Immigrants on the loose

So here we were in Wayne, NJ, the immigrant kids (as we thought of ourselves even though we were born in the U.S.) dumped among the white-bread White Anglo-Saxon-Protestant, German, Irish and Italian kids whose families had arrived a couple of generations earlier.  And the Dutch kids whose ancestors colonized north Jersey, and whose language was spoken here widely before the English took it over.

When we were children, there were no Asians, no blacks, virtually no Jews and pretty much nobody else too unusual in our community.  We were less than 20 miles from New York City, and Wayne was as white as Wonder Bread.  And equally lacking in flavor.

My mom, like any good Estonian mother, forbade us to eat Wonder Bread or anything like it.  She called it soft white mush. Our sandwiches, when we toted them to school, were made on heavy dark rye or pumpernickel, breads with substance. And they were made with butter.

None of this foreign stuff like mayonnaise was acceptable to my mom; Estonians used butter.

And not salted butter either. Salting butter, she claimed, was done solely to conceal the fact that it was spoiled.  Even now, just a few months shy of turning 60, I regard salted butter as an exotic delicacy.

Our determined mom even spread butter under the peanut butter.

Pumpernickel – butter – Skippy -strawberry  jam – pumpernickel. That was the recipe for one of our lunch sandwiches, and it definitely did not look like the sandwiches of our classmates. Another day’s sandwich might be rye – butter – salami – rye.  Or pumpernickel – butter – ham – pumpernickel.  Rye-butter-tuna salad-rye.

And then came sixth grade, and the school cafeteria. Hot lunch, cold lunch, submarine  sandwiches: American cuisine as interpreted by the lunch ladies.  Among my discoveries was pizza. At school it was presented as a flat disc about six inches in diameter, topped with a bland tomato sauce and bland melted cheese. How amazing! How different from our Estonian diet of meat and potatoes and sauerkraut. I raved about pizza at home.

One day at the supermarket, I spotted small  pizzas in the frozen food section, and urged my mother to buy some. To my surprise and delight, she did.

However, she did not put them in the oven to bake. Mama added a special twist of her own: she fried them in butter. She even flipped them over and fried the side with the sauce and cheese, which made quite a mess. But we all loved them. The fried pizzas were juicier and tastier than the ones at the cafeteria, and we devoured them in happy ignorance.

So the very first time I begged a quarter from my father and went with a friend to Tony’s Pizza in Pompton Lakes, I experienced Pizza Nirvana.

That huge hot pizza slice , speckled with unfamiliar oregano and dripping with melted mozzarella, was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. After conducting more research, I went and informed my mother that Americans-do-not-fry-pizzas-in-butter-they-bake-them-in-ovens.  I must have been about 12.

Mama, ever the cosmopolite, decided to branch out into the mysteries of pasta, only we didn’t call it pasta back then; it was either spaghetti or macaroni. She clipped a recipe out of Family Circle and proceeded to make tomato sauce and meatballs, with boiled spaghetti.

When it came to the table, the dish looked peculiar, to say the least. It was pink. My brother and I knew that regardless of how the lunch ladies might decide to  interpret spaghetti sauce in the cafeteria, it was always red.  We didn’t discover pasta Alfredo and pasta Aglio e Olio and pesto sauce until considerably later in life.

Not only was the sauce pink, but the spaghetti underneath it was littered with bits of potato.

Mom explained that the sauce, as made from the recipe, looked thin to her, so she added some heft in the form of sour cream. My brother and I groaned.

And the potato pieces? Evidently our father insisted on potatoes at dinner, and refused to eat this peculiar foreign spaghetti stuff.  Not wanting to wash two pots, she simply boiled the spaghetti with the potatoes. At least the meatballs seemed normal to our uneducated palates. I don’t believe  my mother ever purchased garlic in her life.

We didn’t have the money to go to restaurants, so our experiences with cooking other than our mother’s was limited to  meals at the homes of family friends who were Estonian, snacks at the homes of our American playmates, and the culinary delights of the cafeteria at  Schuyler-Colfax Junior High School.

