Lavapiés: An Introduction

By Zoë Calhoun

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Living in Lavapiés: A Series Set in Spain

I am a 22-year-old American who graduated from college in May. I teach English in Madrid. Soy una gringa (guiri as they say in Spain) who prefers eight hours of sleep at night to an afternoon siesta. I have five hangers. Buy hangers (perchas) has been on my Weekend To Do List for five weeks, right below GO ON A RUN! I crave peanut butter, empty streets, and silence.

Where I sit to look out my balcony

My apartment rests on the border of Lavapiés, a culturally diverse neighborhood known for its Indian food. A postcard I bought in the mercado reads LAVAPIES VIVA LOS COLORES. Looking out my balcony window I see our local hamburguesa y perritos calientes stop, Casa Adela, and Bazar El Cairo where coin skirts wrap around mannequins’ plastic waists. A woman in a pink hijab and gold earrings carries a plastic bag of vegetables and fruit labeled Ay madre! I hear my roommate, Helena, stirring a steaming pot of squash and coconut milk soup down the hall in our kitchen. She owns a panadería around the corner and makes meals for students who don’t have time to cook. Today is her first day off in two weeks. I only work four days a week.

I have come to think of Helena as my Spanish madre y compañera. She is a business woman from Mozambique who has lived in Madrid for 20 years. She speaks Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and two African dialects. At church, she cries and prays for me when she senses my angustia (angst). In the afternoon, she watches El Gran Hermano, Big Brother, which takes place in Barcelona and maintains the same rules as the American reality show. While she watches, she rolls a cigarette using American Spirit tobacco—Del indio, she says—and smokes it slowly between sips of instant coffee. I call her la santa con el cigarrillo.

Last night, we decided to eat cereal for dinner. “Corn flakes,” she jokes, is my usual dinner choice. We sift through our separate bowls of granola, picking out the pieces we don’t like. I pick out the dehydrated banana. Helena picks out the raisins. We empty our handfuls into each other’s bowls. Satisfied with the trade, we return to the living room for another episode of El Gran Hermano.

Standing outside of San Gines, churros and chocolate restaurant

After two months in Madrid, I no longer pause to breath before exiting my heavy apartment door. The transition between private and public happens too quickly for me, an American girl who once used her car time to prepare—whether that meant nose-picking or contemplation. My wet, tangled hair and Patagonia jacket separate me from sleek dark hair and stiff leather jackets. I am aware of my outsiderness—closely avoiding smeared dog shit on the sidewalk and dripping liquid from the balconies above. I dodge and weave without looking up. It’s easy to feel insecure in a country where your appearance, your ideas, and your language marks you a visitor.

In Madrid, convenience means living in a piso that rests between two metro stops, a flat that has an elevator, one with recycling dispensers around the corner. Our flat has two of these. Helena curses the stairs every time she walks in the door carrying Ay madre! bags full of bread and pans. I rush while showering to lessen the water and gas bills. I am reminded of showering in my hometown of Tucson—my dad pounding on the door then yelling, “We live in a desert!” My legs have been sore for the past eight weeks. I walk an un-American amount while carrying things: groceries, suitcases, backpacks, bags full of recyclable items, shelves and sheets from IKEA. I sweat and complain and sleep well.



Zoë Calhoun, Hendrix College class of 2014, was raised in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. She chose Hendrix in Conway, Arkansas because she wanted to challenge herself—educationally and culturally. After graduating with a major in Spanish and Digital Writing & Photography, she moved to Madrid to teach English. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.