I SURVIVED MY FIRST INDEPENDENT EXCURSION ABROAD. (Have no idea what I’m talking about? Click here.)
I had been eagerly anticipating my one-week solo trip to Montréal for nearly a month already, yet when departure day came around, I was in tears.
As the Metra pulled up to the small Fox River Grove train station on Monday, August 24, I pulled my cardinal red cap low over my eyelids and bit the inside of my cheek to fight off tears. After all, I only had to do so for thirty more seconds, and then I could bury myself in my seat and cry quietly on the train.
I wanted to go to Montréal because it’s a beautiful, old city with cobblestone streets, lots of French sh*t and an abundance of gay people. (What more could you ask for in a city?) I had four and a half weeks of summer left when I rather spontaneously planned– a term I use loosley– and booked this trip.
I figured a) I’ve always wanted to go to Montréal, and if not now, when? b) It’s the closest thing I’ve got to Europe without crossing an ocean. c) How bad can 24 hours of nonstop travel really be? (I also thought it would be pretty cool to travel internationally by myself. Like check me out, right?)
And it’s true: Judging from appearances, I was about to live out my high school dream. I had randomly booked tickets abroad, packed my life in a backpack, and set off into the French Canadian abyss to dive headfirst into a totally immersive cultural experience. I was taking on my biggest teenage fantasy, save for the forbidden foreign boy awaiting me at my final destination. Dot dot dot.
And yet, as I took my seat on the top row of the Metra, tears streamed down my cheeks, even pulling a couple whimpers and moans along with them. Naturally, I called my mom. She instantly knew something was wrong.
I told her I was nervous. Okay, maybe even scared. That I just wanted to be cool like Slim and Shannon (roommates), who travel internationally by themselves all the time. Like other Stanford students in general, I guess, who are generally fearless and tend to stare down challenges right before they tackle them head-on. My subconscious motivations for going to Canada on a whim were starting to surface.
I’ve always said the only way to get out of your comfort zone is to throw yourself off the edge of it. To just close your eyes and hoist your body over that cliff. Well, let me say, even though my mom’s words of encouragement helped somewhat, I still felt very much mid-freefall when she hung up.
But hell, I guessed if I wasn’t scared, the trip wouldn’t even be worth it. That was the whole point, wasn’t it? To get a new cultural experience? To step outside my comfort zone? To be free? Question mark?
Here’s how it ended up panning out.
Departure from Chicago
Traveling was a bit of a bitch. I had to cover about 840 miles to get to Montréal from downtown Chicago. I used a great site called Rome2Rio.com to find cheap bus/train tickets that would get me there in about 24 hours. (Flying would have been a cinch, but also about 2.1x the price. And you know a girl’s gotta watch her finances 💁)
The trip to get there consisted of: (get ready…) 1 train ride from Barrington to Chicago, 1 bus ride from Chicago to Detroit, 1 bus ride from Detroit to Toronto, 1 train ride from Toronto to downtown Montréal, then 1 taxi ride from downtown Montréal to the apartment I was staying at.
Arrival in Montréal, Canada
After 13 hours on buses, 4 hours wandering aimlessly around Toronto and a final 5-hour leg on the train, I fiiiinally got to my destination. Welcome to Montréal!
I stayed with a local in his appartment. (This is one of those times I wish English used gender-neuteral possessive personal pronouns… It wasn’t as sketchy as it sounds. I found him on Airbnb. His name was Harry and he was a very pleasant human being. He was not a kidnapper, Grandma.)
I got in at 11 PM, so after a quick shower and FaceTime with Stanfriends, I was quick to hit the hay.
Crêpes to start the day, duh.
After breakfast, I embarked on my first full day (alone!) in Canada. ‘Twas me, my camera, and the beating pulse of city life. Here’s some of the cool stuff I saw:
1. Lots of sick graffiti art.
2. Chinatown. (I love Chinatowns.)
3. The historic Old Montréal.
After walking around for several hours, I took a nap under a tree in a park on the Fleuve St. Laurent. (Can’t do that while traveling with company!)
Later that evening I made plans to meet up with a nice British guy I met on Tinder who was visiting the area. His name was Hamzah. We grabbed Lebanese kafta sandwiches at a restuarant called “Mange-moi” and then hit up Cafe Pi for dessert and chess. Yes, chess.
I had never been to a chess bar/cafe-thing before Cafe Pi. In case you haven’t either, let me paint the scene: There are lots of old white men, gathered in herds around small two-person tables scattered throughout the room. The lights are yellow and dim, and the scent of coffee and warm apple pie fills the air between the huddled bodies. The sounds of chess pieces clanking together and backgammon die rolling across carpeted boards set the quiet background tone, while the men chat quietly in French and are occassionally interuppted by a particularly frustrated player who will break away from the language to profess a loud, English “F*CK YOU!” to his opponent, who, in more cases than not, just won.