Despite these minor mishaps, our mother was a wonderful cook. Like her own mother, she could make  tasty gravy out of almost anything. She brewed marvelous fragrant coffee. She made sweet-tart lingonberry jam from imported lingonberries, which are like tiny cranberries that grow in northern Europe.

She made pickled pumpkin, a lovely traditional sweet-and-sour addition to Estonian smorgasbord tables.  Her pink beet-and-potato salad (called rosolje  in Estonian), mushroom salad, herring salad and regular potato salad were better than anyone else’s.

Her cakes were out of this world. She made heavy moist sponge cakes using a dozen carefully separated eggs. You tiptoed in and out of the kitchen while it baked, lest it fall.

When the sponge cake was done and properly cooled, she would slice it into two layers, and fill the middle with crushed strawberries steeped in a little red currant wine and sugar. The top layer went back on, and she covered it with her mocha frosting, made with butter and sugar,  coffee and a little cocoa powder, and I can’t recall what else.  This cake was sublime.

She grew gooseberries and made gooseberry tart, which I imagine few Americans have tasted.  She made delicious Estonian-style sauerkraut, which is only slightly sour and definitely sweet,  laced with caraway seeds or cooked barley. I can’t really describe it, nor can I make it. My brother can.

Years after she passed away, many old family friends remembered my mother as an excellent cook.

But there was one thing she made that I avoided like the plague. Sült. Americans call it head cheese, but it’s more like an unsweetened Jello mold made with pigs feet that have been boiled to bits and the bones taken out. Real Estonians love the stuff, devouring it with vinegar or mustard. I used to get nightmares just looking at it.

Because we stuck to Estonian food at home, I never tasted a bagel with cream cheese and lox until college, when Jewish friends dragged me to a diner. Heavenly!

Another college friend introduced me to the joys of falafel in Greenwich Village. On another trip to the city, he tried to refrain from snickering when I innocently ordered the hot version of a dish at a Pakistani restaurant, choking some of it down with glass after glass of water, tears running down my face, before giving up. I never dared to tryPakistani food again, though I adore Indian cuisine and enjoyed dining at a Nepalese restaurant last summer.

Chinese food was also a novel experience after the bland chow mein at school. On one dreadful  occasion, the cafeteria crew at our high school ran short of canned chow mein, and stretched it out with canned spinach and oatmeal, of all things.  It was ghastly.

Not all the food at school was bad. Our high school cafeteria served a wonderful macaroni and cheese dish with stewed tomatoes. I liked it so much that when I came home from college early for Thanksgiving break, I sneaked into the high school cafeteria and bought a plate of it.   In later years, I tried to re-create it from memory, and achieved a reasonable facsimile:

Wayne Hills High School Macaroni and Cheese

16 oz. dry elbow macaroni

4 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons white flour

1½ cups milk or skim milk

Paprika and celery seed or celery salt to taste

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

½ cup breadcrumbs, plain or Italian seasoned.

Olive oil cooking spray

Cook a package of elbow macaroni according to directions. – do not overcook. Meanwhile spray a casserole dish with olive oil cooking spray. Add the macaroni when it is cooked and drained.

While the macaroni cooks, slowly melt 4 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and remove from heat. Stir in 2 tablespoons of white flour until thoroughly blended. Then gradually stir in 1½ cups of milk, stirring with a whisk until the mixture is blended and free of lumps. Add salt and a dash or two of paprika and celery salt or celery seed.  Cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the milk mixture thickens.  Remove from heat and pour over the cooked macaroni.

Stir in 1 cup or more of grated cheddar – depending on how cheesy you like it.

Sprinkle breadcrumbs on top and spray lightly with the cooking spray.

Bake 35-40 minutes at 350°.

Top each serving with stewed tomatoes. Serves 6.

(To reduce cholesterol, substitute olive oil for melted butter, and use low-fat cheese and skim milk.)

Stewed tomatoes

2 15-ounce cans stewed tomatoes

2 heaping tablespoons cornstarch

1 15-ounce can water

½ can water

Pour the tomatoes and liquid in a pot and add a can of water. If you want, cut the tomato slices into quarters. Heat slowly.

Meanwhile, stir 1 heaping tablespoon cornstarch in about 1/2 can of water until dissolved. When the tomatoes begin to simmer, add the water-cornstarch mixture and cook until the liquid is thickened.

