Tag Archives: business

My Altea

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.

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Anna’s house then… it’s the one overflowing with plants and flowers on the left.


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Anna’s house now. It’s just a shell of what it once was.


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Anna’s house now.


Street Scene

Juan Dura was painting during our very first visit to Altea.


Pepa and Jenny

Pepa (on the left) has been part of our Altea since the beginning.


Ivan and Sissel

Sissel (on the right) has been one of our strongest supporters since the beginning.

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

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.     

Alone Time

I’ve been together with David for 11 years – married for nine – and in that time, I have discovered who I am in a couple and what I’m like as a wife but have forgotten what it’s like to be alone and who I am on my own. So when David suddenly announced that he needed a break to clear his head and was not only going to take some time off but was going to travel to another country – Portugal – needless to say, I was filled with apprehension. And butterflies fluttered in my stomach. In the nearly three years that we have owned AlteArte, there has only been one time that I was on my own – when David had to go to Paris for a weekend for the funeral of a close family friend. During that time, there was no way to avoid him being gone, so we quickly planned for his time away and arranged for a friend of mine to help me while he was gone. Knowing that his presence was needed at the funeral, I wrapped my head around the idea until it became familiar and not so daunting. And besides only one small mishap with the keg when gas started spewing out and the top covered over in frost, everything went fairly smoothly.

But this time, things were a bit different. This time, David had reached a point that he was tired and burnt out and needed to get away. Right then. Right there. Immediately. The intense heat and business of the Summer had required all of the physical energy that we could muster and had left both of us tired and drained. Indeed, every day of August had felt like a battle as we struggled to meet the demand, to keep the mint, limes and crushed ice constantly stocked, to keep the tables that lined the street constantly bused, constantly attended to, constantly turning. From the moment we opened to the time that we closed, we had to be “on” both mentally and physically. So when the end of August finally greeted us, we embraced it, proud that not only had we survived but that we had surpassed sales from the previous summer.

So when David came to me, telling me that he needed to get away, that he couldn’t create anything new because he didn’t have the energy, I understood why for I felt the same way. But I couldn’t help but feel hurt that he wasn’t taking me with him. And I couldn’t help but feel shocked that, of all places, he was choosing to go to Lisbon, one of the places that I had most desired to return to now that a good friend had just moved there and another friend had just opened a cute taco stand business. And I couldn’t help but feel alarm that he wouldn’t be nearby during my 5 day period alone, should anything go wrong, should I need him.

But I knew that he needed to leave. I saw it in his face, I read it in his actions, and I knew that it would be disastrous try to keep him any longer. So I let him go. I even helped him go, and I tried to put aside the hurt and the nervousness and the apprehension that I was feeling inside in order to step up to the task at hand: run AlteArte. And I did. And I was once again touched by the show of support from Pepe, the previous owner, and Olalla, one of our customers/friends, who both told me to call should I need anything – just as they had the last time I was alone. And I got through each day without incident (fortunately, I have finally mastered the technique of changing the keg!).

And I began to see things a bit differently.

I started to understand how important it is to not lose yourself in another, that, even if you’ve been with someone for a decade, you need to be able to stand alone. Because there may come a time when you have to fill both shoes. I realized how many small things I have come to depend on David for. When something breaks, I wait for David to fix it. When we run out of something, I tell David so that he can pick it up from the market. When someone has trouble with the wifi or the computer for rent, David is always there to take care of it. But what if he wasn’t? Without him, there would be no one else. And it would all land on me. Without him, I understood better everything that he takes on. Without him, I realized that if I was feeling burnt out, he must be feeling it 100 times moreso. And I understood that it’s important to not take for granted this person in your life and everything that he does.

And when the five days passed and both I and AlteArte were still standing, I realized that I can do it on my own if necessary. Things won’t fall apart if David’s not there. But I needed to see that, I needed to be tested – and to pass that test – in order to gain confidence in myself and my abilities. And to see that I’m a complete person – in and of myself.

As for the way he did it, well, at the time, the lack of warning made me feel resentful and abandoned. But with time and reflection, I realize that his leaving me to take care of everything was his way of leaning on me – just as I had leaned on him so many times before.

And I suppose that that’s the advantage of being with someone for 11 years – of having someone in your life who you can trust wholly to pick up the pieces – at a moment’s notice, to stay when you need to run, to understand when you need to be selfish and leave… in order to find yourself once more.

