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Back To School

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Today is  the last day of  summer vacation. Tomorrow the girls start school, Emma again and Sara for the very first time. The first grader’s very excited to enter the French-Finnish School and as usual, mommy’s nervous  about nearly everything. In addition to the normal worries (will she feel good there, will she have friends and in our case – will she eat something?) there are also others that are linked to the bilingual school : will she have  a French teacher or a Finnish one (I can’t decide which one would be best as they will anyway have an equal amount of teaching in each language), will she be motivated to learn to read in her two languages (so far no enthusiasm whatsoever for either) and how will I manage the 20km there every morning and still make it to work on time as Gilles (who usually takes the girls to school) is bound to travel a lot this fall. For me it’s also “la rentrée”: a new school year with new pupils and old pupils. Knowing that I might seem strange to some, here’s the truth: I love going back to work  after summer vacation. Even as a child, I always loved it when school started again. Partly because of friends, yes,  but I also got a real kick about the new books, school supplies, and learning. That’s probably one of the reasons I became a teacher. There really is a special feeling about the beginning of the school year: it seems like we all get a fresh start to be more efficient and organized with our time.

I realized this the other day as I was watching a TV show called “The Middle”, all about the beginning of a school year where Frances, the mom, is determined that this time she will be organized and get everything done on time. All the backpacks are ready, after school activities written on a whiteboard, and she has baked and put in the freezer about 6 month’s worth of bakesale brownies. I totally relate as I am still at that stage. It’s when everything is ready for the race, but it hasn’t started yet. We’ve put up the school time tables on the fridge (in French of course, you can  find a lot of things on the Internet), the new family calendar is up and waiting to remind us of things we need to do and keep track of. I’ve spent days making lesson plans, and laminating things for my classroom. Motivated by this blogpost http://www.teachhub.com/my-teacher-survival-kit, I also took some time to prepare my own survival kit to help me through those Wednesdays when I have classes from 8 am to 4 pm. It’s all neatly organized in my personal locker. It  looked awesome and it’s too bad that I didn’t take a picture of it for this post.

I try to hold onto this feeling for as long as I can, but the reason I relate to Frances, the TV mom, is that I know myself and that next week (or the week after at the latest)  it will be a completely different story. Frances, the TV mom, lasted only a couple of days before she ended up throwing bags of frozen brownies at her kids for breakfast as they were running for the school bus. She and her husband congratulated each other for throwing in the towel earlier than others and saving a lot of stress in the process. I know that I too am just a wanna-be organized person and probably not fooling anyone with my efforts. Not ready to throw in the towel yet, though, so let’s keep it just between us for now. After all, this year might be different.

I will keep you up-to-date on how things go here: http://www.facebook.com/#!/bebilingual.net

15 Years After Tying The Bicultural Knot

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It was a hot day, at least by Finnish standards, when we said our I dos 15 years ago today. Well, to be exact, I said Tahdon, and he said Oui, je le veux. For our vows we did the opposite and used each other’s language. I can still remember mine, which I practiced over and over again for fear I would mess it up in the church: Moi, Annika, je te prends toi, Gilles, comme époux pour t’aimer fidèlement tout au long de notre vie…. It was a beautiful, sunny afternoon on an island in Helsinki, and all our friends and family were there. Conversations flowed in both our languages, and likewise were flowing the French and Finnish flags in the summer wind. Just like we wanted it to be in our everyday married life, too.

Today, 15 years later, I can’t imagine anything else than being in a mixed-culture marriage. Sure, his cheese stinks up the fridge and I’m not too crazy about the sweet afternoon “goûters” he gives the kids, but honestly, this is the extent of our cultural challenges. Most of the disagreements we’ve had seem to be due to the fact that he’s a man, and I’m a woman, and that by definition gives us a different perspective on things. We both love our native countries, but have come to know and love each other’s country as well. I can’t believe how many things I would have missed knowing, and loving, about France and the French if it hadn’t been for my husband. He, on the other hand, having lived in Finland for 18 years, has come to know the country inside out. “My little Finnish girl”, he sometimes says, meaning that I’m being naïve or stubborn or some other cliché adjective linked to Finns. His eyes are laughing, and there is so much tenderness in his voice that I don’t mind (even if I pretend to be upset, and call him an arrogant Frenchman – which, by the way, is a silly cliché too).

 Since Finland is our country of residence, at least for now, we’re always looking for ways to incorporate the French culture into our everyday life. Gilles’ parents are an important part of this and we visit and skype with them as often as possible. His maman, especially, is more than happy to teach our daughters (and me!) the traditions of their father’s childhood, which I feel is really important for  them. I wish for them to feel both French and Finnish, not half this and half that. Our family culture is of course a mix of both, but I hope it will help them feel at ease in either country. Here are a few things we’ve done to help this along:

French movies. The Finnish ones are so easy to come by, but Gilles has really worked hard to build our family a dvdthèque of all must-see French dvds. Our girls have seen La guerre des boutons, la gloire de mon père, le château de ma mère, and most Louis de Funès films in addition to countless more recent ones. Their cultural references are in place.

Rooting for both countries. This is relatively easy for us because the French and the Finns are not often good at the same things. Therefore, there’s no conflict for us to root for Finland’s hockey team in the winter, and the French soccer team in the summer. Next month, however, the French soccer team will play against the Finnish one right here in Helsinki. Emma decided she was going to root for the French team- but just because they don’t have as many fans here (or then she just realized that they’re more likely to win…)

Meeting other French people. Gilles plays soccer in a team consisting of mainly French (-speaking) players. He also plays French Tarot (no connection whatsoever with  tarot reading, it’s just a card game) once a week. Our girls also attend the French-Finnish school and through these channels we have become friends with other French families whom we meet for dinners or other social get-togethers.

– Bicultural holidays. Christmas is always a mixture of our two cultures and traditions. As Christmas Eve is the main event of Finnish Christmas, we do the traditional ham with trimmings then. On Christmas day, however, we cook a turkey with chestnut stuffing with the French grandma’s recipe. The crèche, with its santons, that Gilles’ mom bought for us in the first years of our marriage, is put up. If we are at home we usually open presents on Christmas eve, as is customary here, but our girls seem to prefer the French way of waking up on Christmas morning to find presents by their shoes under the Christmas tree. We make a Bûche de Noël (a Yule Log), and a Galette des rois for Epiphany a few weeks later. When we travel to France for Christmas, we bring ingredients to make Glögi ( a Scandinavian variant of mulled wine) and Piparkakku (gingerbread cookies).

In addition to all this, both cultures are very present in our home through books: novels, non-fiction books, comics, activity books, magazines. Despite my best efforts there are books on the beds, on the floor, on every table and counter. Aku Ankkas (Donald Duck) in perfect harmony with Ducobus and Titeufs. I dare say it’s the books that have helped our children integrate as well in the French culture even if we don’t live there. Of course, staying with the French grandparents for seven weeks every summer might have done it, too. Still, books definitely keep it up for the rest of the year.

 Thinking back to that special day 15 years ago, we had no idea of all the blessings that were going to come our way. I sometimes catch myself wondering where Emma and Sara where on that day. Then I remember, right, silly, they weren’t born yet. It seems weird as I feel like they have always been a part of our bicultural, bilingual family.

Here we are, 15 years later:

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Thought I was kidding about those books? Believe me, the photo is not staged. Same thing in every room.

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