Serves 6.



How do you say “witch” in Estonian?

I am astonished to discover that the Estonian language possesses an extraordinary number of words for “witch”.

Nõid is the word I was taught as a child.

But they have other words such as loits, võlu, arbus, posija, lausuja, ennustaja, synaja, kaldun…

It’s enough to make you dizzy.

How does a tiny nation — one that is geographically about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined — manage to have such great diversity in dialects and words for things?

Estonia’s population today is roughly 1.3 million, of which about 300,000 are ethnic Russians.

My county — Montgomery County in Maryland –has about as many inhabitants as there are ethnic Estonians in Estonia, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 million. We are an ethnically diverse county. Yet we don’t say witch in Silver Spring, and something entirely different in Poolesville or Olney. True, someone of Hispanic origin might say brujo or bruja. Someone from Taiwan or Ghana might use an entirely different word in their own language.

But in our common tongue, English, we all use the word witch when we want to describe someone who claims to use magic to achieve their ends, or perhaps dresses in a particular Halloween costume consisting of pointy hat and long black gown. Or who is a practitioner of Wicca.

The Free Dictionary offers this definition of witch from the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, (Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.)

“1. A woman claiming or popularly believed to possess magical powers and practice sorcery.
2. A believer or follower of Wicca; a Wiccan.
3. A hag.
4. A woman considered to be spiteful or overbearing.
5. Informal A woman or girl considered bewitching.
6. One particularly skilled or competent at one’s craft: “A witch of a writer, [she] is capable of developing an intensity that verges on ferocity” (Peter S. Prescott).
v. witched, witch·ing, witch·es
1. To work or cast a spell on; bewitch.
2. To cause, bring, or effect by witchcraft.
To use a divining rod to find underground water or minerals; dowse.
[Middle English wicche, from Old English wicce, witch, and wicca, wizard, sorcerer; see weg- in Indo-European roots.]”

There are all sorts of theories concerning the roots of Old English wicce, from which we get witch. One is that it derives from Sanskrit uei, a flexible twig used in binding. Another claims it comes from one of several meanings for Sanskrit ueik; in this case, divination.

But the Estonian language does not originate from Sanskrit, or its ancestor, Proto-Indo-European, unlike most of the languages in Europe. Instead, it belongs to the Finno-Ugric family, of which the most widely known modern languages are Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian. This was pounded into our heads in Estonian school. We generally got blank stares when we tried to explain this to non-Estonian kids, or even to teachers. We first-generation Estonian-Americans were forced to accept the sober fact that our parents’ native language was weird.

Little did I suspect that Estonian is weirder than anything I could imagine. In this tiny nation, there are more than 40 words for witch, and likely more. Only a few are related to one another.

I found this out during a Google search. Someone at, a website about all sorts of information about you-know-where, went to the trouble of searching for all these words, plus words for witching and witchcraft, and created a map of Estonia’s counties showing where each of these words was used, with three colors indication which of Estonia’s three major dialects it sprang from.

The link for the witch-words and accompanying charts is:

Truly, witches must be deeply significant personages in Estonia, or were so in the past.

Leaving out the dozens of words for witchcraft and witchery included on the Estonica web site, we can begin our list with ammamees or hambamees, which literally means tooth-man, and continue to arp, ask, jalapoiss (literally leg-boy), kaalunaine (weighing-woman), kade (which means envious) to kaldun.

Then there are maanatark (earth-something or other-wise), norts, nõiakas, nõias, and the widely used nõid, as well as nõidlik, with nõid being pronounced the way a denizen of Brooklyn, NY would say “nerd”.

Continuing alphabetically, we find poltarak, porss, punk, rabi, ragan, rõugutaja, silmänuumija which comes from Setu county in southeastern Estonia, sorbik, sorp, sorpja, sort and sorts, these last two related to our English word sorcerer somehow, along with sortsikas.

Sumpja is another word from the Setu dialect, followed by suri, taigaline and the widespread tark, which means “wise”. Teadlane, which can also mean scientist (!), is used in a few areas, along with related teadmamees (knowing-man). Tontinimene (ghost-person) comes next, followed by Russian-sounding tsarovnik.

