Veronica Smeltzer Diary: My Icelandic Adventure, Part Seven

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs, humans require a plethora of different elements in order to not only survive, but thrive in their current environment. The most important physiological needs include those of oxygen, food, water, sleep and shelter. Though not immediate, those of affection, family, relationships and intimacy are deemed nearly as important. One could ponder life’s existence and the universe, but honestly, what is the purpose of our experiences as humans, if not to share with others? Why travel the world as a football player, if not to see and understand different cultures? While living in Iceland for a second summer now, I truly understand the importance of building and maintaining relationships in the environment I am currently in. This year I have been accepted as part of the community of Grindavík, and thriving in a way I did not know I needed last year.

Being one of three foreigners on the team the year before, it was easy to be thrown into a single cohort- the Americans. After all, not only did we live together, but we travelled everywhere together too: practices, games, team events. There were not many moments that we were separated. As a result, oftentimes that’s just what we were; a group that existed within the team, a separate entity. Though members of the 2019 squad, we ultimately retained our foreign identity, and were known thus. Foreigners.

At the time it was comfortable, being surrounded by individuals who shared a common identity, and could relate to me. Being able to speak full, proper English without adjusting for simplicity was something I looked for too. Yet within our ‘American group’, it felt empty. We were still foreigners in a foreign country after all with the sole purpose to play football. I struggled with my own identity then. Can someone live a life ​just ​as a football player? Wake up, practice, weights, recovery, then home? Something was missing, and I didn’t realize what it was until after these first few weeks- having a purpose and a community to surround oneself with.

This summer has been quite the opposite for sure. Being the only foreigner on the team this season, many measures were taken to ensure I was thoroughly integrated into not just the team, but the community as well. The first decision made prior to me signing was that if I came back, I would be living with a family, not in a separate house like last summer. Thus, when I arrived at my new home, I was greeted with eager anticipation from the two children who lived there. I truly have had to better my Icelandic at a faster rate, for the two of them don’t care that I am a foreigner- they simply always want to talk to me, play football, or show me what they are doing. It’s quite cute really. Though I constantly ask their mother and father to translate for me, I am beginning to understand more each day, and learn to reply (somewhat) effectively.

So not only am I now experiencing living in Iceland with a true Icelandic family, but I was given another opportunity to integrate within the community- to coach the next female generation in town. At the club, my assistant coach approached me with a wonderful opportunity. He asked if I would be willing to come to practices during the week to not only ‘coach’ the girls (I’ll get to why this was quite funny), but as well as be a figure head for the senior women’s team in town. His idea was that if the girls engaged with as many of the senior women on the team, not only would they have an ideal to strive for, but it acted as a way to attract interest to our team and games. For example, if the girls asked their parents to go to our home game ‘to see Veronica’, perhaps more would attend.

I took the opportunity with great enthusiasm. The only barrier between myself and them was simply a different language, right? Well, it’s much more difficult than it sounds, especially since Icelandic is such a difficult language to learn. Unlike the other Germanic languages (Swedish, Norwegian, German) that for the most part are pronounced the way they look, Icelandic throws that against the wind. PLUS, you have some new letters of the alphabet to learn, as well as different variations of multiple letters. I’d say it’s closest to Irish or Scottish Gaelic; it looks one way, but sounds completely different.

Granted, I know many football related phrases to talk to my teammates during games, but that is really it: left, right, play the back, play the ball, home. Not only did I need to broaden my Icelandic to more than directional phrases, but those of congratulatory and support: well done, good save, great shot. Things like that.

The girls weren’t really comfortable talking or engaging with me until the opportunity for me to ‘coach’ at a tournament with my assistant coach was presented. I say ‘coach’ lightly because it was basically me saying the same ten phrases, I know for three days straight. Being with the girls for multiple games a day, and meeting their parents as well, was like breaking a final barrier I didn’t know existed. Soon enough girls were giving me high fives, engaging with me, and even using English phrases like ‘thank you’.

Even without the coaching or working at the club, I’ve begun reaching out to community members too. For example, I make jokes with the woman who works at our local bakery, and now talk to people at our men’s games. Though my Icelandic isn’t the best, the biggest thing is that ​I try. T​he same goes for the people here. Though English is a second language to them, they ​try ​to make me feel included, even if it’s through broken conversation. One of the sweetest people I’ve met works at the men’s game, and even though he knows little English, he will find me and simply ask questions; when do you play, how was your last game, who do you play next. We will stand together and just look at each other throughout the game- laughing through ridiculous plays, or sharing a high five for when we score.

Even now, I have slowly begun to develop relationships with teammates off the pitch too. Last year I didn’t really speak to anyone outside of practices or games, but this year I have slowly begun to crawl out of my shell. From joking with teammates who I work with at the club house, or evening golf games and catching the sunset at nearly midnight, I have realized the importance and joy from these small moments.

Photos: Veronica Smeltzer

It’s funny. Looking back at everything I’ve written, I can’t help but realize someone might classify it as ‘little moments’. Isn’t that what life is about after all though? Yes, we as humans may have milestones that define our lives (sports, jobs, marriage, kids, etc), but isn’t life truly the small moments along the way to the big ones?

So yes, this year has been something new, and a completely different experience from last summer. Though I am eager to keep playing football and improve myself as a goalkeeper, I am also equally as excited to see how I continue to become a member of this community.

To take in each small moment as it comes.

I finally belong.