Raising Business

People often ask me if I have children. I look around, spread my arms wide, and I show them my child: AlteArte. Perhaps it’s not what they were expecting, but it’s the closest thing I have – besides our two cats – to a child. And, though I know that the two are very different, there are some aspects that seem to be quite parallel. The people listen with interest. And I do my best to explain.

David and I ventured into AlteArte with the same trepidation that I imagine any new parent must feel as they welcome their child into the world. We didn’t know what awaited, we didn’t really understand how it would change our lives, and we hoped that we would be good at it although there was no guarantee that we would be.

Much as I imagine it must be like with a newborn, AlteArte kept us up late in the beginning, as our days often wouldn’t end until 4 in the morning – even on weekdays. Being a morning person, I struggled to adjust to the new schedule. It was difficult that my days wouldn’t start until noon, my most productive morning hours slipping into nonexistence. The hours were irregular, and we could never quite make any plans for the following day, as we never quite knew when we would be able to turn off the lights the night before. For the first 8 months, we opened 7 days a week as we tried to familiarize ourselves with the rhythm of running a business in Altea. AlteArte became our top priority as we lived and breathed the business 24 hours a day. The business became our everything.

The first two years, we watched with fascination and worry, as we hoped that the decisions we were making were the right ones. Were we focusing on the right things? Disciplining in the right way? We worried about positioning ourselves correctly and finding our place among the other already exisiting as well as new businesses in Altea. We navigated these new waters as best we could, and, during the journey, we made a lot of mistakes and learned a lot – some lessons taking longer than others to sink in.

As a new parent often is, we were tested in those early years. What would we accept, how much would we put up with, what were our limits and would we actually go so far as to punish? It took us four years to understand that we needed to set the rules and actually close at closing time, for example. A simple act, which, once we were confident enough in our decision to reinforce it, greatly improved the quality of our lives.

When we got our first visit from the police – the first time being only a week after taking over AlteArte – we panicked, as any parent would. The customers were too loud, the dogs were getting into the neighbors’ trash at 2 in the morning. It didn’t take many visits from the cops for us to understand that it was up to us – up to our guidance and our modeling alone – to steer AlteArte clear of trouble.

I also learned that, as much as I might have wanted to do or believed that I could, I simply couldn’t please everyone and that people are extremely complicated beings. And I had to learn that not everyone is a good customer and that it was important to weed out the good ones from the bad – much the same as a parent must feel when they want their child to have friends but must also be cautious of who their child hangs out with, for not everyone is a good influence. So came the subsequent lessons of learning that giving too much can hurt in the long run and how to let go once I was at peace with the efforts that I made.

And then came the hardest step of all – stepping back and trusting. Hiring people was an extremely difficult step for me to take much as I imagine it must be for any new parent hiring their first babysitter. It was one thing when David and I were the only ones running AlteArte. We put our all, our everything into the business because it was, well, our baby. We wouldn’t have put anything less. I was determined to be there, to be present, to ensure that customers went away happy. So, when we hired someone to work with us during our second summer, I maintained my post on the terrace, in order to have the most contact with the customers. It didn’t matter that I was still working hard, that I was still running. I didn’t trust anyone else to do the job. In year three, we tried hiring someone more full-time to, ideally, free us up more, and I tried letting go, but all it did was tie me down more. I became overprotective and watched like a hawk and felt ashamed to be doing so. But I couldn’t help it. I needed to know that everything was being done correctly, that the customers were being greeted when they walked through the door, that the drinks were being noted, that he cared as much as we did for this entity that we were putting under his care. In the end, we let him go, and I wondered how much of it was me being too anal or him being too blasé. Perhaps it was both.

In year four, we tried again, this time hiring Emily, a girl whom we had known since our first year when she would come as a customer. She was a student at the Art University but older and more mature. And she had a desire to work, and when we were slammed with work the first week that she started, she embraced it, claiming that this was how she learned best. And I liked her attitude. I loved that she cared. A short time later, David made the decision to hire a second girl, Ampy, to prepare us for the Summer months. Ampy is friendly and positive and quickly got to know people’s names, and I felt that I could let go even more. And I even relinquished half of my post on the terrace to her. And with the two of them on board, I could finally relax, for I trust that they’ll take care of AlteArte when we’re not there.

And, as the years passed, AlteArte grew and started taking on a life of its own. We had provided the core, the foundation, but AlteArte was growing into its own being and proving to have its own personality. And we sat back and watched with wonder as people from all around the world visited AlteArte and we listened with pride as they exclaimed what a nice place it was – much like I imagine it must be like for a parent to hear praise of his or her child. These unsolicited affirmations reassured us that we were doing something right and fueled us with the energy to keep going.

