I call them “safe” spaces

I spent my morning at a coffee shop that I fell in love with towards the end of my stay here in Bilbao. On my way out I took a picture of it to post to Instagram. At the time I had no real reason to do that. I just knew I wanted to share it. I thought about this all the way home (walking) and in between last minute gift-buying for family members. Why did I want to share this picture? (I have been practicing “conscious posting” recently and so the reason why I want to post a photo is something I insist on understanding before I do). It wasn’t to brag (If it feels like bragging I don’t share a picture), it wasn’t merely to keep my family in the loop of what my life 11 000km away from them is like (my primary reason for posting anything to social media), it isn’t even a place any of my Bilbao friends ever join me at. I started writing the caption and the reason why dawned on me. I feel “safe” here. It has become one of my mentally “safe spaces”. It also occurred to me that my “safe” spaces are more often than not also places or people I don’t like to “share” with others.

I don’t mean  the coffee shop is “safe” in the normal grammatical meaning of the word (“protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost.” or “not likely to cause or lead to harm or injury; not involving danger or risk.”). Its Bilbao, everywhere is safe in that way! I mean mentally uncomplicated. Familiar. When it feels “like home”. Bilbao, in general, is a “safe” space for me. I leave next week in a better mental state than when I arrived. That’s a post for another day.

Back to the specific safe spaces I wanted to talk about. What is it about a place that makes it “safe” for me? I am a walking paradox. I am both a creature of habit and filled with a sense of adventure. I am traditional in my views on many things yet I actively seek situations that challenge these views. I love spending quality time with people but at the same time crave my own company and a solitary existence where I do what I do only because I want to do it. I crave the familiarity and stability of a loving long term relationship but at the same time run from the thought of settling down. I want to be challenged academically but at the same time just want an uncomplicated conversation without over thinking the different viewpoints and lenses through which the various actors might experience the situation or topic under discussion.

Why is El Tilo de Mami Lou a “safe” space for me? Is it because I don’t have one of my aunts close to me to go and get some motherly love from when my own mother is in a different country, as I do when at University? Is it because my mom makes the best cupcakes in the world and this place reminds me of her? Is it because I know the answer to the question “what would you like to order”? These facts probably play a role too. I don’t have any friends here with whom I share any significant history beyond the past 4 months and so when I am anxious about what’s happening in one of my home countries or to one of my family or friends, there is no one that just gets it. It’s a much more challenging conversation. I found a space where I can be all of these things for myself without any added pressure. I am selfish about the spaces where I feel secure. In a new environment and even in the old ones I am used to there are places I like to frequent for various reasons. Not necessarily because the coffee is the best or the service is great or because there is safe parking available or because it’s close to me. I like some of them because they represent the type of “safe” that I crave. A “safe” space is different to a “working” space for example. I write in coffee shops, I write in libraries, I write at my desk, I write on my yoga mat on my kitchen floor, I write on airplanes and then some days I waste 2 hours searching for a space where I feel like I can write. But that’s different. Another post perhaps.

I am an academic. I am writing a PhD and what I do with the majority of my day is read articles, over analyse every word, criticise or agree, justify, over-complicate the topic, feel like an imposter, feel like a champion, attack what I don’t agree with and over justify what I do agree with (in my mind) – regroup and find some sort of reason and objectivity and write. It’s exhausting. Some days I crave being able to switch it off. And so I have safe spaces where I can be the less analytical version of myself. Where I escape from myself. Places where, if I think about, it either one or all of these characteristics are present: Consistency. Unconditional understanding or love. No tough choices. Acceptance. Peace. Peace of mind. No internal debate. History. Silence.

El Tilo de Mami Lou is my safe space not only because the cupcakes are consistently nice, the barista is consistently friendly (all of them actually), the music in the background is consistently soothing and mostly in a language that I understand and because the choice of newspapers is consistent. A local one, a National one, and a “Hello” magazine. None in a language that I speak, but this is how I gauge how much Spanish I have learned. I read the paper. A newspaper anywhere in the world smells the same too. I don’t have to make a decision at Mami Lou. I take a cupcake flavor that I haven’t had yet every time. I order English Breakfast tea con leche and I know I will be happy on my way out. There is no hostility. There is no academic debate about whether the blueberries in the cupcake are organic and what organic really means in terms of accountability and market access and how this relates to the Millenium Development Goals in the context of law and development in a post-modern word. It’s busy up in my head. But I identify safe spaces as being spaces where I can just be “in the moment”. Cellphone on flight mode, a Spanish newspaper in hand and daydreaming about all sorts. Even if just for 30 minutes.

Sometimes my safe space is a person. Sometimes it’s a place. Sometimes I share it. Sometimes I don’t.

Even if you’re not looking for a “safe space” to regroup and gather all the ducks that perpetually step out of the row, I recommend El Tilo De Mami Lou near Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao. The cupcakes (and other actual cakes) are amazing. They do breakfast and lunch menus and coffee, tea, smoothies etc. The vibe is peaceful, you already know which newspapers are on offer, and you will leave feeling good.


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