My solid wooden door remains closed this afternoon as my roommate Helena says my habitación stays warmer with it closed. I am grateful for my room—its balcony, blue walls, and the new hangers Helena found in an alley and stacked on my bed while I was at school. I have my space within a world—a piso, a country, a classroom—where I am always floating. In my room, I can pin photos to the walls, sing in inglés, eat peanut butter out of the jar with my fingers.
I often find myself running from one place to another because I am starving—for food, for privacy, for English speakers. Today, I felt grounded in our third-floor home. Helena showed me how to iron her old wool coat that she gave me for my trip to Budapest. She strongly encouraged me to iron it, despite my telling her that it will be covered in pelo rubia and shoved under the seat in front of me in less than 24 hours. While I ran the iron back and forth along the sleeve she clenched the collar to keep the coat from slipping off of the board. Physically connected by my new coat de segunda mano, language couldn’t interrupt.
I was raised to believe that it is what’s on the inside that defines you. My college experience taught me that wearing sweatpants outside of your room means you’re busy, athletic, tired. These values fail in Madrid. On the metro, I stare at the crunchy gelled pelo oscuro delosmadrileños and the red lipstick that pops off of los labios de lasmujeres. Los profesores at my school rock posh scarves, gold studded boots, and leather sleeves. Once again, I am hanging between worlds. One day I do the make-up thing. The next I do the greasy hair thing. I swing from confident to unconfident, from madrileña to Tucsonan, from valuing looks to valuing self.
Helena says my ears look like Dumbo, pronounced like “Doom-bo,” and my hairstyle, a ballet bun, reminds her of an old Spanish lady. “No es muy moderna,” she says. I considered my ballet bun functional, unique, and dare I say stylish. Helena often (if kindly) leads me to this confusing place where my appearance becomes an exterior for us to appraise. The gaps in our language, age, and culture make finding an equivalent evaluation impossible and hilarious. My one-piece swimsuit is vintage, pronounced “vin-tah-hey,” and I need a bikini with a cinturón, a belt, she informs me. I usually just laugh in a confused way because why would anyone need a belt to hold up their bikini bottoms?
She often prescribes tacones, high heels, for my nicer outfits. I usually wear Converse sneakers. I know she means well and I listen. She helps me transition from liberal arts college, where Nalgene water bottles were normal and didn’t mean you were going on a hike, to Madrid, a big city where not showering is not cool. In an attempt to remove the layers that separate me from Madrid and its people, I wear more ponytails to be more modern and I wear more braids to show less ear. While wearing Helena’s old coat, she gives me compliments. “Qué fina,” she says. This coat gives me confidence.
As I walk along the Danube in my hand-me-down coat, I feel warm and sophisticated. I haven’t washed my hair in three days because I fear the freezingly brief moments between no clothes and hot water. My Arizona shell can’t take Eastern Europe’s winter menu. When I slide my hands into my coat’s silk pockets, they slip through the shredded holes Helena made during the ten years my coat was hers. I imagine her heavy ring of keys wearing away at the thin pocket. In this moment, a belted bikini seems less ridiculous.
Zoë Calhoun, Hendrix College class of 2014, was raised in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. She chose Hendrix College 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.