„It’s pronounced like ‚Yash,‘ actually“ chapter 6: Andorra
The bus chugged along, following the road that snaked through the dragon-back mountains as we edged further into the Pyrenees.
I had been travelling for almost twelve hours to get from Iasi, Romania, to the tiny mountain country of Andorra, and I was zombie-tired.
In the bus, I was losing the fight against my drooping eyelids, but every time I would let my guard down and feel sleep start to creep up on me, some force beyond my control would jolt me awake just in time to have my breath taken away again; the scene outside my window deserved to be in some Lord of the Rings movie, so unfathomably sharp, strong and majestic were the mountain peaks surrounding us.
The bright countryside of Catalunya and Barcelona where I had landed had given way to the mountains suddenly, as if the sleeping hunks of rock had leapt forward to cut us off from the manageable, flat world of humans. Andorra was hard to get to for a reason, nestled as they were on the border of France and Spain in the midst of constantly snow-capped mountains. Their location had served them well throughout history, though, and they didn’t seem to be in any hurry to make themselves easier to access. “Not a journey for wimps,” said the mountains, and I wondered how long it would have taken me to arrive back in ye olden days, although this trip was already trying enough. No, you had to earn getting to Andorra. For me, that meant two planes, a trip across the Mediterranean, and a bus later, and soon I would be able to get off, stretch my legs, and complain to my good friend Jimmy that he had picked the most unreachable country to do his Fulbright in.
Finally, pulling up the scrupulously clean bus station, I could do just that. Jimmy waved frantically as he saw me, the little poms on his favorite hat bouncing, and I smushed my face against the window to make the stupidest face I could back. Upon disembarking, Jimmy wrapped me in a big hug. “Finally! You maaaade it!”
I laughed. “Yeah, but Andorra did its best to make that impossible!”
“Well, you’re here now. Let’s go!”
The evening would be spent strolling through the hilly, tightly-packed streets of Andorra la Vella, the tiny country’s capital. The high-end shops and hyper-modern atmosphere of Andorra seemed to bear down on the streets, or the effect might have come from the fact that everything was, very literally, stacked on top of each other to make the most use of the space. “Small country, gotta build smart,” Jimmy shrugged.
I would spend the weekend listening intently as Jimmy spoke Spanish with everyone we came in contact with, laughing at the antics of his loud and energetic 8th grade students, and feeling elated after cups of sangria and wine. The taxing trip to reach my friend rewarded me with relaxing afternoons and brilliant sunsets. The light dripped like honey on the craggy mountain faces and faded to pink and orange as dusk settled in.
Andorra was a hidden gem, wedged as it was in the Pyrenees, for skiing. One afternoon, after their teaching day was finished, Jimmy’s coworker drove us into higher ridges of the country where the ski industry owned the hotels and cafes, but not the sparkling view.
Jimmy and I took turns flopping about in the snow alongside the highway where we had pulled off, snapping photos, videos for the professors we missed, and laughing hysterically at the stubby, fat pine trees that continued to stubbornly exist along the side of the road. We got snow in our pants, shoes, shirts, and hats, but returned to the city with rosy cheeks and warm hearts. Funny how you sometimes find those in the midst of a winter wonderland.
Finally, my last afternoon in Andorra would be graced by a traditional Catalonian sporting event: casteller!
The word, coming from the Catalonian word literally meaning “castle,” meant we would be seeing exactly that. Teams of people climbing atop each other to form human towers, or castles.
I screamed, sometimes inwardly, sometimes out loud, each time a small child shimmied up the three levels of people to stand at the very top, so high I had to crane my neck, raise a fist in victory, and sliiide back down the backs of her neighbors to the safety of the ground again. Jimmy sighed and rolled his eyes each time I winced, pointing out the obvious when I did. “It’s totally safe, look, they’re fine!”
“I would be splat, a pancake, on the ground,” I informed him as the red-shirted team assembled to form their next tower. The crowd clapped and cheered when they did, and the orange-shirted team broke out of their huddle to match the feat with yet another of their own. I shivered again, snapped another picture, and turned my face to soak up the sun.
An impossible to get to mini-country with people who clearly weren’t afraid of anything, snow in November, and good wine.
Yeah, okay. Good pick, Jimmy.