Mothering abroad


The smell of smoke registered in my brain as I approached the school. I could hear screams, although they didn't sound frightened; no one was running. Going through the gate I discovered a circle of excited children in the playground. In the middle, lay what looked like a man, on fire! As I negotiated my way closer I could see that the man was made of sawdust and rags. Otso noticed me in the crowd and shouted: "Äiti, we've burnt Carnestoltes!" A few confused questions to the head teacher explained Carnestoltes as the king of the carnival, who is burnt at the end of all celebrations to signify the end of feasting and the start of lent. Behind us is a week of wearing pants on the outside of trousers, lots of facial hair and parading in fancy dress. Now we enjoy the company of the seven legged lady, who represents Cuaresma, Lent, and I like her, because apparently she tells the children they need to help with the washing up at home!

It's been six months since Otso started school. He is doing brilliantly and is enjoying himself. Every day we do homework together in a language us parents are still only planning to study, once we feel we have mastered Spanish first. Even though Catalunya is part of Spain, its official language is Catalan, and is very much the language of daily life, particularly in the countryside. So far we have managed with a dictionary and a verb conjugation book, but Otso is getting so good at Catalan now, he hardly needs help with homework.

This is my second experience of a foreign school culture. Otso did a year of school in England before we moved here. Having been born and raised in England, he was in his own environment, but I wasn't.

Even though by the time Otso was born I had lived in England for eight years, was married to an Englishman and felt it was my home, motherhood created a crevasse between me and my surroundings. I was like a bear guiding its cub through a wood she didn't know. It's not that I didn't know my way around, how things worked or understand the English mindset; I just felt I couldn't pass on my heritage.

I loved the moorland we lived next to, but when I was up there with Otso, I carried with me a sadness for it not being the Finnish landscape I had grown in and felt so connected to. I couldn't pass that connection on, because I didn't feel close enough to the moors.

I cried at his nativity play - not just because it was endearing, but mostly because I felt lost and disconnected, because they didn't sing the songs I sang when I was at school. I realised what a huge part of parenthood it is to pass on your experiences and re-affirm them, what great sense of satisfaction and pleasure it gives you when your children do what you did as a child.

This Christmas I cried again - not only did they not sing the songs I used to, but I didn't understand the words! How could I guide my child through life in a country that is so foreign to me? How could I parent when I didn't know the language, the traditions, the culture?

As I posed these questions to a friend, he wisely reminded me that Otso will have his own experiences of this country and culture, he will make his own connections, his own memories and he won't be sad if they are not the same as mine. The moors of Yorkshire and the mountains of Tarragona will have a special place in his heart, because that is where he spent his childhood.

Looking back on our years in England now, I don't feel the disconnect anymore, I just have very special memories of Otso's childhood and our time together. It may not be where I grew up, but it became a home to both of us through the experiences we shared. I have yet to settle fully into the culture and landscape we're in at the moment, but Otso has already made it his home and will be guiding me through it soon.

And what comes to passing on my own heritage - I speak it every day, I sing it, I cook it, I read it out loud. Both the boys speak Finnish and we visit Finland whenever we can. Otso loves it because it's different and exotic and Mummu makes the best meatballs and mansikkakiisseli in the world.