The Paradox of Choice

‘Mummy, I feel like I am on that wheel at the park in Grosseto. If I run up one side, it’s England and if I run up the other side, it’s Italy. I don’t know which way to go.’

P.’s articulation of this equivocal state captured perfectly our own feelings. November marks the start of the final weeks of packing up before we move back to England.

P. is torn, as we all are, by the paradox of choice that brought us here initially. We created it for ourselves in choosing to step out of who we were and push on the boundaries that we create for ourselves in life. On one side stands England and for H. and P., returning will doubtless bring some relief as they pull on the garbs of familiarity in their daily life: the walk to school, friendships which will be negotiated in mother tongue, the comfort of being close to family, of the consistency of having Tom around regularly, of not having to say goodbye to him on his London weeks.


Dam building and wild water in Italy

On the other side stands Italy, the spirit of adventure which brought us here and which has defined our time on the Amiata. An experience in Italy that has pushed our boundaries, as individuals and as a family. Italy that has, paradoxically within its restrictive and potentially infuriating bureaucracy, afforded us extraordinary freedom in countless ways. The paradoxical confusion of P.’s feelings are played out for all of us in our emotions and in our existence here.

Teetering on the poignant cusp between Italy and England I feel this paradox acutely in what this year has offered the children. In leaving England, we left a school system that I felt strangled the very children it was supposed to teach. Despite the best intentions of many teachers who can see the pitfalls of the curriculum, the driving force of English schooling strait-jackets children into rote learning and tests, conforming them out of creativity. We plucked them out of that, held hands and leapt into the dark, in truth knowing very little about what it would be like here. Not knowing and, initially, not understanding, was, on reflection, extraordinarily liberating not only for me, as an educational professional and as a mother, but also for the children. School in our first year in Italy became about the language, and understanding what was going on, rather than about tests, testing, keeping up or racing ahead, in whatever way those featured within the tiny school the children attended. To be within an education system only temporarily affords a very different and potentially liberating perspective.

The unfolding of the school year ran in parallel with our increasing understanding of Italian. With the flowering of language came the understanding that this is an education system that is utterly broken, albeit in very different ways from that in the UK. Information with which I suppose I could have armed myself easily before we came, had I chosen to research. There must have been an instinctive self-correction there: too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and too much knowledge would almost certainly have compromised our decision to move here. So we left one education system that, in focusing solely on measuring, testing and results, is losing its way and risks disenfranchising from learning a vast swathe of the next generation, to a system that is beyond ripe for reform both administratively and inside the classroom.


Outdoor learning at Poggio d’Oro

As with almost all things Italian, however, for every broken system, incomprehensible law, unfathomable decision, there is another way, a ‘giro’ or a ‘soluzione Italiana’ if it can be found. The circumvention to those regulations which are less palatable, coupled with an innovation which is actually key to the Italian mindset, are two qualities which meant it was possible for my Italian friend and I to set up our alternative school here in Italy. Thus it is, that, despite the trials of last school year, H. and P. are now enjoying three months in a school that is overwhelmingly joyful. We came from a schooling system that struggled to maintain creativity despite the system, through a state run school here that nominally aspired to teach differently, but was strangled regularly by the bureaucracy for which Italy is renowned, to reach this brief, beautiful, halcyon period. Three months of school that feels wholesome, alive and joyous. Poggio d’Oro (literally, ‘knoll of gold’) does feel golden. Perhaps particularly golden in the poignancy of this moment, as we stand once more on the cusp of change. This golden hillock is giving children their childhood. Freeing them to learn in ways which excite, energise and inspire them.

As I walk up to school for our regular afternoon meeting, I hear the children’s games. One day they have found treasure, beautiful coloured stones and they are deciding as a close knit team of children, where to keep their precious booty. Another day they come running over to tell us that they have found out where the chickens have been laying their eggs, they’ve collected eight and put them inside to be shared out. One afternoon they are tasting the juice they pressed from grapes when they learned about wine making with a local producer – excitedly they tell me it has started to ferment naturally – they are making wine!

On other occasions a friend brings them back from school. They tumble in the door, generally grubby from a day which at some point has been spent outside gathering autumn’s bounty or starting to build their wooden base house or down in the cantina making a town from clay ready to light up at Christmas. Their faces are shiny with excitement – they have made me crotcheted necklaces, they need to buy screws and nails so that they can carry on constructing their base, they made soap out of olive oil and pressed flower leaves in. They are learning songs for Christmas and they had a go at a new martial art. Tomorrow is their beloved Feda who teaches them music. Only two more days til woodwork on Friday.

