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The New Yorker, April 30, 1949

The New Yorker, April 30, 1949   

Published April 30, 1949 – Price 20 cents

William Attwood

Pages 77 till 87

Inside Andorra

Some weeks ago, when I read in the Herald Tribune that four American collage girls were stranded in Andorra, as a result of snowdrifts and international red tape, I was struck by two things — That there were at least four Americans besides me who knew Andorra at first hand, and that the predominant sensation of all five us, while there, must have been remarkably similar. It seems that the girls drove into Andorra from Toulouse, got caught in a blizzard that closed the only road back to France, and were unable to make a detour out via Spain because they were driving a rented car and not one they owned. I presume that they have found a way out of the snow and the red tape by now and are telling everyone who’ll listen about their experience. This is a pastime in which I hereby join.

I FIRST became aware of the existence of Andorra in the fall of 1946, when, as a reporter assigned  to cover the Paris Peace Conference, I had occasion to consult the map of Europe almost every day, to check up on the various boundary changes proposed by the treaty makers. I kept noticing a dab of green, about the size of my little fingernail, tucked in between France and Spain, and identified, in the smallest possible print, Andorra. This tiny country fascinated me, and finally I approached the chief of our news bureau with the suggestion that we ought to try to find more about Andorra. “What the hell is Andorra?” he asked. “That’s just what I mean,” I said.

It was thus that one chill November morning I boarded a southbound train at the Gare d’Austerlitz with Andorra as my ultimate destination.

From the World Almanac and other source book or two, I had learned that the country was ruled by two co-princes — The Spanish Bishop of Urgel and whoever happened to be the head of the French government. This curious arrangement started in 1278, when the then Bishop and his perennial foe the Count of Foix agreed during a brief truce to share in the administration of this mountainous no man’s land. I had consulted several maps, from which I learned that the only way of getting into Andorra was by road, described as third-class, that started at the French frontier town of Ax-les-Thermes.  It was no trick to get to Ax-les-Thermes. After an overnight stop at Toulouse and a couple of bus rides through the foothills of the Pyrenees, I found myself there, sitting on the terrace of the Café de L’Univers enjoying a cup of real Brazilian coffee and listening to the bald and heavy-jowled proprietor. The town was as deserted as only a second-rate watering place out of season can be. The wind whistled through the valley, and withered leaves scuttled along the sidewalk. Three or four grizzled peasants and a fashionably dressed young couple were the only people in sight. Like me, they were waiting for the bus to Andorra.

“You have picked an interesting day to make your trip.” said the café owner. “The driver, who happens to be my brother-in-law, is going to try out his new bus.”He paused.”  Personally, of course, I would not like to risk my neck taking that great monster around those steep, sharp curves.” “ Is the road really pretty bad?” I asked. “ It was a cowpath until a few years ago,” he said. “ In 1932, one went to Andorra only on mule back. Now the road is wider, but not much better.” He added that snow usually blocked all communication with France for four Months and that during this period Andorra’s only connection with the world at large was southwards, through Spain. “Then  I must go back to drinking French imitation coffee again until the spring thaw,” he remarked, “unless one of my Andorran friends happen to ski over with a Christmas package. Ah, here comes the new bus!”  A long, sleek blue coach rounded the corner of the street and pulled up before the café. The driver, a sallow young man with a cigarette stub dangling from his lower lip, got out and shook hands with everybody. “Allez!” he said. “En route!”  I want to see if this big cow can get over the pass.” The proprietor picked up my bag and stowed it in the back of the bus. Then he looked at me quizzically. “By the way,” he said, “ I know it’s none of my business, but why are you, an American, going to Andorra?” I told him I just wanted to find out what it was. He nodded. “Excuse me’” he said, “ I usually make it a point not to ask too many questions.” An hour later, at the frontier, high up on the side of a wind-swept mountain, I gave the same explanation to the puzzled French customs inspector who studied my passport.  “I see you have no Spanish visa,” he observed. “That means you will have to stop in Andorra.” Finally, he shrugged and returned my passport, stamped. I got back in the bus and looked at the rocky, desolate landscape ahead. Just across the line stood a cluster of shacks, over which fluttered the red-and-yellow Andorran flag. Beyond, the ribbon of road zigzagged up the barren mountainside and disappeared over a distant crest.