Five years have passed and David and I have stepped into the background. Once all about us, AlteArte is now about AlteArte. We’ve survived the infant and toddler years and AlteArte now stands on its own two feet. And that allows us to do a little less handholding and focus more on the future, which, though never certain, certainly looks bright.

The AlteArte Team

The AlteArte Team


I Find My Roots in Christmas

What makes you you or me me? Is it the country that we come from, is it the experiences we live or the type of people that we surround ourselves with? Growing up, I clung to my American identity, not because I felt particularly American but because I felt for sure that, despite all outwardly appearances, I wasn’t Chinese. Then, as I grew in to myself and made sense of the discrepancy of who I looked like I was on the outside versus who I felt like I was on the inside, and had the opportunity to live in other countries, my sense of self and who I am expanded. Besides being the home of my birthplace and the setting of my childhood and adolescence, I don’t feel that the US solely or entirely shaped me or made me who I am. I’ve never felt a nationalistic pride of being loyal to one country, and I don’t feel like we should be defined by borders or limited to territories. When people ask me – which they often do – if I miss the States, I’m truthful when I say that I don’t miss the US. What I do miss is my family and friends.

But I have seen the importance that other people place on birth country. At 14, I was surprised by the look of admiration and respect that would cross peoples faces when traveling in Europe with my sister each time that we answered the inevitable question of where we were from. That’s when I began to understand how powerful the nation that I came from really was. But, in the subsequent decades, I’ve also seen how the reactions changed. As the US toppled from its pedestal, the admiration that once was so present on peoples faces at my response turned to disdain. In Argentina, they were quick to point out that California used to belong to Mexico, and I started feeling ashamed that we came from stolen land. Once proud to answer the inevitable question, I began to dread it.

In Spain, people can’t make sense of it when I say I’m American and they become even more disbelieving when I state that I’m from California. For Spaniards, Californians have blond hair and blue eyes – more in line with my own beliefs when growing up. Born to a father who’s caucasian and a mother who is Chinese but who was born in Jamaica, I don’t quite fit the image that many people have of an “American”. And I’ve often thought how amusing it would be if I could take them to Irvine, California to the impressive complexes packed with Asian restaurants and bakeries and supermarkets and drop them off there to mingle with the hords of Asian Americans who look just like me.

I’ve always felt that I’m the easily adaptable type. I always felt that I’m not the type to cling to certain traditions and customs. Move me to new countries, and besides the fact that I won’t become a carnivore regardless of how much meat is incorporated into the local diet, I feel that I shed and don new cultural practices as needed.

But then this December, as I was falling into the slump that I have experienced annually since moving to Spain six years ago, I finally understood why my heart always feels so heavy. I realized that maybe some traditions and customs are so engrained in me that it’s hard to let go – traditions created by my family, customs carried out by a nation. Perhaps, there’s a part of me that misses the US more than I realize.

For me, Christmas is going to my grandmother’s house in the mountains, of reading The Grinch That Stole Christmas with my sister on Christmas Eve, of attending midnight mass at my grandmother’s church, of waking up to a white world and a cozy fire and bulging stockings and a real tree that, in the later years as it got harder for my grandmother, turned into a plastic tree, and sitting around with my family as we open gifts. Christmas is also about lights, music, special treats like eggnog and peppermint ice cream, holiday parties, and, dare I say it, malls and stores packed with people snatching up the latest tech gadgets and must-have accessories.

Here, in Altea, not only do I lack all of that, but Christmas just doesn’t feel like Christmas. There are barely any lights in the Old Town to spread the cheer even though David has filed complaints, as a business owner, with the city hall. The streets are empty and the malls are deserted even the weekend before Christmas, and Christmas Eve is a big day for people – but not to sit around a fire after dinner or read Christmas books with family members but, instead, to go out to the bars.

As I was missing my family this year and remembering what Christmas used to be like and just feeling down in general, I realized that, when it comes to Christmas, I haven’t completely adjusted or shed the American culture for the Spanish one. I guess some things are just so engrained in us that they can’t be simply forgotten by a move overseas.

But it’s not because Spaniards don’t care about family. On the contrary, they care about it maybe more than Americans do. It’s because, for Spaniards, another day is more important than Christmas – January 6th, Three Kings’ Day. It’s not that Christmas doesn’t exist in Spain. Depending on the household, Santa does come bearing gifts, but it’s largely looked upon as a commercial holiday that’s imported from the US and centered around a mascot fabricated by Coca-Cola. Three Kings’ Day is when Spain goes all out. On the eve of the big day, the empty streets fill up with the impressive parade carrying in the three kings. It is these kings that bear gifts and candy and it is to these kings that children write letters asking for a specific toy or gift. And, in the days leading up to this important day, bakeries stock up on Roscon de Reyes, the King’s Cake, that contains a hidden bean and a figurine. Find the bean and you’re responsible for buying next year’s roscon. Find the figurine, and you get to bear the crown.