A Flower Blooms

In our first year running AlteArte, my feet ached, I regularly woke up with searing cramps running down my leg, and there were nights that I fought to keep my eyes open not having yet adjusted to the Spanish lifestyle. Now, in our third year, my feet no longer ache as much, it’s been a long time since I suffered from a leg cramp, and I no longer get so sleepy. But, after two years of mopping the floors, putting out the terrace and making mojitos day after day, a different kind of fatigue has been gnawing at me – the fatigue that comes with routine. No longer fueled by novelty, there are days where my motivation runs dry. “Can we just close today,” David will ask, mirroring my own thoughts perfectly. Yet, we both know that, as much as we wish that we could just crawl back in to bed or take the night off, we have a business to run. So, from deep witin, we summon the energy to clean, open and see another day through.

But just when this fatigue was starting to get disturbingly frequent, a series of events happened – like Julie’s unexpected appearance. One of the few Americans I’ve met since my time in Altea, Julie only had a week left in her stay when she stopped by AlteArte for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Julie was looking for WiFi, loves mojitos (to the point that she makes her own at home), and had fallen in love with Altea’s old town just as I had. She possessed a strong New York energy that instantly revived me, but it was in talking to her that I recharged. She listened as I told her about Pepe, the previous owner who we bought AlteArte from, and how extremely generous and kind-hearted he and his family are. She was fascinated when I told her about Ivan, our customer turned personal farmer who brings us eggs and vegetables straight from his land and who we’d eventually like to use as the sole provider for all of the mint for our mojitos. And it was in sharing with her how we came to live and run a business in Altea that I was reminded of how truly special our story really is. And as she swooned over the details, I did too. And by stepping back, out of the day to day, I was able to see the big picture and fall in love all over again. Julie came at a crucial time. I needed her energy and enthusiasm to get my own energy up for the busy season and I gladly drank from her resources to replenish my own.

And as she sat there on her very first visit to AlteArte, the details of our story came to life, for the locals started arriving to watch a soccer match. And when I finally was no longer busy serving and had time to reflect, I realized that pepe and Ivan not only were there but they were sitting next to each other talking, and I excitedly pointed them both out to Julie. And, the stars must have really been aligned because on Julie’s next visit to AlteArte, Pepe’s father, Tony, who owns Hotel San Miguel and one of the best paella restaurants in Altea, invited us, out of the blue, to a paella dinner. All we had to do was say for how many people and what time, and he would have it ready the next day for us to pick up and bring back to AlteArte. And just like that we had a paella party in the works and Julie had a personal invitation from Tony, himself.

By the week’s end, Julie had met a number of the Alteans and residents, had enjoyed an impromptu paella dinner, had gotten a personal tour of Karl’s gallery/house (the artist who lives across the street), and, was so enamored with Altea that she is playing around with the idea of returning in the Fall to live here for a while, and I cradled the idea that, thanks to us and AlteArte, Julie had had a richer and more colorful Altean experience.

Another type of magic has been happening recently – like when Sissel met Lynda. Sissel is one of my closest friends here. Lynda is an English woman who I’ve known since I started the Book Club about six months ago. A couple of weeks ago, Lynda came to our Spanish conversation for the first time where she met Sissel, and they totally hit it off. On another ocassion, Sissel and Irya, a Finnish woman who I know from Spanish class, were at AlteArte on the day that Ivan was making an egg delivery. He had thrown in some onions and garlic, and I happily showed Sissel and Irya the delivery as I never cease to be impressed by the idea of being able to live off the fruits of the land which is just part of life in Altea. They were so swept away by the notion that we went and visited Ivan at his home later that week and they purchased vegetables straight from his land and each adopted a hen in order to get fresh eggs just as we do. And the best part is it’s a win win. Ivan sells his produce, one of his sole sources of income since he closed his business at the beginning of the year. Sissel and Irya get to make this unique notion of local produce a part of their daily lives in Altea, and now they all know each other, having met at AlteArte and bound by produce. Through instances like these, the people who make up AlteArte are getting to know one another so that eventually there will be no division between our friends and our customers but just one large community of people from all different nationalities.

The novelty of running AlteArte may have worn off, but glimpses of a different kind of sensation have taken its place. Glimpses of a seed that we planted more than two years ago taking root and starting to flower, and the consequent rewards are ten times more intensely satisfying as if two years of dedication and hard work have unlocked a new level of consciousness. So when a couple of American guys comment that they’re a long way from home, but when they come to AlteArte, they feel comfortable as if they could stay forever, or a Polish girl brings her brother and friends to AlteArte having described it as a place where you can meet people from all over, these comments and observations mean the world to us. For they validate everything that we envisioned for AlteArte and prove that we have created a unique and special place. And they keep us fueled and give us the energy to see another day through – knowing that that might just be the day that a new flower blooms.

