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Quebec

My parents came for Easter weekend. It was so nice to have them. During our eleven year sojourn in the north eastern United States we didn't spend many of the minor holidays, Canadian Thanksgiving and Easter, with family.

Since my parents moved to Nova Scotia, and especially with our return to Canada and our move to the Gaspe Peninsula, a mere nine hour drive from their home in Lunenberg County, spending minor holidays together has become a common occurrence, for which I am so grateful.

Their visits to us are variations on a similar theme. Mom brings rubbermaid bins and reusable grocery bags loaded with food. My parents bring their computer questions for Damien, and my Dad brings a paperback or two.

My mom brings a bag of "goodies". Clothing she no longer wants or something she picked up, thinking of us, at Guy's Frenchys (Atlantic Canada's discount clothing store). Brienne, Celine, Mom and I are all around the same size now so clothes can be circled 'round.

Sometimes she brings jewelry and accessories from her stash that she thinks would suit one of the Tougas girls better. Reusable lotion and lip balm jars are returned empty, in exchange for refills. There is almost always books in the bag. Books to borrow and books to give.

There were a few small treasures in the Easter-trip goodie bag. Photographs that were set aside for me, remnants of my grandparent's earthly possessions.

Both of my maternal grandparents are dead and the bulk of their "estate" has been divvied up among their children but sometimes little pieces of our Alberta past will make their way out to me in Quebec, via my mom in Nova Scotia.

I am far from the land where I was born and raised; the Canadian prairies that was home to my grandparents since immigrating, as small children with their families, in the 1920's from WWI-ravaged Europe.

I don't live under the vast prairie sky anymore but my Canadian identity, my Forsberg/MacKay heritage, and my Christian faith; as remembered in these photos and celebrated in sharing Easter with my parents, roots me to my past.

There were more goodies in the bag, a handmade cable-knit wool sweater mom bought a few years ago at a vendor's market in Annapolis Royal. It hasn't proven to be her style so I am the lucky recipient, along with a headband I simply love. I'm not sure if she's giving me the headband because she doesn't need it anymore or because she knows I love it. That's my mom.

To receive a cable-knit wool sweater for Easter may not be the most traditional Easter outfit but for the long winter of the Gaspe Peninsula it's perfect.

April is a month of new beginnings and opportunities for our family; Celine's trip to Chicago for C2E2, a month-long building apprenticeship for Laurent in Nova Scotia, and an eleven day trip to Montreal to find a place to live for our move in July.

I feel a strong seasonal shift this month, in spite of the snow that still blankets the fields and mountains. And there's is an undeniable and inescapable (and sometimes painful) tug into the future.

Last weekend we turned the last page on a special chapter in our family story. It was the final weekend of operations for the winter 2015 season at Pin Rouge, our local ski hill. And with our impending move, it wasn't just the last ski day of the season for our family, it was a goodbye.

Growing up as a I did, on the prairies, I could never have imagined that skiing would become such an important part of our family story.

Damien had dreams and it was his initiative that made skiing into a reality for our family. Since we moved to the peninsula, four years ago, skiing has been a central feature to our winter. Considering how long winter is here, you could say skiing has been a central feature to our lives.

Our introduction to Pin Rouge was in January 2012, in the deep cold of winter. We rented one of the sweet cottages at the base of the hill for the weekend and paid for telemark lessons to get our family started.

We became friends with our telemark instructors and learned of their rental chalet at the ski hill, just down the road from the lodge and lift.

That summer, the chalet became our home in the country for eighteen months, and for two full winters we lived at a ski hill.

Our first winter living at a ski hill we bought a family season's pass and skiing was on the schedule.

We met the neighbors, two families who were building a ski chalet together. We eventually found out that one of those families was planning a round-the-world trip and they were looking for someone to take care of their house while they were gone.

Wouldn't you know it, we were looking for a place to live for the very same period of time. Which is how we ended up in our current housesitting arrangement.

Last year, winter 2014, our Appalachian Trail hike loomed on the horizon, and all available funds were funneled there. We didn't buy a ski pass but skinned up through the woods trail, skiing down the fresh powder on weekdays when the hill was closed. It was our private winter playground.

For nearly two years, the ski hill was our backyard. We hiked it the summer and skied it in winter.

When we came home from our hike last fall, completely broke, I was certain we couldn't swing a ski pass this winter.

Then we received an unexpected and timely gift from my parents. A gift that allowed us to make an important investment in our future, buying a season's pass at the hill.

