The University of Life

When we arrived to Altea three years ago, I presumptuously believed that I had already learned most of what there is to know about life, about myself, about David. I had gone away to University to challenge myself to personal growth. I had lived in some of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities – Paris and New York.  I had met influential people and leaders. So when Warner told me shortly after I arrived that Altea is the University of Life, I stared at him blankly, not comprehending how a small village could teach me more about Life than the world’s most dynamic cities.  David and I were the worldly ones, I thought. We were the ones coming with fresh and innovative New York ideas. We were the ones bringing knowledge to teach. And I would have written off his statement as simply inaccurate and then, most likely, would have proceeded to forget about it all together except that there was something so odd about it that it stayed with me. Then, on January 1, 2013, it suddenly became crystal clear as if the new year brought new clarity. For so long, I had been looking at Altea from the outside in. The key was to be able to look at it from the inside out. It took me a long time to get to that point. But, after years of learning, seemingly I had finally arrived. 

Nestled along the Mediterranean, Altea is tucked away from all the noise – the noise created by big brands launching new products, bright billboards announcing new television shows, and traffic jams of everyone trying to get to… somewhere else. My occasional trips back and forth to New York and California make the quietness of Altea even more pronounced. It is in this village where the sea stretches like a blanket to the horizon, where sometimes the only sound is the water gently hitting the rocks, and where the scene from my window is like a painting save for the occasional seagull passing by that I have been able to focus on what’s really important and not get distracted by what isn’t. In this environment, I have been able to learn.  

It’s in this village that we see the same people sometimes every day. Pascual passes by in the afternoon for his coffee. Karim stops by for a beer. Fran comes by after he finishes work at the restaurant just down the street. And then there are those who come less frequently but who have been there since the very beginning. People like Warner, Pepa and Nadia can, in a glance, detect how we’re doing – whether our energy is up, if we’re having a bad day, if we need a break. This constant contact with people in Altea is so different from life in New York or California where we might have known a lot of people but we didn’t really know most people. 

The upside is that my relationships have become more authentic. I have been there in the precise moment when a friend found out that she was pregnant. I have been there in a moment of pain when another friend’s boyfriend broke up with her after more than a decade together. And I have witnessed the struggles of a good person who’s trying to do things the right way but first has to overcome a whole heap of obstacles. 

The (possible) downside is that, because these relationships are not built and maintained on the surface level but go much deeper, they serve as our mirrors – and in their reflection, we have occasionally spotted things about ourselves that we simply would rather not see. In Altea, we can’t afford to have too many off days. It is a village, after all, so our actions reverberate. When the group of more than 20 people show up at the door after closing hours, we have to explain that we’re closed – but in a nice way, because, here, you could potentially offend someone if you don’t let them in – even if it’s 3, 4 or 5 in the morning. When the guys who have obviously been drinking too much ask for more, we need to know how to cut them off in a stern but discreet way.  Inexperienced in the beginning, we didn’t quite do it with finesse the first time around and it resulted in the customer who had had too much to drink slamming down a bar stool in defiance. Obviously, he needed to be cut off, but the problem is that he was from Altea and who knows how misconstrued the story became later when shared with others who weren’t present. And when the routine gets to us or the long days wear us out or we’re stressed, we can never reveal it to our customers, even if they are some of our closest friends. Should we slip up and go too far – which has happened – our customers, our friends, are our mirrors. You can’t hide from a mirror. You can’t hide from your own reflection. 

But it’s in this setting surrounded by these people that I have been able to grow. Altea and AlteArte have pushed me to reach for new horizons, and I feel more complete, more whole, more alive. The human interaction fulfills me. The message from a friend in Slovenia telling me how AlteArte made a difference in her life enriches and adds meaning to my own. And the person that I would become each time I stepped behind the bar fascinated me. In the beginning, I assimilated it to being on stage, that I was performing – not purposely, not consciously, but in any case I wasn’t entirely me. My AlteArte personality was outgoing, able to put others at ease, able to make conversation in three languages! But, over the last nearly three years, the distinction has faded, and I have evolved into that very person who used to dazzle me with her courage.

It’s also in this setting that I have come to see David in a whole different light and understand him on a whole different scale. It’s one thing to be married to someone and have different jobs. It’s another thing to basically share the same life with someone while building the same thing. I’ve seen him create beauty with his hands and realized how much of an artist he truly is. I’ve seen him crank out ideas non stop and realized how much he has really needed a creative outlet. I’ve seen how hard working and devoted he can be to the current project on hand. I’ve seen the friends that he’s made and appreciated how devoted they are to him. But I’ve also seen how he loses his temper when he gets stressed, how he doesn’t always deal with a delicate situation well, and how a storm cloud can overtake him at a moment’s notice. On January 1, 2013, I suddenly opened my eyes. But it required a whole village serving as my mirror for me to look fully and unflinchingly in its reflection.

