Thursday, August 14, 2008

Georgia on Dempster St.

O n Wednesday afternoon, as the cease-fire between Russia and Georgia unravels, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepares to travel to Tbilisi, things are much quieter in a small storefront restaurant in Skokie.

There, in a dimly-lit room, three men perhaps in their 60s sit around a table watching a Russian-language soap opera on TV. On the table sit a packet of cigarettes and a jar of Tylenol. All ten tables in the room have red tablecloths, and most have fake flowers; paintings of landscapes, flowers, and boats adorn the walls. Perhaps the only indication of the cuisine here is a red-and-white flag with crosses hung at the far end of the room.

It’s the flag of Georgia. Sh. Rustavely, the only open business in this drab strip mall on Dempster St., is (according to my research) the lone Georgian restaurant in the Chicago area.

The soap opera turns to news, and the men get up from the table. One leaves the restaurant, and the other two busy themselves in the back.

Sh. Rustavely, on Dempster St. in Skokie, likely the only Georgian restaurant in the Chicago area. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The news broadcast shows a shot of people in street clothes walking quickly along with a soldier. In another scene, a man in a green jacket decorated with military symbols sits at a table before a group of reporters.

As I stand before the TV, one of the three men comes out of the kitchen with a plate of beef cutlets and French fries, placing it on my table. Then he joins me in front of the TV.

We both watch.

The anchor speaks rapid-fire Russian, as do the correspondents, and I hardly understand any of it. (I learned only a bit of Russian in junior high school.) In the corner of the screen, I can make out Москва— moskva, or Moscow— and сегодня— sevodnya.

“Sevodnya?” I ask the man. “’Today’?”

“Today,” he replies softly, wearing a somber expression.

I return to my table, and the second man comes out from the back. He carries a glass of a clear liquid— it could be water; it could be vodka— and slowly takes a seat at the table with the cigarettes and Tylenol.

A scene of Russian-language newspapers, laid out as if at a news kiosk, comes up. Later, a man in military fatigues lets out a sigh as a reporter interviews him in front of a military truck.

The two men at the table are glued to the images.

Jorni and Edward, co-chefs at Sh. Rustavely. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

I walk over to where they’re sitting and ask one of them how he feels about the conflict.

“We have different information,” he says. His English is broken, halting.

“Do you have friends here from Russia?” I ask.

“I have friends,” he replies, shrugging.

I ask the men if there’s a large community of Georgians here. “Two hundred” says the first man.

I ask the other one, whose English is better, if he likes Putin. “Nah,” he responds, shrugging his head. “He live before, 15 years old, he live in Georgia. His mother live in Georgia.”

“About President Medvedev?” he goes on. “What can I say?”

I ask if he still has family in Georgia.

“I leave. Some others stay. Many people go to other countries. My brother go to Germany. Others, to Italia.”

We watch the TV some more.

“My name is David,” I say in Russian, recalling one of the few phrases I know from junior high school.

The men smile. They introduce themselves as Jorni and Edward, both cooks (and, I’m assuming, proprietors) at the restaurant.

“Sunday, there were many people here from Tbilisi,” Edward, the second man, tells me. “Many have brothers, sisters…”

They came from different suburbs— Palatine, Buffalo Grove, Wheaton— Jorni tells me.

I’m at a loss for what to ask next, perhaps because I’m at a loss for Russian. I return to my table, to my beef cutlets and French fries, and the men continue talking to each other in a low voice.

I pick up my Chicago Tribune. “Russia-Georgia clash leaves lasting damage” reads a headline on the front page. I dip my cutlets in a tomato sauce.

No other customers have entered the restaurant by the time I get up to pay for the food.

“Come again,” says Jorni when I get ready to leave.

“You have to eat our shish kebab,” he adds, smiling. “You have not eat… all of Chicago… our shish kebab.”

It’s the most enthusiastic thing I’ve heard him say this afternoon.

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