Having lived in three difference states and three different countries, who I am is a compilation of many diffent experiences, influences, and cultures. Most of the time, I don’t feel American or really miss the US. But, every once in a while, I find myself really wishing that I was there. Sometimes, no matter how special a new tradition is, it just simply can’t replace an old one – like Christmas.

There’s Something About… Altea

Altea is a special place. I’ve said it so many times, I’ve heard it being said so many more. Some people are born here but many, many more find their way here, led to this village on the Mediterranean by unexplained forces. It’s the type of village which should be a top destination in all the guide books. But people keep quiet about it as if there’s some kind of unspoken code of silence. Altea is such a special place that it’s better to keep hush about it lest the masses discover it and fundamentally change what makes it so amazing.

But the people who do somehow stumble upon it – as David and I did five years ago when we were desperately searching for the next step after we lost our jobs in New York, saw that Torrevieja wasn’t working out, and just happened to get off at the tram stop labeled, “Altea” – seem to stay. Kim is a 40 something Norwegian who arrived 20 years ago and is still here. Piero came from Italy intending to stay just for a year… That was 15 years ago. And, since David and I have been here, we have watched many more arrive, become enchanted by what Altea offers and fight to make a home here. Ted sold everything he had in Texas to set up his base here and write a book about his experience walking the Camino de Santiago, Maria chose Altea as her refuge when her husband suddenly announced that he wanted a divorce and she was forced to reinvent herself and her life. Gill, once the owner of a dance school in England, proactively chose to put her health first and moved to Spain for the lifestyle, sun and healthy foods. We each have a story to tell, we’re each on our own personal journey. Somehow we all ended up here in this tiny village on the Mediterranean.

But Altea is not a place that you can just come to. It is a place that you have to be ready for. I have always felt that Altea – because of its small town feel and its oneness with nature – was a place that I was happy in because I had already lived in Paris and New York and arrived to Altea at a point in my life when I was more ready to settle down, when I was more in search of this kind of lifestyle. I always thought that, in this way, this made me ready for Altea.

Until a friend pointed out a different perspective… Altea is a place that you have to be ready for energy-wise.

Google defines energy as, “the strength and vitality of sustained physical or mental activity”. This is a literal definition, and, up until the time I moved to Altea, this was pretty much the scope of my own understanding of the term.

However, after having lived in Altea for five years now, I understand energy in a different way and by a different meaning. Energy can be felt so strongly at times that it is nearly tangible. Some people are more susceptible to feeling energy than others. And energy comes in both positive and negative waves. Energy can be a force that connects us. It can also be a destructive field that separates us.

Altea is full of such an intense energy that sometimes it reverberates with it, and, depending on what you give out, Altea will return to you 10 fold. A guy came in the other night, just as I was contemplating this blog on energy, and announced of his own accord and without any prompting from me that Altea has a bad energy. To my relief, he left minutes later. Out of the blue, this guy who I don’t recall having ever come in before, had come and gone but had left me with his message. I could see it in his eyes when he entered, I could feel it in the energy he emitted. A general dissatisfaction, an eternal searching without the satisfaction of discovery at the other end.

But that hasn’t been my only run in with negative energy. One night, about a year ago, David was on a trip and I was running AlteArte alone. A woman who we have known since nearly the beginning came in saying that she had heard David was gone as if to explain that that was why she was now here. She sat at the bar and sipped her glass of red wine, and, as the night drew on, she became increasingly intense. The last customers left, yet she stayed. Meanwhile, the topics of her conversation grew disturbingly dark. She offered me some of her wine, growing insistent when I refused, finally dropping it after I repeatedly told her that I didn’t drink. And then she told me about how she had cheated on her husband with many men and asked if I was never tempted to do the same. And, as I looked in her eyes, the pupils now dark and dilated, I wondered if I was somehow looking at the devil, so bizarre was the interaction that I was having with this woman who was trying to tempt me with vices and so intense was the negative energy that filled the room. The clock struck 4 am, and I gently prodded her to leave, kindly refusing her ominous offer to wait while I closed so that she could walk me home. With a sigh of relief, I got her out and quickly locked the door behind her, but when I had finished and was leaving, I found her sobbing on the steps leading up to the church. I’ve never had such a disturbing encounter with someone.

Altea is, indeed, a special place, but it can be a prison to some – like the antique seller and furniture restorer who has lived here for 40 years, and is only waiting for retirement so that he can leave. It can be a paradise to others like my friend from Norway who feels like she has found her home here and never wants to leave.

Over the past five years, I have heard countless times as people from all backgrounds and from all around the world exclaim how special Altea is. Indeed, it is a very unique place that has left a profound impact on many people, but now I know that you have to be ready for Altea in more ways than I originally thought. You have to be ready to make the right choices and stand up for what you believe in and fight for what you want. You have to be ready to receive 10-fold what you put out.

