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Quebec

This week, we had the privilege of hosting four young people through Couchsurfing. We fed them supper and put them up for a night and in exchange they shared stories of their studies, travel and homelands with us. And helped us practice our French.

Sophie and Véronique are from France, Lorena from Spain and Rowan from Canada's British Columbia. They are young and adventurous (closer in age to our kids than us), interesting, vibrant, and multilingual.

If we can't travel the world right now we can bring the world to us.

coachsurfing with family

Hosting them reminded me that I had written a post about Couchsurfing years ago on Outsideways, our family's third and now neglected blog. The following post is adapted from that original published in January 2010. Which is why the kids look so much younger (they were) and why the landscapes are so snowy (welcome to Québec in winter!)


In January 2010 we made our first reconnaissance trip to the Gaspé peninsula. We had read it was a beautiful natural area on Québec's East Coast where mountains meet the ocean. Having decided to move back to Canada in 2011, we wanted to know if the peninsula might be a place we could move to and make home.

We decided to go investigate the area directly following our Christmas trip to Nova Scotia, where my parents live. But we didn't have a lot of funds for a post-Christmas trip.

Thank goodness for Couchsurfing.

My parents joined us for this adventure but did not couchsurf. Not for lack of trying, but our family had already booked whatever homes were available by the time they looked for a couch.

coachsurfing with family

Couchsurfing Basics:

The Couchsurfing organization is a social network that helps people find free places to stay while traveling.

  1. To participate you become a member (also free), post a profile to the site and go through a verification process. Obviously this doesn't weed out all loonies and scary people, there are small risks involved, but as soon as people start "surfing" or hosting they leave feedback for both guests and hosts that helps build a level of credibility and confidence. You can sign up to host, surf or both.
  2. A traveler searches in the area they are planning to visit for available "couches". They send a request to potential host(s) and arrangements are made via the Couchsurfing website, personal e-mails, and phone calls. There is no standard level of accommodation or length of stay.
  3. The traveler(s) brings their sleeping bag and is willing to sleep wherever their host puts them up. In exchange they are given free accommodation and often have access to the host's kitchen and other amenities.

Those are the details of how to find and give free accommodation but Couchsurfing is so much more than that.

This is how Couchsurfing describes their vision (beyond a free place to sleep):

We envision a world where everyone can explore and create meaningful connections with the people and places they encounter. Building meaningful connections across cultures enables us to respond to diversity with curiosity, appreciation, and respect."

That was true in our experience. Saving money was just the added bonus.

Our Couchsurfing experience:

When we talked about making this trip we started looking into hostels in the area, as there are many. Gaspésie is a popular tourist destination... in the summer. The hostels we contacted were all closed during the winter. So Damien started looking for couches instead. Of course for a family of five you aren't really looking for a couch but enough floor space to throw down your sleeping mats and bags.

There weren't that many people on Couchsurfing who could accommodate a family our size but we found two households who were willing and we made our travel arrangements based on their availability.

The first household was a young single man who put us up in his bedroom (of his small one bedroom apartment) while he slept on the couch. We stayed here for two nights.

coachsurfing with family

The second willing household was a family who was eager to host us but they lived on a private road that was not guaranteed to be plowed on the day of our estimated arrival. Instead of chancing it we reserved a suite with a kitchenette at a local auberge (inn/hotel). The week of our trip the road was plowed so the family invited us to their home for a meal.

Couchsurfing is not just about finding a free room. It's about meeting and connecting with people in unique places. It's about friendship, breaking down barriers and making this big world a little smaller and friendlier.

Couch One

Yannick, our first host, is a young man who has studied some, traveled lots and come back home to Québec to finish his studies. Because of his travels and world outlook he spoke English and was eager to practice with us.

In fact everyone we met in Québec was able to speak English with us and we did our best (Damien's skills were much better than the rest of us since he spent a year in France after high school) to return the favor speaking French as much as possible.

coachsurfing with family

Staying with Yannick was not without challenges. The day we arrived his kitchen sink backed up, his little icebox freezer defrosted without warning, and his washing machine broke down.

We arrived to a somewhat disheveled kitchen but with a very warm and gracious host. Wow, did I ever learn something about hospitality from this young man! But those inconveniences were solved and we shared parts of the next day and half with him discovering the area's cultural gems and "places to be". One of which was the local boulangerie, where we joined in the kids' open jam session.