Capture these moments. Imprint them. Hold them close and fast. The clock ticks and I want to make this a reality in England too. The paradox of choice.

The Great Outdoors

It goes without saying that immersing oneself in another culture serves to accentuate one’s own sense of identity, both personal and national. Immersing oneself with children amplifies this, particularly when said children attend school in another place.

our winter

The kind of winter we’ve been having…

I am reminded of how strange I appeared to locals when living and studying in the Middle East. I would walk apparently unfathomable distances, setting off to tuts and mutterings that it’s ‘ba’ed’ – far away – and impossible to undertake such a journey without a car. Likewise, I craved light and the sun and would emerge from shuttered houses onto balconies long before locals set foot outside.

Similarly, here in Italy, my attitude to the outside sometimes seems diametrically opposed to that of the locals and nowhere do I struggle with this more than with the children’s school. The first few times the children told me they’d been inside all day, I shrugged it off and changed the subject. However, as the autumn days drew in and winter months arrived, I quizzed them a little more, to be met with their insistence that they were inside all day. This was puzzling because, while we have been coasting through the darker months – December, January and now February – winter itself has yet to make an appearance. Save a week in late January in which we were greeted with stunning displays of frost such as that below, I have been struggling to find a use for my woolly hat and thick boot socks. Even on colder days, there has been little rain to speak of, certainly none of the weather that might actually stop teachers in the UK from throwing the doors open and the children outside.




And there’s another point: in the UK said children will often be outside in shorts and or skirts and socks, running around the playground, scraping knees and throwing coats off even while their breath marks the air before them. Indeed it is with a heavy sigh on days of torrential rain that teachers tend to resign themselves to the boisterous behaviour which usually accompanies days on which children have been cooped up.

Not so here: in Italy I have been scolded on mild and sunny October days for my children being outdoors without hats. One is left wondering if there is some bureaucratic legislation decreeing a date in the autumn from which hats must be worn and play must be taken inside and a date in the spring from which we can revert to lighter clothes and outdoor play.


View from the children’s school 

I broached The Great Outdoors with the teachers one morning, asking if, given it was a lovely sunny day, P. could play outside. The school has a lovely field overlooking the glorious valley. It’s a travesty not to use it. My query was met with exasperated looks and the same explanation I have heard innumerable times since: ‘if the children go outside, they will get colds and coughs; we have some children who had bronchitis last year, how can they go outside in the winter?’ This is where I find my Italian lets me down, frustrating my ability to articulate clearly the many arguments for playing outside. I try to moot whether children dressed appropriately in warm clothes might not benefit from the fresh air. I attempt to point out that keeping thirty children cooped up in a few rooms for eight hours is more likely to propagate the spreading of germs, to say nothing of the effect it will have on their behaviour. I mention the health benefits to children of daily exercise and movement.

My comments are met with blank stares: ‘fa freddo fuori, come si fa?’ – it’s cold outside, what are we to do?

I leave, vexed both by my language and by this closed mindset, yet at the same time conscious that I am the outsider who has chosen to live here. And that means choosing to take the rough with the smooth. I try to focus on the smooth, in this case the smooth that I can do with regard to school: I can take the children out of school early when I feel they need a break. I can offer my help as a parent through the banco del tempo of this Senza Zaino school movement which embraces parental engagement.

play 2

A place to play

So, to start with, I park the car 15 minutes’ walk away from school. I collect the children early most days, to give ourselves time to play outside We walk to the car, run about in the olive trees and play in the beautiful stone ruins, shouting to the skies and the birds, looking up to the mountain, which seems to approve of our outdoor abandonment. The wind catches our breath and reddens our cheeks; our fingers tingle with the cold. La Principessa races forward with her hands behind her, flying to keep up with her siblings. I realise that this is probably good for me too.

We climb into the car to go home and I start to plan how I can take the outdoors into the children’s school day….



A few of my favourite things… about the senza zaino school


While I do love ‘brown paper parcels tied up with string’, for now, I am content to enjoy these little touches of the senza zaino school.

