Time Zones

At One Georgian Cafe, a Beloved Ritual of Table-Pounding, Arm-Flailing Debate

"Even when there are only four or five Georgians," said Giorgi Sikharulidze, right, sitting at the cafe near Turtle Lake, "they are arguing all the time."
"Even when there are only four or five Georgians," said Giorgi Sikharulidze, right, sitting at the cafe near Turtle Lake, "they are arguing all the time." (By Tara Bahrampour -- The Washington Post)
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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 16, 2008

TBILISI, Georgia -- While most of Tbilisi is still in shadows, the day's new sun glints on Turtle Lake. Set in hills overlooking the city, it's a popular spot for concerts, pedal boating and waterside dining. At 8 a.m., however, the boats are moored and the restaurants are closed, except for an outdoor cafe populated by retirees in sweat pants and baseball caps -- men who came of age, and in some cases held high posts, in the Soviet system.

Some arrive at dawn for a power walk. Some wade into the olive-colored water. They find one another at the cafe under the pine trees, where on a recent morning, talk turned to this summer's war with Russia and whether Georgia's allies had taken a strong enough stance.

"I'm not pleased with how Europe has reacted," said Merab Saqvarelidze, 60, a doctor. Recalling Europe's appeasement of Hitler in the 1930s, he said, "Georgia doesn't need the same mistakes. Georgia needs, now, weapons and Stinger rockets. The Americans give Israel weapons and rockets, and for us they sent only candies and water" -- a reference to humanitarian aid.

"And shampoo," said Giorgi Sikharulidze, 55.

In the crisp morning air, joggers bounced by and young mothers chatted over baby carriages. Cups of strong Turkish coffee were served. From the next table came the sound of dice hitting a backgammon board.

Whether the participants are talking about U.S. assistance or how ancient feasting traditions are being lost in Georgia's transition to capitalism, the style of these daily discussions is similar: Arms flail. Voices rise. Occasionally, the plastic table is pounded.

"Even when there are only four or five Georgians," Sikharulidze said, "they are arguing all the time."

Sometimes they argue with people who are not there. For example, with President Bush, over his September speech at the United Nations. "He should have been more critical," said Temo Gotsadze, 67, a bearded artist. "He did not defend Georgia as much as he should."

"Georgia is being punished," Saqvarelidze said, "because between two powerful countries, it chose America."

Should it have chosen Russia?

The men shook their heads. No. Still, though, "We were expecting much more than just words," Sikharulidze said. "For example, as Russia has helped Abkhazia and South Ossetia, we expected the same from America."

Guram Gogadze, 70, a lean man in khaki shorts and dark glasses, defended the United States. In 1957, when the Cold War was at its chilliest, he said, he tried to go there illegally. He was caught trying to sneak onto a ship and sent to prison for a year and a half. "At that time and now," he said, "I believe . . . that America is a savior of Georgia."

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