His apartment was our home base for our next day's drive along the very windy, cold, and hauntingly beautiful St. Lawrence River on the north side of the peninsula.

coachsurfing with family

When we left, Yannick gave us gifts from his sparse household, expressing the affection he felt for our family. He praised our children (what parent doesn't like that?) and said he hadn't met a family like ours. We proved, in his words, "that it is possible to travel with children and have adventurous experiences", something he hadn't seen in families he knows.

After leaving Yannick's home we drove through the Parc de la Gaspésie crossing to the other side of the peninsula, on the Baie des Chaleur.

coachsurfing with family

Couch Two

Arriving an hour later than planned, we met our second Couchsurfing contact, Isabelle and Danny and their family. These were the hosts that said we could stay the night but the road might not be plowed and so we didn't want to commit to that plan.

However, earlier in the week when we checked the weather forecast, it was determined the road would be passable so they invited us for a mid-day meal at their home. Our family of five, plus my parents. We were told to not bring anything. Talk about hospitality!

Isabelle and Danny live in an intentional community of individuals, couples and families, building sustainable dwellings, community, and livelihoods. They were an inspiring bunch to be around. Members of their community had also come to meet us and contributed to the potluck feast of homegrown turkey, potatoes, gravy, tourtière, salad, squash and apple crisp.

The whole experience at Isabelle and Danny's house blew us away, almost literally. The wind never ceased gusting, but their kindness, warm wood stove, and conversation knocked our socks off. Although the adults spoke fairly decent English their children did not at all. But after "moving around each other" for a couple hours the kids breached the language barrier... with play. Hide and seek, paper airplanes, Lego and drawing.

coachsurfing with family

Crossing the border back into Maine, through the snow and wind of winter, Damien and I talked about the friendliness of the people, the cultural vibrancy we saw evidence of in the towns (we weren't there long enough to explore that), the obvious raw natural beauty of the peninsula and decided the Gaspé was worth another look in the summer.

The end of that story is that we did come back in summer 2010 and moved here permanently in the fall of 2011.

coachsurfing with family

Couchsurfing with a family:

Couchsurfing is a great option for travelling if you enjoy meeting new people. Obviously though it can be a bit more tricky with a family.

Things to consider when Couchsurfing with your family:

  1. Be willing to plan your travels according to who can host you and where. Yannick was the only host we found who responded to our request for sleeping space for a family of five so we based our itinerary around that.
  2. Have great kids. A few traits that come to mind are fun-loving, inquisitive, and respectful. Obviously these are character traits we want to grow in our children regardless of whether we couchsurf or not.
  3. Safety comes first. If it doesn't feel right, don't stay. Have a back up plan, just in case. Don't sleep in separate rooms. Common sense stuff.
  4. Bring along a few comforts from home. Sleeping in a strange situation can be unsettling. We had our familiar sleeping bags. I personally like to bring along my mini titanium French Press (the same one I use camping) because you just never know if your host drinks coffee.

Like I mention in my introduction, Couchsurfing is not just about "going", but also hosting.

If you can't travel the world right now with your family, you can bring the world to your home.

You can find our family's Couchsurfing profile here. And if you're a FIMBY reader visiting the peninsula just send me an e-mail if you need a place to stay.

Laurent turned 13 last week and we combined the celebration of that milestone with our bi-annual city trip.

boy

Saint jean street Quebec

When you live in the sticks as we do (the sticks with good coffee shops, good neighbours, and the mountains) you need to make regular pilgrimages to larger centres to access goods and services that are just not available “in the woods” - comic book stores, “the mall”, and the Apple Store.

boy in store

With our hike now mere weeks away we used Laurent’s birthday as a good reason to drive the 7+ hours (one way) to Quebec City. We crammed the trip full of fun and necessaries. The aquarium, a stay at the hostel in the heart of the 400 year old city, and the crown jewel - an English comic book store - were the fun highlights.

Clownfish

Polar bears in aquarium

ice fish sculpture

A trip to MEC for the last gear purchases and a visit to Place Sainte Foy/Laurier mall complex for an iPad and clothes (not totally successful, we still need trail underwear for the boy, and running shorts for Celine and I) were the shopping parts of the trip.

Door comic book store

Shopping is not Laurent’s idea of a good time, neither is it mine. But sometimes it just has to be done. And if you have a new book along, well that does help.