Damien and I sometimes disagree on how to spend money. I like it the bank. He wants experiences. And the truth is, we need both and this is a constant tension (not necessarily bad but sometimes hard to navigate) in our marriage.

Over the years I've come to see that spending money on shared life experiences - skiing every weekend as a family, hiking the Appalachian Trail together - is a type of investment.

We haven't grown a financial portfolio but we've grown a family culture and a shared history, making daily, weekly and monthly deposits into our relationship with our children. Relationships, that we trust will stand the test of time and prove to be more be more secure than financial investments.

I cried when we got home from our Saturday morning ski. Our winters of living near a ski hill is a chapter that is closing with our move to Montreal. We still plan to ski, but it will look different.

Many doors are opening in this move, which is the reason we're going. And I will relish exploring those open doors when the time comes, but first there is mourning the loss of what we had here. There is the hollow feeling in your chest knowing you will never again have this experience as a family.

We are in the last stage of active child raising years. It's not the end but it is the beginning of the end. And we're moving to Montreal because we want to finish strong, supporting our teenager and young adult children's needs as best we can.

The foundation of our family life and culture has been laid. The core of who my children are, and how that will affect who they will become, has been established. I try not to overthink it, because I am prone that way, but I hope and trust that our best has been, and will be, enough.


Our first time skiing at Pin Rouge, January 2012

My oldest is a month away from sixteen. My fourteen year old son is currently doing his first "working-world" apprenticeship. I can't believe we're this far in the game, and yet we are.

It was an emotional Easter weekend. The memories of our years here and our winters of skiing flooded my heart all day Saturday. And in spite of being filled with memories, my chest felt like a hollow ache.

It's strange that I can be surrounded by the people I love and still feel an ache at the memories I have of being with these people through the years. They are in my present but I am remembering the past. Saturday was my day for that.

And then came Easter Sunday. After the blustery snows of Saturday, we welcomed the day's bright blue sky and piercing sun.

Easter is a story of new life. It is a new book beginning when the everyone thought the book was closed. Not just closed, but nailed shut.

Sometimes, I can feel like the book is closing, especially when an era or season of family life is, in fact, ending. And I have a tendency to overanalyze my children's growing up (especially as we near the end) and think "it's all over now". Hogwash!

Things do end. But new things begin.

Our family leaves the Gaspe. And starts a new chapter in Montreal.

Jesus died. But he rose from the grave.

Immigrants leave the old country. And become citizens in a new one.

Children grow up. And a new generation of family life begins.

This is the Easter story. When your heart aches with the loss of what has ended, Easter is the hope of not just a new chapter, but a brand new book.

This is my fourth winter living in Quebec and there is something distinctly Canadian/Canadien (or Quebeçois, depending on your viewpoint) about l'hiver au Québec.

In my quest to become a Quebecker (I will stay away from the politics of this statement for now) I keep a Quebec culture, history, and/or politics book in circulation in my "currently reading" stack of library books.

Last fall it was Sacré Blues. After reading it I was inspired to write a short review. I intend to share that review here someday but there's more I want to write about belonging, place, home, and security, along with that review, and so I'm waiting to publish it.

One of the chapters in that book deals entirely with winter. I agree with the author, Taras Grescoe, that winter "is the defining season of the place".

It's a simple reality: if you want to live in Quebec, you have to come to terms with the winter. It's the defining season of the place, the dominating inevitability. Spring is a convulsion, a windy, rainy shudder of cracking ice and meltwater, a brief prelude to a summer that brings waves of sticky heat to the city and swarms of biting insects to the countryside. Fall, shortened by weeks of Indian summer, would barely be noticeable if it weren't for the screeching chlorophyll of the maple leaves. "Mon pay, c'est l'hiver," sang Gilles Vigneault, and he was right: by transforming landscape, culture, and habit of mind, winter really did create a new country, permanently changing a few hundred boatloads of French peasants into a distinct people.

If the snowfalls along the St. Lawrence had been lighter and the growing season longer, the United States' abortive incursions would certainly have been more frequent and determined. Without the snow, there might have been no survivance française, and the people of Quebec would be as integrated into the pan-American melting pot as the Kerouacs and Theroux of New England.

Taras Grescoe

My enjoyment of winter has increased since moving to Quebec. Maybe because that's when we started skiing. I feel like Quebecois, or at least our friends, know how to live winter.

I've given a lot of thought to living winter. How to survive it and make the most of it.

