By Nick Pantages
Adjacent to the big white dome that is Blake Arena exists a four-by-two set of tennis courts that hosts the most diverse group on campus.
On one court, someone from the island nation of St. Lucia can be seen serving to someone from Thailand and a doubles match with an American and a Chinese player competing against an American born in Russia and a Mexican born in Spain. On the last court there is a group of Swedish kids working on their backhands. One of these Swedish players is Eric Nicander. Nicander embodies the American stereotype of Scandinavian people; he has the tall, lanky stature completed with blonde hair and light eyes.
The tennis team has gained the reputation of being the international hub of the campus. The team has players born in seven different countries spanning North America, Europe and Asia, including a trifecta of first-year players from Sweden. Nicander is joined by Mateusz Czajka and Tim Norin.
The rarity of this is what makes it remarkable. Sweden has the reputation of being a very smart country overall, and many students choose to stay home to study at Swedish universities, meaning not many make the journey to America to further their academic experience. But just the tennis team hosts a majority of the Swedish kids on campus, and they are all in the same year.
Nicander said, “It’s fun having those guys around, we get along really well.”
Hailing from the capital of Sweden, Stockholm, Nicander has been playing tennis for as long as he can remember.
“I don’t even remember when I started [playing tennis]. My dad just put me in tennis and soccer the earliest he could,” he said.
Stockholm is just over 3,800 miles away from Alden Street, but it is not a surprise to see a trio of Swedish kids playing tennis in the States. Although soccer, or football as it would be called in Sweden, is the most popular sport, Sweden has a very rich history of tennis based on the back of one man, Bjorn Borg.
Borg was the first man to take home 11 grand slam titles, winning the French Open six times and Wimbledon five times in a row, a feat that has only been matched by the great Roger Federer. However, to the people that were kids and young adults when Borg was dominating across the world, he was much more than that.
Borg was described by tennis lovers as the man who made tennis cool. His unique style, aided by his flowing light blonde hair, a symbol of Scandinavian appearance, made him a cultural icon worldwide. Off the court, his dangling necklaces, denim jackets, flamboyant shirts, and sharp shoes gave him an aura of more than just a normal tennis player.
“He was like the GOAT of tennis. There’s a lot of good guys now, but he’s like the [first] GOAT,” Nicander said.
Nicander also has some experience with the Borg family. While playing at a tennis academy in Sweden, Nicander’s doubles partner was Leo Borg, Bjorn’s son. The pair were partners on the court for around two years, and it allowed Nicander to become familiar with Bjorn himself, even playing mini-golf with the legendary tennis player once.
“[Leo and I] played a lot. We were great friends, although I haven’t seen him in a while,” Nicander said.
Although tennis has given Nicander a way to become comfortable in his new American environment, it was not always that simple.
The decision to come to America was not an easy one for Nicander. He had a strong group of friends in Sweden, and they hung out all the time, maximizing their time together in Stockholm. As with most friend groups, when it came time to decide what they all wanted to do after their schooling had ended, they took different paths. Some of Nicander’s friends went to university in Sweden, others decided to travel and some got right into working. Nicander decided on something different, which was to come study in America.
“I felt like I wanted to do something unique, something that no one else did. It’s pretty cool to say you went to college in the U.S.,” Nicander said. “Plus, it looks really good if you say you have a degree from an American university.”
Due to the process of schooling and international applications, Nicander was notified of his acceptance into Springfield College in late July, a little over a month before the semester began. He had a quick decision to make, and spent a couple days pondering over whether Springfield was the right fit for him. Ultimately, he came to a decision.
“F— it why not. I’ll see what happens,” Nicander told himself, and with that, he made his decision to leave everything and Stockholm to come to Springfield, Massachusetts.
Nicander has had struggles in learning and adapting to American culture. Excluding one trip to America when he was 11 years old to visit an uncle who lives in Key West, Fla., Nicander was completely unfamiliar with American culture, which was why going to college here was so intriguing to him.
Upon arriving in America, Nicander found himself hanging out with his fellow Swedes very frequently in their first couple weeks. However, this was not what Nicander necessarily wanted.
“I love Mat and Tim, but I didn’t move to another country to hang out with Swedish kids. I have my Swedish friends at home. I have a lot of fun hanging out with American kids. That’s what I came here to do, to learn the culture,” Nicander said.