It has been just over five years since we got off at the tram stop labeled, “Altea,” walked along the promenade and then, with enraptured delight, discovered the Old Town. I know now that the reason I was so struck by Altea was because I was ready for Altea. I felt enveloped by its beauty and grace and positive energy, and I felt sure that we had found what we were looking for. And I know now that it’s because we had.

Perhaps people like Ted, Maria, Gill, David and I didn’t haphazardly stumble upon Altea, after all. Perhaps, we were guided here because we were ready for Altea. Perhaps not more is said of Altea not because of an unwritten code of silence but because it’s simply a place that will be found by the right people when the time is right.

Then. And Now.

Our landlord is a hippie. With a long beard and a laid back, laissez faire attitude, he’s more than happy to go back in time over a beer at AlteArte. With a grin on his lips and a light in his eye, he relives his days of sex, drugs and rock and roll. Now in his 70s, he often travels locally to compete in quick, less than five minute chess games with some of the best, but he once was the one pouring the drinks and turning up the music at El Corral, the tri level bar that was the first pit stop in “La Ruta del Bakalou,” an infamous route of techno music and drugs that started in the 80’s and stretched from Altea to Valencia. High on drugs and life, people would depart from El Corral at 2:00 am and stop at different bars along the way, not arriving at the final destination in Valencia until 11:00 am. Shockingly, but not surprisingly, some wouldn’t make it to that last stop, losing their lives somewhere along the curvy road that hugs the Mediterranean. La Ruta del Bakalou came to an end in the mid 90’s. What brought about its demise? Pepe shrugs. It was just the trend of the people at that moment in time, he says matter-of-factly. The people changed and so did the trends.

Fast forward several decades to March 1st when we celebrated our fourth anniversary and excitedly opened the doors to ArteAltea, a light and open space much more suitable for exhibiting art. The store just next door to AlteArte had become vacant in October, and Pepe approached us about taking it. Cautious to not be too hasty in our decisions, we gave it careful thought and considered what we wanted for the future and for AlteArte. And we realized that it was an opportunity that might not come around again anytime soon. So, for the next two months behind closed doors so that no one could see, David, with the help of a construction worker and an electrician, set to work painting, installing professional lighting and cabling for the art, and furnishing it modestly but just comfortable enough so as to provide extra seating. And, just as he had done years previously with AlteArte, he molded it and transformed it and created a space that was beautiful and inspiring. And, in the last week before our 4th anniversary party, he added the window and the door and united AlteArte with ArteAltea, making it hard to imagine that, at one time, they had ever been separate.

We had spent so much time planning and plotting and through it all trying to keep everything a secret, but, little did we know that we were in store for some big surprises ourselves. Two days before the big party, on a quiet afternoon, Pascual walked by – as he often does – and motioned to me that there were customers outside. Grabbing the menu and rushing outside in fear that they had been sitting there for a while, I stopped dead in my tracks and my heart skipped a beat as my brain tried to register what my eyes were seeing. There, in front of me, within touching, were my mom and my sister who had traveled from California just to be there for the party. And as the realization set in, the emotions came pouring out. For, as important as the approaching day was, I had never, ever expected my family to make such a long journey just to attend, and it touched me deeply that they had made such an effort to be there. But, barely had we gotten our heads around that surprise when, the very next day, in walked another – David’s mom. She had flown in from Paris just to be with us. And, on the actual day, Sissel, one of my first friends in Altea who filled AlteArte with all of her friends on our very first day and who is like my Norwegian mom in Spain, made the final surprise, having flown in from Norway just for the weekend. Already, the day was memorable before it had even started!

Our anniversary kicked off with an art opening by Hans Peter Fjugstad, a Norwegian artist and a loyal customer who we had chosen to inaugurate the space. Juan Rivera, a well-known, local DJ transitioned the art opening into a party while Antonio, a professional balloon artist who has an amazing ability to make flowers, animals and just about anything imaginable from a simple balloon, added just the right touch to make the evening fun and original.

And people flowed through the three levels and onto the street outside, including Geir and his group of 20 friends who had traveled all the way from Norway for the party. And the whole space was alive with energy and excitement and celebration.

At first glance, those old enough to remember might have looked at this once again tri-level business and been reminded of the days of El Corral when Pepe and his wife, Sandra, got fines for having 100 people in the street and eventually got shut down by the city, but, upon closer inspection, they would have seen that what we were creating was something entirely different. The times had changed and so had the people and the trends.

And with ArteAltea finished and officially open, what David had envisioned and created triggered my own ideas and inspirations for the potential of this new space. And I began to dream bigger and think larger. AlteArte hadn’t been the most conducive for activities or events. But, now with this new space that was joined yet independent from AlteArte, suddenly the possibilities seemed limitless. And, in the months following the opening, I busied myself with researching local talent because there’s nothing more beautiful than living in a place like Altea and having the type of business where we can showcase that talent.

