Zoe in a reflection

Commuting + Contemplation

By Zoë Calhoun

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Living in Lavapiés: A Series Set in Spain

Emerging from my under my comforter and into the streets where Spaniards sprint to catch trains requires a fried egg, brushed hair, and headphones. Mornings in Madrid include isolation and for me it’s intentional. I listen to music loudly and nestle my chin into my bulky scarf. I turn down the world around me by carrying things that separate me from it. When I walk to the train, I walk fast but make time for brief inspections along the way. I check myself out in bakery windows, moto mirrors, and finally the shiny train. I am a familiar ghost who appears in every reflection.

Zoe on the train

On a drizzly morning, I sit on the train with my headphones cupping my ears and the music drowning out the metallic screeching of rail wheels pulling into the station. While waiting for the train to come at Sol, for the train to arrive at El Casar, for the day to begin, we sit. This monotonous migration leaves your mind empty enough to doze off or to think deeply. At once a transition and a journey, it’s a twice daily routine where I plan English lessons on conditional tenses, watch the sunrise, wonder about how to live here but still show my love there: America, where family and friends commute home while I dream. These small journeys and preparing for them make me ponder the bigger one. When does the dark-haired Spanish woman in all black reading El Pais go home? Who waits for her there?

There are certain Spanish spheres where socializing doesn’t happen and the morning trains sit at the top of the list. The morning trains feel solemn—some snooze, others stare, but interaction and laughter never pick up. During my morning commute, my headphones are my nest—my barrier/cradle that make the transition from sleep to awake, from lying to walking, from dreaming to thinking, from silence to speaking—softer.

Zoe on the train in madrid

It’s a ritual that we all participate in and it involves reflection. Graffiti passes and pauses in the window frame with the rolling rhythm of the train. I take the 8:38 a.m. train three days out of the week. A man with a mountain bike who never brings a bag takes this train too. Young male twins who get haircuts once a month board at Atocha. Their least favorite class is art. After Atocha, we pick up a tired man at Villaverde Alto. His hair looks crisp but his nails pack grime. I choose a seat just beyond his smell and just within his sight. We have never spoken, but we know each other in way that feels closer. It’s an unexpected intimacy that comes from sharing silence.

This morning on the train, I receive a text message from my dad:

Hija, I just wanted to be the first person to say good morning to you. I’m about to go to bed on Monday night, but your Tuesday is already underway. You might be walking to Sol, or on the train to Getafe. I often wonder exactly where you are and what you are doing.

I know he is proud and I begin to cry. I catch most of my tears yet some still fall and melt into my scarf. I don’t feel vulnerable and I don’t care if I am noticed. Morning trains give place to ugly transitions. I spend my days preoccupied with coming home, or wearing things that make leaving home easier, but when I am made to think about my real home and the distance at which it remains, my nests don’t hold me tight enough.



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. 

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