I'm participating in Heather's Hiberate course this month and next. I'm kicking myself that I didn't mention it more on the blog during the enrollment period. There was a lot going on, breakdown and Christmas mostly. You'll have to excuse my reticence.

It's my first time with Hibernate, and although I'm familiar with Heather's signature style and course delivery, I had no idea how rich and meaningful this course would be, how many kindred spirits I'd find. Again, I am in awe of Heather's work and her ability to create and support such beauty, intention, and connection in her workshops. (PS. I want to be like Heather when I grow-up into my own work.)

This winter I contributed an article for Hibernate on wintertime wellbeing, specifically sharing my toolkit for SAD - supplements, a happy light, daily outdoor exercise, loving myself and living seasonally.

I feel I am nearing that place of making peace with winter. Though I think true equanimity will only be possible when I can leave for the last 6 weeks - basically March and early April, missing the bitter, drawn-out, ugly end of it all, which is really the worst part.

Of course I'd miss sugaring season but we don't have our own sugar bush so there's no responsibility there. Leaving for the end of winter is seriously on my let's-make-this-dream-happen list, and it's even possible with our location independent work. Someday.

In January though, winter is still fresh. (Except when it warms up, rains, and melts the snow away and all you are left with is ice and some confused robins, as happened this week.)

Winter holds its own promise and purpose - as a season of rest, reflection, and renewal. A season for thinking, gathering, and creating culture.

In Sacre Blues, the author quotes Bernard Voyer, a Quebec arctic adventurer, cross-country ski instructor and television commentator.

For me, the winter is actually the softest of seasons. The light comes in at a low angle, the shadows are longer, the sky doesn't seem quite so high, it's a purer blue. One's gaze is freer to wander, the colours are more pastel.

Voyer also says,

Our artistic side, our reflective side, we owe to the winter. When you can't go out because there's a storm, you stay inside with your family, you create, you think, you tell stories, you paint. Winter is enormously inspiring. It's what built our society.

I'm going to wrap up this little ode to l'hiver au Quebec with vision put forth in Grescoe's book by Bernand Arcand, Quebecois anthropologist, author and communicator. A man, I daresay, who would appreciate the principles of Heather's Hibernate course. Here is his idealized take on how we should live winter.

Arcand would like to see the period from January 2 to the beginning of March declared a national holiday, during which businesses and schools would close. People would spend the darkest months practicing winter sports, tinkering around the house, organizing family reunions, or simply lolling about in bed. "Once again, groups of friends would visit one another for the pleasure of eating, drinking, and talking," Arcand imagines. "We could even learn to make music again, and reinvent the art of telling incredible stories. In other words, we'd take the time to reinvent our culture."

The Quebecois are BIG on their culture. But I've taken to heart these words, pondering my own winter intentions for Project Home & Healing, and my experience with Hibernate, and have decided to be pro-active in creating our own family culture around winter and a personal "culture" for the season.

I am singing this winter avec un groupe. I am playing my guitar. I have scheduled skiing, creating, and studying history (aka: museum field trips) for February homeschool. We are making plans to go visit and stay with friends, in which my goal is to "enjoy the pleasure of eating, drinking, and talking together".

I know I cannot shut down the machine of society which insists on productivity and output at all times of the year. Being wired for these myself and depending, as I do, on trucks to deliver food to the grocery stores, I can appreciate living in a society that emphasizes order and efficiency. But there are limits, and I'm learning mine and honoring them.

I still have a full plate of responsibilities during winter, who doesn't? But I do have the freedom to put a cap on what I attempt to accomplish in one day. I can structure how I do that work and when. And I can prioritize writing, reading, creating, and nurturing myself and my family, in the course of our days. This much, I can do.

I can't change the big picture but I can influence the culture in my home and in my community and most importantly, make positive, values-supporting choices for my personal wellbeing.

Practicing winter sports (skiing), reading a couple times a day, making music together, telling stories (ok, watching our favorite TV series on Netflix), photographing the light, letting my children rest longer in the morning when they are fighting a bug (that's been the story in our home this week), knitting, taking my supplements, enjoying warming drinks in the afternoon (perfecting my chai recipe right now), sitting by my HappyLight, touching often and making love, setting up the sewing machines for a week on the dining room table, cooking soup for my family, inviting friends for supper, spending a whole Sunday afternoon "lolling about in bed"... I intend to make the most of winter, in the doing and the not-doing.

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.

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