We also have tuusija, velets, vilpus, viuh-änd, vornik and finally võlu, another one that has a rather wider use.

And the list from doesn’t even include some of the words I mentioned at the beginning, like loits, arbus, posija, lausuja, ennustaja, and synaja, which I discovered in other rambles through Google. That makes a grand total of 46 words for witch, and I’ll bet there are more.

I can draw a few conclusions from this.

One is that witches and their works played an important role in Estonian society at some time in the past. This is understandable when you have people depending on the success of their harvests, their fishing catches and their herd animals as matters of life or death. There were both male and female witches in Estonia, while the dictionary definition above tends to view witches as mostly female.

Estonia was one of the very last places in Europe to be Christianized. Christianity has always lain thinly over a strong undercurrent of pagan belief, including, evidently, a belief in supernatural powers.

A BBC article published in August, 2011, states that: “When Estonians were recently asked whether religion played an important part in their life, only 20% said yes. It suggests the Baltic country is, statistically, the least religious country in the world.”


Another surmise I can make from this is that Estonians in the past were not a very mobile people, being tied to their land by the hard labors of summer, and the deep snows of winter. Before there were trains and cars and telephones, many Estonians stuck to their small communities and did not have much contact with other hamlets outside their immediate area. When Estonians were mainly serfs laboring on the vast manors of their German overlords, their opportunities for travel were severely limited.

As a result, each region may have developed its own slang names for that important man or woman who practiced healing and encouraged good crops to grow.

Estonia has been conquered and re-conquered repeatedly by some of its near-neighbors since the early 13th Century. The conquerors, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Russia, have lent bits of their language to the Estonians. It may be that some of the witch-words I listed above derive from those languages.

And although northern Europeans have enlarged the lexicon of the Estonians, Estonians haven’t returned the favor. I can’t think of any Estonian-based words in English. Even our Estonian word saun isn’t known; the Finnish word sauna is the one that made it into English.

More’s the pity. What fun it would be to have 46 words for witch.


In the deep forest I hear walking words of whisper

My detachable soul climbs stray sunbeams over spun nets of cobweb silver

I release my spirit between spaces of light and shadow

Where the wind touches the edge of beginning,

Where the world’s border begins to begin

Where the articulate trees lift in praise to sunlight their morning limbs

Where spoken word becomes mystery, an invitation to the dance.

©Anita Susi 2011

Hiis / Holy Grove

(Hiis is the Estonian word for a sacred grove of trees. Estonian cemeteries are sometimes set among groves of trees. My grandparents and great-grandparents are buried in such a grove-cemetery. It is astonishingly different, both in appearance and in atmosphere, from the flat lawns that Americans call cemeteries.)

Enter the holy grove of the heart.
Great trees loom overhead
weaving their living branches into a sky-web
that captures dreams, stars, planets.
It is perilous to remove the tiniest pebble or leaf from this place.

What offering to bring?

Light filters down through silvery leaves constantly in motion,
creating a shimmering with shadow that dances
over the graves of the ancestors.

Do they sleep? Fly? Journey?

Enter the holy grove of the spirit.
This living grove, this
dance of shadow and light,
this speaking of words in silence,
this deep listening.
This home of the dead
and the living that tend their graves.
This centering place.

Are you truly alone here?

Enter the holy grove of the past
and pull that past into yourself.
Make it part of your heart and spirit.
Make it sanctuary.

© Anita Susi 2011


If I could travel between worlds
carrying words like lightning, and sounds infinitesimal
that can be heard only by the bones of the little finger
this is what I would seek:
to be the talebearer
of the stars’ voices.
If I departed from the Birds’ Way
and stormed northward
into the realm of secrets
and discovered the rags of a song
I would wash it in ice,
feed it my blood,
deliver it on my dying breath.

© Anita Susi

A few Estonian jokes

(Thanks to my brother Pete!)

After having dug to a depth of 100 meters last year, Scottish scientists found traces of copper wire dating back 1000 years and came to the conclusion that their ancestors already had a telephone network more than 1000 years ago.

