I hated high school. Had it been up to me, I would have happily skipped that phase altogether, for high school was one long, torturous, never-ending road for me. I hated the cliques, the labels, the arbitrarily selected definitions of who I was and the people I should hang out with. I rejected that aspect and, as a result, never really belonged to any one group. Whether that was for the better or the worse, who knows. All I wanted was to get through that trying period of self doubts and awkward adolescence when it was somehow in other people’s power to determine my own self-worth. And I hated the peer pressure to be something that I was not, especially when I was still simply just trying to figure out who I was. But as upsetting as it was, I knew that life was about much more than the trials and tribulations of high school so I eagerly looked forward to college where I could start with a clean slate. In college, I stopped caring whether I was liked by everyone. I would be me and those who liked me for who I was would be my friends. Period. It was that simple.
I never thought that that kind of uncertainty and anxiety over being liked that I experienced in high school would ever revisit me as an adult. But it did. When the hype of our reopening died down, business returned to its normal Winter pace – which, after the pace of summer and having been away for a month – was an eye opener. But it wasn’t just that. The recession was starting to directly impact Altea. More and more of our regulars were losing their jobs. Jaime, the 70 year old man who had befriended us when we first opened AlteArte, decided to call it quits and, after 25 years, officially closed the doors to his nearby restaurant, BellaAltea. And a Nepali guy who sold roses and who I knew only slightly spent one afternoon at AlteArte. But, instead of flowers, he held a beer in his hands as he told me about the days when he used to make 100 euros selling roses. Now, days before Christmas, he lamented about being far from his family and questioned how he was supposed to get through these trying times. I didn’t know how to help him, how to convince him that the sacrifice he was making of being far from his family was worth it, for I, myself, wasn’t even convinced of that. But I did know that spending all his money on beer wouldn’t help him at all and by his 6th, I refused to serve any more, encouraging him to spend his money on food instead. Was I in the position to decide such a thing? I don’t know, but my conscience couldn’t take it any longer.
But above and beyond the slow Winter pace and the dire effects of the recession, we suddenly found ourself in a battle against a new force: competition. A nearby bar was coming on strong, determined to win over all the customers by throwing special parties and featuring live bands every Thursday, the infamous night when all the students go out. They started opening morning, noon and night and advertised on their blackboard outside menu items that were collected from all the businesses around. It was obvious that they wanted to be the one stop shop in Altea. They were going for the masses and they got it. Once the craziest night for us, Thursdays became one of the quietest. The students no longer came, and we felt its impact saleswise.
And I felt the impact, ego-wise. After devoting so much time and energy, AlteArte had nearly become a representation of ourselves and I couldn’t help but somehow take the dip in business personally. Of course, I wasn’t completely cognizant of these feelings. It was more just a nagging negativity that was constantly at the back of my mind. Last Spring, business had come on its own. Effortlessly, we were the place to be. So our sudden fall from popularity’s grace was hard to swallow. And the feelings of vulnerability that came with it brought me back to the period of awkward adolescence when I was trying to define who I was and what was important.
And as Christmas approached, I dreaded spending it without my family. We considered closing and going to spend the holiday with David’s aunt and uncle, but when Maya, one of our most faithful regulars, informed us that we needed to be open because the Spaniards go out on Christmas Eve, we decided to stay in Altea and work, but we compromised and treated ourselves to Christmas dinner first at Tribus, one of our favorite restaurants in Altea.
Heading over to AlteArte at 11:00 p.m., I fervently hoped that we wouldn’t be alone that night. The only thing worse than not being with family on Christmas was being alone at AlteArte. But it didn’t look promising. The streets were dead. Altea was quiet. Everyone was tucked away behind closed doors, and I couldn’t imagine people leaving the comfort of their family and their home to go out that night.
Fortunately, I still have a lot to learn about Spanish culture. Open by 11:30, people started arriving at midnight, and as more and more people entered, my heart swelled, for it wasn’t just our regulars, it was the familiar faces of people who were home for the holidays and had come to spend the evening with us. And, for me, their presence alone spoke volumes. And a positive energy, so strong that it was nearly tangible, filled the air, and it enveloped me and nurtured me and comforted me and reassured me. And it was just what I needed to wipe out the unexplained sorrow that I had been burdened down with since my return to Altea.
And in the weeks since, small details have continued to emerge to remind us that we matter to people. A woman from Norway that we met briefly over the Summer while she was in Altea with her friend on vacation emailed me saying that they still think of us fondly and miss our mojitos. Nadia, a faithful customer and close friend, surprises us with tasty cupcakes that she makes at her house just around the corner and delivers to us on a platter. Salva, who often comes for a cortado in the afternoon, made a tiramisu for us. And Maya told me that when we don’t see her at AlteArte, it’s not because she’s somewhere else. It’s just because she didn’t go out. These reassurances come on their own and are soft, gentle reminders that we’re making an impact on people’s lives.
We don’t need the masses. What we need is quality relationships which is what we’re building slowly but surely. And as easy as it would be to hire the same flamenco group that has already performed at all the other bars in Altea, we need to stay focused on our own path and remain faithful to our vision for AlteArte. And while the other bar throws parties that run late into the early morning, we need to create activities that mean something. So we’re focusing on spreading the word about our conversation days to practice English and Spanish, we’re doing movie nights, and we’re continuing to devise ways to make AlteArte a platform where people can express themselves and connect with others.
I hated high school, but I know now that I had to endure it because it was a necessary rite of passage and I had an important lesson to learn. I learned in high school the importance of staying true to myself. I knew then deep down that life is much more than a popularity contest. For popularity is fleeting. Built on a shaky foundation, it can crumble at any second. Therefore, it’s not about knowing masses of people. Instead, it’s about connecting on a deeper level with the people we do know. In return, that will pay back over and over again. I learned to not succumb to peer pressure and, instead, to listen to what I knew and felt was the right thing to do. And I am proud of passing the test.
I already learned all that in high school. I just needed a reminder.