  4. Wow Sara! I continue to be blown away by the progress you guys have made. I, too , am so very proud of you!! I can’t help but think, yet again, that you guys are absolutely right where you should be and things have a funny way of working out for the best! Also, I am so dying to know that painters name…..give me a hint at least!!??? ;0)

    • Amy, you will have to come meet the painter in person in order to know who it is… so when are you coming?! 😉

  5. What an amazing experience. I am so glad that business is going well. That rocks that you can practice Spanish and they can practice English. I found around here people sometimes get excited to talk to me because they don’t often get to practice their English. For the most part people speak English, at least on this side of the island, because the base is nearby and if they speak English they can be hired by us for work on the American part of the base and in our stores, so it benefits them. But at the same time it makes it “easy” and convenient not to speak Portuguese although I am understanding more. Congrats on your success.

    • As frustrating as it can be at times, I’m grateful to be in a situation where, for the most part, I’m forced to learn Spanish. It makes this whole adventure all the more exciting!

  6. So happy and proud of your success so far! :).

  7. How exciting this all is! Yes, you’ll lose some clientele but attract new ones. Before long, the place will really pulse to your beat and people will respond and come.

  8. Wow, Sara! Another great commentary!
    Once again you seem to hit matters on the button!
    Whether “outside” or “inside” or a mixture of the two, you are Right On!

  9. So awesome, touching and inspiring!!!!

  10. Sara,

    You never cease to amaze me with your humble tenacity, your creativity, and above all, your courage.

    I’m so excited and proud of you both! I can’t wait to one day walk in for my own experience at what must be the hot spot in the village!

    • Sarah, you have had some amazing accomplishments of your own recently! I am excited for the changes that lie ahead for you. Congrats on your success.

  11. Pingback: Defining Business « Notes from Spain

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