And I organized a local author event and poetry reading and acoustic music for Sunday afternoons. We also organized creative workshops like how to make tie dyed t-shirts. It went over so well that one of the attendees showed up a week later, telling us how she had so much fun tie-dying that she had tie-dyed everything white that was in her wardrobe! And we got articles in the local papers and the dynamics changed.

And when Eugenio Mira, a movie director who is the son of Eugenio Mira, the ceramist who I admire so much and wrote about, was not only willing but excited to carry out my idea of organizing a screening of his recently released movie, Grand Piano, starring Elijah Wood, with him in attendance for a Q&A afterwards, I was humbled and proud at what we were accomplishing. Mira had done screenings around the world but this would be the first in his hometown and we had the honor of hosting it.

We had effectively transitioned into being a place that showcased talent, created memorable moments and brought people together. And what started out as just a local, off-the-beaten-path bar, was becoming a destination on the map. And I hoped that, through these efforts, we were making a positive impact and adding to the beauty of Altea. And just like Pepe and Sandra made history with El Corral in the 80s, perhaps one day, decades from now, people might talk about David and me and the impression that AlteArte and ArteAltea had on Altea.

But the future is the future and some things are too hard to predict. So, for the time-being, I travel back in time with Pepe – whenever he chooses to take me. At his request, I play I Can’t Get No Satisfaction by Rolling Stones, and we both get lost in our own thoughts. We are at different stages in life and have very different pasts, but the song speaks to both of us and unites us in the present.

Chasing Time

Our first encounter with Anna was in the preliminary days before we officially opened AlteArte. She was walking down the street with her suitcase in tow, on her way home to her little house just opposite and one door down from AlteArte. This sighting came to be a frequent occurrence through the years as somehow we were always there to welcome her back from France or London or some other further off place. After greeting us with kisses and accepting help with her suitcase, she would disappear inside her three story stacked house with its overflowing plants.

An avid traveler, Anna has always been on the move. 75 years old, her life has been rich with passionate relationships, exotic travels and elaborate stories – lots and lots of stories that she tells with sophisticated articulation and a theatrical voice that makes you almost feel as though you’re on Broadway watching a play not in Altea sitting at a bar. She’s strong willed and stubborn and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she’s also gentle, regularly leaving flowers from the Tuesday market in our flower pot outside.

Anna’s life experiences are a measuring stick of the passing of Time. It has been hard to keep up with Anna, but it seems as though Time is finally catching up with her. Over the past year, she has been suffering from declining eye sight and increasing dementia. And perhaps the hardest consequence of all of this is that she can no longer work which means that she might have to stop traveling. She suffers internally for this reality does not mesh well with her jet setting lifestyle. But she stays strong as a rock on the outside as she pats my hand and tells me not to worry. But I see how Time is taking its toll on this dynamic woman. And then on Tuesday a couple of Tuesdays ago, I noticed with sadness that there were no flowers from the market waiting for us in our flower pot. Once a world traveler, now it has become difficult for her to even go to the local market.

And it has made me think a lot about my own life. At one time, Time was on my side. I have taken it for granted, thinking that I had all the Time in the world. Why stress? What I didn’t do yesterday, I could do tomorrow. But I understand and see things differently now, and, just as our double layoffs in New York in 2009 taught me that I can’t plan or control things, the passing of time reminds me once more that the moment needs to be seized, for some things just can’t be planned. When once I had too much of Time, now I feel it slipping through my fingers.

And perhaps that’s why David and I started to get nervous last year when the reality started to dawn on us that we were already more than halfway through our 5 year lease at AlteArte. And we found ourselves facing the pressure to stay one step ahead of Time and anticipate and act accordingly. We had worked so hard and put so much of our heart and soul into AlteArte that it paralyzed us to think that we could lose our lease just like that, that our time could be up even if we weren’t ready.

So, after about 8 months of standing still, caught in limbo as we decided what it is that we want and falling into near depression as David had to rein in all of his ideas in case we should need to move AlteArte or stop or change course, we’ve finally made decisions and we’re moving forward. We’re taking another leap, hoping once more that we land softly.

There will be more details to come. Just give me some Time…

Our Way

David and I have put our relationship through a lot. As life has taken its twists and turns, so has our relationship. Two different people with different desires attempting to live one life. “I’m tired of California, let’s move to New York!” “It’s been my dream to start a business, let’s make that happen!” Different cultures, international moves, opposite personalities. And then just as our 10 year anniversary came in to sight, we nearly faltered and fell. Because the truth of the matter is that running a business together has probably been the most challenging test that we’ve put our marriage through.

