Stockholm skyline

Silence + Space

By Zoë Calhoun

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Living in Lavapiés: A Series Set in Spain

Eighteen months ago in my new apartment with Helena in Lavapiés, I slept without sheets. The neon light from the “Restaurante Chino Wanfeng” sign across the street strained through the slats in my blinds and flashed onto my walls. Motos revved their engines to make it up the steepest part of the hill and the part right outside of my balcony. The soothing sounds of my hometown—the desert at night, the buzzing of winged insects, the cooing of crickets, and the howling of coyotes—have been replaced by noise: Spanish shouting, glass shattering, babies crying, bongos banging. I used to wear earplugs and sandwich my head between pillows, but now the outside ruckus rocks me to sleep.

Me on my balcony from below

Tonight, however, I am far from home, on the edges on Madrid, and the fourth to last stop on the light green metro line. It’s one in the morning and I am rushing to catch the last train. I spent the evening in a Spanish home with olives, manchego cheese, and fútbol highlights. I walk for fifteen minutes through a park and I don’t see anyone. It’s silent and I am scared. I am in an affluent neighborhood and the park is beautiful but the quietness leaves me thinking, anticipating a loudness all at once—a “Boo!”—so I look behind me often and walk briskly. I release a heavy sigh while walking down the escalator into the dank metro tunnels. Smells of piss, mold, and alcohol swirl around the moving trains and I feel safe.


Four American girls and I celebrated the holidays in Scandinavia. On the trains in Copenhagen and Stockholm, personal space expands, but conversations stay close. We, however, seem to burst in these quiet environments and embrace our “ousiderness.” The pressure to blend in lessens when we leave our Spanish city and we are free to wear layers of mixed patterns and colors, to speak English without guilt, to let our hair stay knotted and greasy under our knit hats.

Bridge in Stockholm

In Stockholm, the city feels still. The snow crunching and collapsing under my boots gives rhythm to our journey home—crossing the bridge over slushy water and scooting down an icy hill into our neighborhood where glowing paper stars hang in most windows. The city, this suburb, our temporary Airbnb home feel insulated, but I remain on the verge—waiting for an explosion of chatter, a bottle to break. This anticipation feels unsettling and makes my brain churn. I think of my students.

My students never rest. The volume oscillates from soft Spanish susurras, whispers, to shouts that extend across the room. The brief moments of focus bring silence, but they break with noise that is not easily tamed. Silence doesn’t sit well with my Spanish students—they seem at ease in an agitated environment, one where I have to tell myself tranquila. They know their volume is irritating and inappropriate and occasionally one will yell “¡Que te calles!” the equivalent to “Shut up!” in an effort to relieve my apparent distress. I have forgotten the power of silence and empty space—the power of pausing on the edge of a neighborhood to observe what lies beyond the boundaries we call home.



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.