April 11, 2012
GOTHENBURG, Sweden - This is the latest blog by former Stanford soccer star Christen Press in her first season in Sweden, playing for Goteborg FC.
Lagom Part 1:
I've gone on before about just how difficult the Swedish language is to learn. The pronunciation of a single word can take several tries, and still, a subtle mistake results in a botched mess. My teammates laugh as I push my face forward, straining to mimic the movement of their lips.
The Swedish people are proud of their language, they claim it sounds like a song, (yes, if you like to listen to songs played backward) and my new friends are enthusiastic to teach me one of the most popular words: lagom. As difficult as it is to pronounce, the real challenge is accepting its concept.
There is no English word for lagom. Subsequently, the Swedish proverb -- lagom är bäst - does not translate for me. When is "enough (ever) as good as a feast?" My teammates told me that this notion is a cultural norm here in Sweden. For the most part, excess is not welcome. They explained that that is why you do not see flashy cars on the streets.
I have surmised that lagom means enough, sufficient, adequate, just right, in moderation, in balance, optimal, and suitable. It is the idea of not too little, but not too much. Lagom suggests the feeling of appropriateness. In similar circumstances, we Americans tend to use words like "sufficient" and "average," which carry connotations of mediocrity. In my world, people strive for perfection and anything less feels like a letdown.
Although during my time here I will be enjoying the benefits of the social democratic political system -- low rent, free schooling, free health care -- I cannot imagine a life waking up and simply being content. I cannot fathom my high school experience without the stress of the college recruiting/selection process. In Sweden, not only is college tuition-free, there is no hierarchy in higher education. Anyway, how could anyone view my intense, overly competitive, type-A, high-strung, rigidly organized, highly-status conscious, obsessive, deadline oriented, relentless personality as a little bit too much?
Okay ... moderation can be good for a lot of things. But sports ... I'm not so sure. When it comes to diet, I preach "everything in moderation!" When it comes to spending money, I admonish myself, "everything in moderation." but when it comes to applying pressure and criticism on myself as an athlete, "Enough is no feast!" After all, isn't sacrificing happiness and sanity expected on the road to the top? Hmmm ...
Actually, when it comes to football, I see both the pros and cons to a lagom mentality. One positive aspect is that the training environment in Sweden is very much team oriented. An example is kvadde, the Swedish equivalent of 5v2 keep away. In my experience with the drill in America, it often turns into a screw-your-neighbor version of monkey-in-the-middle.
American players will do anything to avoid being "the monkey," often making their teammate's bad pass look terrible so that they don't have to take the blame and go on defense. Here, players are willing to slide, jump, and tackle to maintain possession, and they cooperatively accept going "in the middle" because of a teammate's error.
The point here is that the team comes first and the team's goal--keeping possession--is never lost behind the individual's agenda. Recently I made a bad pass to a teammate in kvadde and thought that I should go in even if, technically, she touched the ball last. When I offered, my teammate looked at me and said, "No, these are the rules. I go in and you just have to live and be ashamed." (I have recovered from my shame and can once again look others in the eye.)
This prioritizing of team over individual may not be revolutionary but often gets overshadowed by the American individualistic mentality. Of course my American mind fears the effect of too much lagom ... But I think, by definition, that is impossible ... right? Anson Dorrance's "competitive cauldron" is the archetype for a successful American soccer program, and my whole life has been an attempt at going the extra mile to get that one-inch edge.
Although I like to think (á la Nicki Minaj) "I am not a girl that can ever be defined," if I had to pick a pigeonhole, it might be "a girl who is never satisfied." I always want more, and as far as football goes, I thought that was a positive thing. So how does lagom fit in my life?
Like all lessons, it is an active and sometimes difficult process to incorporate new ideas; but I am going to keep an open mind and keep asking questions. I know the answers are all around me both on and off the pitch, so I continue to play on. I also know there is so much more to understanding lagom, but I have to be patient. After all, I'm both a rookie and a foreigner now.
To Be Continued ...
Off the Post:
In Sweden, it's allll about the Fika. Fika is a social institution here. It means having a coffee break and a treat. The word "Fika" can serve as both a verb and a noun and has quite ambiguous connotations, so the Swedes have fun with it. But it is a tradition central to Swedish life and one I have assimilated to instantly!
So here I am standing in line at Jacob's Café, a swanky little spot in Haga, the oldest part of Göteborg, ready to have my first authentic Swedish experience. Of course that means ordering my coffee using full Swedish sentences! Onset anxiety. But first, I have to figure out the Swedish crown. Time for some mental math ... kilograms to pounds, no ... celsius to fahrenheit, no ... Ah, crown to dollar! 22:00? Wait that's military time! 22 SEK, I'll figure out how much that is later. Ah, too late I'm in the front.
