This post was contributed by Mae Hartsig.
I was the valedictorian of my graduating class. To me, this meant:
- I could memorize study guides word-for-word like nobody’s business.
- I was always willing to sacrifice my mental health in the name of school.
- I was a perfectionist afraid to fail.
I don’t take the recognition as a sign I am inherently intelligent. I mean, I JUST learned it’s spelled “valedictorian” instead of “valedvictoiran.” Seriously, y’all. When I look back on high school, I’m left feeling like I did it all wrong. I didn’t join a million clubs, and I only need one hand to count the friends I made. I may have gotten perfect grades, but the things that translate into success after high school—confidence, risk-taking, curiosity—aren’t reflected in my GPA. With all of these things in mind, I decided to channel my dissatisfaction into action and travel.
Unfortunately, plans to visit my aunt and uncle in Lebanon after graduation fell through. This left me beyond disappointed. I needed to remind myself there was more beyond my small town, more beyond the limiting version of myself I landed on in high school. So I jumped at the opportunity to go on a last-minute trip to Montréal with my grandma. The trip was unconventional, but it was also a chance to pick up the broken pieces of my past travel hopes and arrange them into a new mosaic.
After a few weeks and a few Rick Steves’ travel guides, we were off.
My trip was by no means as admirable as solo travel. Still, I surprised myself by taking the lead. I never had to worry about the logistics associated with travel before this trip. On family vacations, I cruised on auto-pilot while my parents worried about navigating, making reservations, and getting through the airport. My grandma, who always has my grandpa to lean on, was also outside of her comfort zone. As we would discover many times throughout the trip, our nerves were misplaced. We gave ourselves a million internal high-fives after breezing through security and making it to our gate.
Despite our airport success, the first day started out on a frustrating note. Looking for the Underground City left us embarrassingly lost, and it turns out my one-hundred-day Duolingo streak barely got us a couple of kilometers conversation-wise. But as the trip progressed, we began to feel bolder and made it our mission to branch out. We immersed ourselves in the touristy Francophile-charm of Vieux-Montréal and stopped for wonton soup in the small but vibrant Chinatown. We also explored the colorful, prideful streets of the Gay Village per my grandma’s request. A defining moment was when we made the trek to Mount Royal. When we looked out on the city, all of the buildings seemed so close. I felt like I could scoop up the city that had disoriented me a few days ago.
Having my grandma by my side ultimately enriched my experience. We travel to gain different perspectives, after all, and seeing things through the lens of someone with so much life experience made each moment more meaningful. I wouldn’t trade the conversations we had about life on the steps of the Mary Queen of the World Cathedral for anything.
We also had some of our best conversations while walking around Rue Peel and the surrounding streets. The wide sidewalks in Montréal acted as a stage for people switching seamlessly from French to English. It was a breath of fresh air and a far cry from the small-town-living we were used to. On our first night, we found ourselves mixed in with a large group of people gathered around a flat-screen. We later learned Rue Peel was blocked off for a Toronto Raptors vs. Golden State Warriors viewing. My grandma and I definitely stood out amongst the crowd of shouting, drinking Raptors fans. But we didn’t mind: we simply enjoyed the way travel lets you feel like you belong while being an outsider looking in.
I left Montréal feeling inspired and empowered. Every time I melt into my anxiety and fears, I always forget to account for the possible joy of coming out of the other side successful. My grandma felt the same way. Instead of renting the same condo in Alabama every winter, she was going to convince my grandpa to explore somewhere new.
The lessons I brought home with me are better than any “I Love Montréal” t-shirt I could have bought.
I learned travel is more than a means for escaping: it’s an exercise in self-trust. Regardless of what stage of life you’re in, it’s never too late to try on the most adventurous, capable version of yourself.
Meet Mae: I am a recent high school graduate and a soon-to-be freshman at Wayne State University. I love to write and travel. Keep up with me on Twitter!