It’s true that, after living here for nearly a year, Altea can feel small at times. It is a village, after all, with only 26,000 residents. And working within AlteArte’s four walls six days a week can feel confining at times. It is, after all, only just over 50 square meters (or about 500 square feet). But there’s also something magical about Altea that keeps life here perpetually interesting.
For starters, the people who live here aren’t just people. They’re colorfully eccentric, animated individuals many of whom are artists and each with such a distinct personality that it gives a whole new meaning to the word, “alive.” Take Carl, the artist, who lives just a stone’s throw away. He’s American but has lived in Europe the last 30 some odd years. “Sara Bird,” he’ll call down from his window as I’m putting out the terrace. At first, the voice in the sky never failed to startle me. But, now, I’ve become used to it and sometimes even glance above to see if he’s standing in the window. Occasionally, he’ll come down to rant and rave about the latest news that he picked up online (using our internet signal) or recall the adventures that he lived through in his youth, or complain about Anna, his next door neighbor. (I still have yet to figure out their relationship. Independently, they complain about the other, but, together, they snide and snicker back and forth as if they’re accomplices in something, rendering their interaction so interesting that it’s entertaining just to sit back and watch.)
There’s Kim, the philosopher, who’s convinced that the world will come to an end in 2012 (and who hopes and prays that he isn’t wrong in his conviction). There’s Pepe, our 70 year old hippie landlord, who’s so addicted to chess that he comes in regularly to play five minute games for hours online. We’ve gotten to know his gaming ways and are no longer dismayed when we hear him cursing upstairs. And there’s Pepa, the crazy ex wife of one of our customers. For the most part, we’ve managed to stay clear of her, but, one night, in a drunken state, she was determined to wreak havoc and lingered for hours, doing circles around AlteArte. At first, we tried to ignore her as she stood just to the side of the doorway, peering in to see if she could see her ex inside before drunkenly swaggering up the street. But when customers on the terrace called us out to show us how she had randomly moved all the chairs from one of the tables, a protective instinct awoke in me and I went outside to stand guard. Unfortunately, it was too late for she had already destroyed our small, potted tree at the top of the stairs. She had ripped it in two, breaking off several branches and forcing us to, since then, lay the poor thing to rest. The night ended with a call to the cops as it was the only way to physically remove her from the property. However, when she drifted past the door only 20 minutes later, we knew that it was far from a permanent fix. Fortunately, she hasn’t made trouble since, and we just hope that she doesn’t return.
And even though Altea is just a small dot on Spain’s Costa Blanca, I have discovered that we don’t need to venture out to see the world for the world actually seems to come to us. We’ve had customers from Australia, Ireland, Norway, France and Germany. We’ve also gotten the chance to meet people we never could have dreamed we ever could or would: Daryl Matthews, an American director currently living in Spain and working on a movie about gypsies (who showed us pictures of himself with Sandra Bullock – who he used to date – and shared stories of Patrick Swayze – who he used to be close friends with); Robert Stoltenberg, a very famous Norwegian comedian (who was so laid back and friendly that I never would have known that he was famous except that my Norwegian friend, Sissel, was there that night and eagerly whispered in my ear, “He’s a very famous Norwegian comedian!”); and the producer of Chef Gordon Ramsey’s shows in the UK (Ironically, I had just been talking to my friend about Ramsey. Little did I know that the customer sitting at the other end of the bar knew him personally). We’ve even met the Saudi Arabia-based Swedish Ambassador whose son came in daily during the week that they were in Altea to surf on the internet. And, best of all, we didn’t just cross paths with these people. We really got to meet them, for, in Spain, but especially in Altea, the pace of life slows down. And people will spend entire evenings at AlteArte. So we have the opportunity to actually talk to and get to know people – people who, in practically any other setting, probably wouldn’t even have the time to say hello.
And even though we’re in a village far from the major, international cities of Spain, we’ve been lucky to have a fairly constant stream of visitors since we arrived – my family who traveled from the West Coast of the U.S.; David’s mom who came from Paris, Melissa and Malcolm, friends from London, who came with their newborn son, Adrien; Ana and Halima, two of our friends who didn’t know each other but somehow managed to coordinate their visit from Paris at the same time; Olivier, the best man at our wedding, who currently lives in Singapore; and Jacqueline and Amy (and Amy’s boyfriend), two friends from college who, likewise, didn’t know each other but managed to overlap for a couple of days during their visit from Michigan and New York, respectively.
And then I walk outside and I look down the street, and I see a scene so breathtaking (so picture perfect, in fact, that we’ve had brides and grooms choose our terrace as the setting for some of their wedding photos) that I’m swept away, and I wonder if, indeed, this is all just a movie set and if I’m just a mere character in a movie about life. Because the setting, the characters, the experiences combined together make life here seem so surreal.
Even though Altea is only a small dot, it’s a microcosm of energy and life. And it’s a miniature world that David and I will be stepping outside of next month. For one of the decisions we made when we took over AlteArte was that we would also take time for ourselves. So we will close AlteArte for the month of November, the month that we’ve heard is one of the slowest business-wise in Altea, and while I will head to the States, David will stay for a couple of weeks longer to make repairs within AlteArte and then he will follow.
I am excited to see my family and friends but I wonder what it will feel like to be lost in the anonymity of Orange County, California. And I wonder what it will feel like to be, for a month, outside of AlteArte’s walls. And I wonder what it will feel like to step out of this magical place…
I am happy to be leaving… but I already know that I will be happy to return.