Tag Archives: Spain

Desperate in Altea

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.

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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”

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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.

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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

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.

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.