Not to be outdone by the Scots, in the weeks that followed, English scientists dug to a depth of 200 meters, and shortly after, headlines in the newspapers read, “English archaeologists have found traces of 2000 year old fibre-optic cable and have concluded that their ancestors already had an advanced high-tech digital communications network a thousand years earlier than the Scots.”

One week later, Estonian newspapers reported the following: “After digging as deep as 5000 meters in Narva, Estonian scientists have found absolutely nothing. They, therefore, have concluded that 5,000 years ago, Estonia’s inhabitants were already using wireless technology.”


An Estonian stands by a railway track.
Another Estonian passes by on a handcar, pushing the pump up and down.
The first one asks: “Is it a long way to Tallinn?”
“Not too long.”
He gets on the car and joins pushing the pump up and down.
After two hours of silent pumping the first Estonian asks again: “Is it a long way still to Tallinn?”
“Now, it is very long way to Tallinn.”


A special offer from Estonian mobile phone providers: the first two hours of a call are free.


I told some Estonian fellows that they’re slow.
“What did they reply?”
“Nothing, but they beat me up the following day. ”


At -10 degrees Celsius, heating is switched on in British homes, while Estonians change into a long sleeved shirt.
At -20 Austrians fly to Malaga, while Estonians celebrate Midsummer Jaanipaev.
At -200 hell freezes over and Estonia wins the Eurovision Song Contest.
At -273 absolute zero temperature is reached, all atom movement ceases.
The Estonians shrug and say “Perse. It’s a bit chilly today isn’t it?”

Alphabet fun & games

For our edification, I am posting the standard Estonian ABD alphabet. You must have been panting with excitement to see it.

Here is how I learned it as a small child in my aabits (alphabet book).

A, B, D, E, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, V, Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü

The official modern-day Estonian alphabet consists of:

A, B, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, Š, Z, Ž, T, U, V, Õ, Ä, Ö, Ü.

F,  Š, Z and Ž are considered foreign letters that only appear in words borrowed from other languages. The  Š is pronounced sh, and the Ž is zh, as in BreŽnev.

This alphabet does not include our English letters, C, Q, W, X and Y, which are only used in foreign words and proper names.

There will be a test on this in 15 minutes.

I neglected to mention in my previous post that the letter Ö is pronounced like the U in purse, symbolized phonetically by the linguistically educated as ø.

The Ä sounds like the a in cat or hat,  for which the phonetic symbol is æ. We would write The Cät in the Hät. Except that we wouldn’t. We would instead write Mütsis KassMüts means hat, and kass means cat, and the extra is at the end of the first word means “in the”.  Checking the internet, I find that the Estonian title of the famous children’s’ book by Dr. Seuss is Kübaraga Kass. Kübar is a fancy-schmantsy Estonian word for hat, and the -aga suffix means with the, not in the.  No doubt they chose the word kübar to go with kass because there are few things Estonians love more than alliteration. (This does not count beer, sauerkraut, singing and many other things Estonians adore, such as sour cream…dill…pickled herring.)  More on alliteration in another post.

If you think our letter Õ is weird-looking, its phonetic symbol is even odder: ɤ. Bunny ears! It sounds like the u in duh (think Homer Simpson) if the speaker gets punched in the gut while saying the word. You get used to the pain after a while.

Trying to explain the pronunciation of  Ü gives me a headache.  Its phonetic symbol, unhelpfully,  is y, and sometimes modern Estonians like confusing people by replacing their ü’s with y’s when writing.  The letter is pronounced like the similar-looking umlauted  Ü  in German, but if you don’t know German, you’re out of luck. It sounds something like the “ew” in eww, but first you have to purse your lips as if you’re going to whistle.

We double our fun, and drive non-Estonians doubly crazy, by doubling, sometimes tripling or even quadrupling our vowels.  The i in the word kits (goat) rhymes with it’s.  A word like piim (milk) is pronounced peem. The word tass (cup) has an a like car,  but the a sound  is extended in klaas (glass).

We double  consonants too, like  in lipp (flag) to give the p sound a perky extra emphasis.

Confused yet?  At least we don’t go overboard like our wacky northern cousins, the Finns, who seem to double most of their letters for the sheer hell of it.  Maybe they see double after frequent weekend ferry trips to Tallinn swilling bargain-priced (to them) Estonian booze.

