Twenty-one years ago I was fourteen years old and on my first real trip. The entire eighth grade spent a week exploring Quebec City, Montreal and Ottawa. I had been to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick but this was my first big trip "away" as we Maritimers like to say.
It showed me there was a different world out there than the one I lived in. It would be hyperbole to say it was a life changing trip, because it really wasn't. But it planted a seed. It gave me the first real glimmer that I could go out in the world and be more. That I could be me instead of always being in a place where I was so-and-so's relative and therefore judged by what they knew of that person.
We had small tastes of freedom on that trip. We'd do tours with the group and then we'd be allowed to wander on our own as long as we stayed in at least groups of two. Those small jaunts marked my first time exploring Sparks Street in Ottawa and the Old Port in Montreal -- cities where I'd later live.
But the very first place we got to taste that freedom was in Quebec City. I walked on cobblestone streets of Old Town with a friend and we bought street art. It was the first time I'd done that and it's something I've gone on to do in Europe and Cuba. And it was all done within the shadow of Le Chateau Frontenac.
At that point, Le Chateau Frontenac was the largest building I'd ever seen. It towered above everything else. The cobblestone streets surrounded it. There were horse-pulled carriages out front. It felt like stepping into a different world. And it was. For me.
Le Chateau Frontenac, 1993
I was poor. My mother hates it when I say that because we were better off than so many other people we knew, but we were the people who lived pay check to pay check. Money was tight. There was little to spare. That I was able to go on the trip at all was thanks to fundraising, strict budgeting and monetary gifts from relatives.
People like me did not stay in hotels like that.
I thought to myself that maybe someday I'd get to see inside. And maybe if things went really, really well I'd be able to stay there. Someday.
I took pictures and I didn't really think about it very much for the next few years. They weren't necessarily the easiest of years. We bought a house. Alcoholism came into my life again. I moved out. I moved back in. I walked away from it for the last time at 16. I had jobs. I worried about things that many of my classmates didn't. I dreamed of a different life, where maybe things weren't quite so hard and where I could just be me.
I graduated high school and got into McGill and I found myself travelling through Quebec again, this time by train. I travelled economy class, of course, because there was no money for things like sleeping berths. When you travel economy you wake up at lot during the night as the train makes stops. One of those middle of the night stops was in Lévis, right across the river from Quebec City. Le Chateau Frontenac shone from across the river, looming over everything like a beacon. That little nugget of a dream was revived.
The dream got buried again as I threw myself into this new life in Montreal. There were interesting classes to take and people to meet. For the first time I actually met people -- my age! -- who had stayed at Le Chateau Frontenac. It was encouraging. Sometimes annoying, but mostly encouraging. These people weren't really that much different than me. They were my classmates and dorm-mates. Maybe it was an attainable dream.
Years passed. The train route changed, not that it really mattered because I had no money for travel. I didn't have money for much of anything beyond rent, grocery and student loans. Gradually things got better. I still worried about money a lot but I had a cushion. I started dreaming again.
When I met Lee, I started travelling for real. We went to Europe. We travelled through the United States. I've stayed in really cheap hotels and I've stayed in really nice ones. I've come to learn that the really nice hotels really aren't as special as you think they are when you are a kid. The specialness exists in what you make of your trip and experiences.
Lee and I have always talked about going to Quebec City by train and staying at Le Chateau Frontenac for our anniversary. It was a someday thing. Then he decided to surprise me for my 35th birthday. We're not taking the train because it leaves stupid early on Sunday morning and one does not get up stupid early during birthday weekends. But we are staying at Le Chateau Frontenac.
He knew it was important to me. He knew it was special. He didn't know how much it meant. I don't think I did either.
I know a hotel is just a hotel, even when it is a very nice one. This is something more to me.
I've been to Paris. I no longer worry about the grocery bill from one week to the next. I've paid off my student loans. I've bought a house. I have money in the bank and I don't worry about keeping the roof above my head. But somehow this -- this booking of a hotel -- is a milestone.
I'm no longer the fourteen-year-old girl dreaming impossible dreams. I built a new life. Despite the odds being against me and the naysayers who said I couldn't, I'm here.
So on my birthday weekend I'm going to check into Le Chateau Frontenac. I'm going to order myself a champagne cocktail and I'm going to toast to my life, all 35 years. I'll toast the good ones and the hard ones. But mostly, I'm going to toast the fourteen-year-old me who built a new life and found a dream.