I'm tempted to jump out of line and find the nearest Starbucks. Instead, I look the barista in the eye with a big nervous grin - it's time to complete the pass. "Jag skulle vilja ha en kaffee. Tack." (I really wanted it decaf, but that's just too complicated.) And now, he's smiling back at me.
Three weeks later and I still get fjärilar i magen (butterflies) every time I attempt to speak Swedish. And somehow, nobody seems to completely understand me here even when I say the most basic things. Yesterday, I ordered "en latte" (I've learned to keep it simple now), and still the barista looked at me like I was crazy. "A latte?" Like always, it's a work in progress ...
* * *
Invariably when the temperature reaches 5 degrees Celsius, (hold off on the shorts...that's 40 degrees Fahrenheit), someone on my team will look at me and announce, "California weather!?" Now I'm the one laughing. "No, not even close," I say.
When my mom came to visit last week, we took a promenade down the streets of Haga, famous for its quaint shops and coffee houses. As a rare March treat, the sun was playing "peek-a-boo," which meant I shed the thin sweater layer between my long-sleeved shirt and my puff jacket. With Uggs, wool gloves, thick scarves, and earmuffs in place, my mom and I took to the streets for some shopping and of course, Fika.
We came to the center of Haga and stopped dead in our tracks. There were people loitering up and down the streets of the intersection many of them sitting precariously on the curbs and cobblestone-covered road. Surely the creeping influences of 21th century Socialism couldn't be this bad! As I popped off the lens cap of my camera to capture this scene, I noticed that the faces of those around me were far from bleak. In fact, everyone seemed happy. They were smiling while sipping coffee and engaged in lively conversation. Apparently, we did not get the memo. This was a "warm" spring day in Gothenburg but my mother and I were the only two people in the city who hadn't noticed!
0-3. (1-2 actually)
The team traveled to Malmö for the Super Cupen Final, where the winner of Allsvenskan (FC Malmö) takes on the winner of the Svenska Cupen (us.) The level of play was a dropoff from the Champions League, in my opinion, but instead of taking over of the game, we somehow lost control of the reigns. Although I played well, I missed opportunity after opportunity in front of the net, but did not feel the gravity of my mistakes until Malmö came back to score two goals and win the game 2-1 in the 89th minute.
When I envisioned my first month playing for Göteborg, I imagined big goals in big games and big celebrations to follow. I thought I would have a hard time adjusting to the new social structure and cultural norms. After I had spent six months preparing my soccer, it would be a smooth adjustment, right? Well in reality, the opposite happened. Where I feared I would waver, I thrive. Where I once felt confident, I have been wavering. The worst part is knowing that nobody here knows the player I strive to be or the level at which I can play. My first impression has not been a good one.
When I retire to my apartment to listen to Tracy Chapman and feel sorry for myself, I try to remember that my story is still unwritten. What kind of tale would I tell if it all came easily? I know the hurdles make the race.
People need trouble -- a little frustration to sharpen the spirit on, toughen it. Artists do; I don't mean you need to live in a rat hole or gutter, but you have to learn fortitude, endurance. Only vegetables are happy.
-- William Faulkner
Now, we are in the midst of a two-week break before starting Allsvenskan. I know that the finishing is inside of me. For those of us who search for the back of the net, we know it comes in waves. So, I will ride the waves as they roll in and keep the faith!
* * *
Göteborg FC spent the last week training hard in preparation for the commencement of Allsvenskan (League), which kicks off at home this Tuesday (Editor's Note: Christen scored two goals in a 2-0 victory; more on that next time)!
I've been working to make little adjustments, sort through the overload of information, while staying positive and confident. It's a lot. But it's made easier by the encouragement of a helpful loving team, always willing to learn and grow together with me, on and off the pitch. I recently learned the team motto: lilla laget med enorma hjärtat: Little team with a big heart. I like that.
One of my teammates recently paid me a great compliment. She said, "Playing with you is that great feeling. We all know that once we get you together with the team, our level can raise so much higher. And it's right there. We are so close to it, and when we get there, it's going to be a huge change in our level of play. When I step on the field with you, it's sort of like the feeling a child has a few days before summer vacation..."
Well, I scored a goal in a scrimmage this week against a boy's team. Although it did not feel like much of something to celebrate to me, my team disagreed, as it was my first goal in the KGFC uniform... Bring on the summer!