Portrait of a 20th century Estonian (4)
Archived Articles 15 Feb 2008 Eva VabasaluEWR
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My mother knew what an Estonian was. Estonians were hard workers, literate, and by virtue of their nationality very intelligent - so said my mother in her lifetime. She recounted that Estonians spoke the most beautiful language in the world and most spoke more than one language so not to make fun of those who mispronounced "th" as "zee."

Children were expected to finish every scrap of food on their plate or else it was time to snap off a mitt-full of stripped-of-their-leaves lilac branches to drive the point home with each thrash. It was a good practice, just to be safe and perceived as humble, for Estonian-Canadians to apologize for their not-up-to-scratch Estonian language skills.

An Estonian who did not eat herring was suspect and a probable candidate for capital punishment, a view she said most Estonians quite rightly endorsed. Herring was eaten with sour cream and chopped green or white onions, but under no circumstances could you substitute rosemary or something utterly ridiculous like watercress as herring had to be eaten strictly with dark rye bread cut 3/16th of an inch thick in concert with some hard-boiled egg or potato. A true Estonian did not eat pumpkin in any other form but pickled. A sure fire way to discern whether one was pure Estonian was if they sprinkled dill on everything and as a dessert enjoyed raw eggs whisked creamy with a lot of sugar. If not there was something suspect in the woodpile.

Estonians watched Lawrence Welk on Saturday nights and when women left the room the men turned on the hockey game, maybe taking a sip of homemade beer. When visiting an Estonian home there was the imperceptible smell of sauerkraut or sometimes an odour of mothballs masking the cabbage. Their Scandinavian teak furniture was ensconced amidst earth-coloured furnishings, and leather-engraved photograph albums rested under coffee tables that were decorated with Swedish crystal perched on finely crocheted doilies. Photos of Tallinn and dolls in traditional folk-costumes abounded as well as copies of Meie Elu or Vaba Eestlane. Open-faced smoked salmon sandwiches (laced thick with lashings of butter) would be served, along with coffee imbibed with heavy fresh cream. And if it was a birthday (pronounced "bursday") then cake and kringel followed. A little dish of paper-wrapped candies with pictures of cows on them might follow.

Estonians wore 23-karat red-gold wedding rings on their right hand and went to church regularly at Easter and Christmas. Estonians only laughed out loud with other Estonians; to the rest of the world they exhibited a mask of scary seriousness. Compliments were considered suspect, though criticisms were a safe A-okay conversation starter. A frequent sighting was the hand signal, the palm sweeping downward in a gesture expressing some level of repugnance. Estonians were right-handed and incidentally all shared the same handwriting style, one enigmatic squiggle being good for letters n, m, u, v and w.
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