Logically and rationally, I knew that starting a business together would be challenging. A reader even cautioned me early on about going into business with my spouse. But I immediately buried the concerns, confident that the trials and tribulations that we had already faced throughout our 8 years together pre AlteArte would serve as our armor in protecting our marriage as we threw ourselves into yet another challenging situation. And during that first year with AlteArte, I smugly felt that we were prepared for this. Our years together had honed our communication skills and enabled us to survive apparently without any worse for the wear.

It started innocently enough. Like a newborn, AlteArte, in its first year, naturally required a lot of time and energy. I understood that the full weight of our decision to open a business would include long hours, late nights, and the priority placed on different things. But, after nearly a year, when I stepped back to find a bit more balance and establish a life outside of AlteArte, although I so wanted David to join me, I quickly saw that it’s not what he wanted and I knew that I couldn’t fault him if he couldn’t. We were both carrying the weight of the business on our shoulders, but, as I stepped back to focus on my writing and spend time with my friends outside of AlteArte, he voluntarily stepped forward to develop AlteArte into our own. And, I reminded myself that if I wasn’t ready to embrace this then I shouldn’t have made the decision in the first place.

Naturally, though, we fell into a routine, and, as we headed into our fourth year, David was spending so much of his time at AlteArte that I saw him more at AlteArte than I did outside of AlteArte. And I noticed that the very thing that we were trying to protect was actually the very thing that we had pushed into the background. And as we put all of our energy into the business, we had little left for our marriage. And we neglected it, assuming that it could survive with very little attention or care. And, slowly, our relationship began to morph as we unconsciously shaped it and molded it until I could no longer ignore the nagging feeling at my core, and it dawned on me that we had started to relate more as co-workers than as a married couple. In essence, our relationship followed the course of what took place at AlteArte, our conversations centered around the stress or worries of the business, and disagreements that were ignited by something that happened at AlteArte lasted late into the evening and seeped into the core of our relationship. And, soon, rather than it being the relationship that held us together and gave life to our business, it was AlteArte that was defining our marriage.

In an effort to re-prioritize the marriage, David suggested that we take a quick 3 day trip in April before the high season was upon us. I eagerly agreed, booked tickets and found a nice hotel in Santiago de Compostela in the North of Spain. We had heard beautiful things about the North but had yet to go, and I couldn’t wait to take some time off to explore this region of Spain together. But the day before our scheduled departure, David started hinting that he didn’t feel like he could leave with peace of mind. True, we were dealing with a particular situation and leaving in the middle of it was a bit stressful, but the trip had been planned. For me, it was unthinkable that we would cancel the trip. But the morning of our flight, he told me that he couldn’t go. He declared it, in fact. He had made up his mind and there was no room for discussion. I sat in shock for nearly an hour before I came to my senses and realized that just because he had decided he wasn’t going didn’t mean that I couldn’t go. Always thinking of us, I had to shift my thinking and think about me. So I packed my bags and caught the bus to the airport, but, as I boarded the plane solo, I couldn’t help but feel hurt that he wasn’t by my side.

And so, three months short of our 10 year anniversary, I explored the city that marks the end of the Camino de Santiago on my own. And, as pilgrims from all around the world entered the city and sat in the church square reveling in the present and enjoying a spiritual high having walked weeks and sometimes months to get there, I sat in the same square confused about what the future held having reached a low point after nearly ten years of marriage. And for three days, I examined how I – how we – had arrived at this point. And for three days, the rain held and Santiago de Compostela lent itself to me with its beautiful pedestrian streets and lush, green parks and gently filled me with peace and positive energy.

That was our wake up call. Just as all roads of the Camino de Santiago lead to Santiago de Compostela, we were heading down a path with a clear destination in sight. It was just a matter of deciding if that was where we wanted to go. What did we want? What did we want to fight for? Did we want the same things for the future?

In the months after that trip, we talked a lot, and we really examined what it was that we wanted. And, just when I thought we were going to lose it all, we found the strength to not give up. And over the past eight months, we have re-prioritized our marriage, we have reassessed what it is that we want, we have relearned what it is that we need to make each other happy, we have refined how we relate to each other, and we have reengaged in the lives that we started and have created together.

The reality is that 10 years is a long time and a long winding path with room for life to happen, changes to take place, people and goals and desires to alter. When I think back to the person I was at 25, I realize that I didn’t even know who I was yet – I couldn’t even see around the next turn – yet I was making decisions for the rest of my life. And, although AlteArte nearly tore us apart, in the process, it taught me a lot about myself, about David and about us. Most importantly, it forced us to stand up for what we need personally so that we could change the course of where we were heading together. And, by doing so, ultimately, it has brought us closer together.