I played my first game of chess in probably 8 or 9 years miraculously won. I must admit, though, that I hadn’t a prayer had it not been for my passing French skills combined and a wandering old gentleman by the name of Jean.
He spent the evening sitting in on various games across the cafe, and for a while he decided to park it at ours. He’d stroke his stubbly chin and stare at the board for a while before instructing me, in very Canadian French, what to do and why. I think this slightly irked my monolingual opponent, especially when I asked Jean how long he had been playing chess and he responded with a cool “soixante-dix ans.”
“That’s 70 years,” I told Hamzah. He sighed.
After that, we grabbed one glass of Portuguese wine each and talked about astronomical physics. It’s his major. Thanks to a killer class I took last year called “Thinking About the Universe,” I not only was able to keep up in the conversation, but propose some thoughts and theories of my own. Boo yah. ‘Twas a good night.
The next morning I walked to McGill to check out the campus. Despite its relative proximity to the urban downtown center, the architecture proved to be something of the old, ivy, Oxford category. Very pretty. Very college. (God, I can’t wait to go back…)
In the afternoon I went for a run up to the Chalet du Mont-Royal.
It’s kind of like the McGill equivalent of Stanford’s “Dish,” but except for open views of dry, rolling meadow, you get lush green trees arching overhead. And instead of a giant satellite dish at the top, you get a French Beaux Arts structure with this sick view:
After my run, I grabbed a flatbread sandwich and some coffee at yet another cute lil cafe and continued to hack away at The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While I was there, I met a nice guy named Cameron who invited me out to Korean food. “I did just eat a flatbread,” I thought to myself…
But like I said, he was nice. And besides, I had never had Korean food before.
Cameron got a minor in world religions when he was in school and fascinated me for virtually the entire evening with his knowledge of the topic. Did you know a handful of the same traditions and practices appearing in religions native to Southeast Asia appear in ancient religions that were once native to the area we now know as Ireland? (Cameron pantomimes his brain exploding.)
Last day in Montréal must begin with bomb ass waffles. Of course.
Actually, though, this place was AMAZING. I went here on a whim– I had plans to hit up another cafe I had seen on Wednesday, but saw this joint on the way and decided to deviate from the original plan, parce-que #spontaneity– and couldn’t have been more pleased.
The server was such a doll. She taught me how to say “egg over-easy” and gave me a free wallonne cookie as I was leaving to eat on the way to Le Mile-End, as I told her I was going to do. What a sweetie. (It’s œuf tourné, by the way.)
While I did have every intention of going straight to Le Mile-End, I wound up taking a detour and wandering down Avenue Mont-Royal to explore this giant flea market. It was a true grassroots/vintage/thrift shop dream.
I stood here for a while imagining how many years of her life this woman had probably spent aquiring so much jewelry. None of it had its original pricetags. Where did you get all this stuff from? I wondered.
No outdoor affair is complete without an abudance of multicultural food. This marché was no exception.
The drinking age in Canada is 18. Seeing as I had only had one drink so far on this entire trip, I felt I needed to further capitalize on my rights and have a midday glass of white wine. So I did.
My last stop was an awesome Portuguese bakery called Seraphin. I spoke entirely in Portuguese with the owner, who was from Portugal. It was a nice confidence-booster to exercise my tongue in a language stronger than my French. (She said my accent was ‘perfect.’ 😉) Comprei umas natas para trazer a minha familia em Chicago.
I bade farewell to Montréal on Friday at around 5 PM and pulled into the Barrington train station on the Metra Northwest line at 3:30 PM Saturday afternoon.
My first solo trip abroad was what I expected in a lot of ways: I felt independent, adventurous, and– no use in denying it now– scared. At the same time, I did not anticipate the lonliness that would come with traveling solo for a week.
I simply hadn’t taken the time to think about the fact that when you travel a solas, you really don’t talk to anybody except for servers and cashiers and Airbnb hosts. That is, of course, unless you make an effort to do otherwise. Thankfully, I learned this very quickly and was able to chat up storms with shop owners, servers, bartenders, elderly chess players, Portuguese bakers, and other travelers throughout my trip. (And Tinder is actually a great tool to help facilitate this, as long as you know how to pick ’em. Tech to the rescue 😉)
All in all, it was a great trip. I met new people, tasted new foods, and learned about a new culture. More than that, however, I grew as a person. I was fighting back tears of pure fear on Monday, and on Saturday I was rushing through the door with a bag full of natas for my family to try and a camera full of photos to show them all that I had done.
And I’m happy I get to share those photos and this story with you, too, Dear Reader. Thanks for hanging around. Hoping I’ll be able to do something like this again, and when I do, once more take you along for the ride. Just be sure to click the poop to subscribe to Cath in College emails so you don’t miss it when the time comes: 💩💩💩!