Reading comic in car

If you go

The hostel downtown Quebec is a great place to stay. They treat families well there. Our kids love the social aspect of a hostel, probably because their parents do. In the course of our overnight stay, which involved cooking our own supper and buying the breakfast they served in the common kitchen area, we met two other families.

Quebec hostel

The hostel is easy walking distance from all the old city must-dos and must-sees. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of time for that.

If you do go I recommend hitting a large grocery store on the way into the city (the IGA’s are nice) and arriving at the hostel with the food you’ll need for your stay. I didn’t have the foresight to do that. There is a grocery store nearby but it’s small, as are all downtown stores.

blue snowflake

We live in a northern climate, it's winter for about five months where we live, so we've decided to maximize our enjoyment of winter.

We do this by engaging in winter sports, specifically skiing, and getting out in all four seasons in general. In winter we fight against the pull to stay indoors (it's cold!), the tendency to withdraw and retreat. Because if you do that too much you'll get depressed. Ask me how I know.

This past Sunday we had the pleasure of spending the better part of the day with another outdoors-loving family. We had a huge dump of snow Saturday night and early Sunday morning. After a big snow we greet the day with so much joy - a day for playing in the snow!

Our friends' children are small so instead of a big ski on a snow day we went sledding at the nearby school. They invited us for lunch and cappuccinos at their house. After hours of talking about adventures, travel, and the beauty of the Gaspé we were reluctant to leave.

During the course of our conversation I asked our friends about cabin fever, if they experience it. They don't. The best way to live winter, in their estimation, is to get out in it.

These friends love winter, they don't think it's long enough!

Do you know how wonderful it is to share a pot of lentil soup and baked tofu, after a morning of sledding, with friends who love winter? Friends who love life.

How do you love winter? Why you ski, skate and sled of course. And if you can do it from your door, all the better.

This family has three young children. They have built a life where they have time to zip up the snowsuits. Because like all things that demand our attention, learning to love winter and engage in it will take time.

Our friends have the time, make the time. They are cool people to hang out with. They love to travel and have outdoor adventures, they live life to the full with their young children. They love where they live, and so do we.

Enjoying winter is about attitude and opportunity. Having the right attitude and providing yourself with the most opportunity to enjoy it.

Every morning I stop my work, all the things that must be done, and get outside for some exercise, usually with the kids. (They have to spend time outside everyday, most often they choose to exercise with us during that time.) My minimum is one hour of fairly vigorous activity but if we have time for a 2 hour ski, oh heaven, that's lovely.

The daily exercise outdoors is a non-negotiable part of my winter wellness plan.

Other key components of my winter wellness are daily supplements (2000 IU of D3, and omega-3's) and a happy light.

Many of you have asked how that's working. Wonderfully!

I have not yet experienced the winter blues (my January overwhelm was a case of something different called "OMG we're hiking the AT in 3 months") nor do I have cabin fever, yet.

In fact, I feel really quite fabulous this winter. Perhaps I'm just too busy. Or maybe I know winter will end for me in six weeks when we start the trail. The definitive end to winter probably helps.

The more I live winter the way a child lives winter - with my whole body and all my senses - the more I enjoy it. The more I build outdoor activity into my day, the more I love life, in all seasons. It makes me want to spend more and more time outdoors.

Telemark skiing, specifically skinning up a mountain and skiing down on a regular basis has totally energized my winter. It is such good exercise and so much fun. I told Damien this year I never want to live anywhere I can't ski in winter. 

Quebeckers, or maybe it's just Gaspesians, have a winter joie de vivre I haven't experienced anywhere else. I know very few locals, in fact I can't name a one, that complain about winter.

Maybe they know life is too short to complain about where you live. Maybe I'm just hanging out with the right crowd. Maybe people here know the best way to love winter is just to live it.

This must be why Quebeckers are so well represented, and medaled at the Olympics. Go Canada!

I know it's hard to prioritize outdoor winter exercise, but the same could be said for any new discipline. And when I'm not motivated the together principle helps a lot.

I can't imagine not skiing, or going through my week without the outdoors, because winter outdoors energizes me to do winter indoors.

PS. For another taste of Québec winter and joy-in-all-seasons living I recommend my friend Catherine's blog. She is an amazing photographer, and her photos of times spent around the table captures, I feel, the essence of Québec culture.

PPS. I know a few places for rent in our area, our house is one and a friends' house will be available late summer. Wanna live winter? This is a good place to do it.