As we drove across the border, two dishevelled guards in khaki uniforms came out of one of the shacks and stared curiously at the bus. “The Andorran constabulary,” explained the driver, over his shoulder. “The three other members of the force are stationed at the Spanish end of the road. We jounced over a rut, and I asked him if this was the only road in the country. “It’s a small country, and one road is sufficient,” said the driver. “ And the natives won’t permit any improving of it. They say their flocks would slip on smooth surface.” He wrenched the wheel as we neared an ascending curve, and shifted to low gear. The bus whined painfully up the slope. “Pretty soon, we run into trouble,” he muttered. The trouble started at the two-thousand-metre altitude marker, where where it looked as if the bus were about a yard too long to make the right-angle turn. We all got out except the driver, who began inching the big car around. I held the door open for him, so that he could jump out if something started to slip. Gravel and dirt tumbled down the cliff as the wheels grazed the edge. “You were crazy to buy this bus,” I said. “You’ll never get around that curve again.” “Crazy?” He snickered. “Listen, if I can get it to Spain, I’ll be able to sell it for at least two million francs. That’s a hundred per cent profit.” He winked, and flicked his cigarette over the cliff as the bus straightened out. “You don’t think I’m doing this for fun, do you?” “But what about customs?” I inquired. “Do they know that—” He shifted gears noisily. “How do you like the view up here?” he said. Half an hour later, after teetering around six more unbelievable curves, we reached the top of the Port d’Envalira, altitude 8,025 feet. Below us lay the green terraced valley and medieval villages of Andorra.

Our destination was Les Escaldes, the largest of the principality’s six communities, and after thundering down the narrow highway for an hour or so we swung across an ancient bridge, rounded a bend in the road, and rolled to a stop in that town’s unpaved main square. I stepped out and looked around. Waiting in the dusk to greet the latest arrivals from the outside world were five or six Vogue-like women, wearing Paris creations and dark glasses (the wives and mistresses, I found out later, of Vichy French refugees), a dozen smarty peasants, and at least twenty curious pigs and goats. Modernistic, brightly lit store fronts blazed out from medieval dwellings mossy with age, while unattended cows idled in the neon glow of a nearby movie-theatre marquee. Down the road, a couple of shiny Lincoln convertibles were nosing their way through a flock of sheep.

I picked up my bag and walked across the square toward the pinkish façade of a building advertised as the Hotel Plaza. All at once, the sounds of bleating sheep and humming motors were pierced by a raucous blast on my right. I glanced up and saw a gigantic loudspeaker, inscribed “Radio Andorra,” perched atop what appeared to be a thirteenth-century church. The noise gradually subsided into a hoarse, scratchy rendition of Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo-Choo.” I hurried into my hotel.

