It all started on our way to Andorra – that tiny country in the Pyrenees between Spain and France. We decided to stop there for two days of skiing on our drive from Germany to Portugal.
Just before the French-Andorran border, we (ridiculously) ignored a sign telling us that snow chains were required to get over the mountain. But of course that sign doesn’t apply to native Chicagoans who know how to drive in all kinds of snowy conditions. What we forgot was that Chicago is totally flat, and the Pyrenees Mountains most definitely are not.
We ended up stuck on that mountain for six hours. Once it started getting dark, the snow storm came. Hours were spent pushing the car, skidding around the edge of a mountain, pondering our next move, sitting in the car waiting for help and finally talking to a group of kind Frenchmen who stopped for us. They were amazed at how far we had made it up the mountain but had no suggestions for how we’d either get up or back down.
We cautiously turned around and
slid drove down the mountain back into France.
It was midnight, we’d lost our hotel in Andorra, and all the hotels around us were closed for the night. When we finally found a hotel an hour away (in the opposite direction we wanted to go) we went to our room ready to pass out. It was freezing with a broken heater that was only blowing cold air. By that point it was 2am and there was nothing that the sleepy pajama-clad manager could do about it. He gave us extra blankets and offered us free breakfast. So we bundled up and fell asleep.
The next morning we got up and went out to buy chains for the car. After a few hours we were over the mountain and made it to Andorra! We arrived at our mountain lodge/hostel and walked into a dining area with a not-so friendly cat and a German Shepherd who we were told “doesn’t like female dogs.” (Our dog is female and is the sweetest dog I’ve ever known but goes a bit crazy around cats). She got sight of that cat and started barking, calling attention to the German Shepherd who sprung to action all while the five of us tried to get through the dining room full of skiers. We created quite a scene. Our room was on the fourth floor — essentially the attic. Going up the impossibly steep stairs, basically ladders, and carrying our dog and backpacks up there was an adventure itself.
Once in our room, we all, with the exception of our 7 year old, had to crouch down because the ceiling was so low. No one could stand up. We were told the heat shuts off at night and it was very cold. At that point, I had no more adventurous spirit, no excitement about skiing – just frustration and exhaustion.
And that’s when it happened. Both Matt and I were in terrible moods, and I was thinking the kids would be the grumpiest of all. Why are we doing this? Who cares about Andorra or skiing? Why couldn’t we just have gone straight to Portugal and avoided all the mess? I definitely said “we should’ve” more times than I could count, but here’s what happened as we got into this bizarre room in the attic with no lock on the door, no bathroom, no heat, and the lowest ceilings in Europe. (I’m guessing this entire house would pass zero health/safety codes.) Mirabel, our 10 year old, looked in the room and exclaimed, “It’s perfect! It’s so cozy!!” She immediately pulled out her notebook, rolled onto a bed and started working on a poem. Our 7 year old smiled and exclaimed, “I love it here!” and pulled out a few of her Playmobil toys from her little backpack and rigged up a pulley system across the room with some string she found. “The low ceilings are perfect for this!!” And Maya, our 13 year old, snuggled up with our dog and started reading happily from her Kindle.
Mirabel put on her ski goggles – she was so excited to go skiing the next day. She announced that she would be sleeping in them. She then looks over to a poster on the wall. It’s ‘Guernica’ and she says, “That looks like Picasso’s art. Is that Picasso?” Maya starts studying it and then comes Lacey, our 7 year old. We all gather around the old poster and get into a conversation about Picasso, WWII and why he painted that particular painting.
I was amazed at what they’ve learned on this trip – not just about art, history and geography, but about patience, flexibility and seeing the good in just about everything. I was amazed at their ability to find beauty in a room like this one, and I was totally overcome with gratitude, joy and peace — at a time when I really needed it.
I think traveling, learning about other cultures, meeting other people and trying new things make for wonderful experiences, but there are definitely moments when I wonder if it’s the right thing for our kids. Nights like that one make me stop asking myself that question. (At least for a little while.)
The next two days were pretty much perfect. After a brief attempt at teaching the kids to ski ourselves – we quickly realized there are three of them and only two of us, and when they all three fell in various spots on the mountain and lost their skis 20 feet from where they were, we decided to get them lessons. All three of them did wonderfully. They all fell in love with skiing and I fell in love with it all over again. We had to bring our dog with us one of the days because we had to check out of our hostel. At one point, she got loose on the mountain. I was thankful everyone around thought it was pretty funny as the five of us chased her around the bunny hill dodging the skiers. After a bit, she came back to us and I’m sure she was laughing hysterically inside while acting as though it was perfectly normal for a dog to be running along side and in between skiiers. It reminded me of our afternoon with the Austrian ducks.
All in all — another adventure and many lessons learned — not the least of them being — when the signs says chains are required, go and buy chains!