A Study Abroad Memoir: That time I got separated from my tour group and totally loved it
I may have skipped the tour and angered my professor, but I made a Quebecois connection.
That third cup of coffee was a bad idea. I jiggle my left leg and then my right as I scan the room for escape routes. We’re the only tour group in this empty museum, and there’s no way I can slip away without being noticed. I might as well announce, “Excusez-moi—I forgot to use the bathroom at the Château Frontenac.”
But I’m losing my patience. Our guide has spent five minutes now discussing a statue above the archeveque’s grave. What the hell’s an archeveque? I’m about to explode, when he directs the group towards an ornate wooden door. Now’s my chance. I part ways, do my thing quickly and hope they won’t even notice I’m gone. When I’m done, I hurry back to the same door they left through and push. Then I push harder.
I try a few more times until an alarm goes off and forces an annoyed museum worker to acknowledge me. “You need a key to leave through that door,” she grunts, barely looking away from her paperwork. She points to another exit and says my group should still be in the courtyard.
They’re not. Instead, I spot a young guy at a desk looking official in a navy sport coat and a shiny nameplate that says “Nicolas.” I approach him and say, “I’m lost, and I can’t find my group.”
I giggle apologetically, realizing this is such a little kid problem. What’s he going to do now, make an announcement over the intercom? Attention, mesdames et messieurs, would those responsible for a Noelle M. please come to the help desk? We’ve located your 20-year-old child.
Instead, he motions for me to follow him and laughs. And it’s a great laugh. We chatter pleasantly as we wander through the museum, checking behind every door and peeking through every window. I tell him how I searched everywhere, how they’re supposed to be in the courtyard, how you need a key to leave the church exhibit room—
“A key to leave? That’s ridiculous.”
“I know, right?”
“So, where are you from?” he asks. So much for my accent going unnoticed.
This prompts an onslaught of questions, like: how do I like Quebec? Where did I learn French? What am I doing here? When I say I’m here to study French, he exclaims, “But you already know it!” I think I like this guy.
Nicolas and I romp around the historic buildings, asking every staffer if they’ve seen a group of Americans. We get negative answers from everyone we see. We laugh it off. We have a shared love for the absurdity of my situation. Or maybe I’m just naturally giggly and he’s excited to get out of work. Either way, he has a goofy smile and a noticeably sturdy posture, and as lost as I am, I’m reassured with him beside me.
After a while, though, I’m concerned. We’ve searched for over an hour and still haven’t found them. Did they leave? I wonder if my professor is worried about me. I wonder if I’ll ever get to find out the history of this place. I wonder how long I’ll be lost. But then I imagine my group with glazed-over expressions beneath some heirloom, learning about how much life must have sucked in 18th-century Catholic schools. And then I realize Nicolas is telling me all about Quebec City’s nicest restaurants and biggest nightclubs. My concern evaporates into Canada’s mild summer air.
Our search remains unsuccessful, so Nicolas enlists the help of Jean. Jean is an elderly custodian, and he pokes around the buildings diligently as Nicolas asks him questions. I chuckle helplessly in the background. From time to time, they look back at me together and interrogate. Did I check the exhibition area? Did I ask the front desk? Did I talk to the blonde lady in the church room? Oui, oui and oui. Nicolas smiles; Jean grunts. After another full loop, Jean directs us to two security guards.
And this is how I, the resident giggly college girl, accumulate a posse consisting of two beefy security guards, an old janitor and a smirking young guy, all on a wild goose chase for a slow-moving pack of history buffs. We’re walking through the winding hallways of an old stone building like the gang that we are, when—
It’s my friend Kelly, waving at me from inside a stone hallway. I was starting to think it was impossible, but I’m found! Kelly shows me into the room where my tour group waits.
I may have made an awkward exit, but not without a show-stopping re-entrance. I am the museum-debacle survivor, the champion, the long-lost sister. They’ve been on a tour; I’ve been in limbo. In short, I’m the center of attention. My fellow students of French welcome me with questions and hugs. I’m sure to tell Jean and the security guard thank you, and then I turn to look back at Nicolas.
“Merci,” I say, trying my hardest to give my most serious, earnest look. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again. In return, he smiles the same wide smile he’s been sporting this whole time.
“You’re welcome,” he says with a nod and then ducks out of sight.
And now I’m back where I started. Our guide points to a black-and-white photo, and I watch the faces of my fellow group members—tired, expressionless, blank. But me? I’m glowing. I’m trying hard to suppress the grin that overtaking my face. I’m trying hard to pay attention to the history lecture in front of me. But I can’t. Because this is when I realize that losing, sometimes, is winning. I may have skipped the tour and angered my professor, but I made a Quebecois connection. Hell, maybe even a friend.
As our group heads to its final stop, we pass Nicolas’s desk. He and I wave and smile at each other like old buddies. I point towards my group and make faces. He responds with a laugh. The rest of the group doggedly follows our guide to learn one final set of facts.
Don’t get me wrong—I love history. Knowing the history of any destination makes your visit there more meaningful. And given how much our tour guide spoke, there was a lot of it to be learned. But as I grinned towards my new friend Nicolas’s desk, I realized I had more of a cultural experience than I could have ever gotten at the museum.
And that, not a museum tour, is real travel.