We nearly faltered and fell but we caught ourselves at the last minute. And, on August 2nd, we celebrated 10 years. But a decade of marriage doesn’t just happen. You have to work at it, you have to fight for it, but, more than anything, you have to both really want it. So that you choose it again and again and again – even when you have changed and your partner has changed and the situation has changed. So that you stay the course and don’t lose your way.

We reached a crossroad and we were both given a choice, and, 10 years later and 10 years wiser, we chose each other.

*A couple of additional points I’d like to make:
– Those who know me know that I’m a private person, but I felt that this blog was an important one to write and to share. After all, we’re all human, and I don’t think that the fact that we have struggled is any sign of failure on our part. It’s just a normal part of the process and of life.
– David has supported me in writing and publishing this post. That, alone, shows me how much he loves me, for that is an action that speaks way louder than words.

Family Roots

I am balanced, but I owe it to my mom who taught me by example to take everything in stride. I was never in want of anything, but that’s thanks to my parents who always provided us with everything that we could want or need. I have made choices in life confidently but that’s because I know that I am loved unconditionally. I am stable, but that’s because my parents have always provided me with a strong foundation. I have known kindness and generosity, but that’s because I have been surrounded by it. I don’t curse – and never have – but that’s because I knew that I would get in trouble by my big sis if I ever did. I had the courage to think big and go far from home in search of my own path, but that’s largely because my siblings forged the path before me and showed me what was possible. And, thanks to my grandmother, I have come to understand moral integrity and have been driven to live a life even just a quarter as great as hers. I am the product of all of this, yet it wasn’t until I grew up that I realized that what I had was something special: Family.

Growing up, I simply assumed that just because my family was so close-knit, everyone else’s was. I naively thought that just because my parents had been together for decades, everyone else’s had. And I took it entirely for granted that I had two parents who loved me and provided for me because I thought that that’s just how it was. Then, when I grew older and the innocence of childhood had faded, I realized that my reality was not the reality that is. And I realized that growing up in such a family was more the exception than the norm.  And I realized what a head start in life I had gotten and what an advantage I had simply by having an uninterrupted, happy childhood.

So when David was feeling the need to be with his family, I pushed him to go to Paris to spend time with his half brother and sister and his mom. It had been years since he had seen his siblings and I knew that, after the fiestas, January would be a slow month. I also felt more confident running AlteArte on my own ever since I had survived September when he had gone to Lisbon for five days. The first week passed without incident, but by day 7, loneliness was setting in, and I tried to stave it off by going down to the water. It was my day off. I needed to get out and distract myself with nature and people. 

I had just sat down on a bench facing the sea with my book in hand when I checked my phone and saw that I had received a text – from my sister. As soon as I saw it, I knew that something was up. She would never send a text unless she was in Europe. I took the fastest route and ran up the winding streets home. When I didn’t find her out front, I ran inside to call her. As I knew she would, she tried to play it off, to delay the surprise a little longer, but I know my sister. And, after I hung up, I knew that she would head to the house so I ran outside so that I could see her as soon as she was within sight, and, sure enough, minutes later, she rounded the corner with suitcase in tow, tired but happy. 

For my sister to stop her busy life and come all the way from the US just because I was alone might sound extravagant, but that’s what my sister does. And while I was thrilled, I was not surprised. Because I know my sister. She’s fiercely loyal, over-the-top generous, selflessly giving, and, as a big sis, super protective. And she has always spoiled me rotten.

And, for the next week, she stayed by my side. She helped me clean, she kept me company while I worked, and she talked to the customers. And people who I had known for years opened up to her and shared with her their concerns. One talked about his broken heart, another about his need to travel and to reconnect with that feeling of being alive when chance encounters could be carried through and signs from the Universe could be heeded and acted upon.  

And when we weren’t at AlteArte, I took her to my favorite places: we had a vegetarian sandwich at Caramba, tapas at Xef Pirata, Marinara pizzas at El Castell, and vegetarian sushi on the terrace of the Japanese restaurant with its super nice owner and sweeping views of Altea’s rooftops and the sea and mountains.  And we visited the outdoor market where we stocked up on oranges and olives and artichokes. And on our day off, we enjoyed a beautiful afternoon and walked along the water to Albir, the neighboring village, and we had lunch at an Indian restaurant and then back in Altea we stopped at one of my favorite cafes along the water and we had a coffee and watched the moon rise – a moon that was so full and bright and orange that I initially confused it for a streetlamp.  And, I realized that, for the first time, I was on vacation in Altea. 