The tascapane: literally ‘pocket-bread’ – the sort of bag that would have been used in days-gone-by to take a parcel of bread and cheese to lunch in the fields; (you can see why this appeals to my Old School Romanticism); they use this instead of a backpack, or ‘zaino’. H. has a lovely hand made, blue cloth bag, the shoulder strap of which is adjusted by decorative buttons on the side. It’s light-weight, attractive and practical. P. has draw string bag for his water bottle and snack, with a plastic pocket on the front to keep safe letters going home.

Scarpe: Specifically, pantofole (slippers or indoor shoes) and scarpe – outdoor shoes. No explanation needed. Needless to say, I think this is great. I have always admired the practices of other cultures, such as Arab and Eastern European, of automatically removing outdoor shoes on stepping inside. It’s just common sense not to want any number of disgusting things we step on outside, trodden inside.

I like the named scatola (plastic box) on which P. places his shoes and the little, named cubby hole for H.’s shoes. I like the fact that the shelves and boxes are fixed at a child’s height and are easy for small hands to operate. The onus is on them to keep themselves organized and there’s a proper space for everything: for shoes, for coats, for snacks.

It’s not only the boxes and cubby holes, but also the naming thereof: the children have a little wooden tag with a photo of them on one side and ‘oggi non ce sono’ followed by their name on the other: ‘today so-and-so isn’t here’. When they come to school, they turn the tag over to the photograph to show that they are there. It’s functional, personal and also encourages them to take responsibility for themselves. P.’s shoes go on the box and other things go inside – in P.’s case, usually all the warm items of clothing I’ve insisted he wears on these chilly mornings, which he insists on taking off as soon as he can. P. is extremely warm blooded. It is only since we have hit frost in the mornings in the last week that he has reluctantly succumbed to wearing socks and boots instead of bare feet and Crocs.

Asciugamano! Hand towels! Parents are asked to supply a named hand towel with a loop so that it can hang on a peg in the toilets. So easy, so civilized. The towel comes home at the end of the week for washing.

Cuscino: The children of the Scuola Materna l bring a cushion in for agora time, the circle time which starts each day. Cushions and soft mattings are already at school for the Primaria children. And I am reliably informed by H. that scarpe and pantafole are removed before coming into agora.

Colazione. The children are encouraged to bring a snack for colazione (breakfast or mid-morning break) and the Scuola Materna recommends a different snack type on each day of the week, which both encourages a healthier attitude to snacks and less jealousy over who has what, thus we rotate through yoghurt, frutta, salato, dolce and then to libero – free choice. Colazione is put into a designated space at the start of the day. I’m not sure how committed all children are to bringing the correct snack, but the intention is there and it appeals to me. It also encourages me not simply to chuck the same thing in their bags every day.

the moon

The moon at sunset.


Grembiule: this is the cover up the children wear over their own clothes. The latest parents’ meeting noted to ‘mettere sempre il grembiule’. I have to say that this isn’t always the case, though I do try to remind H. to put hers on and this is something to work on – again, it makes sense – own clothes might be fine, (you can see I’m not entirely convinced by this), but school uniforms are practical and help to iron out those differences between children which are too often the cause of classroom conflict, so the grembiule is neat and practical.




So, those are just a few of my favourite things. Homework: turn it into a song good enough for Maria to sing. A song, actually, might well have featured here, H. has been singing non-stop ‘La scuola che c’e’ – a song written by a child at another senza zaino school, celebrating all things senza zaino and what it means to a child to be at a school ‘fatto per me‘ – made for me.

snow 1

First snowfall

H. is part way through writing me a list – in beautiful cursive script – of the little tasks the children are charged with on a daily basis. In the mean time, I leave you with news that Winter has arrived, stealthily and overnight, shocking us into thick winter coats, scarves and hats and an excitement in the children that could scarcely be contained when we saw the first scattering of snow on the mountain top on Sunday and enjoyed the first frost in the olive groves this morning.


Why it all started: Scuola Italiana

13 weeks with three children, one fig tree and a continual stream of adorable chatter combined with exhausting demands and “the odd” temper tantrum: one mamma was faintly relieved, to put it mildly, when the day finally dawned.

The start of Scuola Italiana.

Truth to tell, despite their worries and fears, even the children seemed glad to be forced, finally, into routine. The last few weeks of the holidays had become increasingly fraught: daily visits to the vet combined with the children’s pre-school nerves and there was much demanding, attention seeking squabbling and bickering. The kind of behaviour which requires oodles of patience from parents. I hold my hands up: my reserves were low.

For the last few nights before the big day, P. wanted to sleep in my bed, and he spent the nights fitfully, snuggling ever closer for reassurance. H. at this stage was more confident, waking in the night only, ‘because I’m so excited Mummy’.