One of the things that Nicander has struggled with the most in his adaptation process is the food. Americans have the stereotype from around the world for being notoriously poor eaters, something Nicander believes is true.
Sweden, like most European countries, emphasizes healthy, homemade meals that you know exactly what is in it. When coming to America however, Nicander was forced to adjust.
“Everything is fried or covered in cheese,” Nicander said. “Fast food and microwaved foods too. That was like a once a month thing in Sweden if you needed a quick meal, but here, some people live off that.”
Another thing he noticed was the difference between healthy and processed foods in America.
“The healthy foods are so expensive. It’s like they want the people to eat bad,” he said.
Although the food may be different from what he is used to, the main thing that had plagued Nicander in his new home was the language.
One of the problems for Nicander was the informal conversations, or small talk, that he struggled to understand. For example, just take a second to think about the phrase “what’s up”. It’s a little odd how people have been using that phrase as a form of informal greeting, even though neither word in the phrase seems like it would have anything to do with that. However, with a little help from none other than the signature “What’s up Doc” greeting of Looney Tunes character Bugs Bunny, that has become the go to greeting of American people.
For Nicander, living his first full day in America after moving over 3,800 miles from home, someone asking him “what’s up” was the most embarrassing thing that could have happened.
“I got myself into some awkward situations when I first got here. We practice the formal part of the language. We don’t practice the small talk,” Nicander said.
Although he did not know how to respond to “what’s up,” Nicander is well-versed in English. Growing up in Stockholm, Nicander started the schooling system when he was six years old, and learned English every single year.
The other part of the language that plagued Nicander was his self-expression and humor. Although Sweden is mostly known internationally as a quiet and reserved country, Nicander takes none of that with him.
“Sweden is an awkward country. People don’t talk to strangers,” Nicander said.
Nicander’s roommate, Nick Rogers added, “He will talk to anyone.”
Nicander’s humor is the main thing that he has struggled with since coming to America. Although many around him viewed him as very funny, it did not feel that way to him.
“It was hard in the beginning to express my full character. It’s hard being funny in a new language.”
Coming in with the notion that Americans were talkative and friendly, Nicander still believes that is true. But there have been times where he felt he got the short end of the stick because he wasn’t born in America. However, the admittedly-self-confident Nicander doesn’t let that bother him.
“People automatically think that you are weird [because you are foreign]. But that’s fine. Because that means I’m not interested anyway.”
He added, “If people got to know the real me, it would be so much different.”
There was one person who helped Nicander through this and made him feel comfortable, which was his roommate, Nick Rogers.
Rogers is a fellow first-year student who is a member of the wrestling team, and coming from Watertown, N.Y., he did not know much about Nicander before getting to Springfield, and was quite nervous about the concept of rooming with an international student he had never met before.
“I looked him up on YouTube and saw he played tennis. That is just not a normal person I’d hang out with [in America]”, Rogers said.
Despite not knowing what to expect, Rogers is incredibly grateful for how good their relationship is.
“He’s awesome. I hang out with him every day now.”
The most important thing to Nicander however is how much Rogers helped him in understanding the language parts of America that he was uncomfortable with.
“I don’t even know how I helped him. It just came naturally through conversation,” Rogers said.
Nicander’s improvement is unmistakable.
“He’s come a long way since we first met,” Rogers said.
Nicander also feels more comfortable now that he has spent over half a year in America.
“I feel confident in the language now,” he said.
Another thing for Rogers has been learning Swedish culture. Nicander may have come here to learn American culture, but naturally Rogers is just as interested in different cultures as Nicander is.
Something the pair of roommates have to bond over is sports, as most people at Springfield have love for at least one sport. Coming to America, Nicander loved soccer, or football as it is referred to in Sweden, and tennis, which he plays here. However for Rogers, soccer just does not have the impact in America as it does around the world.
“He would just rant over soccer and how boring it was and how no one should ever play it,” Nicander said.
Fast forward to April, and now the two have another thing to bond over. FIFA 23, the soccer video game, is something that Nicander and Rogers always play together.
“He’s taught me so much about soccer,” Rogers said. “He still smokes me in FIFA, though.”
The pair’s relationship has gone so far that Rogers is planning a trip out to Stockholm this summer to visit Nicander, a fitting showing of how fast the pair of roommates have grown to be great friends.
Photo Courtesy David Kilburn