Take an Italian couple, move them to Finland, and add an Indian-born child to the mix. There, you have us. Our family of four is a mix of languages, backgrounds, and cultures. We speak Italian in our household, English with many friends, and Finnish the rest of the time. Our first child, now over four, was born in Finland and is bilingual. Our son joined us when he was 20 month old all the way from India.
Inside our house, the dominating culture is the Italian. We mostly eat Italian food, speak Italian, and celebrate Italian traditions. Outside, it’s mostly Finnish. We came to Finland to stay, so our children need to soak in Finnish culture as well. Here comes the first issue. Finland may be a small (5,5M people) and young (100 years old this year) country, but it has a defined and strong culture. I sometime joke that Finns share a collective brain and they maintain their social rituals year after year, generation after generation. Our children are also Finnish citizens and will grow up here. I want them to feel part of the community and for me that starts from shared traditions.
Believe me, it’s not easy. My friends have been lovely and answered any question I’ve ever had, but many times the problem is that I don’t know what to ask. And I understand this is all so normal to them and they don’t flag one week before “Heeeey, vappu is coming sooon!”. I am building for my children memories I never had. It’s damn hard. After almost five years, I’m quite confident about Finnish family traditions, but it took active work and commitment to get here. I got a lot of support from other expat Italian mothers – the luckiest married to a Finn who would teach everything they needed to know – and I tormented many local friends with “stupid” questions.
I remember R.’s first Palm Sunday. In Finland, girls dress up as witches and go from house to house giving a decorated willow branch, in exchange for candies. A sort of Halloween, it is. I had so many questions. Where do I find and how I recognise willow branches? How should I decorate them? Plus, I had to learn and teach R. the traditional poem the children sing when ringing the bell. I ended up wandering in the wet cold forest desperately looking for willows. Now that I made the eye for them, I spot them everywhere. On that first year, it felt like searching for the Holy Grail.
Just when I felt I had the hang of it with Finnish culture, E. joined us from India. We are determined to make his birth culture part of our family. Not just preserving it, but merging it into our family. New level of difficulty added: how to teach your kids about a distant culture of which you know nothing about. Bring it on! I wish I could now disclose all the best tricks to do that, but it’s work in progress. We’ve decorated the house with some art brought from India – classic move. I started following some Indian mothers on Instagram who post about traditional festivities and I included the Indian Festivity Calendar in our shared Google Calendar. Every time an event is approaching, I collect information about it and see if it’s a tradition we can make ours. I’ve started following the events of a couple of local cultural organisations and I keep my eyes open for everything Indian. Before E. joined us, I took a couple of classes on Indian cuisine. I cannot claim I cook Indian food regularly, but preparing a meal at least once a week is where I want to get.
I wish I could tell you I live this with an adventurous spirit, but so far I’ve not been enjoying this ride much. It’s been active studying and researching, while worried that my kids would miss out on something, more than a curious and spontaneous discovery. I hope I will get soon up to speed, start relaxing and enjoying all the new interesting experiences we are adding to our family. Hopefully we won’t be adopting a child from China by then.