The first day itself was ultimately much easier for P., as we met a little half English girl of a similar age a few weeks ago: a fireball of energy, she’s a feisty match for P. Once his little friend, A., had arrived, P. was happy to go in to his little ‘scuola materna*’ unaccompanied by Mummy and there was barely a backward glance. He was saving his worries for frenzied night time calls to me, ‘Where are you, Mummy?’ has peppered my sleep over the last week.

H., who had been so brave at home, so pleased with herself in her black smock (they wear their own clothes and cover them with the overall – a simple idea which would work brilliantly if they all wore them), looked petrified as we made our way into the school. As she fretted over which was her peg and when she would put the picture of herself up over it, my heart ached for my little-big girl. I can rationalize to myself why we are doing this and we can talk objectively about what it will be like: H. herself is given to telling people quite confidently that, ‘for the first month I won’t understand anything, but then it will be fine’, but there is no way I can be with her head and her heart as she sits in the classroom, amid a cacophony of sounds she will be struggling to understand. So conscientious and keen to do right, it will be hard for her not to know which ‘right’ is being asked of her.

Last week H. had decided to go by one of her middle names, as this was more Italian and ‘would be better for everyone’. I think the first morning at school was fairly complicated by this , indeed, I watched her introducing herself in Italian, and could see the ‘confusione’ was doubly demanding – not only another language, but also another identity! By Day 2 she came back saying that she had decided instead that everyone should call her an Italianized version of her real name!.

school 1 to cropI stayed with Italianized H in the classroom while the children began the day in the ‘agora’, the cushioned circle time which marks the beginning of every Senza Zaino day, when the children talk about their emotions and plan the day’s or week’s activities collaboratively with the teacher. H. kept looking over to me for reassurance. La Principessa was delighted to be with big sister and went over to tumble into circle time with her. H. onto la Principessa for reassurance and snuggled her onto her lap. Maestra B. passed a ball of wool round the circle, encouraging the children to introduce themselves, following their name with ‘mi piace…’ and ‘non mi piace…’ (I like… and I don’t like…). H. looked anxiously at me for something to say. We had a little whisper and I could see her practising her lines. H. looked ever more panic stricken as the ball of wool came her way. I waited while she bravely managed her name, then ‘mi piace i libri’ (I like books) and ‘non mi piace la confusione’ (I don’t like chaos). In fact, I think 14 out of 15 of the children in the circle, by which I mean the children in the whole school – yes the primary school, from ages seven to 11 – said that they didn’t like confusione – a comment which Maestra B. had started with. As I left, two of the boys, who should have been sitting down, looked to me like they were clearly going to be the cause of much confusione for the poor teacher.

The view from the school field.

The view from the school field.

Walking back to the car holding only La Principessa, with no one pestering me for information or attention, with no other little hands to hold as we crossed the road and with the peace that comes from no one squabbling, I felt hollow and lonely. We have been a close knit, tight community for the whole summer. Just us, la famiglia, together in our adventure and while I have been craving some time for myself, the reality of leaving the children in a strange school with teachers I had met only fleetingly before only dawned on me as I drove back down the hill. Had I given the children the ‘don’t go home with anyone else’ lecture? Were they sensible enough not to leave the school grounds without me? Would the school phone me if there were a problem? The first day of pre-school or school in England can seem unsettling enough as a parent who has perhaps only left their child with family or friends over the years, but I hadn’t quite appreciated how it would feel here in Italy. I had left them in classrooms with children they had never seen before, in an unknown language, about to embark on an unfamiliar routine. Even if I question for other reasons why we moved the children before we gave the initial school a chance (a delightful foray into more Italian bureaucracy, about which you will hear more anon), I am glad that going to this school gave P., at least, one ally in his class when he started: the handful of playdates he had with A. before the start of term gave him the confidence to go in alone. H., on the contrary, was begging me to stay with her, but, despite the fact I had expected to do so, I could see that ultimately this would hinder more than help her. While I can support outside school as much as possible, at the end of the day, the children have to overcome these nerves themselves, by being in the classroom and realising that they can do it. The first month, at least, is going to be tough and I can only hope that my instinct that it will give them strength of character, rather than perpetual fear of the unknown, will hold true.

*Scuola Materna is the equivalent of Pre-School, P. just misses the cut off point to be allowed to enter Scuola Primaria this year.