How the dream of moving to Italy turned sour for one family

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(CNN) — Making a move to Italy to start a new life in the sunshine, surrounded by beautiful scenery, incredible food and fascinating culture is a dream that many people have realized in recent years thanks to a sell-off of cheap homes.

But the dream for one family from Finland who moved to the Sicilian city of Syracuse has come to an abrupt end after just two months — and the reasons why have created a media outcry in Italy.

Elin and Benny Mattsson, a couple in their 40s with four children aged 15, 14, 6 and 3, have decided to abandon their new life after deciding that the local schools and education system experienced by their offspring were not up to their Finnish standards.

They packed their bags in October and moved to Spain.

Elin, a 42-year-old artist from the town of Borgä in Finland, also known as Porvoo, decided to vent out her frustration through an open letter published January 6 on local online paper Siracusa News that criticized school life and teaching strategy, accompanied by a photo of the family happily sightseeing.

She wrote that her kids complained of loud and undisciplined local pupils who “scream and beat on the table,” whistle in class, and spend all day at their desks with little physical activity or fresh air breaks to stimulate learning, and no food options. Teachers look “scornfully down at pupils” or yell, she said, and have low English language proficiency levels.

Even the kindergarten attended by her youngest was not up to standards, she said, with no toy cars, climbing objects or sandboxes for the children to play with.

‘The real life’

Elin said that she and Benny, a 46-year-old IT manager, were so alarmed by this, they’d decided to change their plans.

“We moved to Sicily in the beginning of September just to escape the dark winters in Finland, we live in the south and there is not always snow that makes the surroundings brighter,” Elin told CNN Travel via text messages.

The family rented a beautiful flat near the vibrant old district of Ortigia, a maze-like island citadel of baroque palazzos, sunny piazzas and old churches and a history dating from ancient Greek times.

“I really fell in love with Ortigia, the fresh food markets, the atmosphere there,” she said. “Ironically, I don’t like the surroundings when they are too ‘cleaned up’ and perfect. I’m an artist so I like to see things ‘behind the scenes,’ the real life. This is what I saw in Sicily and Syracuse.”

Had she known the school “was this poor” she would have chosen another place but would have missed the beauty of Ortigia, she says.

“Everyone learns as they live, so I’m sure my kids too learned and grew through this experience. I also met very helpful and nice people there, so about the Sicilian mentality I got nothing bad to say.”

Elin Mattsson argued that the schools in Sicily failed to meet her expectations.

Elin Mattsson argued that the schools in Sicily failed to meet her expectations.

e55evu/Adobe Stock

The publication of Elin’s letter of complaint has triggered a national debate in Italy, with parents, teachers and scholars stepping into the conversation, mostly in defense of Italian schools.

The issue even landed in Italy’s lower house of parliament with Rossano Sasso, a former education secretary of state and representative of the nationalist League party, posting on Facebook in support of Italian teachers.

He said he refused “to take lessons from a Finnish painter” who suggested the government reform schools with outdoor breaks and fun playgrounds.

‘More angry’

Italy’s education minister, Giuseppe Valditara, issued a statement warning against “generalizing impromptu judgments” on Italy’s teachers, though he acknowledged the need to improve Italy’s educational system.

Elin says she is now trying to water down her published criticisms, arguing that the Italian translations of her letter written in Finnish that were published by Italian media were “more angry” than the original.

“I just wanted to point out very simple measures that could be done, as outside fresh air breaks,” she says.

“I don’t hate anything or anyone. I just realized that my kids did not enjoy going there, and that is the first school they reacted to like this.”

She added that she understands if pupils are supposed to sit still all day long, but had expected schools to be, if not similar to those in Finland, then close to those in Spain, where the family had lived previously.

Elin said the family wants to share what they’ve learned from their Sicilian sojourn as a cautious lesson to other foreign families longing to live the Italian dream, recommending they either seek out a quieter countryside school or look into homeschooling.

Chaotic traffic

In her original published letter, Erin also criticized the chaotic urban environment in Syracuse and the environmental impact of the traffic jams that build up as cars line up to enter Ortigia via a single bridge.

“How is it possible to think that the countless adults who rush to school every morning and every afternoon can be functional?” she wrote. “Is total traffic chaos (and what about the environment) practical for families?”

Elin believes Italian school authorities should spread awareness on the benefits of children traveling to and from school alone on foot to reduce car traffic and boost pedestrian city centers.

“In Finland, children go to school alone; they use a bicycle or walk and if they live more than five kilometers from the school they can go by taxi or school bus. They have lunch at school, then go home alone when the school day is over.

Elin says her doubts started the day she stepped into the middle school to enroll her two older boys.

“The noise of the classes was so loud that I wondered how the hell it was possible to concentrate,” she writes, saying pupils’ heads should not be filled “like sausages with too much learning for undeveloped brains.”

Her words have stirred a major uproar in Italy, leading to an online debate over whether the Mattssons are right or wrong — or a bit of both.

According to Giangiacomo Farina, director of Siracusa News which published Elin’s letter, her comments reflect “cultural differences that have triggered an unjustified media outcry.

“Simply, the Italian school system is very focused on teaching content and less on teaching structures and open-air playing spaces.”

However, he adds, Italian teaching could still learn something from Finnish methods.

Expanding knowledge

Farina says his online paper registered a spike in internet traffic with over a million readers in the days following Elin’s open letter.

Many Syracuse families posted comments to it, with some siding with the Mattssons in agreeing that Italian teaching needs an upgrade.

The mother of a girl attending the same class of Elin’s 14-year-old son wrote that the Finnish boy once asked where the shower was after physical education, and everyone laughed.

He would also frequently complain to her daughter how retrograde Italy was and that things in the country were really bad, she added.

Syracuse-based history and philosophy teacher Elio Cappuccio told CNN that Italy’s education is “much richer in contents, fields of study and general culture compared to that of other foreign systems.”

He said, “Our pupils start at a very early age to learn many things and then continue to expand their knowledge. This opens up their minds.”

Pierpaolo Coppa, a Syracuse education official, said it was “wrong to compare the Italian and Finnish teaching models which are completely different” and that “two months isn’t enough to judge an education system.”

“Some points raised by the letter could be further discussed, but the professional quality of our teachers is of the highest level,” Coppa told CNN.

Top image: The Mattsson family made their home in Ortigia on Sicily. (Travellaggio/Adobe Stock)

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