Photo by Calihan Huntley
I oftentimes have this feeling that I’m too big for the places I try and fit into.
It was especially the case in high school. I couldn’t understand why they were making me sit in a required health class when I was capable of so much more, when I was going to go on and accomplish great things. It felt like wasted potential and sometimes it made me so mad that it felt like there were spiders crawling up my spine, the only way to get them to stop it being violently arching my back and distracting my mind. I never liked gossiping either, which no matter what is an integral part of high school. Partly because most of the things being spread through the vine of gossip seemed so small and insignificant that I couldn’t even fathom what the messenger was telling me. Partly because I knew if that messenger was spilling secrets to me about other people, she was probably spilling my secrets to someone else as well. Needless to say, I kept to myself a lot in high school.
My dad has always supported this kind of thinking, saying that I should keep up the big dreams even if people I thought were my friends roll their eyes at me when I verbalize them. He also tells me that I have to do the small meticulous stuff before I can go on to do my big and grand stuff so that my aspirations don’t turn into a God complex. He’s a very rational man.
There was only one period in my life where I didn’t feel too big for the things around me. I hit my head in the middle of senior year and all of a sudden I was small. So awfully small for my little town in the Midwest which meant I felt incredibly too small for the world at large. And this went on for a while, being perfectly content staying in my parent’s house where life was mundane and safe and never got out of hand.
The atlas that used to entertain Caden and me on family road trips sat collecting dust in my closet because the thought of getting on a plane was enough to make me pass out. Meanwhile, Caden would call me in the early morning hours from Morocco, then Western Sahara, then somewhere around Mauritania I stopped answering the calls.
Despite being held in dark, weak, excruciating moments that made me believe my life was over, I admittedly still had some of that God complex left in me. Like when the doctor told me my respiratory system wasn’t steady enough to run long distances ever again, I immediately created a training plan and three weeks later, ran two miles straight on my high school track. I started to go back to normal, and I also came to terms with the idea that the experience changed me a lot, and my normal now wouldn’t be the same as my normal two years ago. I started being able to go on 20-minute walks instead of five, I could look at a screen again, and I was eating something other than bread. I moved out of my parent’s clutches into my own space, and then across the country.
I pitched it to my parents like this: picture yourself walking on a tightrope. If the rope is only a foot above the ground, you’re more likely to step down for help when you’re wobbling. If the rope is 12 feet in the air, you’re going to fight like hell to stay on that rope. So I moved to Arizona and I fought like hell to stay on the rope until eventually, it didn’t feel like I was fighting anymore, it just felt like I was walking to the other side. This is around the same time I dusted off the atlas.
I moved from an online school in Arizona to the university I’m at now and spent one full school year there. However, it’s obvious that my mind was in a different place, as I solidified all the paperwork to study abroad Aug – Dec 2022 in October of 2021.
I had transformed so much from who I used to be that I didn’t even recognize my senior-year self. I oftentimes write about “17-year-old Calihan” in a foggy and somewhat mysterious way. She’s who I most often compare myself to now. The version of myself that I look back on the most because she is the version that is the most different from myself now. I’ve had to do a lot of coming to terms with this enigma of myself. It’s hard when your body goes through a lot of pain because in the following years, you begin to forget more and more how truly intense the pain was. Whether that be time clouding your memory, or your brain choosing to forget the hard times. It used to cause me a lot of anger, and still occasionally does. Even though I had lived it, I can’t fully grasp how my head would hurt so bad I couldn’t even get out of bed. I now don’t remember the intensity of the pain, so I resorted to believing that I could have done more in that period and that I was just being dramatic. I dealt with this a lot last year, starting college as a sophomore made me feel like I missed the freshman experience, and ragged on my younger self for being too weak in that period. I think we’re on better terms now.
All of a sudden August 2022 came and then I was the one calling Caden early in the morning hours from Barcelona and Madrid and Venice while he was back home working. I once laughed to my mom, in a way that only younger sisters can, saying, “Oh how the tables have turned.” She told me to be nice, or he would stop answering the calls.
After being able to integrate myself so successfully into College Town, I was worried that it was only because College Town was a smaller city and that I wouldn’t be able to do the same in a big city such as Madrid. Despite the largeness, despite the language barrier, Madrid still served me daily.
I studied abroad through a program, so I didn’t have any say in picking my apartment. I ended up in a flat in the center of the city, close to everything, and just minutes walk away from Parque del Retiro. A park I had read about prior to coming, and ended up spending time at the park almost every day.
I also didn’t get to choose who I was rooming with, but immediately clicked with each one of my roommates as they showed up, and shared different interests with each of them. We would go out together to club and have a good time, but also stay in and talk about life while drinking wine and eating frozen pizza.
Making friends at my university was hard, but that’s a story for another day. To say it in the fewest amount of words: I didn’t make any friends at my university. It was getting increasingly hard and the only thing that kept me off the ledge was Naia. Naia and I were friends in high school but hadn’t talked much since. I realized she was in Madrid as well a few weeks into my stay, and we connected and started hanging out more and more.