Time’s On Our Side

Ever feel like time is on an out of control spiral of its own? Time is like a river that’s flowing and then rushing, ever quicker, ever faster. Years pass like months, months like days and somehow we’re already nearly halfway through 2012 but somehow I feel like just yesterday, we were celebrating the arrival of a new year. And then I remember back to my childhood when the lazy days of summer would stretch out to the horizon and time was on a slow moving train and one summer felt like a year, that’s how long vacation was. Time has a funny way of playing tricks. But as elusive as time feels, it’s also an important way to measure accomplishments. And the passing of time speaks volumes – without saying a word.

One year in business may have given us reason to celebrate but two years gave us cause to stop and think about what exactly that meant. When we first took over AlteArte in February 2010, Altea and Spain, in general, was still new to us, and taking over a business in a charming town was exhilarating. But over the past year, as we’ve seen bars open and close and as more and more of our customers and friends have opened their own bars, it not only seems like anybody can do it, but that everyone is doing it. And I realize now that the accomplishment didn’t come with just the simple act of opening a bar. No, that was the easy part. The real accomplishment didn’t come until we had withstood the test of time and had more water under our bridge. The real accomplishment required a bit more struggle, a bit more of a commitment.

Two years of time and two years of corresponding experience opened my eyes to this fact. In the U.S., it’s often said that half of all restaurants fail within the first two years. And I’m sure that the bars in Spain share a similar fate. So as we celebrated our second anniversary, it had a very different feel from the first. I look back at that first celebration, and it feels innocent and tame in comparison, complete with presents and a cake. This year, on February 25th, we partied to a packed house and a jamming DJ, and the energy that swept through AlteArte was explosive. And the anxiety that always precedes an event – will people come, will it mean as much to others as it does to us – rapidly dissolved as the people poured in. And David and I couldn’t work fast enough, we couldn’t serve the people coming at us from all sides of the bar quick enough, and we got so overwhelmed that, eventually, all we could do was laugh out loud because it was out of control – but in a good way. This time, the celebration was a lot more intense. And the milestone felt much greater.

And, best of all, were the faces that made up the crowd. Unlike our first year, when I couldn’t help but feel a bit dismayed that there were so unfamiliar faces, this year almost everyone who was present, were people that we had grown to know over two years of being in business – ranging from people who had been around from the very beginning to a couple that we had only just met less than a week before. And the support from other business owners – tapas bar Xef Pirata, beach bar Casa del Mar, and Rock bar RIP – touched us deep down for we knew that they had made a special effort to come and that they personally understood the accomplishment and were punctuating it with their presence.

Anyone can open a bar, especially in Spain where there’s a bar practically on every corner and especially in these times when there’s an abundance of bars for sale – 20 currently for sale in Altea alone according to our rum provider. Show the money and you can be opening the doors to your very own business a mere few days later.

But not everyone makes it to two years. For though the river of time moves quickly, two years is a significant milestone. Two years still leaves a lot of room for mistakes, challenges, upsets, and long hours. Successfully making it to two years requires perseverance, commitment, hard work and dedication. It’s not just a question of making enough money to stay in business, it’s also a question of personal endurance. Are you strong enough – physically and mentally – to see each day through to its end and be ready for the next? And are you passionate enough to to keep giving yourself, to keep breathing new ideas, new energy, new oxygen into your business? Two years does not come easily, so when it’s reached, the feeling is rewarding, especially when it’s celebrated in the company of supportive friends and customers.

For it’s only with time securely behind us that we can confidently say that we’ve beaten the odds and that we’re here to stay.

Understanding Change

The only constant in life is change. I’ve been reminded of this over and over until I’ve almost gotten used to it and nearly been able to embrace it. For change is good. Even when life becomes deliciously comfortable, change is necessary. And, in Altea, as much as time seems to be both standing still and speeding by, change is the glue that holds everything together.

Altea has been changing ever since we arrived more than two years ago. A transient place, I learned early on that people are constantly coming and going from this coastal village. Relationships are formed, connections are made over three months or six months but invariably there’s always an end, for many of the new arrivals never plan to stay. They come to study or work for a pre-determined period of time, so saying goodbye simply comes with the territory – the beginning always comes with the ending in sight. And somehow you get used to having to say goodbye and you learn to focus, instead, on the fact that, suddenly, you have friends spread out all over Europe – Norway, Finland, Germany, Sweden, Slovenia! And you hope that, one day, they might come back for a visit… like Brady, an American who added color and humor to our very first Summer. It’s been a year and a half since we saw him, but, on Sunday, he walked through the doors and David and I did a doubletake as we each tried to make sense of the apparition that stood before us. Like photos, people transport us back to different points in time and Brady instantly took me back to the Summer of 2010 when everything was brand new at AlteArte and we were still trying to get our bearings and we were battling with the machines and unsure of what each new day would bring.

