By Cat Swindal
In July of 2016, I had my first trip overseas to Europe. I travelled around Poland while attending MAGIS and World Youth Day. World Youth Day is an event where the Catholic youth of the world gather to see the Pope, and MAGIS is a program specifically for Jesuit-university students to come together.
Not to be cliché, but that trip changed the course of my life for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons was the beginning of a friendship with my good pal Natalia, who I got to see again for the first time in almost two years.
Nati and I met on the second day of the MAGIS program while sitting on a football field on University of Łódź grounds. I remember the day well; I had just gotten to Poland after an 18-hour trip.
With minimal sleep, I was feeding off the energy of everyone who was dancing around me, laughing and speaking all different languages. My group members and I got the first of several sandwiches we would eat by the time we returned to the U.S. We gathered where a big circle of students was already sitting. One of those students was Nati.
I don’t remember what she was wearing specifically, but I remember envying it. She had her hat on backwards just like me, though her hair was much longer than mine, and she had the Spanish flag draped around her shoulders.
I don’t even remember the two of us interacting very much that day, but she was one of those people who I was comfortable around right away: and I wanted to become friends with her badly. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see her very much the rest of my time in Poland, but, like most others in MAGIS, we exchanged social media handles. Boy, am I grateful I didn’t let her slip away.
Like I said before, my trip to Poland changed the course of my life. I found God on that trip in more ways than one. One way was that as soon as I set foot back in the U.S., I finally realized that I was gay. God told me this, and it is fact to me.
I officially came out on Instagram in Feb. 2017 after being public for a while with my girlfriend while not being up-front about it (a lot of people thought we were gals bein’ pals).
When I came out, I was blessed to receive an overwhelming amount of support from family and friends who commented sweet messages that I still read sometimes. One such message was from none other than Natalia. She sent me a private message welcoming me to the community, saying she wasn’t out and proud yet, but hoped to be someday.
We started talking about the hard times before realizing you’re queer and how the people in our lives have reacted or would have reacted. In that conversation, Nati and I became safe people for each other. We know we could talk to each other about the joys and woes of being LGBT.
Nati told me later that I was the second person on this planet she had come out to.
Nati and I continued to be in touch, mostly through Instagram comments. She would often comment on pictures of my girlfriend and me or respond to stories, being so affirming of my evolving identity.
It also turned out that we had the same taste in a lot of things (other than women): memes, Disney movies, “Hamilton” and politics, to name a few. We had so much in common. When I realized I could visit her in Madrid while studying abroad, I knew that we were going to have fun together. We spent a whole two weeks planning and sending voice messages and getting so excited to see each other again.
Boy, did our weekend together deliver. We immediately bear-hugged each other at the bus station and began talking for hours. We talked about everything from life stories to musicals. I would start a meme and she would automatically finish it.
She made fun of the way I acted American, like saying “French fries” instead of “chips,” and I made fun of her for being so British (she has a British accent when she speaks English, as if she could not get any cooler).
Nati and I talked about our dreams of being an artist and a priest, respectively, and our futures with the loves in our lives. We even watched our mutual favorite Disney movie, The Lion King, and recited every word. On Saturday, she brought me into the city center of Madrid, where I reveled in its beauty and history, looked at palaces and temples and ate ice cream.
Her extremely sweet parents fed me cocido madrileño and I had never felt so full in my life.
The most life-giving part of my visit was not the beautiful city, but Nati herself. The first place she took me was Chueca, which is the most famous haven for LGBT Madridians. We bought LGBT bracelets and walked around looking for cheap flannels.
She took pictures of me wearing my new favorite outfit, including a bow tie my girlfriend gave me and a green suit jacket we found for five euros in the city. With every new unconventional and not-catered-to-female piece of clothing I wanted to wear, she was there encouraging me to wear it with gusto.
I even got to meet her girlfriend, Ari, who is incredibly sweet and laughs at just about anything. Like Nati, I was instantly comfortable around her and have now made a new friend in her. It was a weekend full of laughs and hugs from my old and new friends, who are very much in love with each other.
Before returning to Granada, I told Nati that she was the one of the kindest people I had ever met. She didn’t believe me, but I insisted it was true.
She listens and cares so deeply for the marginalized. Her passion for the LGBT community knows no bounds. I am proud to know her and have her as a good friend and confidant.
She is one of the most supportive people in my life and it all started with a sandwich at MAGIS. I continue to find God in the gifts He presented me while in Poland, and one of those gifts was my friendship with Nati.
Now home in Granada, I know that we’ll be seeing each other again really soon. After all, we are bound for life.
Cat Swindal, pictured above, met her friend Nati at the University of Łódź in Poland in the summer of 2016. (Courtesy of Instagram)