The proprietor, a lean, olive-skinned man wearing a beret, received me suspiciously and hesitated before handing me a room key. “We don’t see many Americans in Andorra,” he said, “What brings you here?” I decided to play it the Andorran way. “None of your business,” I said. Upstairs, I found nothing the matter with my accommodations except that the only cold water trickled into the washbowl.But a few minutes later I discovered that a steaming Niagara flushed the toilet bowl on the ground floor. When I came out and mentioned this to the proprietor, whom I found standing outside in the gloom, he explained that he had a hot spring in his back yard but hadn’t got around to piping its water to the upper floors. “By the way.” he added, “would you be interested in a couple of new American tires?” My colleague, here, has just imported them from Spain.” In the darkness, I could barely make out the grotesque silhouette of a man with a tire slung over each shoulder. “No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t even have a car to put them on.” They exchanged a few words in Spanish. “I can arrange that too,” he said, becoming more cordial. “Studebaker, Ford, Citroën”— “never mind” I said, and left them chatting in low voices and crossed the square. Here and there, small groups of Andorrans were clustered in the shadows, also conferring in muffled tones. Swing music still blared from the loudspeaker. A few yards up the dusty road, I noticed a lighted restaurant. As I walked towards it, I passed shopwindow crammed with a dazzling variety of wares that I hadn’t seen since my last stroll on Madison Avenue — nylon stockings, Scotch whiskey, American cigarettes, bolts of soft tweed. It seemed as though everything you couldn’t find in postwar Europe had been put on display, making up an unreal, tantalizing exhibit. But there was no catch to it. I walked into one store and came out, marvelling, with a pack of real Camels, which cost me about a quarter. The prospect of dinner in this Land of Oz suddenly became exciting. The restaurant was deserted except for a French police captain slumped against the bar, and the proprietor, who was feeding his cat. When I sad down and asked for something to eat, the proprietor wiped his hands on his apron and looked dubious. “It’s not yet nine o’clock,” he said. “A little early for dinner. But I’ll see what I can get you.” In a few moments, he brought in a plate of cold cuts, sardines, tomatoes, and melon, with white bread and fresh butter on the side. Subsequent trips to the kitchen, cellar, and bar produced a sirloin steak, French fries, salad, a bottle of Spanish wine, bananas with thick cream, Brazilian coffee, and French cognac. When I finally leaned back and mentioned the bill, he asked how I wanted to pay. Francs, dollars, pesetas, pounds, or almost anything would do, he explained. “We don’t have any currency of our own here,” he added. Francs were what I had, and the check came to two hundred and twenty, or less than a dollar at the French black-market rate. “This is quite a country you have here’” I remarked, reaching for my wallet. “Oh, life is very tranquil,” the proprietor said. “In other countries, which have wars and make history, things are no doubt more exciting. But here we live well.” The police captain had turned around to look at me, so I invited him to sit down and have a brandy. He was a thin, disconsolate-looking man with a long nose and a small, drooping mustache. “It surprises me to see a French police officer in Andorra,” I said as he took a chair. “Are you here on a holiday?”  “Holiday!” he snorted. “ Do I look like a man who is enjoying a holiday? My friend, I have been rotting in this wretched oubliette for two years.” We touched glasses. “Two years in Andorra! Try to imagine what that means.” We drank. “I don’t think I can imagine it,” I said. “I’ve only been here two hours. But don’t the Andorrans have their own police force?” He nodded. “Five men, and more than enough at that. No, I was sent here with a company of gendarmerie in 1944, to look for fugitive collaborators, and then we were told to stay on. The French government doesn’t want the Spanish to become predominant in Andorra, and our presence here more or less compensates for Spain’s advantage of accessibility. It’s fantastic— like everything else in this crazy country.” “Did you catch any collaborators?” I asked. The captain rubbed his nose and sighed. “Even that mission was a fiasco. There were only small fry here— not worth the trouble to extradite. But at least we had something to do for a while, just investigating them. Now my men have all become jittery from boredom and absinthe. There isn’t even a brothel to distract them, or a dance hall. The Bishop of Urgel won’t allow them. And there is no crime to speak of. The natives are too well off to steal and too busy smuggling to think of killing each other.” “What do they smuggle?” I asked as we sipped our second round. “Anything for which there is a market in either France or Spain,” the captain said. “Silk, radio equipment, tires, cigarettes, r what have you. Some of the stuff goes from France to Spain, and some the other way, depending on the laws of supply and demand, but in every case the Andorran comes out ahead. That’s one reason you see peasant girls wearing nylons and going to the hairdresser’s every Saturday. Most of them can hardly read or write, but they seem to have money.” “what about cars?” I inquired, recalling the hotel owner’s offer. “How can you smuggle a car past the customs when there’s only one road in the country?”  “Automobiles are a special case, “ he explained. “Fortunately, Andorran custom duties are not high. Thus, an Andorran can buy a French or American car on the black market in Toulouse and bring it here the next day. By noon, he has Andorran plates on it, and before nightfall he drives it legally into Spain, where he can sell it for twice what he paid for it. Everything is quite regular. The same car could not have been transported from France to Spain under present conditions, with the borders closed. And even in normal times the low Andorran customs would make the operation worth while.” The restaurant was filling up, and I noticed that most of the customers were elegantly dressed. But, like the furtive groups out on the square, they spoke in low voices, and nobody was saying hello to anybody else. “ You’d think that people would be more congenial in a small town like this,” I observed as we prepared to leave. “Most of them are mixed up in some racket,” said the captain, looking around. “ If they’re not smugglers, then they’re some kind of refugee— Vichy French or Spanish Republican. Or some may be Franco agents, sent up to spy on refugees. Of course the refugees spy back. It’s all rather complicated.” He shrugged. “ Naturally, everyone avoids me.”  “Well,” I said when we were outside, “if you get tired of drinking alone, I’ll be in the hotel across the way for the next couple of days.” “and perhaps longer,” said the captain with a wry grin. “I understand the bus driver is taking his vehicle into Spain in the morning. And the old bus is over the hill, in France.” He looked up at the dark, motley sky. “And, of course, if it snows, the road will be blocked— perhaps for the rest of the winter.” I felt a sudden twinge of anxiety. “Can’t somebody phone for the old bus?” I asked. He chuckled. “There is no long-distance phone in Andorra,” he said. “You see, both the French and the Spanish want the concession, and since the Andorrans don’t want to play favourites…” His mournful face looked almost cheerful. “Don’t worry.” He smiled as we shook hands. “The first two years are the hardest.”