But because we now know to expect it, saying goodbye has become monumentally easier than when I had to say one of my very first goodbyes to Daria, the very first student who held an exhibition at AlteArte. When Daria walked out of the doors of AlteArte, I couldn’t keep the tears back because saying goodbye was still new to me. And because Daria signified so much. She represented our beginning at AlteArte. That moment stands frozen in time.

Once I got used to saying goodbye, I better understood the importance of saying hello. I realized that an important aspect of AlteArte would be a constant reaching out to new people who walked through our doors. In other words, the effort that I expected to have to make especially in the beginning would need to be an ongoing effort every day that we were in business. And so the days have passed, and I have done my best to make a conscious effort to remember names, talk to people, leave a lasting impression just as I did in the beginning.

But in the last two months, finding the energy to do this has become more challenging because, in 2012, the goodbyes have been of a different nature. As difficult as it has been, we’ve come to expect to say goodbye to Altea’s new arrivals. What we didn’t expect we would have to do is say goodbye to the people who are from Altea or who have lived in Altea for years and have made up our Altea since we arrived. But as the economy in Spain has severely worsened, Altea is being touched. And a common thought seems to be on the forefront of many people’s minds: to go where the opportunities are. And, certainly right now, Spain with its startling unemployment numbers especially among the youth, certainly doesn’t offer anything too promising at the moment.

So, in January, we said goodbye to Maya who is German but who has lived in Spain for the majority of her life. Maya was there from the beginning of our adventure in Altea but finally left to pursue her own when she went to live in Germany. We said goobye to Sam who lived in Spain for 8 years before deciding last month to move back to England, where he’s originally from, to work in a startup company. Sam, who would come to AlteArte to share his latest business idea or tell me about the latest website he had built, was always full of ideas but had no way to execute them, and, therefore, was going stir crazy in Altea. We said goodbye to Karim who is half Moroccan, half Spanish and who decided to return to Morocco after more than a decade of living in Altea because he could work as a tour guide there, something that he was finding it difficult to do here. Karim who we had seen nearly every day for at least a year. We said goodbye to Neus who’s originally from Altea but after struggling to find opportunities here, left for China to teach English for a year. And we said goodbye to Carlos who, after a long history in Altea, was struggling through an especially difficult Winter with no work and no money and finally returned to be near his family in Toledo.

And soon we will have to say goodbye to Nadia who’s waiting impatiently for Sam to find an apartment so that she can join him in England. Nadia who we’ve known since our second day in business when she came in with Warner and who has filled AlteArte with delicious cupcakes just when we were most in need and dance moves that energize all who are lucky enough to find themselves in her radius. And we’re mentally preparing ourselves to possibly have to soon say goodbye to Paul and Jenny who, after living in Altea for the last couple of years, are seriously thinking of returning to England because of the lack of work here. Paul and Jenny who we’ve known long enough to see life happen to them and who have shared special moments at AlteArte.

This random tossup and displacement of people was to be expected. After all, it’s what happened to David and me after we lost our jobs in New York in March 2009. We, too, went in search of opportunities and somehow left the US and ended up in Spain. It’s just what happens in a recession. And I’m the first one to encourage people to search out the opportunities – even if it means leaving Altea. For life is much bigger than Altea. But I’m realizing that, in some ways, it’s easier to be the one moving forward than the one staying behind. As people leave and we face the prospect of many others leaving, David and I have been forced to come to terms with these hard facts. These are the faces that have made up our Altea and, over the last month, a feeling of emptiness has overtaken us as Karim, who arrived like clockwork at the same time every day, is now nowhere to be seen and Maya no longer comes for shots of Blue Vodka and Sam only comes back to us in a memory when we play one of his favorite songs. And David and I have both struggled to keep up our morale. For they weren’t just our regulars who breathed life into AlteArte but our friends.

But as Warner, who is struggling just as we are, reminds me, Altea is a place that people always return to. Perhaps it will be a while before they come back – and perhaps they’ll never come back to live – but they’ll visit. And they’ll bring with them AlteArte as it was when they were here. And, just like a photo, they’ll bring back feelings and memories that only they can conjure up. Just as Brady did the second he walked through the door.

And, in the meantime, time marches on, and I just have to remind myself that new people are always arriving to Altea. And I need to keep putting forth the energy to meet new people. Already, I have met new people in my Spanish class which I started taking again in January. Of course, they don’t come close to replacing the people who have made up our Altea, but they’re an essential way to bridge the past with the future and keep the tides of change moving in the right direction. For the only real constant is change.