On Saturday, February 27th, we celebrated six years with AlteArte. I remember our opening day as if it were yesterday. I close my eyes and vividly recall the anxiety I felt at having to take orders in Spanish and make drinks. I remember hoping that people would come while at the same time praying that they wouldn’t – or at least not too many anyway. I remember the relief that washed over me when my classmates from my Spanish class were among the first to walk through the door.
In some ways, it feels not so long ago. In other ways, it feels like a lifetime.
In the last six years, so much has changed – David and I, our relationship, our vision for what’s possible and what we want to accomplish. But we’re not the only ones to have changed. Altea has changed and is in the process of changing even more.
When we arrived in 2009, the church square, home to three major bars – Bar La Plaza, La Mascarada, and Cocoon – would get packed. Then, on the last day of August two summers ago, Cocoon – which I had considered to be one of the more established businesses in Altea – quietly closed its doors. Since then, a crab restaurant has come and gone and a new restaurant just recently opened – leaving no sign at all of what it used to be. This past winter, even the square has been quiet, and AlteArte has practically been the only place open in the Old Town during the week days.
What happened? About two years ago, Altea was designated a historical site by the European Union. The designation put Altea on the map but came with a price tag. The houses needed to be maintained, the streets needed to be cleaned and the bars had to close on time. So, after four years of closing nearly every day at 4 or 5 in the morning, we were forced to adjust our closing time after a visit from the police two Augusts ago. Our official closing time was actually 1:30, but, for the next two years, we were able to get away with closing at 2 until our neighborhood started changing also. Houses were sold and bought by new neighbors, who, apparently, chose Altea for its tranquility, yet somehow overlooked the fact that there was a bar just at the end of the street. Ever searching for tranquility, the new neighbors started calling the cops on us. As a result, much to my surprise, the police made several visits in January, informing us that the neighbors had been complaining and that AlteArte was officially under surveillance – and would be required to close at the official closing time of 1:30 every day. January is the lowest period of the low season. How ironic that we had closed at 4 or 5 everyday in the first four years, yet it was now that we were getting more heat than ever. How confusing that we’d had much busier nights and never had trouble with the police, yet here we were in January, paranoid every night that we were going to get yet another visit from the cops.
And I found myself getting mad and frustrated at these new neighbors, who, instead of adapting to the neighborhood, were trying to change the neighborhood so that it would adapt to their lifestyles. And then I realized something. Of course Altea is changing. It has and it always will. No city, no place ever stays the same. When David and I first arrived to Altea in 2009, we were the new kids on the block and didn’t know much about Altea. We would listen with amazement as Warner would tell us how Altea used to be the party place and would actually draw people from the surrounding towns, and my eyes would open wide as Peter, our neighbor, recalled how Bar La Plaza would be packed with people almost every night of the week. Just because I can’t imagine Altea or Bar La Plaza being like that now doesn’t erase the fact that they were actually once this way.
Altea has changed and it’s still changing. I’ve noticed change ever since our second year, when I marveled at how quickly the businesses that had opened right before the summer had closed right after it, but, over the past two years, a different kind of change has been taking place. I have been here long enough now that it is no longer simply Altea that is changing, but rather My Altea.
Nearly two years ago, Eugenio Mira, the ceramicist that I so deeply admire, finally decided to slow down and downgraded from the large store exiting out on to Calle Mayor, the main shopping street in the Old Town, to the back of the shop that exits out on to the parallel street – the street that AlteArte is on. He opened his small shop only in the Summer months last year, and he might not be open at all this summer, he tells me as he gives me his card so that we can call him directly when my family comes in May and my sister needs to make her annual purchase of ceramic doves. And it’s a startling thought to realize that, had I arrived to Altea just a bit later, I might never have even known about Eugenio. I would have never had the opportunity to visit what came to be one of the first shops on the Calle Mayor, and I very easily might have missed the chance to meet one of the most inspirational and centered people in Altea who, unknowingly, helped me to find grounding and inner strength at at time in my life that I needed it most.
Had we arrived later, I might have looked with disdain at the abandoned house just across and slightly down the street from AlteArte that, due to its rapidly declining condition, has practically become an eyesore. I could never have imagined that this blemish on the street that tourists now try to angle out of in their photos was actually one of the most photographed houses only two years ago. I might have wondered how a house on such a charming street could be so lifeless, never knowing how full of life it once was – with a bedroom full of books and a facade that overflowed like a waterfall with plants and flowers. I might have wondered who lived there, but I never could have imagined the woman who actually did. Anna had such a grandiose presence and such a theatrical voice that she singlehandedly filled the neighborhood with life, drama and adventure. Sometimes she would exit from her house barefoot, take a seat at our smallest table, order a glass of white wine and read her book. Sometimes she would tell me about her life which involved several countries and many men, and which, as hard as it was for me to fully grasp for all the things she has done, definitely was not wont of adventure. Sometimes she would call from her balcony, her face all but hidden by her plants, to Karl as he leaned out of the window of the house next door. Their constant banter, and the way that these neigbors would each complain to me about the other made me wonder about their relationship. And then one day Anna fell on one of the steep staircases of her narrow, three story house and was taken to the hospital. Her decline was quick, and, within months, she was moved to a home. And when I saw the impact that her absence had on Karl, I understood that their love/hate relationship actually had more to do with love than hate. And when I saw how the house has declined since she left, I understood it was she who added all the life and it was she who added the soul. And when I saw how the neighborhood has changed since she has been gone, I feel grateful to have arrived in time to meet one of Altea’s most vibrant characters.
