By Zoë Calhoun

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Living in Lavapiés: A Series Set in Spain

In Madrid, it seems as if every resident wears impeccable clothes and fashionable, flawless leather boots, making me curious as to who really makes up the city’s unemployed 18 percent. During the holidays, todo el mundo–everyonehits the shops and I wonder how much Spaniards suffer, sacrifice, and save the rest of the year to spend so much.


It isn’t until after Día De Reyes on January 7th, the Catholic celebration when Spanish children receive the bulk of their loot, that the real shopping begins. This is rebajas: a season in which virtually every store has serious discounts on a serious percentage of inventory. The scope of rebajas extends from toothpaste to train tickets. It’s a time when stores remain in disrepair, when mothers shop endlessly with daughters, when Spain’s economic crisis feels forgotten.

As I walk into Zara, a popular, high-end Spanish clothing store, my own deal-loving senses kick in as I see red signs advertising markdowns while women sort through nearby piles of jeans. My frugal family has shown me the power of a good deal. My parents taught me their tightfisted ways by dragging me (oftentimes before sunrise) to stand in lines at semi-annual shopping events or the everyday chaos that is Last Chance, a basement discount store. I now have a reputation for extreme bargain hunting, a trait that knows no boundaries. Indeed, in 2012 I was escorted out of Last Chance for “overly aggressive shopping” after running and being accused of “shoving my way” toward a pair of Nike trainers. Soon after, my boyfriend found me crying on a bench in the corridor. We have both recovered.

A window display with rebajas advertisements

Christmas consumerist vibes last longer in Spain—rolling through Día de Reyes and into March. I find the drive as strong in me, a relative newcomer, as in the locals, and I likewise take a hit. Spurred by the dry retail months ahead, I buy a pair of sandals, four dresses, two sweaters, a pair of jeans, a coat, socks, tights, nail polish, pesto. At my lowest, I visit three Zaras in a single day hunting for a different size, another color, satisfaction. Despite my work, my bag load never challenges the Spanish women’s compras, either in size and quantity, though I do my best. Removing price tags, folding, hanging, and inserting the new between the old adds new measure to my life here in Madrid. When I imagine dragging my suitcases filled with compras back home, to my room of old things, I wonder, I am equipped for another year in Madrid?



My international friends say Americans are stingy with their money (and generally germaphobic). We Americans buy breakfast supplies while traveling and never add a pinch of salt with chicken guts on our fingers. These friends say we have brazos cortos, short arms, blaming the American $1 bill that feels more valuable than these one-and two-euro coins we throw around easily here. The five coins that buy a barra de pan y jamón weigh more yet somehow seem cheaper than laying down a five-euro bill. Paying in coins doesn’t feel like a loss but instead like a small accomplishment, like dropping off a trash bag of used, accumulated things at Goodwill. I’ve done my part.

Selfie in Zara with black coat

I stash all of the recibos in a dark corner of my armario and find comfort in stacking them there. If I change my mind and muster up the confidence to navigate a return, I have the supplies. But now the clothes I brought to Spain look older beside the chartreuse dress I just bought for 10 euros.

That’s a problem I can solve, so every Friday during rebajas, I treat myself to a Zara pit stop after work. On Friday I purchase a long black coat for 30 euros. It originally cost 70. My suave new jacket makes me look Spanish, like I have a chiffon dress from Zara hanging in my closet. Like I am here to stay.

While wearing my abrigo nuevo y negro, a half-dozen Spaniards have asked me for directions–and I have known how to respond. I impress myself not only by looking like someone who knows the way, but by actually knowing the way. Even in this short time, I realize, I am becoming a local. Not a native, mind you, but someone who calls Lavapiés home, and who knows it. “Nada,” I say coolly after they thank me.



Zoë Calhoun, a recent graduate of Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, was raised in the desert of Tucson, Arizona. 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.