Sunset from my balcony


By Zoë Calhoun

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Living in Lavapiés: A Series Set in Spain

This summer, I spent two months at home in Tucson, Arizona, and life felt mostly unchanged—my mom bought a refillable popcorn bucket for the movies, our TV doesn’t work, and my dog, Macy, gained a pound and a half. My room looks like a messy museum—a preservation of my past-self and the things I chose to stick to the walls. On my shelves I found volleyball trophies, dusty flowers from prom, shells from beaches, Girl Scout patches, tiny boxes with lost teeth. My parents have firmly requested I get rid of my shit. The big red “Z” on my wall will be painted over and this room will become the guest room and the room where I will sleep next time I come home.

My parents and I delved into and also danced around serious topics that I haven’t thought about since returning to Madrid, where my bank account reads 125 euros. They want answers to the tough questions about careers, love, and when I am coming home for good. My responses seem surprisingly Spanish and I feel judged. My lack of specific, America-based career goals doesn’t sit well. A day in Madrid means cafés—sitting in them and drinking them—and never feeling a guilty pull to run home to work on something. Letting the morning slip into the afternoon and eventually into the evening when the coffee becomes vino tinto feels blissfully unproductive. I’d rather eat Spanish tortilla and drink Mahou beer with friends. Call me lazy, unmotivated, happy.

Selfie in Mykonos, Greece

Upon arriving back in Madrid, my friends and I rode bicycles with our Italian friends, which proved rigorous and revelatory. When Americans and Italians embark on a city cycling tour, Americans work harder. The public bike system in Madrid has rental hubs across the center. Each bike comes equipped with a bell, a kick stand, and a three-speed motor.

We Americans meet the hills with determination, the electric assist on our bikes turned off, and a desire for hard bodies—or harder bodies—especially after an afternoon snack of cañas and croquetas. Our Italian friends meet the hills with their motors on high, saying “Ciao!” as they pass us. Red faced and sweaty, we battle up the incline—standing up to pedal, yelling “We got this!” to motivate. What began as a ride through the park has become a competition—to show our strength, or improve it at least. The Americans in our group will look back on this afternoon activity as productive; Italians as enjoyable.

Tapa and a beer

Upon returning for a second year, Madrid feels gentler. My life here miraculously avoids the heavy, daunting realities of money and work and I have finally learned that the slowness of Spain leaves space for appreciation rather than anxiety. Late trains and coffee breaks that cut into work happen often here, but the Spanish manage to show up late, unprepared, and calm. Stress comes in small waves and usually relates to bureaucracy or crammed metro cars. My American self that once fidgeted through a two-hour meal feels anchored and peaceful sitting in a bar with friends and letting our laughter and conversation build, peak, and gently fade. As American girls and muy amigas, we tend to raise the ambient and our Italian friend has labeled us “hyenas” because we jabber quickly and when we laugh all at once, hard, and it become a chorus of cackles.

This is a country where passing time with people takes priority—where friends and colleagues know they are late but still laugh while sipping the sugary final drops of their café con leches. With stronger Spanish, a closet filled with more fashionable clothes, and legs trained for my daily commute, I feel less dissimilar. However, my parents’ concern for my future hums in the background and I keep thinking about an often-told parable we discussed over the summer:

A fisherman in Mexico works just enough to care for his family and spend time with them. He has time to practice guitar and sing with his friends, take naps with his wife, meander through his village and pause for a glass of wine, and play with his kids. An American businessman wonders why the Mexican fisherman doesn’t work more and offers the fisherman an expansion plan—bigger boats, a cannery, and eventually an enterprise. “What happens after that?” the fisherman asks. The American says that he could publicly sell his company’s stock and become a millionaire. “And then what happens?” the fisherman asks. The American tells him that he could retire and spend his free time playing the guitar with friends, fishing leisurely, sleeping in and taking naps, spending time with his kids, and drinking wine in his village.

watercolor of my balcony

The fisherman chose to turn on the motor on his bicycle, to take a siesta and then drink una copa de vino, to value people and presence over money. I feel a tinge of guilt when I imagine my cerveza by cerveza, country by country five-year plan. I feel guilty about not returning home for Christmas or feeling like I have returned home when I sit on my balcony in Lavapiés and listen to the rumbling of bongo drums and Spanish chatter. I watch families drag bags of groceries and children home and couples pause to light their cigarettes and then kiss.

Money, goals, and careers occasionally make me nervous; but for now, I’ll continue to enjoy living slowly with friends and four-day work weeks that leave time for conversations to fade.



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. 
  1. Dearest Zoe,

    This is Kelly”s Papa, and I couldn’t be prouder of you and your life, if you were my own daughter! I’m certainly not in any position to contradict your parents concerns, yet I personally believe in allowing people, especially young, educated,motivated ones, to actually take pause to enjoy the fact you have multiple degrees at the ripe old age of 23! Parenting takes a vastly diverse perspective, when you children are adults. No more lessons to teach, or protection from the unknown. That’s a difficult proposition for most helicopter late stage boomers, yet it seems essential to me for healthy growth for the children, who are now in charge of their own decisions. Take your time, smell the roses, taste the vino, and enjoy your life. That’s the bottom line to living your life? You are one of the precious ones 🙂


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