(CNN) — Moving to Italy to start a new life in the sun surrounded by beautiful scenery, incredible food and fascinating culture is a dream many people have realized in recent years thanks to cheap house sales.
But the dream of a family from Finland who moved to the Sicilian city of Syracuse came to an abrupt end after just two months – and the reasons for it caused 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 give up their new life after realizing that the local schools and education system know their descendants , not up to their Finnish standards.
In October they packed their bags and moved to Spain.
She wrote that her children complained of loud and undisciplined local students who “yelled and banged on the table,” whistled in class, and spent all day at their desks, with little physical activity or breaks in the fresh air to mitigate that Stimulate learning, and with no food options. Teachers “look down on students with contempt” or shout, she said, and have little knowledge of English.
The kindergarten her youngest attended was also not up to standard, with no toy cars, climbing objects or sandpits for the children to play in.
“The true life”
Elin said that she and Benny, a 46-year-old IT manager, were so concerned about this that they decided to change their plans.
“We moved to Sicily in early September just to escape the dark winters in Finland, we live in the south and there isn’t always snow which brightens the area,” Elin told CNN Travel via text message.
The family rented a beautiful apartment near the vibrant old district of Ortigia, a labyrinthine island fortress of baroque palaces, sunny squares and ancient churches and a history stretching back to ancient Greece.
“I really fell in love with Ortigia, the fresh food markets, the atmosphere there,” she said. “Ironically, I don’t like the environment when it’s too ‘tidy’ and perfect. I’m an artist so I like to see things ‘behind the scenes’, real life. I saw that in Sicily and Syracuse.”
Had she known the school “is so poor,” she would have chosen a different location, but missed the beauty of Ortigia, she says.
“Everyone learns while they live, so I’m sure my kids learned and grew from this experience, too. I also met very helpful and nice people there, so I can’t say anything bad about the Sicilian mentality.”
Elin Mattsson argued that schools in Sicily had not lived up to their expectations.
The release of Elin’s letter of complaint has sparked a national debate in Italy, with parents, teachers and students joining the discussion, mainly to defend Italian schools.
The issue even landed in the Italian House of Commons when Rossano Sasso, a former education secretary and representative of the nationalist Lega party, posted on Facebook in support of Italian teachers.
He said he refused “to take lessons from a Finnish painter” who proposed the reform state schools with outdoor breaks and fun playgrounds.
Italy’s Education Minister Giuseppe Valditara issued a statement warning against “generalizing spontaneous judgments” about Italy’s teachers, while acknowledging the need to improve the Italian education system.
Elin says she is now trying to water down her published criticism by arguing that the Italian translations of her letter, written in Finnish and published by Italian media, are “more annoying” than the original.
“I just wanted to point out very simple measures that you could take when the fresh air breaks outside,” she says.
“I hate nothing and nobody. I just noticed that my kids don’t like going there and it’s the first school they’ve reacted to that way.”
She added that she understands if students have to sit still all day, but she would have expected the schools to be close, if not similar, to those in Finland but then to those in Spain, where the family had previously lived would.
Elin said the family wanted to pass on what they learned from their Sicilian stay as a cautious lesson to other foreign families yearning to live the Italian dream, recommending that they either seek out a quieter school in the countryside or to look into homeschooling.
In her originally published letter, Erin also criticized Syracuse’s chaotic urban environment and the environmental impact of the traffic jams that form when cars queue to reach Ortigia over a single bridge.
“How is it possible to believe that the countless adults who rush to school every morning and afternoon can be functional?” She wrote. “Is total traffic chaos (and what about the environment) practical for families?”
Elin believes that Italian school authorities should raise awareness of the benefits of children walking to and from school alone in order to reduce car traffic and increase pedestrian zones in city centres.
“In Finland children go to school alone; they bike or walk, and if they live more than five kilometers from the school, they can take a taxi or the school bus. They eat lunch at school and then go home alone when the school day is over.
Elin says her doubts began the day she entered middle school to enroll her two older boys.
“The noise from class was so loud it made me wonder how the hell could you concentrate,” she writes. Students’ heads should not be “stuffed like sausages with too much learning for undeveloped brains.”
Her words have caused a major uproar in Italy, sparking an online debate about whether the Mattssons are right or wrong – or a little bit of both.
According to Giangiacomo Farina, director of Siracusa News, which published Elin’s letter, her comments “reflect cultural differences that have prompted an unwarranted media outcry.
“The Italian school system just focuses a lot on curricular content and less on classroom structures and outdoor playgrounds.”
However, the Italian lessons could still learn something from the Finnish methods.
Farina says his online newspaper has seen a spike in internet traffic with over a million readers in the days following Elin’s open letter.
Many Syracuse families have posted comments, with some siding with the Mattssons and agreeing that Italian classes need to be improved.
The mother of a girl who attended the same class as Elin’s 14-year-old son wrote that the Finnish boy once asked where the shower was after gym class and everyone laughed.
He also frequently complained to her daughter about how backward Italy was and that things were really bad in the country, she added.
Syracuse-based history and philosophy teacher Elio Cappuccio told CNN that Italian education is “much richer in content, subjects and general culture compared to that of other foreign systems.”
He said: “Our students learn many things from a very early age and then continue to expand their knowledge.
Pierpaolo Coppa, an education official from Syracuse, said it was “wrong to compare the totally different Italian and Finnish teaching models” and that “two months is not enough to assess an education system”.
“Some points raised in the letter could be discussed further, but the professional quality of our teachers is of the highest standard,” Coppa told CNN.
Picture above: The Mattsson family has settled in Ortigia, Sicily. (Travellaggio/Adobe Stock)