Girls walking down the street

Walking in Helena’s Shoes

By Zoë Calhoun

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Living in Lavapiés:A Series Set in Spain


In a recent conversation with my parents, I confessed that I had finally found the value of spending extra time in the morning to put myself together, and that doing so let me embrace the stares and stand confidently in front of a class of adolescentes. Every Friday night when I am getting ready for a night on the town, Helena prods about my lack of fine footwear, zapatos finos. Tonight, upon seeing my shredded Converse high tops paired with a slim black dress, she acts.

A pair of shoes in each hand, she comes to my door with a serious look, like she is providing aid and not generosity. I don’t like the first pair of strappy sandals and I tell her that. With excess fabric billowing around the ankles, the second pair feels especially Lavapiés—a modern, Moroccan vibe. I pretend my feet are too wide, demasiados gordos, to slide into them. Helena returns with shoes I can only describe as unusual. They are brown, woven, and in a short boot style. “Me encantan”—I love them—I proclaim, trying to convince myself. These booties have a story and when Helena tells me, I can’t help but truly love them.

Ten years ago, Helena spotted this pair of Pikolinos, an upper-end Spanish leather shoe brand, while walking down Madrid’s shopping street, Fuencarral. Never had she seen shoes like this pair and she began to put away a little money each month to pay the 150 euro price tag. She never reached her goal. On a later trip back home to Mozambique, she wandered through the stalls of her local outdoor market. In a heap of shoes, Helena found her Pikolinos and, of course, they were just her size. She paid ten euros for them.


When I moved in with Helena, she ran a bakery around the corner. It has been three months since she moved her pans, sheets, and frying machines out of the bakery space and into our apartment. She shut down because she felt exhausted and underpaid—“no vale la pena.” Since closing and until recently, she had spent her time lying on the couch, reading the bible, and eating rice. But now she’s back at it, from our apartment: using her knowledge of business, her African background, and her baking skills, she makes African food for various events and sells gluten-free pastries and pies to local shops and restaurants. She can once again pay rent and she even bought herself a dress at church on Sunday. Throughout her struggle, she never stopped calling herself “afortunada.”


My feet have been challenged in Madrid and it shows. The miles of walking appear in the calluses and cracks that have only intensified after years of volleyball and ballet. I pause to think about washing them before trying on her Pikolinos. They fit perfectly. I express my worry about taking them into the sometimes shit-smeared streets of Spain, into the foggy dance clubs. “Son guerreros,” she consoles me–they are warriors–which seems appropriate as my parents often refer to my feet as battle axes. With the cool leather soles and the wide woven strips, my feet feel protected. I like the clack of the thick square heel on the cobblestone streets as I make my way to the metro, later a piso party, and eventually a discoteca.

As I dance with friends I can’t help but glance down at Helena’s shoes and wonder if I have taken them to their first dance club. My appreciation for nice clothes means I rarely share my clothing with others, so I am amazed at how easily she remedies my un-posh outfit with shoes that have been to more places than I have. She does not have money in savings or retirement, but she shares with me both material things—not just shampoo, but shoes with a story—and friendship.

When I come home after dancing, she tells me that the shoes are a gift for me. “My feet have become demasiados gordos to fit them anyway,” she tells me. I tuck them under my bed and think about where they will take me next.



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, art, commentary, and design since 1998.