(CNN) – Moving to Italy to start a new life in the sunshine, surrounded by beautiful landscapes, great food, and great culture is a dream that many people have come true in recent years thanks to the sale of cheap homes.
But one family’s dream from Finland to move to Syracuse, Sicily, came to an abrupt end after just two months – causes that sparked a media furore in Italy.
Eileen and Penny Mattsson, a married couple in their 40s with four children ages 15, 14, 6 and 3, decide to give up on their new life after deciding that the local schools and education system their children live in are not up to Finnish standards.
In October they packed their bags and moved to Spain.
She wrote that her children complained of noisy and undisciplined local pupils “shouting and banging on the table”, clapping in class, spending all day at their desks with little physical activity or outdoor breaks to stimulate learning, and no food choices. She said the pupils were looked down upon or shouted at by teachers, and had low levels of English proficiency.
Even the kindergarten her youngest attended wasn’t up to standards, she said, as there were no toy cars, climbers or sandboxes for kids to play with.
‘The real life’
Elaine said she and Penny, the 46-year-old IT manager, were so upset about this, they decided to change their plans.
“We moved to Sicily at the beginning of September just to escape the bleak winters in Finland, we live in the south and there isn’t always snow to make the surroundings sunnier,” Elaine told CNN Travel via text message.
The family rented a lovely apartment near the lively old quarter of Ortygia, an island castle like maze of baroque palaces, sunny squares, ancient churches, and a history dating back to ancient Greek times.
“I really fell in love with Ortigia, the fresh food markets, and the atmosphere there,” she said. “Ironically, I don’t like surroundings when they’re too ‘clean’ and perfect. I’m an artist so I like to see things ‘behind the scenes’, real life. That’s what I saw in Sicily and Syracuse.”
Had she known that the school “was that poor”, she would have chosen somewhere else but would have missed the beauty of Ortigia, she said.
“Everyone learns as they live, so I’m sure my kids learned too and grew through this experience. I also met very helpful and nice people there so I didn’t have anything bad to say about the Sicilian mentality.”
Ellen Mattson has argued that the schools in Sicily have failed to live up to her expectations.
e55evu / Adobe Stock
The publication of Ellen’s letter of complaint sparked a national controversy in Italy, with parents, teachers, and scholars entering the conversation, often in defense of Italian schools.
The issue even reached the Italian Chamber of Deputies with Rossano Sasso, a former Minister of State for Education and representative of the National 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 partitions and fun playgrounds.
Italy’s Minister of Education, Giuseppe Valdetara, issued a statement warning against “generalizing impromptu judgments” on Italian teachers, though he acknowledged the need to improve Italy’s educational system.
Elaine says she is now trying to tone down her published criticism, arguing that the Italian translations of her letter, written in Finnish and published by Italian media, were “angrier” than the original.
“I just wanted to point out very simple actions that can be done, because the outdoors breaks,” she says.
“I don’t hate anything or anyone. I just realized my kids didn’t enjoy going there, and this is the first school they’ve ever interacted with like that.”
She added that she understood if the pupils were supposed to sit still all day, but expected the schools to be, if not the same as those in Finland, then close to those in Spain, where the family had previously lived.
Elaine said the family wants to share what they learned from their stay in Sicily as a lesson of caution for other foreign families yearning to live the Italian dream, recommending that they either look for a quieter country school or consider homeschooling.
In her original published letter, Elaine also criticized Syracuse’s chaotic urban environment and the environmental impact of traffic jams that build up as cars line up to enter Ortigia across a single bridge.
“How can it be believed that countless adults who rush to school every morning and every day can be effective?” I wrote. “Is total traffic chaos (and what about the environment) practical for families?”
Elaine believes that Italian school authorities should spread awareness about the benefits of children traveling to and from school on their own on foot to reduce car traffic and promote pedestrian city centres.
“In Finland, children go to school on their own; they use a bicycle or walk, and if they live more than five kilometers from school they can go by taxi or school bus. They have lunch at school, and then go home on their own when the school day is over.” is over.
Elaine says her doubts began the day she entered middle school to enroll her two oldest sons.
“The noise of the classes was so loud that I wondered how much concentration would be possible,” she writes. Pupils’ heads are not to be filled “like sausages with too much learning for undeveloped brains.”
Her words caused an uproar in Italy, leading to an online debate about whether the Mattsons were right or wrong — or both.
According to Giangacomo Farina, the director of Siracusa News who published Ellen’s letter, her comments reflect “cultural differences that have sparked an unwarranted media outcry.
“Simply put, the Italian school system puts too much emphasis on teaching content and less on educational structures and outdoor play spaces.”
However, he adds, teaching in Italian could still learn something from Finnish methods.
Farina says his online paper registered a spike in internet traffic with more than 1 million readers in the days after Ellen’s open letter.
Several Syracuse families posted comments on it, with some siding with the Mattssons in agreeing that the Italian teaching needed an upgrade.
The mother of a girl who attends the same class as Eileen’s 14-year-old son wrote that the Finn boy once asked where to take a shower after physical education, and everyone laughed.
She added that he often complained to her daughter about backward Italy and that things in the country were really bad.
Syracuse history and philosophy teacher Elio Capoccio told CNN that Italian education is “richer in contents, fields of study, and general culture than other foreign systems.”
He said, “Our pupils start at a very young age by learning many things and then continue to expand their knowledge. This opens their minds.”
Pierpaolo Coppa, Syracuse’s education officer, said it was “a mistake to compare Italian and Finnish teaching models which are so different” and that “two months is not enough to judge an educational system”.
“Some of the points raised by the letter could be discussed further, but the professional quality of our teachers is of the highest level,” Cuba told CNN.
Top photo: The Mattson family made their home in Ortigia, Sicily. (Travelaggio / Adobe Stock)