Naia was at a different university, one with a lot more international students. There were also a lot of students who were from the States but went there permanently. I started hanging out with the friends she had made in class and soon they became my friends as well. When I told them about the struggles I was having at my university, they validated me and said that it had to do with the culture of elite public universities. They were incredibly welcoming, and always down to do any kind of activity. I even traveled to Paris with a few people I had met through Naia.
The major way Madrid served me that I still can’t even fully wrap my head around, is giving me the opportunity to work in fashion. I’ve said it before, but I cannot see any other time in my life that I would be able to work in fashion without sacrificing something else.
“There was no other time in my life when something like this could have happened. In College Town, there is no fashion scene which means I’d have to take a summer to work in fashion. An event [that] might be detrimental to my career in a more technical field [because if I hated fashion, I had just lost an integral summer I should have been at a bank]. Even if I did decide to take a summer, it would most likely be in New York City or Los Angeles with insanely high rent and no friends.“–I Shopped Karl Lagerfeld’s Line
Now that I have that experience assisting photoshoots and working with the styling director, I’ll be more likely to get other opportunities in the future. It gave me amazing experience, unbelievable connections, and a pretty sick resume point. Fashion magazine in Madrid while studying abroad, that has got to stand out during interviews.
Travel is also incredibly easier in Europe than the United States as well. I was on the phone with my mom yesterday after class and said, “Last semester I got on a plane and was in Paris in two hours, now I could get into a car for six hours and be in Oklahoma.”
I saw so many different places and experienced cultures that have helped me grow as a more confident, knowledgeable, and creative person. When you could reach a new city in such a short amount of time, there was no excuse to not take weekend trips. Hostels were cheap and airfare to some of the most famous cities in the world seemed to be just pocketchange when booked far enough in advance. I chose Madrid over another city in Spain because I wanted that flexibility in traveling. Madrid is a major city, which means it has a major airport close by that has flights to pretty much anywhere you want to go.
When the final few weeks turned into the final few days I had a lot of mixed emotions about leaving Madrid. I was excited to see my family, old friends, and get back to a school where I felt supported. On the other hand, I would miss beyond compare living in a city, especially Madrid. It felt like my brain was working an another level having to speak Spanish everywhere, and I had been exposed to so many new people it completely changed the way I thought about myself and my life. I was dressing different, acting different, and felt like I was functioning on a better level. I was afraid that when I went back to my hometown or university, I would revert back into the people I was before and lose all the newness.
I like to think that Madrid wanted me to stay as well. I had such a hard time packing, having a suitcase break last minute, complications with my airplane seat, with my checked luggage, my plane got delayed, it was almost as if Madrid was trying to make me stay.
The morning of my flight, everything finally started to go smoothly. I had a nice taxi driver, I checked my luggage and fixed my seat complications, and they even let me check my carryon bag for free. I was upgraded to first class on the eight hour flight and had a whole row to myself including a window. My flight attendant was so kind and helpful that I had to start crying at 30,000 feet.
I flew into Detroit before taking a final plane into my Hometown. It was Dec. 22nd and the winter storm was raging outside. Despite the news and cancellations across the country, for some reason my plane wasn’t even delayed. Our lack of delay didn’t curb my skepticism though as it was obvious the weather had not cleared up. It was sleeting in my Hometown at the time of takeoff, and I almost made myself sick with the thought of a two-hour long plane ride ridden with horrible turbulence.
The final leg felt like a fever dream though. We were in clouds the entire time, so thick I couldn’t even see the wing of the plane. Yet, there was no turbulence. Not even a little shake. I sat in a group of six people, all of which were other study abroad students coming home for the holidays. We talked about our experiences in our respective countries, and how we were sad to leave but happy to experience a bit of mundane life for a while.
The plane got in before it’s scheduled time, all of my luggage was already on the carousel when I exited the plane, and my parents brought me a bag full of snacks for the drive home. I was officially back in the States.
Now that I’m home, I get asked a lot what my favorite thing to do in Madrid was. The question always catches me off guard. When I think back to the times in which I was having the most fun in Madrid, it was always doing something with my friends. Thinking back to the moments I was the most content with my life and everything in it and surrounding it, different moments come to mind.
I’ve always liked heights and my favorite thing to do in a city is to find the highest point. Not to take pictures or do anything other than sit down and stare at the city. I did this a lot in Madrid in all different neighborhoods. I would get off the metro and stroll around the area until a particularly tall hill or building would catch my eye. I’d then make my way to the top, bypassing as many “Do not enter” signs as necessary with the excuse, “sorry, I don’t speak Spanish!” if I was ever confronted by a security guard. I would get up to the very top and immediately sit down, looking over the view.
As my eyes scanned the skyline from above, I would think about the people I used to be and how they scrapped and survived and fought like hell to get me to Madrid and let me experience moments just like this.
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