MAROONED or not, I had a job to do, and I decided, early the next morning, to find out as much as I could about Andorra. After shaving in the downstairs toilet and disposing of a four-course breakfast, I strolled down to Andorra-la-Vieja, the principality’s capital village, which is about eight hundred yards down the road from Les Escaldes. The two viguiers, or representatives of the co-princes, live there, as does the Syndic, who heads the nation’s twenty-four-men General Council. I decided that I might as well start by interviewing as many of the capital’s six hundred inhabitants as would talk to me. Fortunately, Andorrans proved to be far more sociable by daylight. In fact, by late afternoon I had amassed the following information.

Government is a casual affair in Andorra. Twice a year, the twenty-four heads of families who make up the General Council put on Medieval robes and determine what, if anything, is going to be done during the next six Months. The viguiers have been little more than figureheads since 1868. The National treasury is stored in a vault secured by twenty-four different locks. Each councillor has one key, so that any conspiracy to abscond with the treasury would have to be unanimous.

The national revenue of Andorra comes from customs duties, the sale of postage stamps and electric power, and the issuance of automobile licenses. Because of the lucrative traffic in transient cars and trucks, Andorra has— the largest per-capita automobile registration in Europe— one car for every nine persons.

Radio Andorra is one of the most powerful transmitting stations on the Continent, but the country has no newspapers or magazines.

In 1278, its two warring co-princes agreed to let Andorra run their own affairs pretty much as they pleased, in return for a nominal annual tribute. The tribute is still paid. Once a year, Andorra delivers six hams, twelve hens, and six large cheeses to the Bishop of Urgel. The French government, a more amorphous body, receives nine hundred and sixty francs, instead of the groceries.

There are no political parties in Andorra, or taxes.

Not much happened politically in Andorra between 1278 and 1933, when a reform movement, opposed by the Bishop but supported by the French, extended suffrage, which had been limited to heads of families, to all males over twenty-five. The old restrictions on the suffrage were restored in 1941 by the Vichy French, and as a result five hundred and ninety-six of the nation’s six hundred and twenty-five eligible voters boycotted the first postwar elections.

The single highway, which was constructed in 1934 for the building of a power plant, brought the outside world into Andorra. Over this road during the following decade came the refugees of two wars. It was they who taught the Andorran shepherds how to double their money by reselling things they could buy fifteen miles away. In 1941, one of the councillors stood up during a meeting and declared, “ May God continue to give us wars, not on our soil but close to it!”

