When we first moved to Altea and took over AlteArte, I walked down the picture-perfect, moonlit street on my way home from the business every night and wondered whether any of this was even real. Perhaps I had somehow stumbled onto a movie set, I swooned. The houses were just so charming, the Lady of the Night plant in front of Anna’s house so fragrant, the cobbled street so European and the way the houses came together to frame the moon hanging between the houses so enchanting that it all felt too perfect to actually be real.
Well, nearly seven years in, I still suspect that it is all just a Hollywood set, but, instead of being the set of a romantic movie as I first thought, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s not the new on-site location for Desperate Housewives, the popular American TV series that closely followed the lives of a group of women portrayed who all lived together in the same neigborhood. Some were naive and sweet, others were conniving and manipulative.
Doesn’t make sense? Let me explain.
The phone calls started this past January. They were anonymous and disturbing and always ended badly. But the worst part was that they weren’t phone calls to us. They were calls to the police complaining about the noise coming from AlteArte. And all I could think was, “What noise?!” Following the celebration of All King’s Day on the 6th, January officially becomes the quietest time of the year in Altea. The parties are over, the pocket books are empty, the tourists are nowhere in sight, and Altea dies down as everyone just tries to recover physically and financially from the holiday festivities. So, needless to say, dealing with complaints from the neighbors was the last thing that I thought I would have to worry about at the start of the new year. Yet, the police were coming night after night. And each time, I glanced at the handful of people in AlteArte and wondered how in the world the noise could have been so bad as to warrant a call to the police. If whoever was calling the police thought that Winter was loud, just wait until the Summer.
And then I wondered who were these neighbors who were calling the cops. We had been here for five years at that point and never before had we received so many police visits due to calls from the neighbors. So what was different? Well, there was a new couple that had moved in to a house just down the street not so long ago. Could it be them? It seemed unlikely since every time I saw them, they were out walking their cute, little, white dog and they would smile and wave. They seemed docile enough and never brought up any problems with the noise. And I hated to assume that it was them just because they were the newcomers.
The problems with the noise soon evolved into problems with the closing time. We had always been under the impression that our license allowed us to stay open until 2:00; however, when the cops started threatening to fine us if we didn’t close at 1:30, we started second guessing our rights and began to close half an hour earlier. The Winter and Spring passed in that way and, soon, we got so used to the frequent visits from the cops that we were more surprised when they didn’t come than when they came. It was our new way of running business. I naively thought that it was just that the police were getting much more strict in Altea. Now, I realize that we were being targeted.
Shortly before high season, we went to the City Hall so that we could find out once and for all when our official closing time was. That half hour that we were losing every evening meant a significant financial loss especially when added up over time and would equate into even more loss in the Summer. The councilman confirmed that we had until 2:00 to close. When I asked what I should do the next time the police came at 1:45 threatening to fine us, he simply said to tell them to review the rules and regulations. Interestingly, the cops haven’t threatened to fine us for our closing hours since that visit to the City Hall, so I’ve never had the pleasure to tell them to get informed about the laws.
Summer came with all of its problems with the terrace. But just when things started to cool down with the city, things started to heat up in the neighborhood. One morning in September, one of our customers emailed saying that he had taken down a paper which had been taped to AlteArte. Apparently, the same paper had been plastered on many local businesses and restaurants in the Old Town. The message was clear, and, just to make it even clearer, it was written in three languages: Valenciano, Spanish, and English.
And with this paper, everything changed. It suddenly became clear that the reduction of terraces was no longer just an official regulation mandated by the city. It was now becoming personal. Yet, it was still anonymous, for the person – or group – who felt strongly enough to to plaster the Old Town with it was too chicken to claim responsibility.
And suddenly we had a mystery on our hands. The person who did this must have put up the notices sometime after 2am (when we closed) and before 6am (when our customer who was walking his dog discovered it), so, naturally, we started putting together a list of suspects.
Could it be the musician who lived just doors down from AlteArte? He lives alone, never smiles except when he’s proudly leading the local marching band through the he streets of Altea, and has always, at best, just tolerated us since we took over AlteArte. In Year One, he never even looked at us when passing by daily on his way to or from home. In Year Two, we got excited when he started saying a curt, “Hola”. In Year Three, we were so exhilarated when he came to AlteArte with two friends to have a tea that we didn’t even charge him for the bill. In Year Five, when David saw one day that he was coming up the street on his way home, he asked the customers to clear the path, and that’s when the musician said the most that he has ever said. Turning to face David head on, he said menacingly in Valenciano, “Do you want them to close the bar?” Needless to say, we’re glad that he doesn’t speak more often and we’re happy to revert to our Year One status with him. He doesn’t acknowledge us and we don’t acknowledge him. It’s just easier that way.
Could it be the electrician who lives just around the corner? He’s the keyholder of many homes in the neighborhood, taking care of houses for people who don’t live here year round. Somehow, he has gained the trust of these people, yet he is one of the least trustworthy people I know.