And then when she extended her trip for one more day because David’s return got delayed, we visited her favorite ceramicist on Calle Mayor. Having owned his store for 30 years, Eugenio makes up part of Altea’s history. He has crafted many of the signs in the old town, and plays a role in my own beginning in Altea for he was the ceramicist that we visited during my family’s first visit to Altea more than three years ago. At that time, my Spanish was still too basic to translate but my dad heard the classical music coming from his workshop in the back and they connected through a different kind of language as they both spoke the names of composers they admired. And he continued to play a role as, each time that my family came, we would visit his shop and my sister would buy up a slew of his trademark doves and although my dad was no better at Spanish and Eugenio no better at English, I had become better at Spanish and could finally bridge the gap and translate as Eugenio gushed over his daughter who’s a violinist in Madrid and he showed us articles about his son who’s a movie director. And his eyes shone with pride every time he talked about his children who are making it big even in Spain’s tough economy.  

This time, my sister was here alone and she picked out one signature piece, and as he updated us once more on his children’s success, I finally mustered up the courage to ask the one question that I had been wanting to ask for years though had always been afraid to: “Eugenio, what happened to your wife?” And, after I said it, I held my breath, worried that I had been too direct or my question too personal, but he barely skipped a beat before he stated that she had passed away from cancer 14 years ago, and, without any further prodding, he started telling their story. He described how he had worked in agriculture, doing as his dad did and tilling his own land, but had decided to take a ceramics class at night. They met in class, fell in love and were married by the second semester, and, together, they discovered Altea and turned a dilapidated house for rent into a store with a workshop in the back. They sold their work there for the first four summers before moving to Altea and opening the shop year round. In the workshop behind, he guided his four year old son as he made his own creations – dinosaurs – which they later sold in the shop. Later, when his children were verging on adulthood, he provided the financial support for them to pursue their dreams – his daughter went to pursue music for three months in New York, his son to Madrid to learn about film – but he carefully explained to them that, should they deviate from their paths, they would have to come back and work in the store, by his side. Neither ever did. And I realized that, just as the ceramics that he created came from the earth, so did his children who were so rooted with ethics and morals that they had been able to find their way even in the most difficult of industries. But he hadn’t done it alone.

He now turned our attention to a bust of a woman displayed elegantly behind the register. It had been there since we had first visited his store 3 years ago, but we had never understood its significance.  He explained that his wife had made it and he had kept it there to be by his side as he carried out the dream of the store that, together, they had envisioned and shared in life. He explained how, 14 years ago, she was diagnosed with cancer and given 6 months to live. Desperate, he had told the doctor that he had a house he could sell, but the doctor silenced him saying that there wasn’t enough that he could sell because there was nothing they could do. And, as I quickly translated to Coral, I choked up. And the weight of that moment and the sadness of that realization overtook us and Eugenio relived the pain once more and, simultaneously as if in chorus, silence embraced us and our tears began to fall. Taking off his glasses and wiping the tears from his eyes, Eugenio explained that everyone suffers from something – a love lost, difficulty in work, etc. – as if life is designed to prevent us from ever being too happy. His suffering came in the form of having found the love of his life only to lose her too early in life.  And we thought back on the people who had visited during the time that Coral was at AlteArte and thought of the man with the broken heart and the other yearning for the freedom to travel once more and realized that, yes, everyone suffers from something.

We exited his shop and stood in a daze on Calle Mayor, blinking in the afternoon light and struggling to get our bearings. It was as if we had traveled back to a time long ago and relived Eugenio’s life – full of its joys and sorrows – with him. The moment had been so intense as he recounted his story, reciting it as if a poem memorized, as if his heart had been welling over and the words were just waiting to be released. I had not been able to translate fast enough, for he had spoken without pause. It had taken me more than three years to ask the question, but I realized that the story came not at a time when my spanish was good enough – even though that was essential – nor when I knew Eugenio well enough – even though it would have been inappropriate to ask earlier – but, simply, when the message was ready to be received.  

Eugenio will retire soon. He will finish off the high season this summer and then he will empty the store of his ceramics and he will rent out the four walls. What kind of merchandise will fill the space only time will tell, but Eugenio’s exit will signify the ending to a significant part of Altea’s history. Once he is no longer tied down to the opening hours of the store which he respects strictly – as he does everything in life – he might finally accept the invitations that have come in from around the world to exhibit his work. And he surely will be behind the set of his son’s films as Eugenio Jr. gives him inside access to the world of film which has always fascinated him, and there won’t be anything that will keep him away from spending time in Madrid with his newly born first grandchild.

And we understood why Coral needed to stay that one extra day in Altea. And when she left, I recalled the full, bright, orange moon that had risen over the Mediterranean as we sipped our coffee and wondered whether that was perhaps why all of the interactions during the time that she had been here had been so intense, for the effects of a full moon in Altea are unlike anywhere else I have ever been. In any case, the time that we shared together had been deeply meaningful on so many different levels.

Family anchors us. They give us strength when life is hard, they guide us when choices need to be made, and they root us to the soil so that we stay grounded even in the most trying of times. I am so grateful for my family who have served as my rock solid support when I was doubting myself in high school, finding my way in college, spreading my wings in Paris, and running a business in Altea.