Thursday, May 15, 2008

Senegalese on the South Side

It might start out as “A Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim walk into a bar…” But for this story, we’ll have to give it a little twist: A black, Christian, Senegalese man and two white, Jewish Americans walk into a restaurant. Add to that that the restaurant is Senegalese. And located on the South Side of Chicago.

Jacques (the Senegalese man) leads the way down the mostly-empty dining room, followed by Liza and myself (the Americans). We turn the corner into the adjacent dining room, and there sit two Senegalese men. They get up and shake Jacques’s hand. Words are exchanged in Oualof, a Senegalese language.

The two men turn to shake Liza’s and my hands. “Vous parlez français?” asks one of the men, who wears blue jeans, a white vest, and a flat, brown hat.

Oh, yeah. In this story, in a Senegalese restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, all the characters speak French.

“You’re gonna’ guide us, Jacques, on what to order,” I tell him, snapping the menu shut, once we’re seated.

Ça, je connais,” he replies with a smile. “That, I know.” There’s laughter all around.

The man in the white vest and jeans approaches Jacques and takes out a business card from his pocket. It’s Jacques’s own card. The two men had met once before.

“His card’s been in my pocket for a long time,” says the man.

The walls of the room hold paintings, tapestries, and wooden sculptures, including a sword. Fake plants are scattered about. Our table, one of only ten, has a tablecloth with images of zebras and trees beneath a plastic covering; a small, painted vase with fake flowers serves as the table’s centerpiece.

“I love fish,” says Jacques. His father lived on an island in Senegal, where people would get fresh fish every day. Those in his ethnic group are fishermen, he adds.

Liza gets grilled fish. Jacques and I order chicken.

Our waiter, who’s from Guinea, and therefore speaks French (as I said), brings us three plastic cups: Two filled with a dark-crimson liquid, roselle juice, and the third— Jacques’— containing yellow-orange ginger juice. Next comes a plate of three small spring rolls, along with a few lettuce leaves and some carrot shreds. Soon after, the main dishes appear: Fish with vegetables for Liza, chicken and plantains for me, and chicken with rice for Jacques.

“I think that’s a lot,” comments Jacques.

“Well, you’re in America here,” I reply. “It’s big. Everything’s big.”

“In Senegal, they serve half that, I think, in restaurants.”

My “Yassa” chicken has been cooked with spices and bits of onion in an oily, salty, slightly sweet sauce. It’s a dish I remember from my time living in France. The sauce tonight is delicious.

“I found, last week, a Senegalese man— an older man,” recounts Jacques, as he digs into his chicken and rice. “You see, I never knew him. I never saw him. I only saw him once, last week.

“He came to see me. He’s a Senegalese man; he came to see me at the college, and he told me, ‘You can come to my place, to the house, whenever you can. As you like. You don’t need to call.’”

“Mmmm,” I hum. Liza lets out an “Awww.”

“‘You can come
whenever you want to the house,’” he continues. “In Senegal, what he says— that’s how it is. […] ‘Whenever you want, come over. My wife has a beauty salon, a beauty salon with employees.’ And he has his business. And he has two children.

“So, he told me, ‘come over,’” Jacques goes on. “And I went over there on Sunday. He came to get me; we stayed. He told me, ‘Here’s the bedroom. Whenever you want, come over.’ And I never met him.”

I laugh giddily.

“No, it’s true. And the first time! The first time! He even told me, ‘Stay a week.’ […] He’s done it already for several other people. When young people come here, Senegalese people, he hosts them at his house.”

“Wow,” remarks Liza.

“Most Senegalese people are like that among us,” Jacques adds. “Most among us, there’s an attraction, a bond, that’s very strong.”

We continue eating.

“Are things going all right with your English?” asks Liza.

“I’m doing better,” says Jacques.

“You want to speak?” says Liza. “It’s probably better for him,” she adds, talking to me.

“When I speak English, you’re going to see,” says Jacques. “There are many things— I can’t pronounce them. Many, many things. Like…
coat-EHJ-grohv. Coat-EHJ-grohv. The pronunciation— how do you pronounce it?”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“You see?” he says, turning to Liza.

“Cottage Grove,” Liza says to me in English.

“Oh, Cottage Grove,” I reply.

“When I pronounce it, you don’t even know…,” Jacques says to me, laughing.

“I thought you were saying something in French,” I explain.

By the end of the main course, I’m stuffed. But I want to try dessert, so I ask our waiter for a menu. It lists only two options, thiakry (milk curds and grains of millet) and fruit salad.

“We’re out of fruit salad,” says the waiter.

The thiakry arrives in a plastic container. I take off the lid and spill some of it onto my plate.

“Why are you putting it on your chicken?” Liza asks.

I look down. “Becauuuse it’s the plate I’ve got,” I say with a weak laugh. “I didn’t think about it…” The thiakry has formed something of a small lake among the remains of my chicken.

“Do I put it on like that, on the plate?” asks Liza.

“No. No, no. It’s better to eat it that way,” says Jacques, indicating the use of a spoon. “Directly.”

With the meal behind us, we get up from the table and walk by a television blaring CNN, by a rack of African DVD’s with English titles, here in this Senegalese restaurant on the South Side of Chicago. (I look closely at one DVD case. It says “Nigeria” in small letters.)

The three of us walk back through the first room, towards the front door, where a smiling Senegalese man shakes our hands one by one, hands us postcards with the restaurant’s menu, and wishes us a good night.

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