My Altea continues to change. Juan Dura, the artist who captured the charm of Altea in his paintings that he would sell from his small shop in the square but who also made me fall in love with Altea during our very first visit to Altea, left his shop and Altea this fall, when, as rumors have it, he fell in love with a woman from Malaga. Had we arrived just years later, I never would have known that there was once an artist who would set up his easel just outside of his shop and paint a perfect picture of the picture perfect setting before him.
And shortly before leaving for California in November to surprise my dad for his 75th birthday, Pepa and Warner came in. We had known Pepa since our first year. She had opened her shop, Artesans, a short time before we arrived to Altea. And, through the years, we watched as she became part of the ebb and flow of Altea’s seasons – as, every spring, she prepared her store for yet another summer – painting the walls, shopping for new merchandise, taking a gamble on what this year’s tourists would spend their money on, and ironing the new clothes hours on end. We saw as she converted her living room into a second room for the store and added second hand merchandise, trying to adjust to the times and appeal to a new type of customer who was spending carefully and buying less. I knew that Pepa had been struggling to make ends meet, so the announcement that she was moving to the north of Spain to open a store in a ski town that supposedly had two high seasons didn’t surprise me, but it deeply saddened me. Warner would go with her to help her get her new store ready as he had helped her with her store in Altea. So, on October 31st, instead of dressing up in impressive costumes as they had every Halloween previously, they were setting out to set Pepa up with a new life – and a new store. Had we arrived to Altea a little later, I might never have gotten to know Pepa who helped clue us in to all of Altea’s fiestas, who told us about the shooting stars in August, and who has been such a part of our history that she helped us perfect our mojito so that we could officially became a mojiteria.
And when I returned from California a month later in December, David told me how El Raconet had closed while I was gone. And I was beyond shocked. The closing of El Raconet signified something grand. It was a bar that had opened about a year after we took over AlteArte. They had entered the scene strong, created a lot of noise, and had quickly become the new popular hangout for the students. Insecure and only in our second year, we couldn’t help but compare ourselves to them, to wonder if they had more customers than we did, if they were open longer or if their parties were better. El Raconet’s arrival made us focus on what we wanted AlteArte to be and tested our focus and dedication to that vision until we were able to move beyond the initial feeling of insecurity. Had we arrived later, we might have missed that era altogether that made us question and define AlteArte’s identity early on.
And, as if all of that wasn’t enough, in November, Sissel moved back to Norway. One of my first friends in Altea and one of our first customers at AlteArte, Sissel had been one of our strongest supporters since the beginning. Altea is a transient place, and I have learned time and time again to say hello and goodbye as people come and go, but Sissel’s departure was one of the first times that I had to say goodbye to someone who had been here longer than I have. My Altea was most certainly changing.
Six years may have passed in the blink of an eye, but, when I step back and look at the big picture, I realize exactly what six years represents.
And finally I can better understand why the old woman across the street from AlteArte was so upset when we added an extra table to our terrace. It had caused such an uproar and literally almost caused a war, and I couldn’t understand how one table could cause such discontentment. Not having been in Altea or Spain long enough, I hadn’t realized that the addition of that extra table prevented her from setting out her chair on the street and sitting there on a countless summer evening watching the people walk by. It was a custom that she had been doing probably for as long as she could remember, yet here we were, newcomers to Altea, disrupting her sacred tradition. For her, us placing the table and filling it every night with customers marked one significant way in which Her Altea had changed.
Altea is constantly changing and will continue to change. Last week, I met a couple who just arrived to Altea. The husband asked if we could meet for coffee as he had questions for me since they have dreams of establishing a business in Altea. And I can’t help but think of when we were just setting out on our own adventure six years ago. And I wonder if we’ll come to represent something significant to this couple just as people like Eugenio Mira, Anna, Juan Dura, Pepa and Sissel and places like El Raconet had come to represent something very significant to us. I wonder if we’ll become a part of Their Altea.
Places mean different things to different people. They are moments captured in a snapshot and comprised of the people, the experiences and the memories of each individual who walked its streets during a certain period in time. No matter how much Paris changes, in my mind, it will forever remain the place that I knew it in 2000 – pre Euro, pre Starbucks when life was affordable and you could walk Paris’s streets without feeling the presence of the U.S. New York City will forever remain the city that I knew it between 2005 and 2009 as a city of dreams and aspirations. When I’ve gone back to Paris in recent years, I’ve been shocked by how expensive the city has become and how the energy has shifted. If we were ever to visit our old East Harlem neighborhood again, I doubt that I would even recognize it, for it was just on the brink of gentrification when we left in 2009. Places change. They have and they always will. All we can do is enjoy the present moment even if it’s fleeting, make our time meaningful while we’re here and be ready to embrace the change that’s sure to come.