Could it be this newly arrived couple that I mentioned earlier? One is from South America, the other from Australia. The problems with the cops suspiciously seemed to start after they moved into the neighborhood, but maybe that was just a coincidence. Like I said, they had never spoken to us directly about any problem with the noise. But the truth is we didn’t know much about them at all. However, we did see them talking to everyone in the neighborhood, and as we stopped to observe them more, we noticed some disturbing behavior. We started noticing more and more interaction between the couple, the musician and the electrician. In all our years living here, we had never even reached acquaintance level with these neighbors, yet, somehow, apparently, this new, expat couple was becoming quite chummy with these Alteans.
Yet, there was no way to prove their involvement with anything – that is not until the scooter incident.
At the end of September, our friend Balazs was preparing for the opening of his photo gallery. He and his wife had bought their house just around the corner from AlteArte, on the same street as the couple, and, interestingly, had moved in at exacly the same time. The gallery had been a dream of Balazs’s since they bought the house, and for a year and a half, they had been preparing the basement and the paperwork to start the gallery. There was only one problem. The entrance of the gallery opens directly out to a parking area, and, whenever a car parks in the spot directly in front, it practically blocks the entrance to the point that it makes the gallery nearly invisible.
Sure enough, while Balazs had been getting the gallery ready for the big opening day, a big car was parking in the spot directly in front of the entrance. Balazs asked David if we could temporarily park our scooter in that spot. Seeing no harm in helping a friend out, David was happy to oblige. It didn’t take long though before the notes started. Taped to the scooter was a paper stating: “Neighbor, Please DON’T park selfishly. The Neighbors”
We took the note off, but it was quickly replaced by another one by the next morning. A few days after that incident, I was walking home from AlteArte when I saw the couple in the parking area. I tried my best to avoid them, but they called after me. “Could you please move your scooter?” Dreading any kind of confrontation with them, I quickly replied that it wasn’t mine. Sure, technically, it was a lie, but the fact that I had never even driven it made it feel somewhat like the truth. They were surprised by my response but got their wits together quick enough to say, “OK. We’ll just call the cops.” Meant to intimidate me, the threat only made me upset. What were they going to do? Have it towed? It was a public parking lot. We weren’t doing anything wrong.
A few days later, David told me that they had seen him driving the scooter so I knew that the fib was up. And, sure enough, shortly after that, while walking again through the parking lot – this time on my way to AlteArte – I paused momentarily to check the scooter from a distance. The notes had made me paranoid that they would damage the bike. As I stood there, I suddenly felt that I was being watched, and as I tilted and turned my head upwards and to the right, I saw the Australian sitting in a corner of his balcony on the second floor of his home watching me. I turned my head back nonchalantly, and, as I gauged what to do next, he stood up and yelled down to me in a booming voice, “You lied to us!”
In the year and a half since he had moved into the neighborhood, this was the very first time that he was showing his true face and not hiding behind the persona that he had so manipulatively created to weasel his way into the neigborhood. And I braced myself for the showdown. “You lied to us about the bike not being yours!” he called. “You’re a liar!” And, as the insults rained down, I seized the opportunity to confront him about constantly calling the cops and never having the decency to come talk to us directly. Finally, here at last was my proof that it had been them all along, and, ironically, while he was calling me a liar, all I could think was that it felt good to have the honesty in the air between us. Interestingly, he never even mentioned the noise from the bar. Minutes into the confrontation, his South American partner stood up. He had been sitting on the other side of the balcony the whole time but was so hidden that I hadn’t even realized he was there. When the two of them started yelling “Liar” at me like schoolchildren I knew that the confrontation was pointless and decided that I had heard enough. I walked through the arch and out of sight, but when I heard a third voice – the voice of a friend – I stopped to listen. Balazs had heard the whole thing from his living room and was calling out to the neighbors from his balcony to defend me.
The whole incident shook me up so badly that, for days afterwards, I dreaded going to AlteArte. It was as if, by walking through the parking lot and then through the archway to enter the old town, I was entering into a zone of negativity and evilness. And all I could think about was the Australian’s evil grin as he threw his insults at me. All I could feel were eyes watching me. And I wondered how many more enemies we had that we had not yet identified. All around AlteArte, we were surrounded by neighbors who had always seemed to tolerate us, but ever since these neighbors had arrived, the dynamics had shifted. They singlehandedly were turning these never-friendly-but-up-until-now-at-least-tolerant neighbors into enemies who likely had plots to shut down the bar. And I felt with a clear certainty that they were the ones who had personally taken it upon themselves to make sure that the street in front of AlteArte was clear of tables and chairs.
For years, the streets around AlteArte were a little paradise of a neighborhood that was so charming that I originally questioned if all of it was even real. For months, these new neighbors with their cute dog looked so sweet and innocent that I never suspected the problems that they would create. Now, I wonder if Calle Fondo is not actually Wisteria Lane and whether these manipulative, evil, conniving people weren’t just written into the script because paradise was getting dull and the viewers needed some drama.
Or maybe I’ve finally seen beyond the surface, beyond the layers, and caught sight of the reality. I always yearned to see beyond the closed doors and into the houses, to get to know the people who lived here. Now, I wish that I could firmly close those doors with a deadbolt and could unsee what I have seen, for our neighborhood certainly looks better when wearing rose-colored glasses.