Sara in Altea: "Altea is breathtakingly gorgeous"

Expat interviews
  • Sara in Altea
Published on 2013-06-27 at 02:00 by team
In 2009, Sara and her Spanish husband decided to make a life change and moved from New York City to Spain. They own a bar in Altea, Alicante, where they have been able to meet some amazing people, including film directors and artists.

Why did you decide to move to Spain?

In 2009, my husband and I were living in New York and we lost our jobs - within one week of each other. As destiny would have it, it just so happened that my father-in-law was opening a restaurant in Spain at the same exact time. My husband is a trained chef, so we figured that maybe it was a sign. We packed 22 boxes and our cat, and we all moved to Spain.

How was the moving process?

The actual move was fairly easy, especially once we found a good shipping company that we could trust with all of our belongings. The fact that Spain was already undergoing a recession when we arrived meant that many apartments were available to rent so it was fairly easy to find something cheap. Also, it helps that my husband is Spanish, so he was able to deal with all the paperwork of setting up a bank account etc. Getting my paperwork in order was a bit more strenuous. Obtaining my identification number required patience and several early mornings at the immigration office. And, even though I'm married to a Spaniard, getting my residency card was a long process that took about a year.

Did you face some difficulties to adapt to your host country (language, culture, do's and don'ts)?

I didn't speak a single word of Spanish when I arrived, so, needless to say, not being able to understand even the simplest of conversations and not being able to express myself was frustrating and challenging. For the first six months, I just listened. Slowly, I started being able to distinguish words from a jumble of sounds. Also, getting used to Siesta was, surprisingly, difficult. It always seemed as though just when we were ready to start our day was when all the businesses were taking their break. The fact that banks close at 2pm and don't reopen meant that a simple bank-related errand might take days to actually accomplish. And the expression that everything is mañana is really true, so getting used to the slow pace that everything happens here really took some adjusting to, especially coming from New York City. The challenge is to not get frustrated by it, but, instead, to slow down and enjoy life. Meanwhile, the fiestas are nonstop and every other week, we're celebrating some kind of Saint, so that also makes the rhythm of Spain unique.

You co-own a bar in the city: is it easy to start your own business in Spain? What are the formalities you had to go through?

In Spain, especially now, there is an abundance of businesses for sale, and if you have the cash, you can become a business owner within days. The more challenging part is finding the right one and making the business work. There is a constant turnover in businesses and it's amazing to see what comes and goes in a very short time. As for us, we looked at several places in Torrevieja, where we first moved to, but they were all huge restaurants with a high overhead. We continued our search and started traveling along the Coast. When we discovered Altea, we fell in love, and we were lucky enough that the business that we now own, was for sale. The fact that my husband is Spanish was crucial in terms of buying the business, establishing accounts with the providers, setting up the paperwork with the accountant, applying for permits with the city hall, and being accepted by the Spanish locals. Also, Spain is always introducing new laws or raising taxes or changing the way information is delivered, so staying on top of all of that would be very challenging if not for my husband.

What surprised you the most in Altea?

I was surprised by how international Altea is. Although there are only just over 20,000 residents living here, it's comprised of all different kinds of nationalities and the tourists passing through are even more diverse. I love being able to speak French, English and Spanish in the same day. I love meeting people from all around the world. It makes Altea feel bigger than it is.

Is it easy to meet new people in Altea? Any advice?

Having a business has been an amazing way to get to know a lot of people in a very short amount of time. By owning a bar, we're in the center of things and new people come through our doors every day, so we are constantly meeting new people. However, for those who don't have the advantage of owning a business, the good thing about Altea is that it is small, so, once you meet a couple of people, you can easily meet a whole lot more. Now that we are better integrated, I have made it a goal to turn our bar into a meeting point and to do my share to connect people. I remember all too well what it was like for me in the beginning so I try to take newcomers to Altea under my wing and introduce them to our customers who have now become our friends. I would suggest taking classes at the Social Center where they offer everything from language classes to dance classes and definitely to come to our bar!

Could you please share with us something you like about Altea and something you don't like?

Altea is breathtakingly gorgeous. The cobbled streets, the white houses, the views of both the Mediterranean and the mountains are what made me fall head-over-heels, and it's still what keeps me enchanted nearly four years later. Being able to wake up and see the sea is something that I try to not take for granted. As for what I don't like, it's a very transient place. I learned that in the first year when we had to say goodbye to people who were only here for a short time. People come and go, but the good thing is that, because Altea is so special, many of them return again even if only for a visit.

What do you miss the most from the US?

The variety of food. I'm vegetarian, so I miss the awareness of vegetarianism in the US and the wide variety of cuisine, especially coming from New York where you could find anything and everything.

What does a typical day as an expat in Altea look like?

A typical day really depends on the expat. Some expats here stick to their own communities, so they go to supermarkets with food from their country, they have a drink at bars full of people speaking their language, etc.; but others are fully immersed. Altea is pretty laid back so a typical day involves maybe heading down to the water to walk along the promenade, grabbing a quick lunch and then meeting up with friends later for a drink.

Which advice would you give to people wishing to live in Spain?

Right now, Spain is facing a challenging time economically, so I would advise people to come with realistic expectations and only if they have a source of income. Also, be prepared to slow down. Those who are in a rush or want things to work like they do back home might get frustrated with the slower pace of life.

Why did you start your blog, Notes from Spain?

I started it initially as a way to share my experiences of moving to Spain with some of my close friends back home. It was also a personal journal and a good way to discipline myself to take the time to write down how I was feeling and what I was experiencing at different times throughout the journey. Now, I read previous entries, and it takes me back to those early days when we were searching for a business of our own or when we had just taken over our bar and I was nervous to take orders in case my Spanish should fail me. Perhaps, one of these days, I'll gather all of these thoughts, experiences, and feelings and put them in a book!

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