A rushing, boulder-strewn stream flows right down the middle of the country, less than three square miles of which is flat. Part of this flat area is occupied by a soccer field. The only other sport of the natives is izard-hunting. Izards are a kind of Pyrenees chamois.

In the ten months preceding my visit, Andorra had imported sixty metric tons of pepper from France, where it could be bought for three hundred and fifty francs a kilo. The price of pepper in Spain was around twenty-five hundred francs a kilo.

Andorra has never been at war with anybody, and its curious sovereignty was not disturbed even by Napoleon. He marched his army through the principality, stayed two days, and declared, “Andorra is so fantastic that it must be preserved as a museum piece.” Then he went on to attack Spain.

The language of Andorra is Catalan, but most of the natives also speak French and Spanish.

When a corpse is found in the hills, an ancient custom is still observed. The bailiff is summoned, and on approaching the body he says three times, “Corpse are you dead?” If there is no response, he again addresses the cadaver: “Corpse, if you are not dead, get up!” If the body still doesn’t react, it is officially pronounced dead.

Andorrans, except for the shepherds in the hills, are not used to sunshine. Five of their six villages lie in the long shadows of the mountains that enclose their narrow valley.

There is some confusion about whether the country is a republic or a principality. Its official title is the Valleys and Suzerainties of Andorra, which doesn’t prove anything.

AFTER rereading my notes for the second time, back in my hotel room, I concluded that it would be premature to try to sit down just then and explain Andorra to the readers of our Sunday feature section. The thing to do seemed to be to have a drink with the police captain. I found him at the bar of the restaurant sipping an absinthe and talking to a young man wearing sideburns, patent-leather hair, suède shoes, and a chalk-stipe suit. The captain extended a limp hand to me and introduced his companion Amadeo Rossel, a local businessman. “I am delighted to welcome an American to Andorra,” said Rossel, with a large smile and a small bow, as the captain ordered another absinthe. “And how do you find our little country?” I told him, as honestly as I could, that I hadn’t found anything that looked, sounded, or acted like a country. The captain mumbled something about St. Helena. “Of course, it is not a country in the conventional sense,” Rossel agreed, “but all the same I feel rather fortunate being an Andorran these days.” He inserted a cigarette into a thin gold holder. “My father, you know, was only a humble shepherd.” “And you?” I asked. “I am an importer,” he said quickly. “and exporter.” “Do you know of a way to export me back to France?” I asked. “The bus service seems to be temporarily suspended.” He shook his head. “Unfortunately, most of the vehicular traffic is going in the opposite direction,” he said. “But you might talk to Retch.” “Retch?” I repeated. “How do you spell it?” “R-e-i-g,”” said Rossel. “He’s Andorra’s biggest capitalist — cigarettes, motion pictures, and active in movement of automobiles. If you wish, we can see him tomorrow.” I said I’d like to. Retch, or Reig, might be moving an automobile in my direction, and at this point I couldn’t afford to pass up any opportunities. I looked at the captain, who was slouched over the bar, and tried to get him to talk about Andorra, but he only shook his head. “No’” he said. “Tonight it’s your turn. You talk to me about Paris. Tell me everything you remember.” We were up until quite late.

ON the way to Reig’s home the next day, Rossel explained to me how you become a tycoon in Andorra. It seemed that a dozen years ago, when sheep, electricity, and a little tobacco were the nation’s only exportable commodities, Julian Reig’s father had been just one of several modest tobacco planters living in this archaic, hemmed-in valley. Profits were marginal, but, although many of his competitors sold their businesses, Reig hung on. Then, when the trouble started in Spain, he found he had a market for his tobacco. When cigarettes became scare in France, a few years later, during the Occupation, he had another market. He turned out cheap cigarettes, baled for delivery to professional smugglers. For a while, he even manufactured imitation American cigarettes, in facsimile packages. With his profits, he began making wise investments. When he died, in 1944, he left his son the nation’s most thriving tobacco business, its swankiest hotel, its only theatre, and its largest income. “In short, Julian Reig is the nation’s first citizen,” said Rossel.

