No Time is Wasted Time — Finding Safe Spaces Abroad

Betsy Barthelemy
October 12, 2019
Starbucks on the IJ

I’ll let you in on a secret: I’m writing this blog from a Starbucks.

More specifically, the Starbucks in Amsterdam’s Centraal Train Station, sitting in a comfy chair with a perfect view of commuters running and biking along the IJ river, many catching ferries to Amsterdam Noord. The Eye Filmmuseum’s unique silhouette pokes into my view from behind a massive bike rack, which is itself on a boat. It’s raining, but that’s no match for the Friday afternoon rush inside Amsterdam’s busiest train station. The long line inside this Starbucks hasn’t let up, and almost every seat is occupied by people working, chatting, or guarding suitcases. 

Most of the time, any bustling cafe is an ideal setting for me when I need to buckle down on an assignment; this is where I come on days that I am overwhelmed, anxious, or bogged down by a fourth straight day of rain. Here, I can sit in a corner, take a deep breath, and disappear into the controlled chaos that is a train station coffee supplier. I people and boat watch, listen to conversations in at least three languages at any given time, and sip on the warm and familiar taste of a black Pike Roast — a full 16 ounces, not the standard European mini.

The first person I mentioned this place to scoffed at me and said she wouldn’t dare set foot into a Starbucks while she was here — that it’s a waste of time and money that could be spent on an experience unique to Amsterdam. Yes, I came all the way to Europe to be drinking the same good-but-not-great coffee that I did every morning before my commute to work this summer, but that’s not really the point. What matters is this Starbucks has become an important safe space for me whenever I need it.

The Two Sides of the Study Abroad Coin

Studying abroad is absolutely the incredible experience I was promised. I’ve traveled around the Netherlands and to two other countries and have plans to visit four more. I’m taking classes at a huge university with people from several different countries, one of which (visual anthropology) is shaping up to be my favorite class that I’ve ever taken. I’m learning to make small talk in another language, taken spontaneous day trips, met some wonderful people, eaten new foods (and become addicted to stroopwafels and speculaas…(the Netherlands may not be famous for its food, but this country sure has cookies figured out), volunteered, gone to concerts, and taken thousands of photos. I’m living independently for the first time and have learned more about myself than I thought I could in not even two months. But this crazy semester sent my mental health into the most rollercoaster-like ebbs and flows I’ve experienced so quickly in a while, if ever. Many other people I’ve talked to feel the same way, and for good reason. We moved across the world — some have nine-hour time differences with from their families — and left all concepts of ‘normal’ behind. It’s a struggle I expected and prepared for, but somehow still took me by surprise.

I am a creature of habit and feel most comfortable within a schedule. I’ve gone from balancing a full course load with 16-20 hours per week working as a barista, 10+ hours per week of club commitments, and a social life (and sleeping!) to taking three academic classes (my fourth starts halfway through the semester), a one hour-per-week ukulele class at the university arts center, CREA, and no job, clubs, or (at first) friends. Even now, with a strong support system of friends in Amsterdam, I (and many others) am finding myself with more free time than I’ve had in years. That was especially jarring in the beginning of my time here, before I knew much about the city. Those empty hours before afternoon classes, particularly when accompanied by rain, are dangerously open for wallowing in homesickness, the anxiety of constant newness, and the thought that every minute I’m not putting myself out there and having another once-in-a-lifetime study abroad experience is a minute of my limited time in Amsterdam wasted.

Acknowledging Your Mental Health

My anxiety and I have known each other for a while now and I (mostly) have a grip on how to handle it at this point. But these thoughts are pretty common and are new for a lot of people experiencing them. So, in light of World Mental Health Day, I’d like to remind all of you studying abroad right now, or in the future:

No matter what you may or may not be doing right now, your experience is valid. There is no right or wrong way to study abroad: sure, I can give you suggestions, but at the end of the day this is your time, and as long as you’re doing what’s good for you, that’s more than enough.

I love to travel — it was a big factor in me coming to Europe this semester, I am using a lot of my weekends to do so, and I highly recommend that everyone studying in Europe takes advantage of how inexpensive it is compared to the U.S. But if you spend your entire semester in your home country, nobody should judge you. ‘Eye-opening experiences’ don’t only come from climbing mountains: they can be found wherever you look. 

Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, constantly putting yourself out there socially, academically, or adventurously is exhausting. You should not expect yourself to be ‘on’ every minute of every day. Yes, the most rewarding experiences can come from the times you make yourself uncomfortable, and I wholeheartedly suggest doing so once or twice. But the most important thing should always be your mental health and giving yourself the time you need to breathe, whether that be for one minute or several hours per day.

As a self-proclaimed coffee snob, I’ve been to several cafes in Amsterdam that I’ve loved and returned to. Even so, I still come to this Starbucks every so often. I’m not ‘chickening out’ of my experience abroad: I’m being productive in an environment that energizes and calms me. Plus, as I discovered on my third day in Amsterdam upon being hit with a sudden crash of anxiety that moved me to tears in the middle of a public park, it is extremely comforting to know that if I need it, a piping hot cup of Pike Roast will always taste the same no matter where I am.

Safe Spaces

Whether or not you covet routine like I do, I believe everyone can benefit from having a few safe spaces that they can return to when they’re feeling bogged down. I define ‘safe space’ as a welcoming place that I can go and know I’ll be energized, comforted, and/or relaxed when I leave. They don’t need to spin my mood 180 degrees, but they usually make me feel at least a little happier having dropped by. Below are some photos of a few of the ones I’ve been lucky enough to find here:

  • For the days the rain just won’t quit: The Van Gogh Museum.
  • For a breath of fresh air: Oosterpark.
  • To be surrounded by books: Scheltema.
  • For a cozy place to journal or read: Bocca Coffee.
  • For photography, or color on a gray day: NDSM Werf.
  • For a morning walk full of wonderful smells: The Oost neighborhood.
  • For a treat: Albert Cuypmarkt (especially the stroopwafel cart).
  • To be surrounded with music: my CREA class.
  • and finally, for when I need to disappear: Centraal Station Starbucks.


I hope that, wherever you are (and whether or not you’re studying abroad), you have a few go-to spots like these. Remember that your self-worth comes first, and to take a step back and enjoy yourself even at the most stressful moments. Keep going — you’re doing great.

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Betsy Barthelemy

<p>I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to briefly study abroad in Japan (several cities) and do community service work in Riobamba, Ecuador, while in high school, effectively biting me with the travel bug. At school, I major in English and minor in anthropology, but also enjoy taking classes in linguistics, photography, Japanese, and theater. When I’m not in class, I’m probably in a chorale rehearsal, helping edit Macalester’s newspaper, working at the cafe across the street, or baking cookies.</p>

Home University:
Macalester College
Evanston, IL
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