Warner told me about Altea being the University of Life, and I didn’t understand in that moment what he meant. But now I do. I don’t think I’ve ever been so pushed out of my comfort zone, have had so much human interaction, learned so much about myself and others, and been made so aware of strengths and weaknesses as I have since living in Altea. It’s when you can see Altea from the inside out and when you can open your eyes and finally see the truth that you finally start scraping the surface of this thing called, “Life.”

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22 responses to “The University of Life

  1. Well said, as always Sara…I hope some day you publish your posts, because they are very insightful!

  2. …and thanks for posting such great pictures also…as soon as Aziz gets his citizenship and US passport, we will head to Morocco to visit his family, but we will come via Spain and visit you in Althea…I want to see this gorgeous place in person, not just read about it!

  3. This is so profound, so deep – and I know in a small way what you are talking about first-hand. Altea has taught me so much – even on short visits!

    • You know better than most exactly what I’m talking about, Coral. I think you should come back for longer visits to learn even more! 😉

  4. beautifully expressed

  5. You are correct that there is so much superficiality in so much of what passes for life these days. But in a place like Altea there is an opportunity to live life on a much deeper and broader level and to experience things more as they really are. It is a mirror for the soul. Perhaps this is one more reason (besides having a daughter and son-in-law there) that the area is constantly growing on us. No wonder we are increasingly coming to know of it as home!

  6. I understand your hesitation of understanding that “Altea is the University of Life.” As a native and former jaded New Yorker, I always believed NYC was the ‘center of the universe.’

    However, when I first stepped off the flight on the runway of a very small Alicante airport 40 years ago, I knew that this was home. It only took 32 years later to arrive and here I will stay.

    • It’s so nice when life choices are so clear due to such a strong feeling. Altea had that kind of impact on me as it did you, Veronica. I’m glad that, after 32 years of waiting, you finally were able to make this coast your home!

  7. Lovely entry. I really need to see this paradise for myself one day. 2014!

  8. Yet another beautiful post. You’re living a life many people only dream of, and while I know building a business and a life in an entirely new place isn’t easy, you make it sound utterly worth it. Kudos to you for getting away from the American workaholic existence, the traffic and the billboards for a quaint, quieter life that allows you to actually think… To breathe….. And to live fully.

  9. I so look forward to each and every time I get to read your words… your life. Remembering back to 3rd floor chat nights and where we would be in 10-15 years- it is amazing to now get to read about reality. I love it! One day I will get the chance to see Altea first hand. xoxo

    • It’s equally amazing to see where life has led you, Beth! You have a successful business and a beautiful family. I’m so glad that I was able to visit it and get a glimpse into your life – although another visit is certainly long past due.

  10. I am looking for somewhere now to rent for a year in Altea and I was beginning to dispair that it would happen. I need to experience this University of Life as my life has changed, stopped and been destroyed. Yet I knew the day I visited Altea in January 2013 that this was the place for me to rebuild.
    Your words are very eloquent and have given me the push again to find my Altea spot. I was looking at what I had to offer Altea, now I will accept what Altea will teach me.
    I’m visiting again in March with the determination to find my Altea home, look forward to visiting your bar.
    Thank you for the inspiration.

    • Please come by AlteArte when you come back to visit. It would be so nice to meet you. I’m excited that you felt as connected to Altea as I did when I first saw it in 2009. It’s a lovely place to rebuild and refocus on what’s important in life.

  11. Love this post! It sounds like you’ve really been both inspired and transformed living in Altea–even more so, perhaps, than if you had remained in big ole’ NYC. I love that you and David have built such a rich life there–it sounds incredible.

  12. David, the hubby

    Very well Expressed, Sara…from my personal experiences, I think I started my university of life loooongtime ago. My problem is I’ve always been a very bad student, so it took me sometime to realize what you are living now. One example is NYC. As you know, it’s all about networking there…you meet a lot of people, but you don’t really know any of them. Here in Altea, the one thing I like, is people’s honesty to tell you what bother them…and if they don’t tell you, the word of mouth will do the job! And it works for the good and for the bad things. I think my reactions are based in what I learned on my University of Life, which is to protect myself from anyone abusing my trust…it took me also three years to realize that people in Altea just want to live life, not like other cities where we lived. The best thing, as you said, is leaving Altea and coming back. Then you realize how interesting life can be in a 22000 people village versus Paris, NYC, or California. You really don’t need that much to be happy in life…I’m happy!
    I love you Sara.

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