We found the contemporary Reig waiting for us on his glass-enclosed veranda, stirring a shaker of Martinis. He looked like Cary Grant, and wore a checked sport coat and flannel slacks. His greeting was jovial but a little startling. “Whaddaya say, boys?” he boomed in imitation Americanise, pumping my hand. “Take a load off your feet and let me mix you a drink.” I asked him where he’d learned to speak English. Had he been to school in the States? “Nope’” he answered as he twisted some lemon peel over my glass. “I just been going to the movies. I run a Hollywood picture every week here in my theatre.” He sat down. “But maybe we better talk French. Amadeo, here, don’t dig this jive.” “Rossel tells me you may know of a way for me to get back to France,” I said. “At the moment, I’m marooned.” Reig frowned. “It’s a bad time just now,” he said. “The traffic is mostly north to south. In the Spring, perhaps. Why not spend the winter in Andorra? I have a scheme to turn this place into a big resort— a kind of combination St.Moritz and Monte Carlo. You might be able to help me.”  “But mr. Atwood is a journalist not an entrepreneur,” said Rossel. “That’s what I need,” said Reig. “A good American publicity agent.” He turned to me. “You see, there are several obstacles. For one thing, our co-prince the Bishop will not allow gambling or dancing halls or casinos or brothels in Andorra, and it is hard to make a decent resort without them. What we have to do is educate him with propaganda.” “And then there are the peasants,” said Rossel. “They are opposed to the construction of a ski tow. They feel that all the cables and machinery would frighten a lot of mares and ewes and cows into miscarriages.” “Propaganda’s the answer,” said Reig. “We’ve got to persuade them there’s money in it. That’s a job for a smart American newspaperman.” He looked at me. “You can get to like Andorra after a while. Quiet. Picturesque. Good food.”  It took me twenty minutes to convince Reig that I was not the man for the job. When Rossel and I finally left, he urged me to think it over and invited me to return in the spring for the izard-hunting. “Be seein’ ya, pal.” He grinned, and punched my arm James Cagney fashion. I didn’t commit myself. All I could think of was that “izard” rhymes with “blizzard” and that I’d better get over the passes soon. Russel  and I walked back to Les Escaldes, past the soccer field, where the Andorrans were playing Barcelona team, and up the road to the main square, where the vagrant pigs and goats and the furtive men in berets and sandals were milling around in the afternoon shadows. “Will I see you tomorrow?” asked Rossel as we came to my hotel. “I don’t think so,” I replied. “If those are snow clouds overhead, the road may may be blocked by the end of the week. I’d better get started in the morning, even if I had to ride a goat over the pass.”

As it turned out, I didn’t have to ride a goat; I had merely to hold one in my lap.

Early the next morning, while I was lathering my face, the manager knocked on the bathroom door. “If you hurry,” he announced, “I think you can find room on a truck going to France.” In less than five minutes, I’d packed my bag, paid my bill, and was leaning against the sideboard of a swaying truck, wedged between two Andorran peasants. The kid of one of several goats they had with them nestled in my arms. Across from us were two other Andorrans, one holding a couple of tires, the other with a radio suspended by a strap from one shoulder, like a knapsack.

No one spoke as we chugged slowly up the valley, twisting and turning where the road neared the crest of the pass. About a mile from the border, the truck halted and the tire and radio men got out, to circumvent the French customs post on foot. I was able to stretch my legs and chase the kid off my lap. Soon afterwards, we passed the last Andorran shack and stopped on French territory, where a customs inspector peered into the back of the truck. I showed him my passport. “Do you have any cigarettes?” he asked. “Only for my own use,” I replied automatically. He shook his head impatiently. “You do not understand me, Monsieur,” he said. “I asked if you have any cigarettes. You don’t want me to hold you up here indefinitely, do you?”  I had a moment of panic. Never before had I been so anxious to get into France. Then I caught on and handed him a pack of Camels. He smiled, tipped his cap, and waved us on.

William Attwood – November 1948