My first taste of independent travel was neither a coming-of-age summer spent in southern Europe nor a grad trip style backpacking journey through Southeast Asia. Many people wouldn’t even consider my going to Chicoutimi, Quebec as traveling in the first place. I didn’t leave my country, the total transit time was less than six hours, and I was going to be in the same place for the entirety of the trip.
But despite the short distance from Ontario, life in Chicoutimi was very different than my life at home. French is the dominant language and most of the older generations didn’t know any English. In fact, Chicoutimi was the heart and soul of the Separatist Movement, making it a leading supporter of Quebec leaving Canada. I spent five weeks living with an elderly couple who spoke not a lick of English, while I attended French immersion classes to improve my non-existent French conversation skills.
I made an incredible group of friends in Chicoutimi. Bonded through shared experience, we were our own community of adventurous youth exploring the world with each step. If this sounds like a melodramatic ’80s movie, life in Chicoutimi sort of was.
All this to say, I couldn’t have asked for a better inauguration into the world of solo travel. In a world of city hopping and bucket lists, I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of lingering longer in a single place.
Living in one place makes you appreciate it more.
Backpacking is a lot of city hopping; you see the main attractions and the bucket list items, but you don’t always get a feel for the culture. I thought I would be terribly bored in this little city in the middle of Quebec, but being there so long allowed me to explore the different neighbourhoods, the parks and forests and the surrounding towns. Chicoutimi actually had so much to offer, it just needed to be discovered.
You’ll make really strong friendships.
Immersing yourself in another world, you’re surely going to meet people. Whether it’s your host family and neighbours, the people you see at the coffee shop everyday, or the people you study or work with, you’re there long enough to get to know people well. A handful of the students I was with became some of my closest friends, even now, three years later. It was comforting to go home after school everyday and eat dinner with my Chicouti-parents. Even the people I only became acquainted with, it was nice to see familiar faces around.
There are countless benefits to learning a new language.
Creativity, memory and concentration are improved; it can distinguish your resume from others. But most importantly, it challenges you to get out of your comfort zone. It’s really uncomfortable trying out foreign pronunciation and trying to not say anything stupid, but you learn to laugh at yourself and overcome those feelings of doubt. I still get anxious and self conscious about my attempt at a French accent, but not nearly as much as I used to.
Opportunities to Linger Longer
If you’re interested in living in another community or abroad, here are some ideas. (Note: I am not affiliated with any of the following organizations.)
MyExplore: This is the program I went to Chicoutimi through. If you’re Canadian or a permanent resident, I’d highly recommend it.
Au Pair: I looked into being an Au Pair for this summer – it seems like a great experience. You look after a family’s child(ren) while the parents are at work and in exchange you get room, board and some pocket money. You typically get weekends off to travel and may even get to go on a vacation with the family. There are host families all over the world looking for Au Pairs.
WWOOF: If you have any interest in manual labour or organic farms, this organization connects travellers with host farms to help with a variety of tasks like gardening, housework, farming and looking after animals. In exchange, you get room and board, and you learn about a different way of life.
Moving Worlds: I’m not a supporter of volun-tourism, and neither is this organization. Here’s how it works. You have a skill or trade: from software development, accounting and engineering to fashion, marketing or journalism, you have something specialized to offer. They connect you with an non-profit, small business or government in another country who is in need of your specific skill. You can go for a few weeks or over a year. The specific arrangements vary per position, but most offer room and board, and some will even cover travel costs.
Study abroad: If it’s financially feasible and fits with your academic requirements, students can take advantage of an exchange year/semester, which is what I’ll be doing next year.
Working holiday: Many countries also offer work visas for extended periods of time. I know Australia is the most common country Canadians go to.
Get on your way!
Wherever you end up traveling or whatever you find yourself doing, consider staying a while. Learn a language, live the culture, make some strong friendships. You won’t be disappointed!