Here’s your typical Finnish word: hyppyyttää. It means ” to make someone jump repeatedly”, which is something those fun-loving arctic pranksters have been doing since their Viking days, even in 8 feet of snow.

Estonian is a piece of cake if you learn it from babyhood and get a few grammar lessons as a kid.  But it is a bitch to learn if you’re over the age of 7. It has more cases (14) than Latin, and my eyes tend to glaze over at the mere mention of words like case. My Estonian, like my English, is instinctive, but if I sit down and try to analyze each part of speech, my head starts to swim like a herring in the Baltic Sea.  Trying to diagram English sentences in 5th grade had the same shattering  effect. I know how to use the parts of speech correctly, but I can’t tell a pronoun from a participle. My brain just doesn’t function that way.

I had to pick up English fast, partly as self-defense  so I could figure out what the other kids were yelling  on the playground. I was also curious about what we were chanting when the teacher made us stand and place our right hands on our hearts while looking at a colorful red, white and blue piece of cloth at the front of the classroom.  I simply had no frame of reference for this strange activity.

Sudden immersion into English worked well — I couldn’t help but learn it. I don’t have a trace of  foreign accent, unless you count the New Jersey accent that hasn’t quite ceased, even after 21 years in Maryland.

As my mother, who learned Estonian, German and Russian from the cradle, used to say, they should begin teaching foreign languages in first grade, no later.   She and my father learned to speak English with a British accent because that’s the way it was taught in Estonia before World War 2. I think they learned some Latin when they were in law school, and my father mastered  Esperanto, the artificial language that was created in 1887 to be the new international lingua franca.

I think once you learn a few languages, you learn how to learn additional ones. My parents picked up bits and pieces of Finnish, Swedish, Polish, Latvian and other European tongues during their years in a post-war refugee camp. Of course the most important thing they learned was  how to curse in multiple languages. I can’t remember exactly how many, maybe 16. My brother and I were suitably impressed.

When I was in grade school, my mother studied French from educational  television programs.  We were taught French by volunteer mothers at our rather unique elementary school, but I never quite got the hang of it, nor could I get past the grammar in three years of high school German. I don’t possess  the gift of learning languages; the only reason I’m bilingual is because I learned Estonian as a baby, and English by immersion at age 5.

If only I’d inherited the linguistic skills of my great-grandfather, who was a Russian Orthodox priest and professor of theology at the University of Tartu, the oldest and most venerated institution of higher education in Estonia (founded in 1632). He managed to master 17 languages including Hebrew and Aramaic. My mother held him up as an example to me when I struggled with German. His name was Arseni Zarewsky, the last name spelled Tsarefski  in Estonian and heaven knows what in the Cyrillic alphabet of the Russians.

My mother tried to teach me Cyrillic, too, but all I can remember is that h stands for n, and a backwards r stands for b, or something like that. Why they have to be so stubborn about using Cyrillic,  I don’t know.  Maybe that’s really at the bottom of our differences with the Russians: they cling to an archaic alphabet instead of getting with the program and using the Roman one like much of the rest of the world. And they’re bitter about it.

With a great-grandfather named Arseni Zarewsky, it’s obvious that I’m not a full-blooded Estonian. My Estonian grandmother, my mother’s mother, married Arseni’s son Boris, who got his law degree from Tartu University but decided he preferred hunting and fishing and living in the woods. Boris became a forest warden, and my grandmother learned how to cook swan and other fauna that he confiscated from poachers, so as not to waste anything.

My grandmother likely wasn’t a pure-blooded Estonian either; I don’t know if a pure-blooded Estonian exists today. My mother hinted that there was some Dutch way back on her mother’s side of the family tree.  After fruitlessly searching the internet about my great-grandmother’s maiden name, Püsnik, and finding nothing whatsoever  in Estonia, but discovering veritable hordes of Pusniks in Slovenia, I began to wonder.  Could she have had a Slovenian ancestor?  Or perhaps one of her Estonian ancestors was a serf on the manor estate of someone from Slovenia back in German Times.

Soon: Conquering Estonia for Fun and Profit.